Amsterdam, 3 maart 2017

The pianist and composer Misha Mengelberg has passed away in Amsterdam today, March 3. He was 81 years old. The Bimhuis remembers him as one of the Netherlands’ most original musical thinkers, with a singularity cherished the world over. His influence on generations of improvising musicians is immeasurable, both in the Netherlands and abroad. Until 2014, he was a performing member of the ICP Orchestra, which he co-founded with drummer Han Bennink. His struggle with Alzheimer’s was captured in the documentary Misha and So On (2013).

Misha Mengelberg was one of the cornerstones of some of the most significant developments in the Dutch music scene, such as the establishment of the Fonds voor de Scheppende Toonkunst (the Creative Music Fund). He was involved in the creation of STEIM (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music), SJIN (Foundation for Jazz and Improvised Music in the Netherlands), BIM (Association of Improvising Musicians) and the Bimhuis.

Bimhuis treasures fond memories of the more than 200 performances Misha Mengelberg delivered at the venue since its creation in 1974. These include solo performances, duos with Han Bennink and those he gave as a member of the Instant Composers Pool (ICP). As leader of the ICP Orchestra, he was internationally renowned for his arrangements of works by Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols and Duke Ellington. His compositions are performed all over the world, as much by jazz and improvising musicians such as John Zorn, Dave Douglas and Bill Frisell as by contemporary, classically oriented musicians and ensembles. He was involved in Fluxus, the international art movement, created musical theatre with, among others, Wim T. Schippers, and composed music for ensembles such as De Volharding (Perseverance Orchestra), the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble (the Dutch Wind Ensemble) and Hoketus (the amplified musical ensemble founded by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen). Misha’s unfinished opera, Koeien (Cows), was completed by composer Guus Janssen and director Cherry Duyns and performed at the Holland Festival in 2015.

‘I want first of all to amaze people. Second, I want to give them too much to grasp all at once. And finally, I want what I do to linger in their minds long after the show is over.’ (Misha Mengelberg in a conversation with the Algemeen Handelsblad newspaper after winning the Wessel Ilcken Award in 1966).

The ICP Orchestra will perform a concert in memory of Misha Mengelberg on Saturday, 25 March at 2:30 PM. Click here for more information.



Translation Martin Cleaver

Jazz pianist Misha Mengelberg (81), the grand and contrary master of Dutch music, has died.

His nonchalant attitude camouflaged his years of work for Dutch music.

He wasn’t averse to making music, he often said. But he enjoyed other things more. “I have very different hobbies. I love chess and bridge and go; I do that for fun.” Typical smokescreens used by the composer, jazz pianist and bandleader. Misha Mengelberg, the great mischief maker and contrary master of Dutch music, died aged 81 in a Dutch nursing home.

Satire and surprise were inextricably mixed for Mengelberg, as was already clear when in 1969 – along with the colleagues Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Peter Schat and Jan van Vlijmen – he composed the notorious opera Reconstructie (Reconstruction). Mengelberg suggested giving the statue of the guerilla leader Che Guevara used in the show a deformed arm – to put in perspective the all too rabid hero worship usually seen. As thanks for Mengelberg suggestion, he was kicked out of the opera by his colleagues.

It illustrates the fact that the artist who said he took neither himself nor his music seriously was capable of being principled. Even though he had a different reputation: he forgot appointments, appeared too late at his own concerts – preferably entering scatterbrained through the wrong door, with a cup of coffee rattling in his hand – and liked to announce that his standpoints were only valid for one day.

This attitude, described by the pianist in a candid moment as ”lying at the highest possible level” camouflaged his years of work for Dutch music: he was co-founder of Amsterdam’s Bimhuis and worked hard in administrative functions for a better financial position for composers and musicians. Mengelberg’s nonchalance – feigned or not – also hid the great dedication with which he constructed a musical oeuvre filled with lucid hidden meanings, completed by ingenious absurdist libretti and humorous lyrics he wrote himself.

Misha Mengelberg was born on 5 June 1935 in Kiev, where his father, the conductor and composer Karel Mengelberg, worked briefly in the film industry. From 1956 on he studied at the Royal Conservatoire in the Hague, where he made friends with fellow students Louis Andriessen and Reinbert de Leeuw. While he was still studying, he won the Gaudeamus Prize: in 1961 an international jury with Karlheinz Stockhausen and György Ligeti gave him the award for Musica per 17 strumenti, a sly and anti-virtuoso piece in which each musician was condemned to but one shabby note.

“Mengelberg’s nonchalance – feigned or not – also hid the great dedication with which he constructed a musical oeuvre”

Two years before, Mengelberg won the Loosdrecht Jazz Concours, because alongside composed music, he was equally obsessed by jazz and improvisation. With the drummer Han Bennink, in 1960 he embarked on a turbulent cooperation that would last for more than four decades and with whom he was to set up the Instant Composers Pool (ICP) in 1967, together with saxophonist Willem Breuker.

Embroidering forth on the jazz heroes of his youth – Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols – and inspired by the this organised humour of the Fluxus movement, Mengelberg’s ICP Orkest developed a fertile blend of jazz, rigorous improvisation and humorous theatre, that provided him with admirers as far away as Japan and the United States for what became known as New Dutch Swing. The voluminous CD box containing all ICP recordings from 1967 onwars, was awarded an Edison in 2013 and is especially popular outside the Netherlands.

While his music can be mercilessly grating (the solo CD Mix from 1994 is notorious), Mengelberg’s trademark is the charmingly concise theme that sticks around to haunt you, without giving away its secrets. One example is the ballad De sprong, o romantiek der hazen, which young musicians like saxophonist Benjamin Herman have included in their repertoire. Even children fall for themes like Zing Zang Zaterdag and Wij gaan naar de Italiaan, as was apparent from ICP's popular “ singalong concerts” for all ages..

“alongside composed music, he was equally obsessed by jazz and improvisation”

As a result of advancing dementia, Mengelberg was in recent years no longer able to perform. His greatest public success even came about without his own involvement. Director Cherry Duyns and pianist/composer Guus Janssen completed the ICP opera Koeien, absurdist music theatre based on Mengelberg’s lyrics and compositions. His alter ego was performed in Koeien by Pierre Bokma, who provided a commentary on the show with provocative Mengelberg texts: “I don’t know what other people think about it, but I am convinced that Oprah is so ridiculous, so crazy...” It was a triumph at the 2015 Holland Festival, where the composer took the ovations from the sideline, movingly brittle in his wheelchair.

Mengelberg’s aversion to anything pontifical has to be seen in the context of the deep shadow of his great-uncle Willem Mengelberg, the adored maestro of the Concertgebouworkest who fell from his pedestal after 1945 because of his all too close connections to the German oppressors. “I wouldn’t have minded if they had hung Willem,” Mengelberg told the American journalist who asked his opinion on the great conductor.

Improvising for a month in the avantgarde club The Stone

In 2005, jazz pianist Misha Mengelberg spent a month in New York, in the heart of Manhattan, in order to record an album and to perform at a new avantgarde club.

Mengelberg’s heroes are of a different order. He loves dada, reads Lao Tzu (“all great things have their origins in that which is small”) and remains faithful to the “beloved woollen giraffe aand other furry animals from his childhood, which return in compositions like Beestebeest versus Hertie, Rokus de Veldmuis and Bospaadje Konijnehol.

For fifty years, Misha Mengelberg remain faithful to the three sided ideal he formulated for himself in the 1960s: “I want 1) for people to be amazed, 2) that they can’t really survey it and 3) that they take some of it home with them.’

In Memoriams were also written by John Fordham (The Guardian) and Ethan Iverson (blog).