November Music: Norm and Trace in The Netherlands #3

I’m learning things here. Things about history, music, and bike riding!

Bike riding is easy: It makes sense here. Everything is set up to accommodate cyclists, and Juliet and I have taken advantage of that over the past 24 hours, riding several hours each day, navigating by the frequent maps that dot the paths and routes around the countryside. We’ve seen some beautiful architecture, idyllic, scenic canals, and evidence of war, including a reconstructed Nazi Concentration camp.

Which brings me to war. And music. Today we heard a piano and soprano work of Helmut Lachenmann Got Lost. A classic work, and the first really striking music I have heard on this trip. It taught me something (or at least began the formulation of an idea in my head): European contemporary music is serious stuff (Lachenmann said it himself in the talk after the show: “I love humour, but not in music!”). My discovery today is that serious music came directly from the European world wars. Why would we make art that beautiful when we’ve seen so much horror? All of the music we have heard so far is “serious Western European new music”

North American new music is not nearly as harsh in my experience, at least not the stuff that is played most. We didn’t live through the war directly.

Along the artistic line, I can see improvisers in Europe reacting to the seriousness in their own way: the Dutch improvisers of the 20th century like Han Bennick and others come to mind: Their music is more fun, jazzier, more spirited, even humorous at times. Improvisers in North America have reacted as well: Perhaps they took on the mantle of seriousness when they heard the composers making music that they imagine doesn’t reflect what they imagine reality is. I think of North American improvised music (certainly much of my own music) as being a reflection of the harshness of our present day: there’s a lot of bad stuff going on around the world….we better pay attention and do something about it!

Being in The Netherlands, in the place where this important art has been created, is profound. It offers a clear view of why some of thisart is the way it is. You only have to look down the cycle path and see the concentration camp. Then decide what to say.

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