Around my thirtieth birthday, I had become a member of many boards in the cultural sector. It seemed to me a good way to make the loneliness that regularly tormented me in that period of my life a little more bearable. I also had a fairly high opinion of my managerial qualities. With a bit of luck, I thought, doors would be opened for me that were now hermetically sealed.
The boards met irregularly, sometimes at intervals of several months, and the burning issues that were raised there had often resolved themselves in the intervening period, without any effort on the part of the board.
But in the case of the Dutch section of the International Society for Contemporary Music, or ISCM for short, there was something on the table that would not be resolve by itself and therefore required a real decision by the board. This decision would then be presented at the general meeting of the ISCM and perhaps turn out to be decisive. In short: we had to think hard about this.
The issue itself was fairly straightforward. Some time ago, the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, world-famous in our circles, was nominated as an honorary member of the ISCM. However, the honorary membership was rejected by the general assembly, because the East Asian delegations, which had never heard of Xenakis and therefore voted against it.
A painful issue, which led our board to critically review the whole thing with honorary members.
Wasn’t honorary membership, as a reward for a fruitful, successful and virtuous life, completely outdated? Our board thought so, and a proposal to abolish it would have been our firm decision, were it not for the fact that one of the members, the only permanent member Walter Maas, was an ardent supporter of its retention. Walter’s word had authority, although none of us was ever sure we understood it.
Walter came from Germany but had lived in the Netherlands for some time, first illegally as a Jewish person in hiding after fleeing his homeland, which had fallen prey to the Fascists. After the war, he could not bring himself to return and decided, out of gratitude for his rescue, to donate a cultural centre to his new homeland. Thus was born the Gaudeamus Foundation, established in a spacious country house in the green heart of the Netherlands. Twice a year Walter organised a festival for new music from this house, for which the composers were very grateful, but the rest of the Dutch, who only exceptionally could be caught with cultural aspirations, viewed this initiative with incomprehension and astonishment. Walter, however, was extremely convinced of the value of this gift to his saviours.
His outspoken sanguine character and his contempt for what he called The Little People, consisting of everyone who could not follow his views, did the rest. Walter succeeded in turning the Gaudeamus Foundation into an internationally renowned music centre, one of the few in the Netherlands.
In the bustle of his life, Walter never got around to learning Dutch, but because he considered this language a kind of German dialect, an opinion which he, without realizing, shared with his former persecutors, he thought that if he mixed the Dutch words he had acquired with his mother tongue in the right quantity, he would succeed in conveying the message of his speeches.
The result was a language all of his own, which was endearingly called Nederdiets by the bystanders and which was understood by no one except Walter himself. For in his old homeland he refused to fall back on the Schiller German that he had been taught as a child, so that nobody really understood him there either.
In short, Walter was a man to be reckoned with, but because his arguments consisted only of increasingly passionate words in his private dialect, the Board did not move: the person who would represent the Board at the next international congress would have to argue for the abolition of honorary membership.
Because none of the board members had the opportunity or was particularly keen to travel to Aarhus in the far country of Denmark and I myself had no special work to do at that time, the honour fell to me to represent the Dutch section of the ISCM.
It was not an unpleasant experience: Aarhus turned out to be a quiet town with a beautiful concert hall in which several halls were painted in cosy Danish colours. The delegates were accommodated in a hotel, where the bar served only non-alcoholic beverages in an attempt to uplift people. The hotel’s speciality was non-alcoholic wine. Fortunately, there was a pub opposite the hotel where they served a fantastic heavy Danish beer. Perhaps because of this, most of the delegates from the various countries were usually to be found in that bar, which made for a very sociable atmosphere, although the level of communication could have been higher at one point.
So it was in a good mood that I started the meeting, which I had to attend in any case, in order to put forward our point of view on the honorary members in a clear tone.
The chairman of the meeting was the German cellist Siegfried Palm. He was a colossal man, both in appearance and in musical reputation. Almost every composer of renown had dedicated a work to him, and his mastery of the cello was legendary. Externally, he consisted of a mountain of flesh, at least as deep as wide, topped by a head, the massiveness of which was enhanced by a full beard.
After he had opened the meeting, the announcements came. I knew that was nothing special in a meeting, so I started to prepare myself for the position to be taken by my board later on. I was a little nervous, I doubted whether I would succeed in calmly presenting the right arguments in correct English. We were against honorary members, that was clear, but why again? As I began to memorise some of the arguments, the meeting suddenly became noisy: an unexpected matter had come up.
Siegfried Palm read out in full voice a proposal from the Austrian delegation: they had the honour and the pleasure to propose Walter Maas for honorary membership of the ISCM.
For a moment I was perplexed: Walter had picked out a delegation as soon as it was clear to him that we would not nominate him, knowing that they would not refuse him anything. His aversion to a Wiedergutmachungsangebod offer directed at the German delegation had probably been too great, so that, as a close second, the Austrians had to go down.
Siegfried looked around and asked if there were any comments from the meeting. The Austrian delegation was not present and the rest kept quiet, so the chairman wanted to proceed to the vote. Then, however, his eyes fell on Walter, who was accustomed to walking in anywhere, invited or not, when there was something there that interested him. Siegfried asked Walter to leave the meeting, which he reluctantly did. ‘Go and wait in the restaurant on the first floor, Walter,’ I called after him to help sort out the embarrassment, ‘I’ll come and get you when we’ve finished.
After Walter had left, Siegfried resolutely decided to vote. The ballot papers were handed out and quickly collected again by a young lady, who then placed the stack with the secretary of the executive committee. The secretary took out a sheet of paper and began to count the votes diligently. Then he gave the sheet to Palm, who looked at it with concern for a while. But finally he pulled himself together and turned to the meeting: the proposal of the absent Austrians had been rejected.
Immediately afterwards, he announced a short break.
I decided to take advantage of this by picking up Walter, but a tall, middle-aged man walked up to me. ‘This is all your fault’, he snapped at me, ‘you haven’t said anything, half the assholes here don’t even know who Walter Maas is’. I pointed out that it was a proposal from the Austrians and that they should have defended their own proposal, but the man walked on angrily to air his opinion to the other members; soon I started to feel more and more uneasy. ‘Do something, take action’ I heard around me. The tall man was standing by the table behind which Siegfried was still looking despondently at the sheet of paper with the inexorable result, and was talking to him. He turned out to be the representative of Israel.
In order not to let the situation escalate into an international conflict, I walked up to Siegfried, took a deep breath and said ‘Mr. Palm, this result is unacceptable to the Dutch delegation’. The scope of these words were unclear to me: I assumed that the Dutch army would not launch an attack tomorrow morning, but actually Palm reacted as if he was impressed.
‘This was a test vote’, he said, ‘after the break we’ll both say something about Walter and vote again. Then it will be all right’.
When the delegates had returned from their coffee, Palm went straight to work ‘Look’, he said, ‘many young delegates don’t know Walter Maas, but you see him everywhere. In every festival you see this little man walking. He gave his life for the new music, and you see him everywhere.’ Then he nodded to me to add the decisive argument. ‘After these emotional words from Mr. Palm, I think it is appropriate to give some facts about Walter Maas and his foundation Gaudeamus,’ I started, painfully aware of the fact that I knew almost anything about the history of the foundation. Still I succeeded, improvising, in painting the importance of Gaudeamus for the Netherlands and the past generation of composers. ‘Ask Boulez, ask Stockhausen, they will tell you who Walter Maas is’, I concluded my speech, which actually moved me. Siegfried had the ballot papers distributed again.
This time the result was positive, the delegates had understood that they simply had to vote yes and had done so without grumbling.
I was allowed to go and fetch Walter to collect his first prize, and after casting a triumphant glance at the Israeli delegates, I ran as fast as I could to the restaurant, where Walter had already been sitting for some time, groaning with impatience.
‘Who voted against it?” he snarled as we took the lift back upstairs.
I mumbled something evasive and there we were. Walter entered the meeting room and was greeted by Siegfried Palm while the delegates produced something like a warm round of applause. He was supposed to return to his seat with a grateful face, but Walter strolled forward and spoke. I was expecting a word of thanks, but something else happened.
It turned out that Walter also had an English version of his private gibberish on offer, which he had decided to use to make a speech about the future of his Gaudeamus foundation when he was no longer around. After all, he was old and had surgery a number of times. At least, that was my benevolent summary of the rain of incoherent sentences Walter started to produce, lost as he was in the labyrinth that resulted from adding yet another language to his Nederdiets.
But suddenly I noticed a change in his attitude. His always somewhat troubled expression hardened and his eyes now looked into the room in pain, like the eyes of a wounded predator. Or was it hate? I had my doubts.
Walter talked about his parents. Both had been murdered in the war and Walter wanted to honour them with a new foundation, to be established by him personally. The Maas-Nathan Foundation. His honorary membership of the ISCM was a first step in this. He himself did not have long to live, before he would join his parents this foundation had to be established. Then his life’s work was complete.
Walter was silent. Perhaps he had hoped for an applause, but there was none. Most of the delegates had probably not been able to understand him, and it was time to continue the meeting. Afterwards, a nice beer in our favourite bar.
Walter sat down and looked ahead. The sadness slowly slipped from his eyes and his gaze returned to that cloudy glow that made it seem as if he was looking at you without seeing you.
The beer was called Carlsberg Elephant. After the meeting I asked Walter to join me, but he did not seem to understand my words. Walter only drank German beer.