Tag Archives: Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s Pianola Museum, a unique piece of musical heritage

I first discovered the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam several years ago during an adventurous museum-hoping on the annual Museum Night, when tens of the city’s museums open their doors to visitors for special late night visits.

I was immediately captivated by the museum’s special atmosphere and unique aura. Watching a performance of automatic piano inside the museum’s intimate setting, surrounded by player pianos and hundreds of collectible music rolls, was an unforgettable, magical experience.

The interior of the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam

Nestled in the scenic Jordaan quarter, the Pianola Museum has remained at its current address for 25 years now. One of Amsterdam’s smallest and most unusual museums, it boasts a collection of historic pianolas as well as more than 30.000 music rolls in its archive.

Amsterdam’s City Council is apparently planning to sell the building that houses this unique cultural institution. The museum has expressed the wish to purchase the property but, being a small non-profit organization, it cannot outbid the property developers in the open market.

The danger of the Pianola Museum being forced to close down is thus imminent. An online petition to save the museum has reached almost 20,000 signatures at the time of writing. I would urge anyone who is interested in preserving  this unique part of Amsterdam’s musical heritage to show their support and sign the petition, so that the City Council might reconsider its decision and give the museum a chance to keep its current home and the rest of us the opportunity to continue enjoying its musical offerings at this very special location.

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Roots Open Air (Java Island, Amsterdam)

A festival with strong roots

Throughout its long and interesting history, Roots Festival has been introducing Amsterdam crowds to exciting new sounds and great artists, many of whom (e.g. Fela Kuti, Salif Keita, Manu Dibangowho) were already hugely popular in their home countries before becoming part of the everyday vocabulary among the circles of local music aficionados.

New edition, new location

This year’s edition marked a big change as Roots Open Air, the outdoor event which concluded the festival, moved for the first time from Oosterpark to a new location: the Java Island in Amsterdam’s Eastern Docklands area. Thus, On 6 July, Java Island’s Kop van Java became host to a unique blend of musical styles ranging from non-Western pop and Afro-Caribbean to funk, psychedelic and electronic music.

Roots Festival (Kop van Java, Amsterdam)

Roots Open Air 2014 (Java Island, Amsterdam)

Singing in the rain

Despite the rain showers that persisted throughout most of the evening, the diversity and quality of music on offer were more than enough to make up for the lousy weather.

I first had the chance to watch Garifuna Collective, who presented the soulful melodies and powerful rhythms of their native region in Central America. After the beautiful tunes of the Garifuna people, the volume was raised for the Colombian Bomba Estereo and their dynamic ‘psychedelic cumbia’ sound.

Still, the highlight of this year’s festival was surely the closing performance by Youssou N’Dour. The Senegalese singer and composer performed both new and old songs (including 7 Seconds), as well as covers from such classics as Bob Marley’s Redemption Song.

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The best conclusion to the event (and certainly one of the day’s extra-musical highlights) was coming out of the main stage after the rain was over to watch an incredible evening skyline…

Wagner’s 200th and the adventures of the Ring

I was first introduced to the Nibelungenlied (‘The Song of the Nibelungs’) through Fritz Lang’s magnificent Die Nibelungen, a series of two silent fantasy films (I. Siegfried & II. Kriemhild’s Revenge). Based on an epic poem written around 1200 AD, the screenplay follows the story of dragon-slayer Siegfried, his murder by Burgundian warrior Hagen of Tronje, and finally the revenge of his wife Kriemhild.

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Siegfried on horseback with Alberich, king of the dwarfs (still from Die Niebelungen by Fritz Lang)

Wagner’s famous opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (‘The Ring of the Nibelung’) is also based, however loosely, on characters from the Nibelungenlied and the Norse sagas. Not long ago, I happened to come across a wonderful 2-volume edition of Wagner’s Ring with some exquisite illustrations by Arthur Rackham that date back to 1910-11.

‘Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde’, illustration by Arthur Rackham

Lang’s visual artistry and Rackham’s captivating images notwithstanding, the most remarkable and ambitious work of art related to the Ring and the myth of the Nibelungs by far remains Wagner’s monumental opera cycle itself. I have wanted to watch Wagner’s operas on stage for a long time, and the opportunity finally arose this year on the occasion of the composer’s bicentennial. So far, I’ve had the chance to watch Siegfried in Amsterdam’s Muziektheater, which also stages the Ring cycle in its entirety.

Wagner’s 200th birthday was celebrated through a series of events and festivities booth within and outside Germany. Meanwhile, the composer’s strong anti-Semitic views and later association with the Nazis have continued to spark controversy up to this day. Same goes for the staging of his works, as it was made apparent this year in Bayreuth. Powerful as Wagner’s music may be, it seems to carry with it such a heavy load of historical allusions and connotations it often becomes impossible to be freed thereof.

Liszt in Amsterdam and a little-known Missa Solemnis

Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) was a key figure in the development of Western music. Mostly remembered today for his legendary virtuosity and his notoriously challenging piano pieces, he was also a prolific composer, a teacher and a conductor with profound influence on subsequent composers such as Hector Berlioz, Edvard Grieg and Richard Wagner (who also married Liszt’s daughter Cosima).

Perhaps one of his lesser-known works is his Missa Solemnis “Graner Mass”, composed for the occasion of the confirmation ceremony of the then still  incomplete Basilica of Ezstergom (home to the Hungarian Archbishop in the Diocese of Gran) on August 31, 1856.

I was completely unaware of Liszt’s sacred choral music until I bumped into a relief on the wall of the Mozes en Aaronkerk church in Amsterdam some days ago. From its inscription I was informed  that Franz Liszt attended a performance of his “Graner Mass” inside that very temple on April 29, 1866.

Mozes en Aaronkerk (Waterlooplein, Amsterdam)

Mozes en Aaronkerk (Waterlooplein, Amsterdam)

It was a pleasant surprise, and one that led me to discover Liszt’s obscure Missa Solemnis. I had been in Waterlooplein countless times in the past to check the excellent outdoor flea market and browse through the various clothes, antiques or records, but had never paid attention to that small relief on the church wall right on the edge of the square. It always feels nice, and sometimes extremely rewarding, to be a tourist in your own city.

Relief of Franz Liszt in Mozes en Aaronkerk in Waterlooplein, Amsterdam.

Richard Thompson in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

The multi-talented mr. Thompson

British guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson started his long recording career in 1967 as a member of Fairport Convention. His exceptional guitar technique and songwriting skills soon earned him a highly acclaimed status among peer folk-rock musicians, and many of his songs have been subsequently covered by a wide range of artists (including Elvis Costello and David Gilmour).

Mostly known for his skilled acoustic playing, Thompson has deployed several styles over the years. He often plays bass notes using a pick between his thumb and first finger, adding the melody and extra ornamentation by plucking the treble strings with the rest of his fingers. Sometimes he also makes use of a thumb-pick, as in the motorcycle ballad 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.

A ‘folky’ power trio

His latest album Electric was released earlier this year, peaking at number 16 on the UK Album Chart (the highest charting album of his career so far). I recently had the chance to see Thompson perform live with his “electric trio” in Amsterdam, in one of the stops of his ongoing tour on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was interesting to watch such a revered acoustic player going electric, trying to emulate the sound of good old power trios like Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Towards the closing of the concert, however, Thompson made this telling confession: “You know, we are too folky to be a real power trio.”

With that, he grabbed his acoustic guitar and offered the audience a couple of excellent acoustic solo performances. He came back with his trio for a final tune: a magnificent, electrifying version of Hey Joe à la Hendrix.

Whether folky, acoustic, or electric, one thing about Richard Thompson is certain: He surely remains a guitar powerhouse and a great inspiration for players worldwide.

White bicycles: Music making in the 1960s

A short history of the sixties

“The sixties began in the summer of 1956, ended in October of 1973 and peaked just before dawn on 1 July, 1967 during a set by Tomorrow at the UFO Club in London.” 

For anyone interested in the cultural and music developments of the 1960s, Joe Boyd’s fascinating memoir White Bicycles – Making Music in the 1960s is a must read (the book title refers to the 1967 song My White Bicycle by Tomorrow, which was about Amsterdam’s community bicycle program). Full of incredible anecdotes as well as precious insights, it highlights less-known aspects of the 1960s music business and its protagonists.

Boyd was a key figure himself. As a tour manager he organized concerts for artists like Muddy Waters, Stan Getz and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He was also responsible for the sound at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when Bob Dylan confronted the audience with his controversial electric set. Furthermore, he went on to become a successful record producer, working with bands such as Fairport Convention and Pink Floyd.

From blues to folk and beyond

In his book, Boyd describes the blues boom of the sixties and its increasing appeal to white audiences, which marked “the end of the natural life of the form.” As he puts it: “No white person in America in 1964 – with the exception of me and my friends, of course – knew who John Lee Hooker was.”

He goes on to chronicle landmark events such as the Newport Festivals between 1963 and 1965, which saw the rise of Bob Dylan as Woody Guthrie’s heir and his subsequent turn from political song to a “decadent, self-absorbed, brilliant internal life.” Boyd is even willing to provide the exact time slot of this major shift: “Anyone wishing to portray the history of the sixties as a journey from idealism to hedonism could place the hinge at around 9:30 on the night of 25 July, 1965.”

Revolution and disillusionment

Moving on to the cultural scene amidst swinging London, Boyd recalls: “In 1966 the world was changing by the week. (…) Soho that year was like the steppes in AD350, with Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Huns queuing up to pillage, destabilize and eventually take over the Roman Empire.” There is no doubt for the prominent role of the English capital: “New York would never have moulded Hendrix’s genius into as powerful a pop persona as London did.”

Boyd describes the music of the early Pink Floyd as “the soundtrack for the Underground” and likens the choruses of Syd Barrett’s songs to “fertile planets in a void of spaced-out improvisation.” For him, one of the most enduring images of the whole era was that of “the four Floyds bent together over their instruments in concentration while purple and turquoise bubbles of light play over them.”

As for the unprecedented commercial success that followed in the post-Barrett era: “Pink Floyd’s success is difficult to analyse or explain. What they brought with them from Cambridge was all their own; London in 1967 just happened to fall in love with it first.”

Parallel to the music-driven narrative in White Bicycles, Boyd also illustrates vividly the optimism, idealism and progressive tendencies of the time: “Despite differing notions of what the revolution was about, an atmosphere of agape was pervasive in 1967: people were fundamentally quite nice to each other. (…) What London witnessed in the spring of ’67 was more than an endorsement of a new musical style, it was a mass immersion in the sub-culture that gave rise to it.”

Interestingly, he is also careful to demonstrate the other, darker side of this eventful period: “Beneath the surface, the progressive sixties hid all manner of unpleasantness: sexism, reaction, racism and factionalism. (…) The agape spirit of ’67 evaporated in the heat of ugly drugs, violence, commercialism and police pressure. In Amsterdam, people started sealing and repainting the white bicycles.”

In conclusion, Boyd’s White Bicycles makes for some fascinating reading. Next to the impressive parade of (more or less) famous musicians featured in its pages, the author also refers in passing to a variety of topics from Cuban music to the downsides of digital recording. Personally, I found extremely valuable the abundance of references to artists and recordings I had never heard of before, and enjoyed greatly reading about the background stories to some of the best music ever made (as in the chapters on Nick Drake, which are particularly rewarding).

125 years of sublime sound

On April 11, 1888 an orchestra of 120 musicians together with a chorus of 500 singers performed works of Wagner, Handel, Bach, and Beethoven in a new building in what was then called Nieuwer-Amstel. It was the beginning of the story of the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam’s famous and much beloved concert hall. And no doubt it’s been a long, fascinating story…

This year, the city’s oldest and grandest classical music venue celebrates its 125th birthday. Due to its remarkable acoustics, the Concertgebouw is considered one of the finest concert halls worldwide – and for good reason. Anyone who’s been fortunate enough to attend a concert in the magnificent Grote Zaal (‘Big Hall’) is familiar with the unique aura and enchanting atmosphere of the venue.

The Concertgebouw in 1902

The Concertgebouw in 1902

Throughout its long -and at times turbulent- history, the Concertgebouw has been host to an astonishing string of world-renowned composers who came along to present premieres of their works, such as Gustav Mahler, Sergei Prokofiev, Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel and Béla Bartók.

But by no means is the list confined to the classical genre alone. Legendary figures from the world of popular music have also performed in Amsterdam’s historic venue. Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey have all been guests of the Concertgebouw, along with rock giants such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

Personally, I always regard a visit to the Concertgebouw as a kind of pilgrimage to one of the world’s unique music temples. Along with Vienna’s Musikverein or London’s Royal Albert Hall, it ranks as one of the most beautiful concert halls I have ever visited. But more importantly, it is a place where music can be experienced most fully and intensely, and thus I think the word ‘temple’ should not ring too much out of place.

In all my years in Amsterdam, I’ve had the chance to see some truly amazing performances at the Concertgebouw. I was there for a solo piano recital by Daniel Barenboim for the celebration of Chopin’s bicentennial. I saw Earl Wild performing shortly after his ninetieth birthday, attended recitals by some of the world’s greatest pianists (Evgeny Kissin, Alfred Brendel and Grigory Sokolov to name a few) and saw celebrities like Chick Corea, Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang showcasing their extraordinary skills and virtuosity on stage.

One of the most-visited concert halls worldwide, the Concertgebouw seems to have not only a glorious past but also a promising future. And I look forward to being part of the experiences it yet has to offer.