Autobiographic notes: Composers of superfluous music, mid-1990s

© January 2017 Paul Cooijmans


Around the time of my graduation as a composer in 1993, I got in contact with a foundation called Composers of superfluous music. I subscribed to their newsletter and had some correspondence with the founder, Wouter, who lived in the deserted flatland of Groningen, a province in the far north of the Netherlands. By coincidence, he lived at the same road as the rock guitarist Jan Akkerman. The organization was occupied with the interests of composers who, for some reason, did not belong to the small circle of artists benefiting from the various forms of subsidization of serious music. I did not fully qualify thus, having graduated from a conservatory and some of my work being published by the leading publisher of contemporary music, but the initiative seemed so attractive that I followed it with interest.

The name Composers of superfluous music drew attention; when I once mailed a parcel to them, the red-haired girl at the post office could not help but laugh. "Superfluous music? Does that really exist?" she said, James Last dripping from the background speaker system. The correspondence led to my involvement in a joint concert of composers connected to the foundation. To discuss the details, we arranged a two-day meeting in Wouter's old farm in Groningen. We would spend the night there out of necessity; he lived so far away that a one-day schedule was not practically possible.

The meeting in Groningen

When I woke up early in the morning of the first day of our meeting, a worrying thing occurred as I got out of bed: I felt something run from my groin over my left upper leg. It was a small flow of blood. In the bathroom I cleaned it up and found the cause; a mole in the pubic area, that had been there all of my life, and slowly got bigger. I understood I would have to go to a doctor with this, but did not want to cancel the journey to Groningen, so decided to have the mole examined right after the meeting. Travelling to Groningen by bus and train, about 300 kilometres, took half of the day, so that I arrived early in the afternoon. The last part went by diesel train if I am correct, and I accidentally got off one stop too far, close to the German border. I took the first train back to the right station. Several kilometres still separated me and Kees, the other attending composer who was also there meanwhile, from Wouter's farm. I think we called Wouter from a phone box and he picked us up by car.

There had been an earthquake that morning, he told us as we drove over long straight roads through seemingly endless fields with views to the horizon in all directions — views that are exceptional in the hugely overpopulated Netherlands, where over 400 humans per square kilometre dwell, averaged over the whole country (not just in the cities!), and every empty piece of land that builders can get their hands on is crammed full of houses and other ugliness as quickly as possible, despite the political lie of a shrinking population (in actuality, the population is exploding, chiefly through immigration). Gas extraction in the region causes frequent earthquakes, and the damage to houses thus caused is one of the reasons why people are not dying to build or buy a house there. Wouter's farm was in the process of being renovated he said, so we should not expect all to be in perfect order.

Once there, we made acquaintance to his wife and one or two units of offspring, I do not remember the exact number. Indeed, not all was ready yet; doors were missing here and there, building material standing around, and I believe that even the floor of the attic where Kees and I would sleep that night was not entirely present. Well, as long as we stayed in our beds, nothing could happen, Wouter reassured us. Remarkably, there was a toilet directly adjacent to the kitchen, facing the dining table, and its door was absent. The lady of the house found this quite cosy; this way she could keep talking to her knight on shining porcelain when he needed to send a fax from Darmstadt during dinner. She would never return to having toilet doors again, if it was up to her.

We spent the afternoon in Wouter's work room planning the concert program. Apart from participating in one or two sketches and reading one of my short stories, my contribution would be to play my Composition, dedicated to Pietje and The knock on the gate on guitar before the interval, and my Fugue, dedicated to apathy and the spectacular For who loves truth, the garrotte called "life" is daily tightened a turn in the second part of the concert, which, as a whole, would bear the title My grandfather's horse has lumbago. This title, as well as the sketches and announcements in between the music, was written by Wouter, who I recall saying on that occasion, "I would be a good copywriter!" I would say that producing text was actually his true vocation, and he was an admirer of the Netherlandic author Godfried Bomans.

The short story I read was De kunstenaar, which is #23 from my opus Rapport van een genie, later (December 1995) published in booklet form by the publisher Raamwerk Letter Exploitatie in Eindhoven, and sold out to the last copy by 2007. Speaking of literary success, only two months after the concert I would be awarded the Raadselige Roos, a literature prize, for another short story; this was in December 1994. My grandfather's horse has lumbago took place on 12 October 1994, in a theatre called De gigant in Apeldoorn. The meeting in Groningen was on 29 and 30 September, I see in the two agendas that I used in the course of 1994. Here and there in the margins and on empty pages, designs for intelligence test problems have been scribbled. I made a number of experimental unpublished tests that year, and early 1995 would begin to spread and administer tests in a wider circle. I mention these facts to make clear that my activities were gradually shifting from composition to test construction in that period.

For who loves truth, the garrotte called "life" is daily tightened a turn required a number of attributes next to my classical guitar: a bullroarer, cello bow, plectrum, glissando tube (informally called "slide" or "bottleneck"), guitar stand, and box containing the attributes. Noteworthy is that I played guitar and bullroarer simultaneously in this piece; I may well be the first to have performed that feat. I did it by rapidly placing the guitar in its stand (vertically, with the head pointing up) and standing up while grabbing the bullroarer, which I had "wound" before going on stage so that it would start roaring as soon as I hurled it around with my right hand. Then I would play the guitar with my left hand. I had practised everything so that it went fast and smoothly, and because the hand is quicker than the eye in such matters, it may have appeared to the audience as if the attributes I used materialized in my hands out of thin air. It was stage magic; Wouter told me later that the theatre had been completely bowled over by my performance.

At the time I was beginning to devise psychometric tests and test items, and the composition just named had come forth from an early such instrument. This was the Graduator, an inventory to assess the ability or skill of a guitarist. I had ingeniously linked it to a system that mapped each possible score profile out of 2300 on a unique guitar composition. The algorithms were written out on paper and had to be executed by hand, which was so much work that in the end I only produced one composition with the system, based on my own profile. Though fascinating, it was hard to explain to others what exactly the Graduator system was, and this lack of understanding has no doubt played a role in turning my focus from composing to constructing difficult I.Q. tests. For the latter, there was an audience that understood what I was doing, and there were suitable publication fora in the form of the various I.Q. societies that I had started joining in 1993.

Bullroarer — prehistoric instrument used at many locations all over the world, mostly
made of wood or bark, sometimes of bone or horn, its origin thought to lie between
40 000 and 15 000 years B.C. [Video of a bullroarer being played].

Regarding the bullroarer, I possessed two of those at the time, bought in the summer of 1993 at Fort Asperen when I visited an exhibition of sound installations and the like there. Just graduating as a composer, this was of interest to me. Apart from a lot of noise-making machines in the fortress, there was a fascinating exhibition with video presentation by Walter Maioli, dealing with prehistoric musical instruments. It made such an impression on me that I returned twice that year and ended up buying his book and music compact disk as well as the bullroarers; the book calls them "flying rhomb" instead of bullroarer, but I have opted for the latter here because dictionaries tell me that "rhomb" is not a proper English word. At my first visit, in June, I saw Maioli sweep the floor of the exhibition room, but, not knowing who he was, only realized it when I recognized him in the video minutes later, demonstrating a bullroarer. I have used bullroarers in a few of my compositions, and occasionally taken them with me on nature walks with friends or visitors. It takes some practice to operate these instruments safely; that first time in Asperen, I demonstrated my newly bought bullroarer to a girl who had been on the same bus back from the fortress to the railway station of Leerdam, and badly injured my finger on the yellow nylon cord. It was a combination of a burn and a cut, and it taught me how not to do it. The girl was one of two who had been on the same bus as I that morning, visited the fortress, and left together with me. I remember the three of us waiting at the bus stop on the dyke, overlooking an orchard in the blazing sun. It was hot day in June. On later visits I would walk the distance between Leerdam and Asperen, only about three kilometres, but that first time I took the bus, not knowing exactly how far it was. Back in Leerdam, one of the girls had to be on the same train as I, and we travelled together until she got out a few stations further. In Geldermalsen we had to change train and drank coffee in the station buffet while waiting.

I like the atmosphere of Fort Asperen and its surroundings, and have returned there often after 1993. I have also fantasized about using the site for the administration of tests; my Grail Test from 1999 was created with the fortress in mind, each subtest being situated in one of its rooms or corridors. It has not got to that yet. While writing this paragraph, I remember that the possibility of giving a concert in Fort Asperen was suggested by me during the meeting in Groningen. Wouter thought there was little chance of realizing such. He knew the location and had already been in contact with them about a concert there, without success. I think he said something like that the use of the fortress for art purposes was under control of the subsidized elite, which would never allow initiatives like those by the Composers of superfluous music. I did not know at that time whether he was right, I was neutral with regard to his point of view, but many years later I would slowly begin to see the truth of it. Still, I do not know if it was true then, in the 1990s.

To get back to the meeting, early in the evening we had the concert program ready and went back to the kitchen for dinner. The last thing Wouter did was make certain I could speak loud enough to address the audience; apparently I had been speaking softly that afternoon. After dinner — of which I remember mainly the soup and conversation on labour pain — we spent some time in the living room, and then Wouter showed us to our beds in a remote attic of the old farm. It took some serious climbing to get there, and we verified that neither the other composer nor I were known sleepwalkers. It was cold, and I believe we kept most of our clothes on in bed. The next morning we left for home again, after briefly recapitulating what we had agreed as to the concert.

The concert and more

About the concert in Apeldoorn itself, not much needs to be said but that it went excellently and was received with great enthusiasm. We even got paid a few hundred guilders; that is, the Composers of superfluous music were paid, and Wouter gave Kees (the other composer) and me a share after deducting the relevant expenses. I went to and from Apeldoorn by public transport again, carrying my guitar and all the needed attributes. That was only just doable, but I was used to it then, having travelled like that a lot in the 1980s and 1990s. The others did not have instruments with them; Kees was a pianist, and Wouter used recorded material and his voice, I believe.

With the bleeding mole I did go to a doctor after returning from Groningen, and it was removed a few weeks later and turned out to be benign. A quarter of a century later, in the late 2010s, I saw Wouter and his wife back on television, in the news; they were interviewed about the damage to their house caused by earthquakes.