The composer is very much alive, feels fear and celebrates

“Long live the composer!” This is the theme of the first Day of the Composer, which is celebrated across the country on Saturday. The initiative of Dutch Music Now will be an annual event. More than a hundred concerts will take place in ten cities, with work by more than a hundred different composers. The composers will of course come and listen for themselves. Because the composer – barring a few dead colleagues from past centuries – is very much alive.

What is the state of the composition climate in the Netherlands, more than ten years after the drastic cutbacks in culture by former State Secretary Halbe Zijlstra (2010-2012)? Is there still money to be made with new music? On the eve of Composer’s Day, NRC makes a tour of six composers and administrators.

Karmit Fadael, composer & board member Nieuw Geneco

“I never thought I could make money composing,” says Karmit Fadael (26)† “After graduating, I suddenly received five thousand euros for an orchestral piece, while I had been writing such pieces for years for nothing. That was a really big shock.” Fadael can now survive on her music, although she followed a traineeship in fundraising and relationship management and occasionally does other odd jobs. She does not have a fixed income, all her work is on a project basis.

On Saturday, Fadael will be one of the presenters of the Composer’s Day. In addition to being a composer, she is also a board member of New Geneco, the professional organization of composers. Immediately after graduating in 2019, she set up a youth branch of Nieuw Geneco together with fellow student Rick van Veldhuizen, to help with the transition from conservatory to professional practice and to strengthen the mutual bond between young composers.

It is hard to assignments to get, says Fadael. “I see that I am very lucky. If you don’t have the guts to approach people like I did, or were very lucky during your studies, it’s very difficult. I can put myself in the shoes of colleagues who are having a harder time and who are dependent on a part-time job. I don’t feel any better than her.”

Sometimes it stings: peers in other sectors with a comparable education level will earn two, three or four times as much in the coming years. “I would also like to buy a house, but I can’t. I sometimes feel fears when I think about the long term.”

Also read: Karmit Fadael knows how to sound her sounds

Klas Torstensson, composer

“I’m lucky to have lived through the fat years,” says Class Torstensson (71)† He is referring to the heyday of ‘ensemble culture’ for which the Netherlands was internationally renowned: there were plenty of opportunities and there was money for composers to have new work performed. These were also the heyday of the Fonds voor de Scheppende Toonkunst, the predecessor of the Performing Arts Fund, which provided a select group of approximately fifteen composers with a ‘multi-year award’. Torstensson belonged to that group: “You submitted a three-year work plan, which was then reviewed annually. It gave peace of mind, you didn’t have to apply for each work separately.”

That changed after the cultural cutbacks of 2010-2012: the multi-year fee was abolished, the budget for the new Performing Arts Fund shrank drastically and various ensembles and orchestras had to stop. Still, not much changed for Torstensson: „I still get enough assignments. Ensembles come to me, I am not directly involved in the grant applications. The persistent story that new music disappears into a drawer after playing it once doesn’t hold true for me. But I’m worried about the new generation. The infrastructure on which we could float has been demolished. I see more and more that composers set up ensembles together with musicians, which is a good development.”

Torstensson’s work is performed worldwide, certainly also in his native Sweden. He can be brief about the reputation of Dutch music: “People only know Louis Andriessen, who has since passed away. People used to be jealous of the ensemble culture and the subsidy system, but these have been demolished by miserable politicians with no interest in culture.”

Also read: ‘I work like Stockhausen, but without that megalomaniac’

Esther Gottschalk, director of New Geneco

“Corona has made a huge impact in the sector,” says Esther Gottschalk (55), director of the professional association Nieuw Geneco, to which more than 330 composers are affiliated. “And that was on top of years of budget cuts. We’ve really hit rock bottom. Yet we see an incredible and multifaceted bloom of beautiful music. With the Composer’s Day, we are pouring it into a festive shape.”

The Composer’s Day is organized by the platform New Music NOW, which in turn is an initiative of Nieuw Geneco. New Music NOW wants to be the collective propaganda agency for new music in the Netherlands. “A lot is happening, there is enormous creativity, but not everything is visible,” says Gottschalk. The immediate reason for the Composer’s Day is the 111th anniversary of the Genootschap Nederlandse Composisten GeNeCo (founded in 1911) and the brand new collaboration of composers and organizers in the New Music NOW network.

There are plenty of areas for improvement, says Gottschalk. More new music in the big halls. A better revenue model for live and streaming. Sufficient budget for the Performing Arts Fund. “But there is also a lot happening that we applaud. The Concertgebouw Orchestra will soon be taking a new work by Rick van Veldhuizen on tour – great! The Netherlands has music to be proud of. It’s time to dispel the misconception that new music is ‘difficult’. At the Benefit Concert for Ukraine in the Concertgebouw almost exclusively contemporary music was heard and everyone thought it was fantastic. The public is ready for something other than the well-known repertoire.”

Joey Roukens, composer

“It may sound crazy, but in my experience the climate for composers in the Netherlands is not bad at all,” says Joey Roukens (40)† “Everyone seems to be able to find their niche. The landscape is more diverse than it was forty or twenty years ago. It is a good sign that all those composers can coexist.”

On the other hand: Dutch music is an island and hardly crosses the border. “Composers such as Michel van der Aa or JacobTV are played abroad, but the only one with a truly international reputation remains Louis Andriessen.” And things can happen quickly, Roukens knows: „Not so long ago, Peter Schat was one of the most celebrated Dutch composers, now he is forgotten. New music has become marginal, its cultural impact is nil. The role that composers used to have is now reserved only for pop people. I have enough assignments, but this gnaws.”

Roukens’ main source of income is the Performing Arts Fund† Although he works slowly and is ‘relatively unproductive’, he can survive composing. “I was recently approached by an American string quartet for a new work, but they could pay much less than is usual here. The international exposure of course outweighs that.”

Roukens also sometimes has to deal with applications that are not honored: “Sometimes on non-musical grounds, that a work is not inclusive or current enough. I’m more of a follower myself absolute music: the notes express a state of feeling and it is not necessary to attach a theme to them.”

Also read: Roukens’ electicism leads to fascinating amalgam

Davo van Peursen, director Donemus

“There is simply too little money in the sector,” concludes Davo van Peursen (58), director of Donemus, one of the largest music publishers in the Netherlands. “For most composers, commission money is the most important source of income. Subsidy applications go through the ensembles and orchestras and the money is paid out by the Performing Arts Fund. But the rinse is thin: a large part of the applications are rejected, which is a problem.”

Use Nieuw Geneco and the music publishing industry as a guideline for subsidy applications (NMUV/VMN) a ‘fee table’ with minimal reimbursements. Van Peursen says that this is generally well observed, as is the Fair Practice Code: „We sit at the table with Buma/Stemra to defend the rights of our composers. We do see that composers are regularly pressured to waive performance rights for musical theatrical works.”

After corona, the concert calendar is full again, but it’s not just hosanna: “Ensembles have died, the performance options are more limited. The ample attention for young composers is fantastic, but there are also composers with great oeuvres that are barely heard.”

Donemus is doing really well. In 2013, the government pulled the plug Music Center Netherlands, which Donemus was part of at the time. Donemus made a new start in a very slimmed-down form, as an unsubsidized foundation next to an active company. “We have been able to convert the switch to a business organization, with a commercial perspective as well. Thanks to a great network, we reach many people, but financially it is tight. We could do so much more to promote new music.”

Aspasia Nasopoulou, composer & artistic director Orkest De Ereprijs

‘When I moved from Athens to Amsterdam twenty years ago, Dutch music had an international reputation,’ says Aspasia Nasopoulou (49): „Stylish freedom, the ensemble culture. There were stages in Amsterdam such as the IJsbreker and the Bethaniënklooster that played a major role in musical life. You no longer have such halls with regular programming for about a hundred people. Music life has been injured by the cutbacks.”

According to Nasopoulou, it creates a ‘gap’ in the performance chain, making it more difficult for composers to make the jump to large halls. As artistic director of Orkest De Ereprijs, she therefore started the series earth leak on, in the CODA Museum in Apeldoorn: an informal setting where newly composed music and lectures on current themes come together. She has already commissioned twelve composers. And Nasopoulou started the series two and a half years ago with Fie Schouten New Nutsin the Amsterdam Plein Theater, where musicians earn a fixed fee: „But the future is uncertain. Every year we have to apply for a new subsidy.”

“In my experience you cannot earn a full income as a composer. My income is very variable, often the split with other income is 50/50. I am also a piano teacher. Education and school projects are also a spearhead for De Ereprijs, which was an important reason to apply for the position of artistic director in 2021. It’s a huge loss if you don’t train your future audience properly.”

Nasopoulou himself does not complain: „I get enough opportunities as a composer. What is difficult: there is no money for a project that involves slightly more than just music – for example video or a small set. You have to look for separate funds, or you pay the creator from your own fee.” A bigger problem is that the budget of the Performing Arts Fund is insufficient to honor all positively assessed applications. “I am regularly told: good plan, but there is no money.”

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