Misha Mengelberg: Koeien

  • MengelbergKoeienSlideMichaMengel
  • MengelbergKoeienSlideGuusJAnsen
  • MengelbergKoeienSlideDuyns
  • MengelbergKoeienSLideBokma
  • MengelbergKoeienSlideBennink
  • Micha Mengelberg
  • Guus Janssen
  • Cherry Duyns
  • Pierre Bokma
  • Han Bennink

Koeien (Cows - Review of the June 12, 2015 Wolrld premiere)

A posthumous opera of a composer still alive, an opera moreover that he never composed, text fragments that seldom relate to the emotions displayed – why does everybody has this unstoppable wish to compose an opera? What drives jazz-  and popmusicians to compose ‘operas’? The answer may be found in the fact that opera is the melodramatic apex of music, singing, dance and theatre; the Olympic arena for composers. Koeien (Cows) may thus be summarized as a wannabe Dadaist  ‘opera’ freely constructed after an idea by Misha Mengelberg, on a pastiche of his instrumental music as composed since the 1960s.

Misha Mengelberg has of course contributed to Dutch operatic history by means of his participation in the national anti-opera Reconstructie, which he co-composed in 1969 as a member of a team including Louis Andriessen, Peter Schat, Reinbert de Leeuw, Jan van Vlijmen and librettist Harry Mulish.  Ever since, he seems to have been running around with the idea for a Dadaist trilogy, among others around the cow subject. He never pondered beyond the concept, yet remained talking about it over decades, even claiming he was negotiating the construction of robot cows that were to move up and down the stage! Mengelberg was a fantasist who ridiculed many a convention, so we should perhaps not take this as seriously as his friends (documentary director Cherry Duyns and composer Guus Janssen) did, who constructed a 70minutes long ‘opera’ after Mengelbergs idea, in tribute of the Alzheimer stricken 80-years-old composer.

Mengelberg never even crafted a libretto; only a sketch exists. Duyns then completed this, saying: “Now we have a libretto in Misha’s words that he never wrote, and there is music to it that he never composed in this context.” How to characterize this nihilistic-absurdist work is a tough question: is it a jazz opera? Yes and no. Yes, because it is indeed an opera constructed on jazz music, and no because there is no operatic singing in the work other than in the central part of the Queen Bee. At best there’s an operatic element in it, although the whole has a high revue feeling and might rather speak off jazz musical. Strikingly, this theatrical piece without intrinsically logical or normal texts does have a plot! In Cows all revolves around farmer and baritone Mattijs van de Woerd who falls in love with the Queen Bee, sung by soprano Katrien Baerts. When the Ice Vendor (actor Beppe Costa) falls in love with the farmer’s wife (alto Fanny Alofs) the circle is full. The Queen Bee sings absurdist text lines in long or short coloraturalines.  These express her worries about the farmer’s intention to poison the fields with insecticide. The two arrive at a romantic agreement. The Ice Vendor meanwhile sings his heart out in over-the-top derivates of familiar chansons to hilarious texts, such as ‘See there that wife, her hopes already vanished. Hear that woman, so young and disillusioned, take my gelato, take my ice, see there…’

All action is accompanied by the choir of the cows that slowly move up and down the stage, mewing. Fortunately these are just people and not a bunch of real cows (as Mengelberg had envisioned in a time when this was perhaps still innovative, a time long ago of course). The cows sing mantra like chants such as ‘Pain makes the horns of the meadow cow tremble, the horns have the power of the meadows, feel the glorious vibration.” The duet between the farmer and the Queen Bee tops it off with lines such as ‘I am with you / You are with me / Good evening – Hurrah!’ In between the established Dutch actor Pierre Bokma gives slightly embittered, sarcastic comments. All that summarized the world premiere of Cows to perfection.

Was it then a wasted evening on a failed opera that had and has no aim? No. Mengelberg’s jazz music has tremendous drive, the direction was funny, sometimes even touching and above all there was the miraculous percussionist Han Bennink who gradually stole the limelights away from the soloists. Admittedly, Cows will probably never be revived when the tour through the Dutch provinces is over. Its Dadaist, absurdist context is also far from revolutionary today; in fact this 1920s concept was already passé in the 1960s. Yet the drive and the passion with which Cows was performed made me join in the final applause, although I could understand the few boo’s as well. Those came from ignorant spectators who had no idea they were going to the 80th birthday party of Mengelberg who was given this play in tribute in an audience largely filled with friends and admirers.

The biggest surprise came at the end, when Mengelberg was dragged on stage in a wheelchair to join in the applause. If he grasped what was going on is unclear, but he looked happy while shyly clinging to the flowers that were given to him. In short: sometimes things defy any common denominator. Perhaps Cows is not an opera, but it as from the very beginning up until the final round of applause a veritable Mengelberg happening!

René Seghers

Opera Misha (Muziektheaterwerk van en over Misha Mengelberg)

A farmer, his wife, a beautiful girl and six cows, including meadow cows, air cows and a water calf – this is the very Dutch, yet slightly surreal setting which Misha Mengelberg invented for his music theatre work Koeien (Cows). With the texts and the music of this unfinished project, composer Guus Janssen and director Cherry Duyns have created a performance which is quintessentially Mengelberg, featuring an eccentric character, played by Pierre Bokma, who cannot but remind one of the maestro himself, who turns 80 this year. With a direct view onto the stage, where his old comrades of the ICP Orchestra are playing, he muses to himself, makes comments and – much in the spirit of Mengelberg – delights in causing great confusion.

Text & music: Misha Mengelberg
Direction, picture, adaption libretto: Cherry Duyns
Adaption music: Guus Janssen i.s.m. Michael Moore
Design:    Han Bennink
Cast: Katrien Baerts, Fanny Alofs, Mattijs van de Woerd
Six singers Koninklijk Conservatorium Den Haag
Actors: Pierre Bokma, Olga Zuiderhoek, Beppe Costa
Musicians    ICP Orchestra: Ab Baars, Tobias Delius (klarinet/sax), Michael Moore,  (trompet), Wolter Wierbos (trombone), Mary Oliver (viool/altviool), Tristan Honsinger (cello), Ernst Glerum (bas), Guus Janssen (piano), Han Bennink (drums)
production    Stichting Enveloppe
Coproductie    Holland Festival
World premiere    Amsterdam, 9 juni 2015
Tuesday 9, Wednesday 10 June 2015 (20:00, intro 19:15)
Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam, Rabozaal
Admission    € 25 / 22,50
Students/CJP € 17,50 (alle ranks)
Ticketing  www.hollandfestival.nl
75 minutes, no pauze

Background info


Koeien (Cows) is an opera by and about composer and pianist Misha Mengelberg (b. Kiev, 1935). The opera is based on Mengelberg's unfinished music theatre work of the same title, adding Mengelberg himself as a character.

Because Mengelberg is no longer able to compose, composer Guus Janssen and writer, film- and theatre director Cherry Duyns – in late 2013 his film Misha enzovoort premiered – teamed up to put together a coherent and performable production using various pieces of music and text from the unfinished version. At the same time, improvisation, which lies at the heart of Mengelberg's music, will also be given ample room in the production. The music will be performed by Mengelberg's very own Instant Composers Pool (ICP), which was formed in 1967. The cast consists of vocal soloists Katrien Baerts (soprano), Fanny Alofs (alto), Mattijs van de Woerd (baritone) and six young singers from the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, complemented by the actors Pierre Bokma, Olga Zuiderhoek and Beppe Costa. The performance's visual design will be in the hands of percussionist Han Bennink, who played with Mengelber for more than half a century and who's also in charge of the ICP's brand identity.
The original idea was to create a performance in three parts, incorporating Mengelberg's pieces Behang (Wallpaper), de Voordracht (the Speech) and Koeien. In the end it was decided to go with Koeien and a few pieces from Voordracht added, forging the various parts into a 75 minute performance. The libretto for Koeien is probably best treated as one long poem. Original in all aspects, Mengelberg's texts unmistakably bear the hallmarks of Dada and Fluxus. Koeien gives us access to Mengelberg's wonderful world: goings on in the countryside involving meadow cows, air cows, a water calf, a beehive in the sky, a farmer and his constantly quarrelsome wife, as well as the captivating Almide, whose alluring looks are putting the farmer in serious danger of temptation.

Actor Pierre Bokma takes the (added) role of Misha Mengelberg. An impersonation of Mengelberg it won't be, but playing him as a warm yet sometimes slightly diabolical man, it will still unmistakably make one think of Mengelberg. Bokma's lines are taken from interviews with Mengelberg through the years, with quotes such as: ‘I can imagine that some musicians are inspired when they see the beautiful legs of a girl in the front row, but for me it doesn't work like that. While I'm playing I very often have the inclination to tease the audience.’ Bokma goes on stage, watches the opera, but also addresses the audience directly with some stories of his own, sometimes in parallel with the action on stage. As he takes the audience by the hand, be sure that at any point he can also abruptly let them go again. Making comments and putting things in relief, he most of all delights – much in the spirit of Mengelberg – in causing great confusion.


Misha Mengelberg (b. Kiev, 1935), the leader of the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra (ICP Orchestra), is a trickster in the world of composed and improvised music: a philosopher of musical matters, who pairs seriousness with absurdism – as a conservatory lecturer he championed the strict principles of counterpoint, whereas in his 'noise class' he would play down the importance of academic rigour. With ICP he introduced compositional procedures into improvised music, whilst weaving in improvisational dissent in his composing. As a jazz pianist he drew on his heroes Thelonious Monk (an unhurried gate, using dense chords) and Herbie Nichols (harmonies that subvert traditional patterns). In the late 1960's Mengelberg helped develop European improvised music, along with his lifelong collaborator, the drummer Han Bennink. From the 1990's onwards, Mengelberg and the ICP enjoyed growing international recognition for their live collaging and Mengelberg's elegant and witty writing. Mengelberg is a recipient of the Gaudeamus Prize (1961), the Wessel Ilcken Prize (1966), the Bird Award (1989) and the Matthijs Vermeulen Prize (2001).

The writer, film- and theatre director Cherry Duyns (b. Wuppertal, 1944) has published novels, short stories (De Zondagsjongen, Dante’s Trompet, De Chinese Knoop, Achterland) and essays on visual art. For nearly 25 years, together with the painter and writer Armando, he wrote and performed in Herenleed, tales of melancholy made for the theatre as well as television. With trumpet player André Heuvelman, he created and directed the theatre performances Windkracht and Kwam een vogel gevlogen (with soprano Barbara Hannigan and percussionist Peter Prommel). Duyns has been the recipient of various awards, including the Dutch Nipkowschijf for best television programme, a Gouden Kalf (Dutch film prize) and the prestigious Prix Europa. In the 1980's, Duyns collaborated with Reinbert de Leeuw to create his eight-part series Toonmeesters, filmed portraits of eight contemporary composers: Messiaen, Kagel, Vivier, Ligeti, De Vries, Gubaidulina, Górecki and Ustvolskaya. Duyns also filmed Reinbert de Leeuw's Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (performance with Barbara Sukowa). In 2013, Duyns finished his film Misha enzovoort, about Misha Mengelberg's emotional farewell from the international stage.

Guus Janssen (b. Heiloo, 1951) studied piano and composing at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam. As a composer and performing musician, he combines the various disciplines of classical music and jazz music, composition and improvisation. He has worked with musicians from the most diverse backgrounds, ranging from the Latvian violin virtuoso Gidon Kremer to the New York avant-garde improviser John Zorn. Guus Janssen composes instrumental and vocal music for often unusual instrumentations, stretching from a duet for piano and hi-hat to an opera with overtone singers (Noach). As a pianist, Janssen regularly performs in both small and large venues, ranging from jazz pubs to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. In 1981, Janssen received the Boy Edgar Prize, the premier Dutch prize for jazz and improvised music. For his compositional work he received the prestigious Matthijs Vermeulen Prize in 1984. In 2012, he was a recipient of the Johan Wagenaar Prize, awarded for his complete oeuvre. Guus Janssen is a regular guest with the ICP Orchestra.

The drummer and multi-instrumentalist Han Bennink was born in Zaandam in 1942. His first percussion instrument was a kitchen chair. In the 1960's he accompanied American jazz greats such as Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, Wes Montgomery and Eric Dolphy. As a soloist and co-founder of the ICP Orchestra, Bennink played an important role in the development of European improvised music. Along with Willem Breuker, Misha Mengelberg and Wim T. Schippers he contributed to a great number of music theatre comedies. Bennink is also a visual artist. He's exhibited his collages and objects at the Haags Gemeentemuseum (1995), in Calgary (1997) and Sarajevo (2008). In 2012 he had a large retrospective of his work at the Museum Belvédère in Heerenveen. Han Bennink enjoyed great international success with the Clusone Trio (1990-1998). He is a recipient of the European Jazz Award and the Skoda Jazz Award. His Dutch awards include the Wessel Ilcken Prize (1967) and the Bird Award (1985). In 2009, his biography De wereld als trommel (The world as a drum) was published by Thomas Rap. In 2005, the Guardian wrote about Bennink: ‘Everybody should, before they die, see Han Bennink’.