Music theatre work by and about Misha Mengelberg


Opera Misha

Misha Mengelberg, Cherry Duyns, Guus Janssen, ICP Orchestra

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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.



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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.

De Koeien Pierre Bokma breed


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’.

De Koeien Cherry Duyns half breed De Koeien Guus Janssen half breed


text, music
Misha Mengelberg
direction and adaptation libretto
Cherry Duyns
adaptation music
Guus Janssen i.s.m. Michael Moore
Han Bennink
Katrien Baerts, Fanny Alofs, Mattijs van de Woerd, vocalists of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague: Christina Schönbach, Ginette Puylaert, Veronique van der Meijden, Enikö Gösi, Georgi Sztojanov, Jorne van Bergeijk
Pierre Bokma
Olga Zuiderhoek
Beppe Costa
ICP Orchestra:
Ab Baars, klarinet/sax
Tobias Delius, klarinet/sax
Michael Moore, klarinet/sax
Thomas Heberer, trompet
Wolter Wierbos, trombone
Mary Oliver, viool/altviool
Tristan Honsinger, cello
Ernst Glerum, bas
Guus Janssen, piano
Han Bennink, drums
Stichting Enveloppe
Holland Festival