Personal Story

"It's today," squeaked Piglet.

"My favourite day," said Pooh.

Music, nature, poetry, books, wine, good company, travels to China, a wonderful family... Could there be much of a life for me now without these lovely things? 

 

My passion for music, no matter how all-consuming, has also brought with it – I hope – a sense of commitment to a great many fine musicians. And to all those people who have been (or still are) with me on this quest to research and promote Chinese music.  

 

It's a very full life, and it fills me with happiness and gratitude.

 

I experienced a happy childhood in a middle-class family in the urban west of The Netherlands. My parents owned a bicycle shop in The Hague, and later the family of four (my parents, me and my six-year older sister) moved to Brabant, in the Southeast of the Netherlands, where my father earned his living as a factory manager and industrial designer. My parents were plain and kind people, they had a good sense of humour and easy-going characters. Mom and dad raised me in a spirit of freedom and critical inquiry, and inspired me to be trusting and optimistic. For these invaluable gifts, I will always be in their debt.

 

I spent my middle school period in 's Hertogenbosch and in some other townships in Brabant, developing teenage passions for girls, music and literature. I devoured the great romantic composers, from Dvorak to Sibelius, and also found my way to Baroque and Renaissance music, to the Viennese classics, to the modern era, to Stravinsky, Bartók, the Beatles and beyond... 

 

I learned to play the violin, and bought my first scores of music, trying to penetrate the architectural secrets and spiritual depths of Bach fugues, Mahler symphonies, Bartók string quartets... I still treasure these heroes, their portraits, together with those of venerated writers, adorn my study. If I was not occupied at school or, in my spare time, was roaming the moors close to our home to spot foxes and deer, I would sit endless hours in my room, wading through piles of epic novels from the 17th to 20th centuries. 

 

I developed a fondness for German, English, American, Russian, French and Scandinavian fiction, learning a number of foreign languages as I went along. I earned my first professional money translating novels from the Norwegian by Nobel-prize-winner Knut Hamsun. I devoured Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, John Dos Passos, Saul Bellow, Joao Guimaraes Rosa, Yasunari Kawabata, and many, many others.

 

These passions have stayed with me. I wanted to become a musician or a writer, or otherwise a music scholar and a journalist. For many years I found it hard to choose, torn as I was between music and the kingdom of language. Meanwhile I had also developed a love for nature, especially for birding, and a fondness for making long walks in quiet landscapes – either in remote mountain areas (especially in Norway, one of my favourite countries), or along the main rivers in the Netherlands. In Norway I spent a whole year, working at farms and at a saw-mill, fishing and hunting, and living in a hut in the mountains up in the far north.

 

I kept up my links with music and with language. Two professions, music scholar and journalist, have become my main occupations in life. I spent some time at the University of Utrecht – where I joined various student orchestras and choirs – and began to write professionally for Dutch newspapers in Utrecht and Amsterdam, receiving my education in this field largely in practice. I wrote mainly about art and music, and to some extent about science. In Leiden I was active for several years as the editor of a hospital magazine.

 

Everything changed in 1985, after I met Antoinet, my future companion in life. 

 

Antoinet Schimmelpenninck was a student of Chinese at Leiden University, a radiant girl with green eyes and a merry laughter that still rings in my memory today. She sadly passed away from cancer in 2012. When we first met, in a Leiden student choir, she was in her early twenties, and shared my broad passion for music. She introduced me to her special passion: China. This opened a wholly new chapter in my life. Our bonds with China were to determine our married life and everything else for the next thirty years or so...

 

I joined Antoinet on her first musical fieldwork in China in 1986, and lost my heart, to her as a person, as well as to the culture, landscapes and people of the People's Republic. It was a double love. The fondness I developed for China partly derived from her vision and special wisdom. It was an entirely happy, unclouded experience. We married in 1988.

 

Since that time our shared passions have rather generously run out of hand: our private library of books and records related to Chinese music soon expanded into a huge archive, so big that we even had to purchase a separate a house in the centre of Leiden for it.

 

Almost before we knew it, we had started 'CHIME', a worldwide platform for exchange between scholars in the realm of Chinese music. The word stands for 'Chinese Music Europe', but also refers to chime stones, to (spiritual) harmony, certainly in its Chinese equivalent qing.

We began to organize and support festivals, conferences and exhibitions in the realm of Chinese music. It may sound dull, but it sure wasn't. We had music and musicians around us all the time, we were living in sound.

 

In the next few decades, our joint travels took us to China nearly every year, sometimes for some months, sometimes for half a year or longer. We carried out extensive fieldwork on Chinese folk songs, but also on shadow theatre, on teahouse ensemble music, on Chinese contemporary composers, and more. 

We churned out numerous articles, made films, Antoinet finished a PhD, it was a bit of a miracle that we also found the time and peace to start a family, raising a son (Elias, born 1998) and daughter (Nuria, born 2003). Our children gave us great joy, and they still do so today. We have spent ample time together with them, travelling, sharing their passions – for music, reading, gaming, and more!

 

In 2012, Antoinet died from cancer, after an illness of two years. She was 49. It was the sad ending of a fine and inspiring life. She showed great courage and wisdom, and accepted the inevitable with admirable strength. 

 

The work on CHIME, everything that we had built up in our shared enthousiasm about Chinese music and musicians, evidently had to continue. Together we had set up so many concerts, brought thousands of musicians to Europe and America... How could we stop all that? Our conferences had taken us everywhere, to Prague, Paris, Venice, London and to many other cities, some in Asia and in the United States. The journal had become a publication of international standing, and CHIME a household name in the world of Chinese music. There was no way for me give up this work and all the tasks still ahead, even though I sorely missed my partner. 

 

So, I plodded on, receiving great help from friends far and near, including Chinese colleagues, who would sometimes travel from China to Leiden to assist me for shorter or longer periods with work in the CHIME library. They helped me greatly to survive, to keep or regain confidence in the path I had chosen. Where would I be without them? Since 2012, there have been further concerts and meetings, in Aarhus, Venice, Lisbon, Geneva, and Hamburg, and future events coming up soon in Los Angeles, and once more in Lisbon. I'm beginning to hope that CHIME will survive, not just without Antoinet, but also without me. Not that I'm in any hurry to test it...

 

I'm working now on an international website with information on Chinese music, together with an international team of scholars, with wonderful support from a group of students based at the Beijing Language University. They keep me going! There are further projects ahead, but it is too early to list them here.

 

I live without any specific 'motto', but could think of many. If you'd press me to select one, it would probably be: More light! (gladly nicked from Joseph Brodsky, I believe, but he may have nicked it from someone else...)

 

 

With my children Elias and Nuria, 2006.
My parents, The Hague, 1945.
Would-be violinist, 1973.
Antoinet, 1988.
Fieldwork in Amdo-Tibet, Gansu, 1997.