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Friday, September 25, 2009

Remembering Rudi van Dijk

One of the more interesting composers that I studied with at the Berklee College of Music in the early 1970s was Rudi Martinus van Dijk (1932-2003).

At that time at least, there was a lot of social interaction between the students and faculty that comprised the "traditional" composition department. As a group, we formed a small minority interest within the quickly growing college. Berklee seemed to be overrun by aspiring rock stars toting electric guitars (not that that is a bad thing), and we were just nerdy modern music composers. It is only natural that close relationships formed between our group of like-minded "serious" composers, since we didn't have a lot of support from the academic or general community.

Composer Rudi van Dijk was certainly a colorful character, and always very engaged with his students. He loved to talk over coffee and cigarettes in the student lounge about the classical music biz. He had a European and Canadian musical education, and he drew upon it often as source material for his rich and often entertaining stories about life and music.

He was born in Culemborg, the Netherlands in 1932 and studied with with Hendrik Andriessen at the Royal Conservatory of Music in The Hague. At the age of 19 when his Sonatine for piano was performed at the International Gaudeamus Music Week. He emigrated to Canada in 1953 and studied the well-known American composer Roy Harris. Later van Dijk obtained a Canadian fellowship to travel to Paris for studies with Schoenberg's disciple Max Deutsch. In the 1950s and 60s he worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as a pianist and composer, and later did work for the BBC in London. He taught in Toronto at the Royal Conservatory of Music, at Indiana University, and then came to the Berklee College of music where I met him in 1973.

I had both classes and individual instruction with Rudi, but it was our discussion about the social context of music that have stuck with me all of these years. He was not an admirer of the radical avant garde, and his music (what little we knew of it) was modern, but rather traditional.

During a discussion we had about avant garde music, I posed the hypothetical question, "what's wrong if a piece of music upsets you, has a emotional impact and makes you angry?" His replay was, "If I step in dog crap and get angry, does that make it music?"

It was clear that Rudi was very talented, but Boston was not welcoming to his work. He was always very actively involved with musicians, doing his utmost to get his work performed - usually to no avail (at least in Boston).

Rudi did have two pieces performed in Boston on June 25th, 1975 in on a live broadcast from WGBH-FM Radio. It was a new music concert by the Annex Players (before they became Dinosaur Annex). It included his piece "Immobile Eden" for soprano, flute, and piano (with Susan Krueger, soprano and Trix Kout, flute) and "Sonata Movement" for sax and piano (with Lawrence Scripp, sax). I was invited to sit in the tiny live studio audience by my friend, composer and Annex Players co-director by Chris Yavelow. (Oddly, I recall an ancient API teletype machine sitting in the WGBH lobby, which would magically spew out terse random news items from Associated Press International).

One afternoon, after a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance featuring the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, I bumped into Rudi outside of Symphony Hall. He was waiting for Vickers, who he had known in Canada. As we spoke, Mr. Vickers arrived, and Rudi nervously introduced me to him. Then, he invited me to his house for dinner with Jon Vicker. Rudi's wife Jeanne had been at home preparing the meal, and it was waiting to be served. I declined his very kind and spontaneous invitation, but in retrospect have always wondered what that dinner would have been like should I have accepted.

Sometimes Rudi would latch onto the smallest signs of optimism, as composers often resort to in times of desperation when working in the vacuum of total isolation. Rudi pulled out a letter he had received from the Boston Symphony Orchestra management regarding the score for his piece The Shadowmaker (1978) for baritone and orchestra. The letter was terse and read, "we can not schedule your work at this time." Rudi had underlined the phrase "at this time" and verbally emphasised it to myself and my composer colleague Alvaro Cordero.

Alvaro and I glanced at each other and silently relayed between us our lack of optimism regarding Rudi's realistic prospects for a BSO performance of his work. But it was an important lesson to me, and I'll never forget it. Reality is what we make of it, and Rudi kept going, kept composing, kept submitting his pieces to musical organizations and performers, and kept himself in the saddle by whatever means of encouragement he could find. In the long run, his persistence and determination paid off.

One very personal story that Rudi shared with me was about his youth in Holland during the Nazi occupation during WWII. He observed an old woman dragging a tree branch down the street to use as firewood to heat her home in the cold winter. A young German soldier passed by, glanced at the old woman, and suddenly shot her dead with his Luger. The German soldier was unemotional, and coldly murdered her because he just felt like it. Clearly, these war experiences strongly impacted Rudi. After the war, like so many from Holland he emigrated to Canada to escape the horrific memories of the conflict.

Another interesting story Rudi told was about his freelance work as a youthful musician in Holland. As the story goes, he played a little oboe in addition to piano (his main instrument). Now and then, he would get a gig with the Concertgebow Orchestra in Amsterdam when they performed large orchestral works that required a 3rd or 4th oboe. Rudi explained that he had long stopped practicing the oboe since he was devoting the majority of this time to composition. However, during a rehearsal with the Concertgebow, it became painstaking evident that he had not practiced in a very long time, and couldn't cut the part. As a result, he was terminated. It was not a story of defeat though, since I don't know very many composers who performed with one of the world's great orchestras and lived to tell the story of being fired from it. That takes Chutzpah, and Rudi had it. It was a lesson in fortitude, survival, and a willingness to take risks and welcome challenges.

Unfortunately I did not stay in contact with Rudi after I left Berklee. In fact, I had no idea what happened to him until I looked him up online. It appears that he and his family left Boston and returned to Europe around 1985. I can understand that. Boston was not a supportive environment for him, and he was clearly not getting the recognition he deserved. After a year in Spain writing music, van Dijk became composer in residence at Dartington Hall in Devon England where his music was performed. He resided alternately in England and the Netherlands and had years of well-deserved success in his career up to his death from cancer in 2003 at the age of 71. Two CDs have recently been released of his music.