Misha’s Cows Comes Home

by Kevin Whitehead

Misha Mengelberg’s Koeien                                                                                         ©2015 Ben van Duin

In a farcical callback to how Monk tunes got trendy the instant Monk was gone; now that Misha Mengelberg no longer writes or performs, the composer once derided by many as unserious is the toast of Amsterdam. June 9th marked the premiere of his unfinished opera Koeien – Cows – at the Holland Festival. It had been stitched together by Cherry Duyns and Guus Janssen, with music by the ICP Orchestra which continues on without its founder.

The premiere came four days after his 80th birthday, celebrated with some fanfare. The following day, the Bimhuis hosted a symposium on his life and music, speakers including friends/colleagues Louis Andriessen and George Lewis, musicologist Floris Schuiling who specializes in ICP studies, and me. (The last two talks are on YouTube.) That night, the international 20-piece band assembled for the joint Doek/Tri-centric festival played a set of Mengelberg compositions, in a simulacrum of an ICP set’s mix of full band and improvising subgroups. (I blogged about the festival for the Doek site.)

The following day, during the fest’s around-town bike tour, a couple of impromptu trios (ICP horns Michael Moore and Wolter Wierbos and violinist Mary Oliver; french hornist Vincent Chancey and cellists Tomeka Reid and Harald Austbø) covered a few more Mengelberg tunes; intermission pianists Kaja Draksler and Oscar Jan Hoogland played from the slim green-backed book of Misha compositions Moore compiled for Muziek Centrum Nederland in 2009. For the festival finale that night, tenor/sopranoist Yedo Gibson’s trio, with ICP’s Ab Baars guesting on clarinet and second tenor, played Mengelberg tunes with punky raunch, rather like Ideal Bread playing Steve Lacy. And the week after the opera premiere, the straightahead Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw, along with ringers Moore, Wierbos and Han Bennink, took their crack at music composed by “the dadaistic grand master” – we quote from a flyer – “one of the most important jazz pianists and composers from the Netherlands.” Times change. Fifteen years ago some Dutch jazz educators prided themselves on not teaching his music.

Mengelberg has dementia – not “suffers from” because he seems content enough, still living at home in Amsterdam’s south, surrounded by loved ones. His wife Amy displays her characteristic patience and good humor, and daughter Andrea’s family lives nearby. They get some outside help, and though Misha now uses a wheelchair, Amy regularly gets him out to her garden house just out of town. Words often fail him, and it may take him a little while to place a friend who drops in. But he still has ways to connect, by wordless singing (well, yowling) and whistling; joining in, you engage his love and ear for counterpoint, the fine art he spent so many years teaching at the conservatory, and tweaking on the bandstand and at his composer’s desk. It’s his last language.

His composing days are over, but despite ICP’s best efforts over the last decade to document previously unrecorded pieces, an indefinite number remain, many drawn from various ephemeral music-theater shows once in vogue on the Dutch scene – a trend that went cold in the 1990s when subsidy money started drying up. (A few spectacles produced for TV – like Willem Breuker’s 1977 BVHaast Show and Leo Cuypers’ Zeeland Suite – have surfaced online). For English-readers at least, the least noted aspects of Mengelberg’s art are his theater works, and his linguistically rich prose and poetry – although Erik van den Berg has edited a volume of his (mostly Dutch) poetry, commentary, liner notes, lyrics and libretti, Enkele regels in de dierentuin (Huis Clos): A few rules of the zoo.

Which brings us to Koeien, begun by Misha in the late 1980s as De Koeien, and eventually abandoned – because, he’d once claimed, no one could fabricate mechanical (singing) cows that walked like real ones. The opera had an overlong script, but he’d written little or no music to go along. (Guus Janssen: “a few notes on a beer coaster.”) But Mengelberg’s/ICP’s manager Susanna von Canon resolved to mount a production. Cherry Duyns, who’d directed a 2013 Dutch documentary about the composer’s dementia, Misha enzovoort – Misha Etc. – whittled the libretto down to manageable length, and also introduced a “Misha figure” who wanders through the action, spouting short monologues extracted from his interviews. Duyns would also direct the production.

The original plan was that Moore and Janssen – who’s played various Misha’s compositions over the years, most recently as ICP’s first-string guest pianist – would match Misha’s words to existing music. (Janssen’s participation was contingent on Misha’s approval, granted on a good day.)

But by the time of Moore’s and Janssen’s first meeting, Guus (in “a week of big fun”) had already figured the whole thing out, scavenging melodies from the maestro’s compositions – a few with lyrics to be folded into the libretto – and incidental music from two other theatricals, Behang and VoordrachtWallpaper and Lecture. (The scripts are in Enkele regels.) At one time those works were intended to make a trilogy with De Koeien, the whole also to be called De Koeien. The dropped definite article from the realized opera’s name distinguishes it from the unfinished original.

In fitting words and music together, sometimes Janssen distorted a melody or rhythm to accommodate the lyric. And since it had been decided that coloratura soprano Katrien Baerts would be in the cast – she also appeared on the festival in Berg’s Lulu – Janssen wrote her an aria over the form of the mid-‘60s “Peer’s Counting Song” (itself derived from “Solveig’s Song” in Grieg’s Peer Gynt). Janssen: “ICP plays backing chords as she elaborates on the melody – it feels like a jazz solo.”

A couple weeks before the premiere, Janssen also said, “I think of my job as a sort of curator, taking all sorts of pieces out of Misha’s repertoire – I had quite a lot of music – and putting them in an order that would play dramatically. I could have just given Katrien a very beautiful tune, but I wanted to support the dramatic development. The Voordracht material fit that. And then ending with ‘Weer is een dag voorbij,’ and the cow choir’s line coming back over those chords – it’s like the Mozart Requiem. It’s too beautiful, has a kind of sentimentality one doesn’t associate with Misha.

“Studying Voordracht, I kept asking myself what Misha meant – was it a pastiche of modern opera or an attempt to write a serious one like his friends Louis Andriessen and Peter Schat? It had this ‘false bottom’ feeling to it. The question now is: Is Koeien supposed to be a serious opera or not?”

* * * *

On June 5, Misha’s birthday, there was a little reception for him at the theater in Amstelveen where the opera was in rehearsal, and he got to see a preview. There’s a moment where the band hums his hymn “Moeder aller oorlogen” – Mother of All Wars – and Han, standing, went off book to salute his colleague in the back of the house. That double-consciousness Janssen had mentioned was all in evidence: the material is absurd, but mostly played straight. I would love to know what Mengelberg made of the dapper Dutch TV and film fixture Pierre Bokma popping in to mouth his old words.

Afterwards, there was cake, and Misha was in good spirits. The next day he came out again, to the Bimhuis – he missed the symposium, but the Mengelbergs all adore George Lewis; they practically adopted him when he lived in A’dam in the ‘80s. They sat in the bar amidst huge photo montages of the old man through the years, hundreds of Mishas, assembled by Francesca Patella. He’d arrived in time for the presentation of Erik van der Berg’s second Mengelberg compilation Worp en Wederworp – 26 interviews, four in English. And Misha heard the Doek/Tri-centric orchestra play his music (very well) at the sound check.

Three nights later he came to the opera premiere (and after party) at the Stadschouwburg in the Leidseplein theater district; at show’s end he was wheeled on stage (in his prisoner-orange snow jacket) for a very warm curtain call. It felt like an official vindication, and a rebuke to every Dutch conservatory head, neocon bebopper or arts-funding panelist who’d ever dissed his music.

The opera’s staging is simple: a mostly bare stage with plenty of room for the actors, and a low platform at the rear, approached by long ramps from either side – a place for big numbers, or strolling cows. Before the platform, in a row, sat ICP in evening wear, Janssen stage right on piano. Behind the platform, a giant screen, where animations chart the changing light and clouds over the course of a single day. (That’s very Dutch.) The setting: a dairy farm. The characters: farmer Melis and his wife Lena, also a farmer – baritone Mattijs van de Woerd and mezzosoprano Fanny Alofs – looking dour and Grant Woodish; Katrien Baerts as the dazzlingly yellow-gowned queen bee Alamide; a choir – herd? – of six cows, soprano to baritone; the Solo Cow (dressed in an off-white pantsuit more or less like the others, save the black handbag hanging from her arm) who contemplates at remarkable length the metaphysics of air, meadow and water cows, and the bovine condition of “pain, confusion and distress.” She’s played by longtime Dutch fave Olga Zuiderhoek, incidentally the widow of Willem Breuker, who knew something about elaborately staged musical productions. There is also the gelato man (Beppe Costa, looking like a forgotten Mario Brother), who pushes a two-wheeled cart with a leaky tire, way out here in the country, and accompanies himself on mandolin.

The story, such as it is: The cows (“meadow cows”) are woefully beset by stinging bees (“air cows”). Lena is dissatisfied with Melis; the less work he shoulders, the more she must tend to “the garden, the grain, the manure pit, hassles with the bank.” (We crib from the program book’s translated libretto.) Melis has even let that giant beehive (portrayed on screen by a cyclonic Han Bennink sketch) stand. Lena has an admirer: the gelato man, though she barely notices him, not even when he sings of his love, to the fetching tune of “Poor Wheel.” Melis, a dreamer, is captivated by the queen bee, on encountering her out back one day, and overhearing her big aria: What a voice! And what diction!

As mentioned above, Duyns’ production plays the material straight, but with Dutch supertitles projected at the top of the screen, the absurdity of it all (even by opera standards) is tough to miss. Alamide’s multilingual aria begins:

L’ecriture automatique
This is Kesh Katzendreck
Reholly the next tantième
Zorro stuff the bite ...

Rococcoccoccoco – this serpent
Tooth – sayers sermon past ...

Tooth-sayers! Also undercutting the action are the monologues of the Misha figure, the first person on stage (whistling before he starts to talk – Misha’s arc in reverse), played by sad-eyed Pierre Bokma, who with his good posture and silvery suit looks like he’s playing dapper ex-ICP violist Maurice Horsthuis (in the audience, for ease of comparison). His found comments proclaim Misha’s allegiances (“Dada ... As soon as you start talking about it, all the fun is gone”) and meta-criticisms of opera itself (“The language seems rather strained here and there ... I find opera so ridiculous, so insane ... Those cultivated voices, that vibrate so unnaturally and ridiculously ... at the expense of what I consider a certain degree of truthfulness.”) At one point, he synopsizes the plot. At another, when the Misha figure recalls his limitations as student pianist, and the relief he found in jazz, Janssen illustrates at the piano, going into near-anarchic overdrive – bridled chaos being his own specialty.

The orchestra are in the curious position of playing fixed arrangements of tunes they habitually remake every time: ICP standbys like “Kneushoorn,” “Rollo II,” “Picnic 6,” “Kachel,” “Kehang” and “Kraaloog,” lending a slight air of Misha: The Musical to it all. There are also two word-and-music readymades that have somehow evaded recording, the tango “Zo zacht als boter” (as soft as butter), and the Latin bump “Kortom de tijd,” as catchy a repeated-note tune as Mengelberg ever wrote.

ICP had their parts down within a couple of rehearsals, but the singing actors required many more. (Choreographer and “movement advisor” Beppie Blankert didn’t do much to get the chorus to walk like cows – there was only a mild suggestion of the herd mind as they’d gallumph along, and one cow would suddenly speed up, trying to pass on the inside.) But the musicians stamped the material anyway. At the premiere, Ab Baars took a striking tenor solo, replete with heavy vibrato and dramatic high notes, that anticipated/challenged Baerts’ aria. Wierbos, cornetist Thomas Heberer and tenor saxist Tobias Delius did much ad lib mooing.

The broad contrasts among the many catchy melodies, from the tender to the derisive, highlight the composer’s range, and were matched by the range of singing styles: the coloratura’s rococo versus the more declamatory farmers, the gelato man’s musical-comedy gusto, solo cow Zuiderhoek’s actorly sprechtstimme, Bokma’s plain speech. It all reinforces Koeien’s patchwork, beggar’s opera air.

In the end, Melis and Lena resolve to stay together, they shoo the cows back to the pasture, and the bees recede for the night. As dark comes on, the orchestra signals the close of principal action with a big ballad, Misha’s Michel Legrand waltz “Weer is een dag voorbij” – Another day gone by. And then a rousing “Picnic 6” cues the applause.

It was ridiculous and strangely moving, a real opera as far as that goes. At least one paper’s festival preview named it The Gig To Be At, and though both performances sold out in advance, giant festivals being what they are, somehow more shows could not be added. But next May there’ll be a weeks-long tour of Dutch theaters, and a DVD seems all but inevitable. (A cast album would be nice too – at 75 minutes it’s CD-length.)

Meanwhile, as Louis Andriessen pointed out during his (Dutch) talk at the symposium, there are other Mengelberg theatricals yet to be produced (let alone documented for posterity), putting in a plug for the 1966 teleplay/proto-videogame Parafax, about adversarial tribes of tiny creatures who live in the light and dark spaces on a TV screen.

* * * *

Postscript: Michael Moore kindly provided a list of Mengelberg tunes ICP plays in whole or part during Koeien:

Jeanne d’arc
Jaloers, ik?
citations from the opera Behang
Rollo 2
De sprong, o romantiek der hazen
Het zoemen
Poor wheel
Kortom de tijd
Moeder aller oorlogen
Waarom leven wij?
Zo zacht als boter
Where is the police?
Weer is een dag voorbij
Picnic 6

“There are others in there, bits of instrumental music from various sources, which I would not be able to name. I can imagine that Guus would also have a hard time with that by now.”

(Special thanks to Jodi Gilbert for walking me through many Mengelberg theater songs.)

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