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15 Questions to Lex van Delden

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you? 
Hi to you, too, and how are you? Well, right now I am sitting in front of my computer in the bedroom of my modest flat in London (U.K.), in which exciting city I have been living since 1978, although I was born in Amsterdam (The Netherlands) the eldest son of the Dutch composer Lex van Delden (1919-1988), whose music is the real reason for this interview.

What’s on your schedule right now? 
Apart from being the chairman of the Lex van Delden Foundation ( I actually am an actor and at present I am involved in a drama series for Dutch television, which is in its fourth year now, and that necessitates a lot of flying to and fro between London and Amsterdam.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?  
I am always reluctant to announce cultural crises of any kind - I tend to look upon certain startling developments as forming part and parcel of the human condition and try to take them in my stride. As for today’s music scene specifically, there is no denying that, more than ever, commercial concerns seem to take precedence over artistic considerations, which is understandable in the current cultural climate, but has a stifling effect on programming nevertheless.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music? 
I am quite sure that I also speak for my father when I say that I find the term “new” in relation to art (or life, for that matter) rather empty. After all, is there such a thing as “new” art? Admittedly, art can seem “new” in appearance, but in view of humanity’s basically unchanging spiritual needs I doubt whether art can be fundamentally “new”.  As my father wrote in his note to his “Symphony No. 8” (1964): ‘Today’s composing seems increasingly concerned with the outward appearance of musical matter, developing the aural material ever more intricately and committing it to paper in ever more complicated notation systems. I wonder whether these aspects are essential for music’s evolution - I feel that many of these sonic investigations overlook the true value of all art, to wit, the power to communicate and by doing so to contribute meaningfully to society.’

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition? 
Just to continue the quotation from my father’s note in the previous answer: ‘It is not impossible, of course, that reconnoitring new sound worlds can play a part in attaining that goal, but only as a means to an end. None the less, I am convinced that the human spirit is capable of great things even without ditching tradition’s noble achievements. After all, a work of art’s true merit can never rest on technique and style alone.’

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing? 
I think I am right in stating that my father’s composition style is one where all his intentions are clearly set out in his scores. However, as a former performing pianist himself, he also strongly appreciated the interpreter’s power to lift notes from the page and elevate them to heights literally unheard of. Indeed, in a few of his works he left out barlines so as to enable the performers to determine their own phrasing.

How would you define the term “interpretation”? 
This question has in fact already been answered above. My father fully realised that his compositions could only live by virtue of their being performed, and that naturally meant accepting, albeit not always welcoming, very different interpretations of the written scores. In the past I have occasionally attended excruciating performances of his works in his company, but such ordeals never seemed to bother him unduly, probably since he knew that they only existed for a performance’s duration, whereas his scores would remain, waiting to be interpreted in other, preferably better ways…

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one? 
Both, obviously, for the one cannot exist without the other! It all depends on the context in which they are applied and experienced, does it not?

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where? 
Hearing my father’s music would make it instantly clear that he composed in a tonal style with melody at its core. That did not necessarily mean his blanket rejection of the possible validity of other styles, however. At one time he made a thorough study of Schoenberg’s methods, for example, but decided in the end that they were not for him. As I said before, it all depends on the context music is placed in as well as on the composer’s personal inclinations, although pursuing experiment for its own sake is probably not in art’s interest…

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning? 
My father definitely subscribed to the belief that there is only “good” or “bad” art, and one reason why he admired French music was, that it draws (or at least used to draw) the dividing line between “serious” and “popular” music rather less rigidly than is the custom in certain other countries. As a young man he was enthralled by composers such as Duke Ellington and played and arranged popular music himself, and even later in his career he composed the odd piece of light music for popular musicians by way of friendly gesture, including a “Concerto for Hammond Organ and Orchestra” (1973). I also recall an evening when he came to fetch me from a party out of town while I was still at college, and there was a jazz combo playing. The pianist evidently did not know how to find his way back into the piece in hand after a substantial solo of the double-bass, and the prolonged indecision on the hapless pianist’s part so annoyed my father that he jumped onto the stage and took over from him! How is that for a “serious” composer, eh?

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation? 
My father was far removed from the ivory tower type of composer. He very much wanted to feel part of society and at times even felt the need to comment on it, such as in his oratorio “The Bird of Freedom” (1955), which is a cry against slavery, and in “Canto della Guerra” (1967), a choral setting of a text by the great humanist Erasmus, which is a fervent condemnation of war. That is not to say, though, that every work of art must have political overtones. On the contrary, rather, for each creation must - indeed, can only - reflect one’s own personal feelings.

True or false: People need to be educated about  music, before they can really appreciate it. 
False, of course! On the other hand, education of whatever kind never did anyone any harm!

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions. 
True AND false, depending on which case one looks at. In other words, cultural subsidies are a blessing in principle, but it is inevitable that sometimes they go to the “wrong kind of people and institutions” - the choices are made by people, and that always entails a degree of subjectivity, if not bias.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program? 
That’ll be the day! Anyway, they won’t let me… And come to think of it, perhaps there are too many festivals already?

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like? 
I am not sure whether my father ever dreamt of a “magnum opus”. I somehow doubt it, for he was a very pragmatic composer, who saw any request put to him as a viable challenge - hence the relatively large number of works for unusual combinations of instruments among his output. Yet, I do know that throughout his career he occasionally toyed with the idea of composing an opera - he and I even corresponded on the subject. But if he had undertaken such a demanding task, he would have had to withdraw from the daily grind for at least a year or two, and that was an impossibility, both in practical terms (because of his complicated domestic situation) and on psychological grounds, as he was an extremely gregarious man, who could not do without the hustle and bustle of modern city life - and I have not even mentioned his passion for football in general and for Ajax in particular, for which illustrious club he played in his teens!


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Lex van Delden

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