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Keynote Speech by Tido Visser

 

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My name is Tido Visser, I am managing director of the Netherlands Chamber Choir, and I truly hate this song.

The title of this ingenious piece of work?

Well, I think you can guess, it’s called: Living in a box…

It IS a really terrible song, isn’t it?

I found a way to break through this cellophane line.

Dear Lord. Who comes up with such a phrase???

How can you sing such a line?

The song was a number one hit in the UK in 1987.

1987, the dawn of probably one of the darkest musical periods of all time.

Rick Ashley was trying not to give me up. But he has let me down, majorly.

And the band you just heard, was so full of their own song title, they even called themselves Living in a box. I can’t believe you call your own band Living in a box. Although, in a way, it is quite out of the box thinking. To me, it remains just a bad idea. Anyway…

 

History shows there was quite some potential though in the metaphor these guys used back in 1987. Although I am not sure they saw the potential at its full scope. I am not even sure they regarded it as a metaphor.

The term we all know: ‘thinking outside of the box’, was not in use yet. But in a way this sentence - I found a way to break through this cellophane line - has turned out to be just an early exercise for the eventual term ‘thinking outside of the box.’

The phrase was first used by Mike Vance, a management consultant from the Walt Disney Company, in his book with the very outside of the box title: Thinking outside of the box, published in 1995.

Thinking outside of the box has become a widely used expression to describe innovation, to think differently, to look beyond the obvious. Thanks to his book, thinking out of the box became a way of living, a way to success.

Somewhat like mindfulness nowadays. The term is now so widespread, I would say, it’s subject to some form of erosion, or oxidation.

Thinking out of the box is not such an out of the box metaphor anymore. Am I allowed to say that? Yes I am. Why is that?

 

Thinking out of the box in its most effective and innovative way, requires more than just doing things differently. Also in arts, or: especially in the arts. Thinking outside of the box is a hollow phrase, unless there is a sense of urgency behind it.

Urgency after all is the food of the artist, professional or non-professional. Urgency is about telling the story that needs to be told. Lack of urgency is the biggest danger to any form of art.

 

The Netherlands Chamber Choir is an amazing choir. But the darkest times of the choir, were a direct consequence of a fundamental lack of urgency. Let’s put that into a historical perspective. Let’s start from the year 1987, the year in which my favorite song, Living in a box, by the band Living in a box, was composed.

 

Allow me to focus on the classical music world, for a moment. Imagine an incredibly rich musical life, all over Europe. Vast amounts of amazing contemporary composers finally were making it to the big stage, thanks to the efforts of newly founded groups like the Schönberg Ensemble, Ensemble Modern and Ensemble Intercontemporain.

The composers we are talking about, were born just before or around the two world wars. They had seen the devastation of war, they had seen the dark side of mankind. They were, all in their own way, dealing with immense subjects: by writing about freedom of speech or the lack of it, Shostakovitch wrote his Kammersinfonie opposing against the Soviet regime; Mauricio Kagel brilliantly used humor to get to the core of people’s deepest fears of the Nazi regime. Benjamin Britten opposed against the concept of war, with his War Requiem. They have one fundamental thing in common: these composers wrote about something that mattered to them deeply. They were telling the story that needed to be told, just like the pioneering ensembles performing their work.

 

Symphony orchestras soon followed. Opera houses started to dedicate a substantial part of their programming to contemporary repertoire. And they got governments to support them. They started to receive subsidies. Not a little. No. Huge sums. Sums of money we wish we had them now. It’s great to have subsidy. In fact, it’s absolutely indispensable. And it’s justifiable. Believe me. I will get to that later.

So, I think we can say with some confidence, that urgency is about ownership. Urgency implies ownership. Ownership implies urgency.

Let me repeat what I said a little earlier: thinking outside of the box is a hollow phrase, unless there is a sense of urgency. So, if urgency implies ownership and vice versa, thinking out the box is also about ownership. About taking responsibility. About truly and genuinely believing in something.

When you understand this, you will realize that thinking outside of the box is nothing but a tool. A very useful tool, but nothing more than… a tool. A tool to tell the story that needs to be told. Thinking outside of the box is not a starting point, it is not an aim in itself. If you don’t apply this rule, you create form, you do not create content. You create a theatre play by designing the set, rather than making up a story. That’s a mistake, obviously.

 

So, here we are, in 1987, and groups that first had to fight to bring this amazing music to the big stages, these groups start to cash, receiving huge subsidies. And all of a sudden, this sense of urgency to bring these composers to the stage, to tell their stories, starts to disappear. People start to embrace the idea of art for the sake of art. A French 19th century concept. And I don’t like it. It’s decadent. You can maintain the concept for some time, but we are talking about a dark period of at least 10 years.

When you are in the middle of such dark times, it’s hard to see the light. But light struck me when I became an advisor to the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts, somewhere around the year 2000. Hundreds of subsidy applications ran through my fingers, and one was even less inspiring than the other.

After three months of sheer torture, I cried out to my fellow advisors: what is going on?

Do artists have so little to tell? Is there so little to investigate?

Is there so little happening in the world that needs to be addressed?

You know these old hotels, that once used to be chique, but now lost their glamour?

Where they serve yoghurt as desert, with a cherry on top?

That’s the feeling I had. It’s like this famous phrase about the unpopularity of jazz: jazz? Jazz ain’t dead, it just smells funny.

I was surprised with the lack of ideas, the lack of urgency, the lack of ownership.

And how can we blame the artists of those times. We were living in a time when – all of a sudden – there was no iron curtain, no Cuba crisis, no heart felled worries about ecological disasters, no ISIS, no Donald Trump in the White House, and most importantly, no economic crisis. OK, there was Iraq, there was famine in Ethiopia, but hey, that was far, far away.

We – the professional artists – became satiated, spoiled, too full of ourselves and our art without-a-purpose. And you would hope that an organization like the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts would sense this development, would be alarmed about this, and would create a dialogue in the arts world. Well, they didn’t. They were caught up in the same trap.

We, the advisors, had to use three criteria to judge the subsidy requests: public outreach (pffff), quality (duh?), and ‘the importance for the city of Amsterdam’. Beautiful.

Let the criteria resonate in your mind: the importance for the city of Amsterdam. I recall thinking: you know, fuck the importance for the city of Amsterdam, the importance for mankind, that’s what art should be about, that’s what every artist should be about.

 

And then, all of a sudden, it is 2008. A major economic crisis hits the world. Companies stop sponsoring the arts, private funds for the arts – having often heavily invested in stocks – see their capital evaporating, and last but not least, politicians – mostly with a populist signature – embrace this perfect storm to cut on all forms of subsidy for the arts.

But that was not the worst. The worst was the way politicians filed artists away. Artists were subsidy absorbing creatures, just carrying out their leftwing hobbies at the expenses of the tax payer. Why should the arts receive any money from the hardworking tax payer?

Well, actually, this innuendo in itself was not even the worst. The absolute low, the absolute worst was: the art scene had no answer to it. No answer to the question: why is art important? A nurse is important. A doctor is important. Why should the arts be important? We had no answer, because we had not given it a single thought for at least a couple of decades, we had no story that needed to be told.

But there IS a downside to subsidies: the great danger of government subsidies is that your artistic independence is institutionalized. You have to make sure to go by the rules of the government, in order to get your subsidy.

Dutch government told us to focus on disabled people, back in the late eighties, it then shifted towards a focus on cultural diversity in the nineties, entrepreneurship and public outreach at the start of the millennium, now it’s cultural diversity again.

And what do you get? An artist who starts telling the story that people want to hear, the story that politicians want to hear, the story that governmental funds want to hear, rather than the story that needs to be told.

 

Everything that is institutionalized, eventually loses support.

How did the European Union start? Big minds joined forces in a mutual effort to put an end to endless wars. Of course, they saw big economic advantages in creating a union, but the initial goal was bigger: let’s unite, let’s not divide. And the people of Europe shared this sense of urgency of their leaders.

But when the European community started to institutionalize, it drifted away from its initial idea. It became like a big colossal elephant standing in YOUR living room.

You go to Amazon.com, you order a ‘shared belief in a better world’ – CLICK - and you get a ‘big colossal elephant’, delivered to your living room.

 

Then it’s just a matter of time before the elephant starts to annoy you, doesn’t it? It’s in the way.

And eventually, you want to get rid of it. You don’t own the elephant, you bought ‘shared belief in a better world’, and you got… an elephant. That’s not yours, you don’t own it, you do not even WANT to own it. You want to send it back and get ‘shared belief in a better world’ in return.

…Ownership, hold that thought for a moment.

 

Many of you have at one point in your life started your own choir, or vocal ensemble. It’s what we do. You come together, enthusiastically, to form a group. You are all full of the idea. But after some time, you always see this one person, feeling a little more responsible for the well being of the group than the other. So he or she volunteers to try to find gigs, to make a contract, of course he or she is making sure there is a spare copy for the fucker who always forgets his music (yes, it IS almost always a guy, not a girl). And slowly, you start to see a division: of those who feel ownership, and those who don’t: the opportunists, or in the best case, the participators, the ones that are just part of the group. Mehehehehe. The owners do all the work; in the best case, they get a compliment every now and then for the efforts they make. In the worst case, the opportunists just criticize the owners, because they feel like. It’s the end

of the group. No ownership, no urgency, no group. No ownership, no urgency, no European Union; no ownership, no urgency… no art.

And here we are, in 2017. It took the arts sector a crisis to wake up. It’s maybe best, when trying to formulate an answer to the question why art is important, to go back to my own organization, the Netherlands Chamber Choir.

We were one of those organizations rising to the occasion in the eighties, receiving huge subsidies in the nineties, and not having any clue of our reason of existence in the first decade of the millennium. We had no answer what so ever to the question what our purpose was on earth. The Netherlands Chamber Choir has a vast history. And a vast history creates obligations. If you start to lose touch with the world around you, if you dose away, if you become self-satisfied, history eventually becomes a burden. It becomes the prove that your time has come to finally quit.

But when things go well, history becomes like a flywheel: when you innovate, rejuvenate, relate to the world around you, people see in your vast history the key to your current success. History either drains you, or recharges you, depending on how you relate to the here and now.

The Netherlands Chamber Choir – obviously – has experienced basically everything in its 80 years of existence. From dullness to dynamics, from arrogance and anxiety, to brilliance and success. We have celebrated triumphs in the world's biggest concert halls, and we have seen fear taking the better of my singers. We installed wonderful pension schemes for our singers to protect them from the fact that - just like ballet dancers – they have to quit at a younger age, but… a couple of years later we became acquainted with ruthless and massive redundancy through 75% subsidy rebates.

 

Last week, we celebrated our 80th birthday. And I made a wish list for the 80 years to come:

- I wish we no longer shall exist without relating to the outside world.

 

Urgency is the only true way of artistry. Of course, it’s fine when a concert is just a nice concert, but there are other responsibilities that go along.

The artist provokes thought. The artist, whether professional or amateur, provides a different look at the world. And this is only possible if the artist accounts for what is happening in that world. No navel gazing, but a glance at the horizon, in direct communication with the people around him. Urgency. Ownership.

 

- I also wish us a world in which the public gets out of its comfortable chair, to relate to the world. A public that goes to the theatre more often, to be challenged, to awaken its own curiosity. What we have on offer in Europe, the museums, the actors, the musicians, the dancers, they are of an unprecedented level. Many artists nowadays do take responsibility.

Now it is up to each of you to tell your people, to take the same responsibility.

 

Let's look further than our game boy, the timeline of our Facebook account or the edge of our plate. - And I wish the art sector leaders, politically and otherwise, who see the economic, social, infrastructural and moral importance of art. Those who see that we as a choir cannot send an invoice to the parking below the theatre to share in the profits the parking makes thanks to the concert we organized. We cannot send an invoice to the privatized railway company, to Shell, or to the local bars and restaurants.

 

I wish us and Europe leaders who understand that art is a binder in society. That piano playing develops children’s intelligence, that choral music enhances friendship making in an unprecedented way, that singing with demented people takes them out of their mental isolation.

 

I wish the art sector leaders who instantly think of artists to achieve goals.

Why do music institutions and hospitals not work together more often?

So that patients can come to our rehearsals, so they can play on our instruments, when left unemployed.

And why shouldn’t politicians use the massive international networks of artists more often, for economic or trade missions? I can give you countless examples of missed opportunities.

And I wish all of us leaders who realize that art is nothing but the spiritual food of a society in which people choose the collective over self-interest, a society in which nuance wins over the one-liner, a society in which moral authority goes above blind power. Art plays a role in making that society come true.

Over the past years, we, the Netherlands Chamber Choir, have looked in the mirror, and have worked hard to create a sense of urgency, asking ourselves: why are we on earth? I think we have been able to find an answer to that question, but rather than reading out our mission statement, I would like to give you two examples of projects that we have been developing over the past year.

 

150 Psalms. Maybe you have heard about it.

The Psalms are without doubt the most important literary source for choral music of the last 1,000 years. Every Psalm has been set to music numerous times by the greatest composers the Western world has produced.

At the same time, in silence and seclusion, centuries ago, people devoted themselves to reciting all the Psalms, during the course of a week, according to a so-called psalm reading plan. Nowadays Christians and Jews are still wont to recite these Psalms. These two facts led to the idea of 150 Psalms.

 

At a rate of 12 concerts, all 150 Psalms, by 150 different composers, will be performed, drawn from 1,000 years of choral music. To achieve this, four top-class chamber choirs join forces in an a cappella project that is attracting worldwide attention. The first episode took place in Utrecht, 4 weeks ago.

Today we see refugees searching for a safe haven, leaders who abuse their power, people who place fear above courage, or courage above fear.

Topical themes, for thousands of years already. 150 Psalms regards the Psalms as a mirror of society: great themes from 3,000 years ago are still relevant today.

The Psalms portray things on a human scale. This is not the word of God being poured out over mankind, but the voice of man who is wrestling with life’s biggest questions. Both Christians and Jews have found inspiration and hope in the Psalms, and the Koran also refers to them as holy scripture.

 

The themes found in the Psalms are equally universal: loss, compassion, consolation and hope.

 

We aim to achieve several things with 150 Psalms: To create a monument to choral music Polyphonic a cappella music forms the basis of Western music, and boasts an unprecedented diversity of the finest pieces composed over the last 1,000 years.

 

150 Psalms sheds some light on that diversity and profusion.

150 Psalms also provides a boost to the image of choral music as a dynamic and versatile art form. For many people the concerts will be their first acquaintance with choral music. With 150 Psalms the choirs are shining the spotlight not only on themselves, but on the entire choral world. We aim to create a contemporary ritual that connects art and society 150 Psalms creates a unique connection between art and society. It aims to generate discussion about what drives us apart and what brings us together. The binding force of collective singing underlines the universally human aspect of 150 Psalms.

 

This manifests itself in activities centred around collective singing. All the activities – concerts, lectures, debate, exhibition – will take place within the walls of one building.

 

But eventually, there is one bottom line, one heart felled matter: in a highly disturbed world, we want to make an appeal for human dignity.

Can we learn from the past? The Psalms – as an ancient document – act as a mirror for society. With debate and reflection from a local perspective we want to place major human themes in a context that is both historical and current. It is also this connection, between history and current affairs, that we wish to create with 150 Psalms. The 150 Psalms as human DNA,

as a moral compass.

 

Early November, this project will go to Lincoln Center in New York City, the center of the United Nations, and in March we go to Brussels, the center of European Union.

 

 

The second project I would like to tell you about is our fresh talent development program, called NKK NXT

As a professional choir we need to live up to the expectations of our audiences. This leaves us slightly less space to experiment. So if you ask yourself: what will choral music look and sound like in 2050, we are limited in the number of occasions we have to actually investigate, to

discover, to experiment. Who could answer this question better than a new generation of singers? For young talents, the step from conservatory to society is often too big. NKK NXT accompanies singers in taking that step.

 

NKK Next is a talent development program that places young singers in the heart of society. How could you do this better than by giving them a job, a traineeship, a learning curve and solid responsibilities?

We selected 9 singers, who have just finished their education at one of the European conservatories, to work on a project that investigates and experiments. We want these youngsters to think about new choral repertoire, new forms of presentation, new audiences, in full awareness of the fact that we live in a cosmopolitan world, with a rapidly changing

demography.

 

NKK NXT provides the trainees with a 24-week contract with the aim:

 

  • to develop themselves as an ensemble singer and as a maker;
  • develop didactic skills within the vocal domain;
  • stimulate entrepreneurship and leadership;
  • strengthen social awareness
  • the first layer are the 'professionals': singers of the NKK;
  • the second layer are the 'trainees', recently graduated from a conservatory;
  • the third layer are the 'talents': pupils from secondary school with singing talent, 15-18 years, who have taken part in the project Vocal Statements of Anthony Heidweiller, and are looking for more challenges.

 

The trainees form the second of three layers:

Mostly adolescents with immigrant backgrounds.

At the end of this period the singers present themselves. Traditional repertoire and conventions surrounding the concert practice are avoided.

Instead, talents and trainees get the space to generate new content and new presentation forms. The talents – the youngest group - bear the subjects. The trainees help them to develop a form to bring their topics to the forefront. Presentation, side programming, everything is offered to present the subject as well as possible. At the same time, NKK NXT invites young composers to write new repertoire.

 

The trainees have the responsibility to produce and market the production themselves. In return, they can count on the knowledge of our singers and of our staff, and the facilities of the NKK office. We do not only focus on the musical and pedagogical development of the participants, but also on the development of entrepreneurship and leadership.

 

NKK NXT aims to break the current choir culture, creating space for more social integration and social awareness in the choral world. The strength of the project lies in the ownership of talents and trainees. The talents see their own story translated on stage. The trainees are not just addressed as artists but also bear responsibility for the making process. By providing the trainees with a real job in the real world, they gain self-confidence, and make a first important step towards a working life.

We hope NKK NXT will provide the choral world with a new generation of young, inspiring singers and conductors, interested not only in exploiting the art form, but integrating its social relevance.

These are just two of many examples of what we do to relate to the world around us.

We want to sing at the highest level of emotion, stimulating the choral world, challenging ourselves and others, working with amateurs, developing talent. We want to make sure that in 80 years time, we will still be fully aware of the fact that… history is determined by the here and now.

 

We all come from different nations. We all have to fight our own fights.

My government is not your government, my tradition is not your tradition, my music may not be your music. But don’t think that what happened to us, cannot happen to you. Whether being professional or Liebhaber, as the Germans say so beautifully, you have the responsibility towards yourself and to each other to answer the question why art is relevant to you. Why you do what you do. Why choral music can make a difference.

 

Here we are in the country where singing accompanied or even provoked a revolution. In this setting you are not talking about art as a luxury product, art is the food for a civilized world. Choral singing is the food for a united world.

 

So: continue to create wonderful projects, think outside of the box as much as you want, be crazy, fine with me, but never ever forget to tell a story, to tell your story.

Tell the story that needs to be told.

Embrace urgency, embrace ownership.

Then you make a difference.

Then you truly sing yourself outside of the box.