Better get used to it. That she goes somewhere for a rehearsal or a recording, but without her guitar and amplifier. That she travels without other band members in a tour van. That she now enters ‘only’ as the composer, with a pile of scores under her arm. A new phase, chuckles jazz guitarist/composer Corrie van Binsbergen. Just sit somewhere on a chair and listen to how an orchestra approaches its composition.
The announcement has been around for a while. Corrie van Binsbergen (64) stops after thirty-six years as a performing jazz musician and, as the artistic and business leader of the Bokken Foundation, no longer organizes tours. Van Binsbergen, acclaimed jazz woman/bandleader (Boy Edgar Prize winner 1999), will focus on composing. This will be celebrated ‘out with a bang’ this weekend with a final, double edition of her own Bokken Festival, her annual piece of art that usually takes place around New Year’s Eve in the Bimhuis in Amsterdam.
The idea of stopping is that it would become less crowded. Van Binsbergen wants to work as a composer, especially on commission. But calmer, that hasn’t worked out so well yet, she concludes with a laugh. “My schedule is overflowing. Everything now runs parallel, from festival arrangements, making arrangements, to recordings, the school performances of my orchestral piece The Sweetest Wish on a text by Toon Tellegen and composition assignments such as a choral piece for the Composer’s Day.”
Classical guitar ‘too limited’
Van Binsbergen takes a practical and pragmatic approach, as always. Lists for everything. Cross out what’s done. On the daily list: half an hour of classical guitar “to keep it under control”. Or will that stay? Hmm, she muses. „After the upcoming Bokken Festival, the special artificial nails on my right hand will no longer be used for the time being. Can it grow again?” Like most flamenco guitarists, Van Binsbergen always plays without a pick.
She studied classical guitar at the Utrecht Conservatory. But she didn’t have a soloist dream, hours and hours with such a classical guitar on her lap, others had to do that. “I wanted to play together. Thinking, composing, writing, producing. Classical guitar just became too limited for me. You can’t actually play with orchestras and it was also difficult in chamber music, the classical guitar is a very soft instrument. And there was little repertoire for it.” Gradually she started playing electrically. The debut album will be released in 1990 Everything Moves by her band Corrie en de Bokken, a quintet with three wind players. In 1996 she started the Bokken Foundation.
She is a pioneer of a generation of female jazz instrumentalists. But has never emphasized that in her music career, although her Bokken Festival in 2019 had a all female line up.
box spirit expeller
Corrie van Binsbergen has always had only one message for the listener: open your ears. Her own guitar playing may be indebted to Frank Zappa, but the broadly influenced jazz with her many bands can never be accurately captured, from solid jazzy swing, rock chords, modern classical to opera.
She is a ‘box-mind chaser’ with unstoppable enthusiasm, with always humor and a twist in her compositions: a waltz, a rock groove. She already thought so in 1986 when she set up her first band Corrie en de Bokken: I want to use everything that I like and can use. How many pieces would she not have composed already? “Around a thousand, I suppose.”
Project-wise, too, there has always been an admirable flow of ideas. She can stick to bookings, she doesn’t like repetition. She does countless tours with her groups, such as the twelve-piece band Corrie en de Grote Bokken (soundscape-like jazz with overwhelming symphonic rock elements) or her most recent Vanbinsbergen Playstation. There are monthly Bokken evenings in the Amsterdam hall 100. The Bokken Festival around New Year’s Eve.
Through-composed or in free improv, she puts literature on jazz, combining notes with the words of writers. Spoken or shouted out by the late Raggende Man, Bob Fosko: “Pipestalks, raindrops, wet splattered head.” The BokkenBal during the Boekenbal, also a household name. Or on the road with writer Toon Tellegen: his animal stories, her music with the Changing Toon Quintet.
But in 2016, her doubts set in: maybe it was beautiful. It was time again for the multi-year subsidy application to the Performing Arts Fund. “Always a good evaluation moment,” she says. “When you apply for four-year grants, you are forced to think about how to approach those four years. I thought: do I want this again? I organized for a long time and gladly, but I had hardly any time left. I consulted with my board and we decided to phase out. Less fragmentation and longer tours of one project, such as Goddamn days on a Goddamn Sphere with writer Dimitri Verhulst.”
800 children sing her song
The urge to compose grows. To her luck, the ensemble Asko|Schönberg turns out to be interested, as does the adventurous opera company Silbersee. With Toon Tellegen she gets the idea for “a new fairy tale” for orchestra. †The Sweetest Wish is about dreams and desires. All the animals are together in a clearing in the forest. They discuss: what is your dearest wish?” The performance was by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, online in 2021 and live next year. After that it became a school performance, also performed by Phion. “I heard it last in a full house of 800 children. I had made a special song for them about their wishes. So moving from those throats.” And now there is a new assignment with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, she says, a bit proud.
While the pandemic was a highly uncertain time for fellow musicians and young musicians such as her daughter Jasja Offermans, who played in the pop band Indian Askin, it turned out to be a blessing for her. All diaries empty: “Wonderful writing”. And then, says Van Binsbergen, she really got confirmation of how well her decision to stop was right. “In the break I got a kind of preview of what my life would be like and I really liked that. Then I consider myself a real Sunday child, by the way. You can imagine that you are going to write, but without assignments you are nothing.”
Walking on the Meuse
The first contours of compositions arise in her head. Then it is writing, papers full, preferably at her desk in the study, with the piano to the right behind her to pick out instrumentations. “I’ve known for a long time: the morning is mine,” says Van Binsbergen. “Then it goes quickly, I am clear. Continuing in the afternoon doesn’t make much sense. Then you sit down and pun. Then comes the doubt… Does it have to be a second longer. Shall I make that size different? Better I only listen to it at the end of the day.”
A walk then. Outside along the banks of the Maas. Look, a boat. For ten years Van Binsbergen has lived with husband and bassist Hein Offermans ‘outside’, in a hamlet between Nijmegen and Venlo. A view of river, meadows, wild cows. She will never trade it again, she says resolutely. But she keeps her Bokken office above Zaal100 in Amsterdam.
While walking, she says, it is also necessary to tinker with the set-up, the structure, and what belongs where. Will she get straight to the point or will it be a layered work? Her narrative style is distinctive. “You’re making some sort of plan.” But, she says, it’s a wonderful concentration when you’re at it. “A kind of leaning on your intuition.”
And sometimes it goes fast. Although she may mistrust that too. An arrangement of a Joni Mitchell song for a string quartet: ready in two days instead of the week before. Smile. “Everything happens in that Van Binsbergen mill in here and it is almost impossible to explain.”
Her “splatter things”, she is self-taught, then go straight into the digital music notation program. What an invention that is, by the way, once she figured out how it worked. “Writing out all those parties, I don’t have to think about it anymore. How did we do that in the past!”
The Chunks Festival
After two postponements, her Bokken Festival, normally always around New Year’s Eve, is now in the summer. It is what it is, she shrugs. “Ah, what would it be like in the winter with corona? The farewell should not go out like a candle. And I so want to celebrate with the many musicians I played with.”
That she quits as a bandleader is regretted in her scene. And she knows: “I was a good employer. Partly thanks to the subsidy, I was able to pay for everything neatly, from rehearsal to show, travel costs and dinner. I don’t think that’s more than normal, but that’s not always the case.”
Van Binsbergen is grateful, „that it was possible to do this, but an extra reason not to do it all again is that I think it is the turn of the young jazz generation to eat from the rack. There is always too little money in the arts. It is now their turn.” Although I also know that composition assignments just as well come from subsidy pots.”
She will miss performances, she decides. The eyes closed, lost in a solo, sometimes tearing and whining, fierceness in the strings. She nods again. “Playing has always given energy. The social life around it, the feeling of being in a band, that’s all great fun. But it doesn’t carry and travel.” Will she stop for good? A meaningful smile. “Well, the blood is crawling…”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 23, 2022