Thea Derks about her new modern music programme
On Wednesday evening 6th March Thea Derks begins a new monthly programme on the Concertzender called ‘an Ox on the roof: a quick tour of modern music after 1900 ‘. This follows her 4 years series Panorama De Leeuw. Derks: ‘I’m offering listeners advice on how to understand contemporary music.’
You’re a musicologist. How and why did modern music become your subject?
Thea Derks: ‘I started my musical career as horn player in the local band. I learnt to play the instrument thanks to my father, who played the tuba. While I was practising I discovered a mysterious world of sounds by rattling the keys, harder or softer blowing through the tubes or hitting the mouthpiece with my hand. That playfulness was not appreciated, I had to play the notes.’
‘After I moved tor Amsterdam and started my own popgroep Tess, while composing I came across problems I couldn’t solve. I was studying with Misha Mengelberg and Niko Langenhuijsen at the Sweelinck Conservatorium and discovered the IJsbreker, a few minutes walk from my house. There I heard that modern composers used sounds which were once forbidden but were regarded as music. I started to study music science at the University of Amsterdam and the rest is history.’
Who are your most important composers and why?
‘I always have a probllem with questions like this, because composers are incomparable geniuses. But Ok, Sofia Goebaidoelina is certainly one of the most important current composers. She has a very delicate feel for sound colour and her music is so intense that I always get goosebumps, for instance in Nu altijd sneeuw for choir and ensemble. By using inventive playing methods she manages to extract unknown sounds from traditional instruments.’
‘But I can also enjoy the radical sound world of Galina Oestvolkaja, ‘ the woman with the hammer’, who almost exclusively composes quarter tones with a dynamic from ppppp to fffff. I also love the unconventional humour of György Ligeti, for example in Aventures/nouvelles avontures and his opera Le grand macabre. The aphoristic, twisted sound world of someone like György Kurtág gets me by the throat, such as in What is the Word.’
‘The much deprecated Dmitri Sjostakovitsj affects me deeply, for example in his 14th Symphony. Lili Boulanger I admire because of her imposing sound constructions, which combine Wangerian grandeur with Russian pathos. Calliope Tsoupaki combines in a splendid way her Greek roots with modern composition techniques. And we mustn’t overlook Arnold Schönberg, who has left lots of lovely pieces such as Pierrot lunaire and Erwartung. This is just a small selection, there are so many more!’
Why do you think so many people find modern music difficult?
‘Partly because in the period after the Second World War compositional skill was valued above intuition and feeling. I remember still the very dry introductions to what were in fact interesting concerts in De IJsbreker. There was so much emphasis on how difficult and cleverly it all hung together, so that you almost voluntarily began to hate the music. For a long time it seemed to be who cares if you listen, after the essay with that title by the American modernist Milton Babbittt.’
What kind of things are you going to talk about, so that listeners can appreciate it?
‘I try and give clues to understand the music. What was the reason for the piece and from what sort of vision was it composed. I play fragments which I think will give a worthwhile clue to get through to the essence of the music. It doesn’t matter to me what the compositional style is, so long as the music goes in a for me understandable direction.’
What’s in your first episode of ‘An ox on the roof’ on 6th March?
‘In the first episode I’m playing an Etude by Frederic Chopin, Das Buch der hängenden Gärten by Arnold Schönberg and the ballet music Le boeuf sur le toit by Darius Milhaud. After that I shall be loosely following the themes from my book , as I did before in Panorama de Leeuw. I also expect to take in current concerts and festivals. I’ll certainly play a lot of music by women composers, who are all too easily forgotten. I hope through my programme I can liberate people from their fear of modern music and persuade them to attend concerts with works of living composers.’
How long have you worked at the Concertzender?
‘I already started while I was studying music science, in 1995, as radio reporter for the Concertzender. I made reports about Reinbert de Leeuw, Sofia Goebaidoelina, Galina Oestvolskaja and lots of others, until I went to work for Radio 4. In 2014 I came back to my old place for the programme Panorama de Leeuw. What’s great about the Concertzender is the freedom you get as programme maker. That produces an enormous range of great programmes with the most diverse sorts of music. From heavy jazz to earsplitting electronics, from gorgeous early music to French chansons and the very newest music by living composers. I’m so often surprised. I recently got an Internet radio and can listen to the whole world, but there is no other broadcaster offering so much variety. Every Dutch music lover should be a donor.’
Door Lucie Th. Vermij
The first episode of ‘An ox on the roof’ can be heard on Wednesday 6th March at 21.00 or later here.
About Thea Derks: she is a music publicist specialised in contemporary music. She provides lectures, listening classes and introductions throughout the Netherlands, among others for the Royal Concertgebouworkest, TivoliVredenburg, Gaudeamus and Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ. In september 2018 she published Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht, an introduction to modern music for the interested. In 2014 her biography Reinbert de Leeuw: mens of melodie appeared. In the same year Derks began her monthly programme Panorama de Leeuw, in which she loosely covered modern music history on the basis of the life and work of De Leeuw. Derks also writes articles and reviews for among others Preludium and webmagazines such as Theaterkrant and Cultuurpers. She makes reports and interviews for Radio 4.