Interview by Ljiljana Maletin Vojvodić //
I met the Dutch flutist and composer Caroline Ansink a long time ago at an artistic residency in Portugal. Recently, we had the chance to meet again at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. As always, it was a pleasure to talk with her, and afterward, we explored the exhibition „This Will Not End Well“ by Nan Goldin, which is on display at the Stedelijk Museum until January 28.
Caroline Ansink is a Dutch musician, music educator, and composer active in a wide range of musical styles, partly derived from her classical training and mostly from her interest in different cultures. She studied flute with Abbie de Quant at the Conservatory of Utrecht and later composition with Joep Straesser. In addition to her freelance composing, she was a flutist with the Clara Schumann Orchester in Köln. Caroline has received many composition prizes from organizations such as Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst, the Association of Hungarian Musicians, and the Washington International Competition. She teaches at the Utrecht Conservatory.
When did you start composing?
While I studied flute at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, analysis of 20th-century music was taught by a young composer, Alex Manassen. For homework, he had us do various exercises in sequence to what he had explained about new compositional techniques. My classmates did only a couple of bars, but I did a couple of pages, and every week he would ask me, „Are you a composer?“ and I would answer, „No, a flutist.“ But after a while, he said, „But you should be one!“ On Sunday afternoons, before modern music concerts at the Concertgebouw, he would teach me at the famous Keizer Café next door. When I changed conservatories because I preferred being taught by a woman of a high standard and great interest in new classical music, Abbie de Quant, he introduced me to Joep Straesser, and I was allowed to participate in his group lessons. As I was very stubborn, he asked me to show him my work, and after I presented it, he told me to subscribe and take the admission exam. A couple of weeks later, he asked if I had subscribed. I said, „Not yet,“ and he took me to the administration − and so I became a composition student without knowing…
What or who were your early influences?
My early influences were probably the reason why composing came easily to me. As a baby, my parents played classical music all day. My mother played the piano as soon as she put us to bed. She was a doctor but played the piano since her early childhood, with an enriched repertoire including Ravel, Debussy, Milhaud, Ligeti, Hindemith, Ton de Leeuw, Van de Sigtenhorst Meijer, and many others, apart from the usual Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin. My father was intellectually interested in music and ordered the series of Donemus Records to keep up with the latest Dutch classical modernists. Since my early childhood, there has been no such thing as „difficult music“ for me; even Pierre Boulez feels just like singing along. When I was two, my favorites were (according to my father) Stravinsky’s Firebird and Orff’s Carmina Burana. After playing the recorder, I started the „real“ flute with Henk Vos, who made me play everything he could think of, and always proceeded positively, full of enthusiasm. To no one’s astonishment, I made a score for an arrangement of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf for a performance by me and my classmates when I was only ten years old. When I was twelve, to complete the string quartet in the family, I had violin lessons with the great but sweet Manja de Waart, who encouraged her whole class to play together on school outings every year. She specialized in Baroque music but also took care of my social-political education. In high school, I arranged the instrumental parts for a musical invented by one of the older fellows.
Do you think that creative work from men and women comes from a different place?
All creative work expresses something from a unique inner world formed by different genes and experiences. Even my sisters’ inner worlds are completely different from mine, not to mention my brothers’. Both my parents were doctors, both loved music, and both were critical and stubborn. Identifying with each of them was not difficult for me. My mother never trapped herself in typical female patterns, so the world seemed open, and I have never limited myself to women’s issues. I was hardly aware that I did so at the beginning, but as I got to know the world better, I deliberately acted upon that. For a few years, as I grew up, I would not do anything I had not seen done by a boy, just to avoid being „girlish.“ I took the chance to develop both my male and female sides. Probably, my inner world formed itself gender-neutral! And if there is some male-female issue in music, it will be more like a scale, gradually going from „male“ (big chords, loud and pronounced rhythms) to „female“ (pleasantly smiling and floating) music. But these metaphors always consist of prejudices about what is male or female. What’s male in one culture is considered female in another (the cook is female at home, and the chef is male in the restaurant). Mozart unites both kinds of music, as do almost all classical and romantic composers. Bach had a more difficult time, as unity in effect was the law of his days, allowing only one basic emotion in each movement.
Do you feel that being a woman has shaped your experiences as a composer?
My experiences as a person are intertwined with my experiences as a composer. Of course, I came across a lot of prejudices against women in my life. I reacted the way my mother did: I went my own way. But there was resistance, as the expectations about women differed somewhat from my gender neutrality. Women are supposed to be modest, pleasant, flexible, and servile. Composers know more about performing their music than conductors do. Conductors don’t particularly like living composers for that reason. They hate women composers even more… Why are there so few women composers? Throughout history, many women composers have existed, but their work is hardly played. When it is played nowadays, it’s usually not by top players but more by youngsters and pioneers. The performances can’t be compared, and aren’t exchanged, so historical women composers have little chance of being taken seriously. In history, the first performances of many now-famous works were whistled and booed at until someone else picked up the pieces and gradually created attention for those works. Beethoven, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and many others suffered from bad first performances. Nowadays, the first performances of their female age-mates often are also the last. Living women composers must have a lot of stamina to keep working, especially as it’s not a nine-to-five job but more like a vocation that has to be done alongside many other responsibilities (such as taking care of the household, husband, kids, and a job for income).
Have you ever felt discriminated against in the art world?
Composers are not the kind of people who blend into the crowd. They often stood alone during childhood or at least felt different. This continues in later practice. The more they know the world, the more differences they discover, also among composers. For me, it’s difficult to see and feel the difference between discrimination and distinction. Some music is understood by large groups in society, while other music is too difficult for the masses and may remain so. Things can become more positive over time: Bach and Mozart were not famous when they died (just like Van Gogh). Composers who were standard in their times are never heard of anymore.
In addition to composing, you play the flute. How does performing influence your compositions?
Composing and playing are completely dependent on each other. Playing is like feeding myself as a composer. By playing my music with my ensemble, I feel most connected in communication. Playing music by others with mutual understanding brings immense joy. Playfulness should always be a parameter in music.
What do you think about improvisation? Can you compare improvisation and composition?
I love to improvise; it’s the opposite of composing! That’s why it enriches me, both as a performer and in comparing the differences in attitude. Composing involves having a vision of what needs to be expressed and then shaping the best material to convey that vision, polishing it to perfection. Improvising is the opposite: I give sound to what needs to be expressed at that specific moment, freeing whatever needs to come out and accepting it completely as it is.
Is there any relationship between your music and other forms of art – such as visual art or film?
During my composition classes at the Conservatory, I ask my students to present themselves through their preferences and identification with other art forms, such as fine arts and literature, as well as cooking and sports. This helps them define some of their social identities. By talking about themselves and their work through other art forms, the relation always shows, even if it can be contradictory. Most creative humans have more extreme sides than initially apparent.
How important is the space in which you create for you?
For a composer, it is of utmost importance that there is silence. Without silence, it is impossible to imagine the sound inside the head. The music a composer writes is a reflection of the inner world of the composer. Of course, this is the world of sound, needing space like a work of art needs space. It sometimes is difficult to listen to that fragile sound inside the head, and one sound from outside can ruin the process. The best thing to do is to find nice and quiet places outside the cities with the traffic and the hectic. I have been very lucky to mostly have found remote places with lots of silence and fresh air. I also need the scent of earth and nature to feel a connection to creation. My composition students suffer a lot from not being able to find proper housing. In my teaching room at Utrechts Conservatorium, I have a picture of the hut where Gustav Mahler wrote his symphonies.
As a composer, I was very happy in the artist-in-residence Obras in Portugal, where I met Dragan and you. When I returned to Holland I gradually grew into finding a place with the same wide open space fresh air, and lovely views from different angles. It is not too far from Amsterdam (half an hour by car), so for cultural life I am not even very remote. I was born in Amsterdam, and I still love the city, but nowadays I also am very happy to be back in my home in the quiet countryside. It is a bit like a one-person Monastery now, serving Music as well as I can.
What are your main compositional challenges currently? Do you still seek the integration of music from all ages, cultures, and styles?
Some things never change, so I like to integrate all musical eras, cultures, and styles. My music changes as I become exposed to more music. What has changed is the awareness that my purpose doesn’t stop within the music itself. Music’s function is communication, and in music, everything can be communicated, even in an abstract way. This abstraction can create a new way of understanding others and contribute to harmony. The challenge for me now is to find situations where my music can contribute to that global harmony – integrating all people cooperating in this „country“ I love to call Mother Earth.