Word of thanks for the Johannes Vermeer Prize

Ridderzaal, 26 October 2015

Your Majesty, honourable Minister, chairman of the jury, members of the jury, family, friends and colleagues. My sincere thanks to you for being present at this celebratory moment of my life.

A prize for my oeuvre, indeed, a State Prize. I feel greatly honoured, it even seems a little unreal. I’m not very good at looking back, or looking around and taking stock. When writing a new work I face the same uncertainties I had 20 years ago. As though I’m running up a hill backwards in an M.C. Esher landscape. Eternally climbing, always shifting between the dimensions.

As soon as I’ve completed a work I’m already thinking about the next project. You could say that my projects continuously overlap. So while I’m running up the hill backwards I see my alter egos charging up other hills. And I want to be in these various worlds and times all at once.

My compositions often come about as what, at first sight, appear to be unrealisable fantasies that gradually get worked out, with the technique being developed in parallel. This means that it is very difficult to fully know in advance what direction they will take.

I would therefore like to use the prize money to work freely on two adventurous projects. Thanks to this prize I will be able to do some research, commission a librettist, and try out new techniques first. This process won’t require an actual commission, nor will it be beset by nerve-wracking deadlines. It will give me the space and the artistic freedom to develop something in a way that a conventional commission does not allow.

One of these projects is a new collaboration with the Australian singer Kate Miller-Heidke. We want to create a full-scale, genre-free work for music theatre that combines the spoken word with songs and in which staging and film complement and reinforce one another. Music that moves freely between the abstract, classical and pop.

The second project I would like to explore is my next big opera. A science fiction work for which my ideas are still so fanciful that I don’t yet dare to unfold them to you.

Climbing mountains is not a solitary undertaking. I would like to thank my parents, my sister, and the rest of my family. Maaike, my brilliant wife and soulmate. My composition teachers at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague: Roderik de Man, Gilius van Bergeijk, Diderik Wagenaar and Louis Andriessen.

My compositions would not be performed without programmers and theatre and concert hall managers who believe in my work and who have stuck their necks out at key moments: Henk Heuvelmans, Pierre Audi, André Hebbelinck, Willem Hering, Micha Hamel, Reinhold Dusella, Angela Dixon, Serge Dorny, John Berry, Kees Vlaardingerbroek, Maarten van Boven, and many others.

And I’d like to thank the jury for this great honour.

Before writing this speech of thanks I thought about the times in my life that have shaped me artistically and the people who have given my career momentum. To do this, we must take five steps back through time.

- 1
In the late 1970s, my parents had a Youth Operetta society in Schoorl, the village in Noord-Holland where I grew up. I sang and played in it from the age of 7 to 11, to begin with as an extra as third troll from the back. Later, as a boy soprano, I played the leading role in ‘Pablo and the Jenny’.

My father arranged the music and conducted the performances from the prompter’s box. My mother made the costumes, together with other volunteers from the village. We put on one production every year. However, my parents spent months working on each one with an infectious enthusiasm.

The village watchmaker constructed the sets in his free time. One evening, my father took me to his workshop. That year the operetta was set in the Tyrol and the set designer had painted a snow-covered mountain on a massive wooden board.

He showed us a fan that blew strips of yellow and orange paper up into the air. He switched off the neon lights in the room and a red light under the fan illuminated the fluttering strips of paper. Magic. Suddenly there was a real-life fire in the room. My father’s eyes shone. That evening, my love of the theatre was born.

When I was eleven I often suffered from nightmares and sleepwalking. I took up the guitar and my nights became calmer. ABBA, my favourite band at the time, was about to split up and the thought of life without Agnetha regularly reduced me to tears. Fortunately, however, Duran Duran, Talk Talk and Kate Bush were still making great records.

- 2
In 1992, enrolled at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, I had classical guitar lessons from Antonio Pereira-Arias, himself a pupil of the great Andrès Segovia. The first lesson didn’t bode well: ‘You play the notes like cardboard,’ said my teacher. Gradually, however, a bond and even friendship arose between us.

Pereira-Arias was an old school Romantic: simply playing what was written was met with short shrift. He taught me to look beyond the notes. And I learned the value of musical ritual from him: only starting to play after hearing the opening measures of a piece with your eyes closed.

After the last lesson he shook my hand for a long time before saying, “Don’t forget, the only friend you have is yourself.” I think what he meant was that you have to steer your own course.

- 3
In 1994, following the advice of my good friend and colleague Micha Hamel, I took part in a highly intensive course in Wakefield, England. That was the International Dance Course for Professional Choreographers and Composers, taught by the Lloyd Newson.

It was attended by eight composers, eight choreographers and a large group of dancers and musicians. The day began with a dancing lesson for everyone, because Lloyd Nelson believed that if you composed music to be danced to, then you had to actually feel how music translated into movement.

In the afternoon we were divided into small groups and given a theme for a work lasting a few minutes that we were expected to produce by that evening. These were performed and then discussed at length.

Lloyd taught us to rely on our intuition when composing, and to get to the core of an idea. “Get rid of the water,” was how he put it. The motto of the course was “Dare to fail”. That certainly happened; I produced a lot of rubbish there, but also few pieces that I’m still proud of. I learned there that in order to hit on a good idea you don’t necessarily have to sit in a Buddhist temple for months, but that you can also happen upon one while brushing your teeth.

- 4
New York City was an important place for my development as a director. In 2002, I studied at the city’s Film Academy and, in 2007, I did an intensive course in directing at the Lincoln Centre Theatre. That was also the time that, on the highest mountain in Woodstock, I proposed to my wife Maaike Aarts. Maaike understands my work like no one else and she is the only person to whom I play and show things beforehand. She is sometimes merciless: “Oh, haven’t we heard that before?” She’s always right.

In 2003, my first opera One was performed in St Petersburg. However, the bus carrying the stage set had been held up by customs at the border and it seemed that we might have to postpone the performances. In the lobby of our hotel I was approached by an energetic man with long grey hair. “Hello,” he said, “I’m Frank van der Weij. I understand that there’s a problem with your stage set. Can I help in any way?” And before I knew it he was on the telephone arranging for everything to be brought to us.

At that point I thought, I need him on my side! We’ve now been working together for 12 years. Frank takes care of the technical production and manages the business affairs of my music theatre works. But he’s actually involved in every aspect of them. Last week he rented a vehicle and took a floor lamp and a screen to the Czech Republic. Incidentally, Frank can also run up a mountain backwards.

- 5
April 2013. The second performance of my opera Sunken Garden in London’s Barbican Centre. The work had been premièred the day before and it had been both acclaimed and panned by the critics. A fierce debate was raging between fans and detractors, confusion reigned. After the performance a very charismatic woman, dressed from head to toe in black, approached me in the catacombs. It had been whispered that she might come but there she was, standing right in front of me: Kate Bush! One of my greatest heroines, the muse with that unruly hair in the blue-grey tutu on the poster that had graced my teenage bedroom. She was very complimentary about the opera and asked me if I felt like having a glass of wine with her in the cafe around the corner. Once the screaming in my head had stopped and my heartbeat had slowed to under 200 beats a minute, I answered as nonchalantly as possible, “That would be nice.” Our conversation that evening darted here and there, she switched from one topic to another at top speed, freely associating to the full.

When we parted she looked at me with those eternally youthful, sparkling eyes and said, “Michel, you’re the creator of amazing worlds with a unique logic. Write as purely as possible only what you yourself want to hear and see. That is the only yardstick.” She then embraced me, drove off in a taxi, and left me standing there with a thumping heart.

You will understand, a State Prize is wonderful, but that...

The common factor in all these events and meetings is that, as a creative artist, you have to cherish your vulnerabilities and uncertainties. “Dare to fail”, “Get rid of the water”, “Write as purely as possible only what you yourself want to hear and see.”

And that is also what I’d like to convey to the Minister and the political establishment. Art must also be allowed to be vulnerable, disturbing and unmarketable. There must be room to experiment and to fail. Only then will we enter new territory, deepen our vocabularies and develop the DNA of this age. Only then will we find ourselves sitting in a cafe with Kate Bush.

“Be running up that road,
Be running up that hill,
With no problems.”

Thank you.