Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Talking to recorder-player Kees Boeke

On October 8th  2012, I spoke to recorder-player Kees Boeke in Tel Aviv. Born in Amsterdam, Professor Boeke, no new face on the local early music scene, was in Israel to teach and perform at the 3rd Early Music Seminar (Tel Aviv).

PH: Professor Boeke, do you come from a musical family?

Kees Boeke: Yes, I do. It was a family where there was a lot of music happening. My mother was a professional musician; she spent her life teaching piano, ‘cello and, later, chamber music and singing. She was a very well-respected music teacher and worked well into advanced age. My father started out being an oboe player but left it when he went to university; however, he always remained close to music. My grandfather was a conductor.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

KB: I have lots of early memories. From an early age, I was totally involved in music. (I read music before I could read Dutch.) I started learning the recorder at age five and was a child who listened to absolutely everything. On weekends, my parents would play recordings of operas; they had scores which I would follow. So, from a very early age, I was familiar with operas of Wagner and Richard Strauss, Verdi, etc. Alban Berg's operas left a lasting impression on me. We also heard Lieder at home, with both my parents being into singing. And, of course, I heard my mother teaching her students. You could say I had a varied, all-round listening education. I would listen to music all the time.

PH: Did you go to a music school?

KB: No, I had private recorder teachers and then moved to a teacher who was actually an organist. By age 11, I was studying with Frans Brüggen in Amsterdam. I started learning the ‘cello with my mother when I was 10; she was an excellent teacher and being family presented no problem to my studies with her.

PH: And as a high school pupil and later?

KB: As a teenager, I was already doing my first recordings with Brüggen and I was taking ‘cello lessons with Anner Bylsma. After high school, I went to the Royal Conservatory of the Hague (where Brüggen and Bylsma were teaching) which I finished in two years (1967-1969) due to the fact that I had done so much study during my high school days.  The Conservatory was an amazing place at that time, very avant-garde; that is where early music took off in Holland.

PH: When did you begin performing?

KB: I took part in my first Brandenburg Concerto at age 10 and my first performance of the Telemann Suite in A minor with my grandfather’s school orchestra when I was 15, by which time I was performing a lot.  

PH: Did you do a lot of performing at the Royal Conservatory?

KB: Yes. I had also become very interested in contemporary music and had started composing. It was there that we formed our ensemble - Quadro Hotteterre - in which Walter van Hauwe also played. The group had a long performing career – from 1968 to 1988.

PH: What did you do on finishing your studies in The Hague?

KB: I immediately got two teaching jobs, although still quite young. One was at the Groningen Conservatorium, in the north of Holland, and, almost at the same time, I also began teaching at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where I had been a student. I taught for three years, but then had the need to stop being in schools. So I took time off to freelance.

PH: Did you leave teaching?

KB: Well, not for long. In 1975 I, together with my friend Walter van Hauwe, started teaching at the Amsterdam Conservatorium. We did what you might call “dual teaching” - teaching together. There was a large class of students that took lessons from both of us. All the students would be there for four days a month; in our method, the student does not have a weekly private lesson, but all are present together, they listen to each other’s lessons and the teachers alternate. In fact, we institutionalized this method as a way of teaching and it continues to be used. We called it “block teaching”. The system works extremely well.

PH: Let’s go back to your composing.

KB:  Composing has always been somewhat of a hobby for me. Most of my compositions are for the recorder in one combination or another. For me, it has always been a way of reflecting in music – early or contemporary. I don’t work at it intensively and have done very few commissions. I write when I feel like it. I wrote my last piece in 2003.

PH: You mentioned modern music. Do you perform a lot of contemporary music?

KB: I have. Am not doing much of it at the moment. Am, at present, busier with my work on medieval music. For contemporary music, one needs to invest a lot of time. But I am still very interested in it. I have my own record label – Olive Music – for which we have just issued a recording of the Prime Recorder Ensemble - an impressive ensemble of 13 big double bass recorders, using live electronics, a group based in Lausanne and directed by Antonio Politano.   (Politano had been a student of mine.)  A variety of Italian and American composers, also one from Peru, have written music for this ensemble. It is terrifically interesting music. Antonio Politano and I also had a duo of bass recorders together with electronics we called “DUIX”.

PH: Let’s go back to your connection with very early music.

KB: Actually, I did not start out as a Baroque musician. As I mentioned before, at home I was educated in every kind of music under the sun! Well, in the 1950s, early music basically “did not exist” in the way that we understand it today. Then, through being a recorder-player and meeting Frans Brüggen and friends, the repertoire for recorders was Baroque- and contemporary music. I started doing a lot of research in the field of Baroque music and searched for anything I could find to play on recorders. I also became very interested in Renaissance music, in composers such as Dufay. Here I should mention Kees Otten – Brüggen’s teacher and a very interesting man. He was actually a jazz clarinet player, but chose to focus on Renaissance- and medieval music! His work stimulated my interest in the latter. So, by the time I had explored the Baroque, I naturally started getting more philologically interested in what had happened in the Renaissance, trying to make connections as to how things developed the way they did. So, for me, it was natural to take a step back in time, rather than going forwards. I also changed from playing the ‘cello to playing the viol, giving me more access to Renaissance repertoire. My enquiry into this music developed slowly into the 1980s. Of the many groups we have had, there was a group formed at the end of the 1980s called “Little Consort Amsterdam” – an ensemble with soprano singer, lute player (Toyohiko Satoh) and Walter van Hauwe; I played the viol in it till I decided the viol was not suitable enough and that we should acquire fiddles. So I had a medieval fiddle built for myself and Toyohiko started playing medieval lute-type instruments. We started to perform. I was very excited about the ins and outs of this music, its philological aspects, the texts etc., and I started doing a lot of research on late medieval repertoire. After that, I was one of the founding members of “Mala Punica” a group under the direction of Pedro Memelsdorff. It was an ensemble focusing specifically on the repertoire of the late 14th century. Together with Memelsdorff, I developed more ideas and more repertoire, basically a lot in Ars  Subtilior – the musical style of the late 14th century. I am basically still busy with that field of research, a field in which so little is known and so much needs to be done; there is an enormous wealth of extremely valuable repertoire there.

PH: Is this research connected to a university?

KB: In 2006, at the University of Music in Trossingen in southern Germany, where I had been teaching since 1990, I promoted the idea of opening a department of medieval- and Renaissance music. Studies in medieval music are not widely available in Europe, except at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, where the people there do things in a specific way. I felt we should have a medieval department in Trossingen that was more practice-oriented. It came into being in 2006 and I have been running it for the last six years.

PH: How do you find audiences react to medieval music?

KB: It is hard to generalize. Medieval music is highly specialized and it is a completely different language. Much in the same way as modern music, it is important for the listener to like it on first impact.  A completely unprepared audience will have a hard time connecting with it because it is really so different. However, a non-specialist but interested audience will be convinced by the sheer beauty of it despite perhaps not understanding precisely what is going on.  But if you involve yourself more as a listener, become more informed, immerse yourself in the poetry and the arts surrounding it, it becomes more profound in meaning.  In general, and when we play at festivals, audience reactions are very positive.

PH: This is not your first visit to Israel.

KB: No. I was here last year for the 2011 Early Music Seminar in Tel Aviv and, in the late 1990s and a little later, I taught at the Early Music Workshops in Jerusalem. I have also been here with Jill Feldman, my wife, who has taught many master classes for singers in Israel.

PH: How did you find the standard of students in your classes this past week?

KB: The standard was good, but there are various levels as we have mixed-level groups.  It was also wonderful having eight recorder students from the Guildhall School of Music in London this year. There was a very good atmosphere at the course. I found all the students, advanced and less advanced, to be keen and interested. They asked plenty of questions. If you consider the fact that there were 50 students at the first Early Music Seminar, 80 last year and 120 this year, one sees a big surge of interest. Perhaps for next year they should be more severe in selection. On the other hand, the seminar provides an opportunity for beginners to make contact with early music and to hear how good it can be. This is stimulating for them, so, for that reason, perhaps they should not be separated from the experienced players.

PH: Have you ever performed with any of the Israeli early music ensembles?

KB: No, I have not, except for the concert we performed the other night playing all sorts of consort music with Drora Bruck (musical director of the seminar), Tamar Lalo and Alon Schab, within the framework of the seminar. It was really enjoyable.

PH: What are your future plans?

KB: I’m not much of a planner. Things seem to happen of their own accord. I cannot plan writing a new composition; I only know I probably will, but I do not know what it is going to be. I am very involved with my record label – Olive Music: it takes up a lot of time and it is not a money-making enterprise. I expect we will issue a second CD with the Prime Ensemble. I have also been working with the Royal Wind Music, a big recorder ensemble based in Amsterdam. I did a guided project of Renaissance music with them and we may do a recording. I have more on my plate than I can deal with and, of course, am continuing the research in medieval fields. Now, at 62, I have just stopped teaching in Zurich; having started teaching at age 15, I thought it was now enough. But I continue teaching master classes, which I very much enjoy, as well as more specialized courses in early music, lately having worked in Spain, Portugal, Japan, Korea and here in Israel.

PH: What do you think is happening with the authentic movement at the moment?

KB: I sort-of expected that question. It is very hard to look into the future. Being where I am, I personally think early music activity is too focused on doing Baroque, that Baroque music has become translated into Baroque opera, and that Baroque opera basically translates into Händel. We are dangerously moving away from a diversified picture of early music, even of the Baroque period.  We hear less 17th century music, with the exception of Monteverdi, his music being narrowed down to “Orfeo”, “Poppea” or the “Vespers”, and nothing of his other repertoire. So there is this enormous narrowing down, basically fired by commercial interests, especially in these extremely difficult times when culture, anyway, is not getting much funding. This is totally uninteresting in terms of exploring the past. Early repertoire has become like another performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Whether it is a good or bad performance is something else, as also applies to performing Beethoven’s 9th. Early music should mean excitement and discovery. I will continue to say that early music has to be an avant-garde medium. For example, in the concert this evening to be performed by Rainer Zippering (‘cello), Kenneth Weiss (harpsichord) and myself, we will play pieces by composers only most of whom are familiar to early music people; yet the audience will probably know very few of the pieces on the program. This is the mentality of curiosity on which I insist, also with my students.

PH: You mentioned involvement in serious rock music. Did I hear right?

KB: You did, indeed! Of course, the development of pop music into serious rock music in the 1960s did not pass me by unnoticed. I followed anything that came along in the late '60s with deep interest, especially what was happening on the west coast of California. I have never felt any difference between musical genius in that particular musical area or  in the so-called classical world of Jazz. Well, music is music and, in particular, serious music is serious music...wherever it is coming from. In fact, there are more similarities between a medieval song and a rock song than between medieval song and Monteverdi aria!

PH: When it is not music, what other interests do you have?

KB: Well, I am very active as an olive farmer where I have been living in Tuscany, Italy for 32 years on an isolated farm with 600 olive trees. I used to make wine as well, but the wild boar were taking over, eating all the grape vines. I love to travel and see new places. (For my work I travel a lot, doing more travel than is healthy!) I am a very busy person and have little time for hobbies.  I still love music, for which I am grateful.

PH: Many thanks, Kees, for your time, for so much interesting information and for thought-provoking ideas.