And so we arrive at yesterday.
There was a concert of the Amsterdam Student Choir and my daughter was singing in it. The musicians and audience collected at around 8.15 in the evening in the Posthoorn Church on the Haarlemmerstraat. As you walk up the Haarlemmerstraat you get fabulous see-throughs to the canals on the left, they light up behind the darker side streets.
The church itself is a nineteenth century neo-gothic structure, which, instead of being torn down in the eighties or nineties, was prudently adapted for musical performances. Its spaces have been confined and subdivided using thick, black, velvety curtains, separating the side-aisles from the nave and the ambulatory from the transept arms, so that the space of the church is pleasantly unfamiliar. It is nice enough as churches go, a rather sober affair with awkwardly designed compound columns marking the crossing and making everything appear heavy-handed and even a bit clumsy. But the space is gloriously high and with the midsummer evening sun flooding the stained glass windows, lighting up the white plaster and making the coloured brick sing of colour and texture, it was all rather promising.
|The crossing of the Posthoorn Church looking up. Notice the fans mounted on the keystones, a sweet detail. I don't want to be rude, but I must admit that I have never before seen a mandorla so strongly vaginal as this one from which Jesus is emerging. I shall spare you the detailed view. It takes the idea of a vrgin birth rather too far on feels.|
Choirs are always special, but when a choir is full of young eager faces with large accoladed black holes expanding and contracting to the music they make and bright open eyes intent on a dancing conductor extracting their very best, it is impossible not to feel intensely alive and happy. Watch them all bobbing their heads to a God-given rhythm and melody, watch them expand into their harmonies and squeeze through the sound allowing the meaning to flutter its own circuitous route, moulding their faces to shape the music.
The conductor bows and prowls and throws his gestures, putting his thumb and forefinger together delicately, to extract the quince-like sound from the whole choir as a single being, as if drawing strands to spin a thread and putting it through the eye of some accommodating needle.
His face is a blackboard upon which the weather of the music writes itself. Sometimes smiling encouragement, sometimes smiling forbearance; chastising with the same eyebrows he rewards with; he heaves the music on until it is allowed to rest. And each face watches him intently and each face is intensely different.
All of them the same basic scheme of course, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, jawline, and yet all so infinitely different. Some are self-conscious, shy or showy, others completely absorbed and completely full and happy. All of them just obviously good, even if only for now. There is a young man with a small round face and wild staring eyes, shaping the sounds of the Gloria with a deep-seated anger and a flowering indignation.
There is a girl, attentive and obviously sincere in everything she does, exuding wholesomeness and health, singing like a spring breeze through young unfolding leaves. She sings the way she will be a mother and a prime minister.
Just in front of her is a young girl in love with either the conductor or the music, or both, I cannot tell which. It is just that her face is constantly breaking into a conspiratorial smile only to be reminded just in time for the next note.
Behind her a man with a staunch base who, I imagine, will after his graduation, become a staunch supporter of a staunch cause. He presses his chin into his chest to tell us that the world is as it is and there’s not much we can do about it.
Then, to his left, there is a young man who minds what people think of him. And that would be alright except that I suspect it is what he thinks that other people think that worries him. People rarely think what you think they think.
Another girl is so self-conscious, she is like a taut drum responding to every ripple in the building. No doubt always wanting to see the best in others.
They are singing the Villarosa by Thomas Jennefelt, a brilliantly atmospheric piece, no fun to sing for the bases and the tenors apparently (Jeroen told me so), but all the more so for the sopranos, who hop, skip, flitter and twitter through the endlessly repeated staccato rhythms that are the foundation upon which they build their delightfully inadequate, dreamy structures.
The music resists recording. I am listening to one now by the St Jacob’s Choir, which is beautifully performed but I miss the spatiality of the performance, as it would have been on the day. You have to hear it in a room; it is spatial music in that it matters where the music comes from and where it goes and how it gets there, it matters how the sounds are formed by real mouths facing you, how the music is an expression of the people seen to be making it, how the spaces shape the music acoustically. It is music you feel as much as you hear it. I do not mean this in any mystical sense. One’s whole body becomes a receiver of thuds and ripples, strokes and piercings. It is the skin, the eyes and the visceral body that helps the ear complete the whole.
The conductor moves and all eyes follow him.
One girl, with a pale, long face and wide eyelids held in deep shadow, with lips the same colour as her skin, stands next to a rosebud with bright red lips, quite obviously made for the sole purpose of kissing and with flowers in her hair.
Among them is my daughter the angel working to compress and attenuate the air into something like weather, mood, story and substance.
Rehearse it quietly to yourself and you will notice how the melody and the rhythm of it trips, bumps and runs like careless youth in summer. And then look up the beautiful language of the first verse on internet. The poem churns and splashes, stirs and spills all over your skin. And seeing the faces of the choir stretching their lips around each vowel and pinching the consonants is wonderful.
Especially a girl with a wide mouth and thin lips drawn with bright red lipstick, her lips have become disembodied, taken on a life of their own, dancing like fairies at the edge of the dark abyss from which the sound shapes itself. All this time the conductor is pushing and pulling away at virtual strings playing the choir.
After that we had Palestrina which was large and sagacious by comparison. Palestrina takes you up and puts you down upon your own little cloud with great care only to give you a good view of his God. And what a great God that is. I wouldn’t mind believing in Him.
After the break the choirs split into a men’s choirs at the back of the church, singing something Russian I think, and the Women up front following with ‘I Lie’ by David Lang, a beautiful modern piece where rhythm and a foundational melody are set up only to be cut apart by the haphazard utterings of an Alt, cutting through the basic fabric of the piece with small wistful sounds that seem gently psychotic. On closer inspection these mad sounds come from the lady whose face is long, pale and tragic, whose lips are the colour of her skin and whose eyes are kept deep in the shade. She was given a well-deserved rose afterwards.
To top it all there was the deliciously full Gloria by Frank Martin, who is my big discovery of the month, when Rosie put it on for us to listen so that we could prepare ourselves. What a gorgeous piece.
In fact a few days ago I was listening to the Frank Martin in my office and thinking how crisp and clear and layered the piece was, sort of like the musical equivalent of a fresh salad with all sorts of different tastes that happen upon you simultaneously so that they can be said to be here and there at the same time rather than a mush or a sequence. But then I got on with my work and time passed. Maarten came into my office and as I had been extremely rude about some music he had been listening to half an hour earlier, he felt justified in being rude about mine, which is fair enough. So he asked: ‘what are you playing?’ to set scene up. I told him. And before I was finished he said ‘cohhh, what crappy music you listen to’, and walked off. I then listened and it dawned on me that in fact he was right, that although he was primarily joking and getting me back, it was true, it was crap I was listening to. Did I have to assign Martin to the dustbin of my attention? The music was flat and boring and uninteresting, too much like wall-to-wall carpeting. So I looked again and saw that the music had moved on. Another piece was playing by some composer best left unnamed. But that fact alone made me listen again and again to the piece by Frank Martin, which according to both Rosie and Jeroen is the most wonderful thing to sing.
Anyway, it had been a lovely evening.
Victoria and I walked to the tram through the bustling street, people sitting on terraces, drinking and chatting, cycling, walking, posing, waiting. Amsterdam is the most glorious and inglorious city I know.
As the tram stopped on the bridge crossing the Prinsengracht, a group of hugely fat ladies slowly overtook the tram. One of them had so much breast and surplus flesh that she carried it all in her arms as if she were carrying a heavy load of balloons filled with water. Her face had a slightly anxious expression on it as if she were worried it was all going to burst and spill out onto the street before she could safely deliver it to the person she was giving it to.
Another carried her body as if it was a purposeful burden that she had to deliver on time. Her square, featureless fleshy face fixed in front of her, her eyes aimed at her imaginary target framed by the helmet that was her indifferent hair; her breasts and other protuberances like so many awkwardly shaped pointy boxes, squeezed between generous rolls of stuff, pushing out against her thin spinnaker dress. It was as if her body was a message she had to deliver on time without her knowing or caring what the message was about. She leant her straight back forward, kept her neck straight and long and walked into her purpose, marching with quick steps her feet drawing segments of a circle, as each thigh had to negotiate the other and swinging her fat arms quickly, leaving all else to dangle and bounce; blissfully unaware of everything about her, a mechanised toy soldier, marching to be seen marching with purpose.
Two men stepped into the tram, one of them dangerously thin, wearing leather trousers and a black pony tail of greasy long grey black hair. His face emaciated and all of his teeth missing apart from two dirty black and brown stumps protruding from his dry. As we were all safely imprisoned in our tram, we were condemned to become the public he craved and claimed for himself. And so he held forth, formally addressing his sidekick, but aiming all he said at all of us, his helpless public.
The sidekick was not really up to performing anyway, he had two smudgy tattoos on his face, one on his cheek and the other on his forehead and was wearing no less than three new, wide women’s belts over a shiny polyester shirt in a deep psychedelic purple and blue. His eyes were closed and his hair was white and thin, long on one side and short on the other, framing a face that was the one clear product of his life that, in turn, had been all but wiped clean of memory.
He stood swaying and twisting his face and head, to be told by his friend to hold on carefully. He did, and as he did so he leant into an older, kind looking woman who, despite her well-willing nature, obviously felt very uncomfortable and shifted her position to keep her distance. Not that the man knew or cared what he himself or she, or anyone was doing. He was too far gone in his own world, and very probably lost in that one too. His white, fishy, shiny, greasy skin, with all its lumps, craters, fissures and swellings, moved and chewed, folding and bulging to a thought he could not express. The only coherent thing I heard him say was: ‘I can’t get the word over my lips’ (Ik kan het woord niet over m’n lippen krijgen). And indeed all the evidence of his body supported the great effort he was making to push this word out. It never came.
Meanwhile the thin man was telling us all about the fact that this man had been the best neighbour he had had for five years. Then he told us that it was still quite a few stops to where they had to get off and that he nearly had his leg shot off in Lebanon and that it was a miracle he could walk at all, and that is wasn’t his fault that his motor broke down, but that his friend had been the best neighbour he had had in five years, and that he was in a band and had a CD coming out in two months and was converting his house into a studio for his band and that this man had been the best neighbour he had had for five years. At this point the ticket collector called over the PA system to ask if the man, she called him wearily by his name, could calm down a bit and he said yes, and proceeded to speak English and Dutch mixed together and said that the conductor would know what it was like to have had a few too many but that life was good, after all, they had at least made it this far, and then he discovered he had been talking without his teeth and said ‘fuck’ and frisked inside his grimy pockets searching for his teeth which he found and took out to show us before he demonstratively inserted them into his cavernous mouth with its threads of saliva. First he put in the top set and then the bottom set and ended by giving us all a smile full of teeth and plastic gums.
At that point the tram stopped and the two helped each other into the night, the thin one chatting incessantly like a chicken and the other, silent, like a walking corpse already rotting.
Driving home at a quarter past eleven, the sky was still aglow with the remnants of the day.
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