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Monday, October 15, 2012

No Talent, Please!

Two weeks ago I played with both my little bands at the Tsjoch festival. Tsjoch is a festival organised by a society called the Frisian Society of Folk Musicians. That sounds like a society with a restricted membership - one would expect that, in order to become a member, one has to prove one's Frisianness (last name ending on -sma or -stra; fluent in Frisian; living in a Frisian village; hating Groningen) as well as one's musicianship (playing in tune, rhythmic, with articulation, with expression, et cetera et cetera et cetera - the usual list  basically aimed at ruling out as musicians the Sex Pistols, Tom Waits and your neighbour singing in the choir of the local operetta society). Or maybe one has to prove one's Frisian musicanship - singing songs in Frisian accompanying oneself on the Noardske Balke.

But it is not at all like that. Basically, it works thus: you pay a small amount per year to become a member, and in return the organisation gives you the possibility to play at the Tsjoch festival. No questions asked; not about Frisianness, not about musicianship. Anybody who feels he should play at the Tsjoch festival can do so. So the festival is a nice mixture of  (semi-)professional, amateur, beginning and non-musicians, singing in Frisian, Dutch, English, or any other language, including Esperanto, coming from Friesland or from somewhere else, playing folk, pop, rock, jazz or anything else that may come to mind. Everybody gets 30 minutes, and, more or less regardless of fame or 'infame', musicians are distributed over the afternoon and evening programma. This year there were too many musicians wanting to play; and instead of selecting on quality, the organising committee decided that all groups in which a member of the organising committee was playing would refrain from taking a place at the festival, thus creating the opportunity for all the rest of the members to appear in the festival spotlights.

A completely open musical space. Random democracy. And now, two suggestions,

This year, Tsjoch made a new start in a new place; the organisation had chosen a smaller venue than in the past decade, in a village rather than in a larger town. A good choice; the festival became smaller and more intimate. There were less people than expected, maybe due to competition from two other concerts that same night in the vicinity. This meant that the musicians playing at Tsjoch were asked to refrain from accepting the fee of 15 euro (!) per person. Suggestion 1: I think that the organisation should get rid of the idea that those playing should be payed at all; basically, the idea seems to me that you become a member and in return get the opportunity to play on a festival. No need for payment; playing for money is not the point here, as the fee shows. And getting rid of the payment circus might mean that the organisation may ask for even less governemnt grants than they already do, which would also be great - any festival should aim at surviving without the general tax payer investing money in it.

Suggestion 2: don't book any external (non-member) 'headliners' for the next festival. It is contrarious to the whole idea of the society and the festival. The members are the headliners; and external headliners no doubt cost money, again leading to a higher possibility that government grants are needed to organise the festival at all. If you want to invite someone famous to play, just ask him to become a member of the society and subscribe for 30 minutes of non-fame on the festival. If the famous someone agrees, great; if he doesn't, he is not suitable - paid or unpaid - to be invited as a headliner on this kind of festival.

The whole idea of the festival seems to me to show that musicians can organise (themselves and) a festival without taking recourse to the differentiation inherent in much of our musical lives - differentiation in headliners and  obscure support acts, differentiation in quality, differentiation in talent. The motto should be the same as the motto I once heard from a shanty choir member: "We never ask people whether they can sing. We ask them if they want to sing. If the answer is yes, they're in."

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