Choosing your city

On 21 augustus 2016, in muziek, by Zef Hemel

Heard in the Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg on 20 August 2016:

There he was, Philip Glass (1937), the great American composer and pianist, speaking about his autobiography, ‘’Words without Music’, and also playing a piece of his work (‘Choosing Life’ from ‘’The Hours’) on the piano, in the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam. Harpist Lavinia Meijer and pianist Feico Deutekom played three more pieces. Melchior Huurdeman did the interviewing. Both speakers were introduced by Tracy Metz, director of the John Adams Institute and initiator of this unique event. Glass talked about New York. How he moved from Baltimore, where his father owned a recordshop, to the Big Apple, in order to study music. That was 1969. New York, he stressed, was still an affordable place at that time. Thousands of young artists moved to the big city every year. In order to earn a living young Glass needed a job for three days a week, not more. A hundred dollars a month was sufficient to survive. He became taxidriver, construction worker, you name it; he even helped Richard Serra build his large sculpture for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The rest of the time he studied music at Juilliard.

While studying he started composing and playing for small audiences. A great time to experiment. No responsibilities. Lots of talented people, lots of opportunities. Though his minimal music was a new sound not well understood by many, he became a successful composer in short time. Only ten years later, in 1976, his opera ‘Einstein on the Beach’ was performed in the Metropolitan Opera House. Glass seemed still to be overwhelmed, after all those years, by his unexpected stardom. Just read ‘Outliers’ (2008) of Malcolm Gladwell and you’ll understand: 10.000 hours of hard work and training plus a lot of luck is needed to become an outlier. Glass worked hard and New York is a lucky place. Not that the city is a garantee for success, but sure it helps. Plus: If I can make it in New York, I can make it anywhere. But then in the interview Glass raised the point that what New York lacked, at least at that time, was expert technical knowledge for composers. So he moved to Paris, where Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was teaching at the conservatory. In Paris he also met the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar. That means these two cities were very important in his life: Paris and New York. And if you listen to his music, you’ll hear New York, and a bit of Paris.

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Cities Becoming a Luxury Good

On 25 mei 2016, in stedelijkheid, wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read on of 24 May 2016:


In ‘Urban Living Becomes a Luxury Good’ of 24 May, Justin Fox of Bloomberg described how after the financial crisis Americans are flooding the city centres of the biggest cities. The suburbs are still there, but something fundamental has changed. Increase in employment in downtown areas of US metropolitan areas is as big as jobs growth in the urban periphery, but on the housing market downtown is the real winner. True, the share of Americans living in suburbs has continued to grow, but at the same time the real estate prices in the city centres have flipped. Both phenomena are linked to each other. The farther from downtown, housing prices steeply drop. Rich Americans now chose to live in downtown areas, which means a fundamental shift in living preferences. Fox: “The shift toward urban living was also most pronounced among whites, the highly educated and the 34 to 49 cohort.” Which means, Fox adds, that urban living is becoming a luxury good, a thing many Americans can no longer afford.

Fox’ conclusion is the cities must put up a lot more buildings in or near the city centres. Let me add that the same holds for European cities like Amsterdam. It reminded me of the contribution of MVRDV for the ‘Grand Paris’ competition of the French president Sarkozy in 2009 (picture). In ‘Paris Plus Petit’, the Dutch architects advocated more ambition, more optimism, more density, more efficiency, more ecology and more compactness. “Greater Paris needs a strong combination of responsibility and ambition to continue its development, to ensure its consistency and to develop a cohesion that can build a base for a collective enterprise to solve its problems, to enlarge its presence and attractiveness, to create an even more remarkable, exemplary city.” In Paris, after the competition the city chose for densifying the periphery by extending the regional metro-system, not for densification per se. In Amsterdam we should though.

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On 5 maart 2016, in cultuur, geschiedenis, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘De wereld van gisteren’ (1944) of Stefan Zweig:


His ‘Die Welt von Gestern’ was published in 1944, the book was translated in Dutch bij Willem van Toorn in 1990, I read it only last week. A great book it is! On 22 Februari 1942 the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide in Brazil. His autobiography was published two years after his death. It is a personal history of twentieth century Europe, with great portraits of its famous writers, artists, musicians, composers and scientists, above all its great cities: Vienna, Paris, Berlin, London, Salzburg, Moscow, but also New York. Paris was Zweigs favourite, but Vienna was where the writer came from. Zweig was obsessed by the creative moments of great people, like Beethoven, Strauss, Rilke, Einstein, Schubert, Rolland, Freud, he collected their manuscripts, sometimes even their tables and chairs. But I must say, his descriptions of cities where all the geniuses he admired spent their lives, are among the best. All his life he travelled like a gypsy, a poor migrant, ignoring borders, living in great cities he loved the most. Vienna functioned as his pied-a-terre. And yes, politicians he detested, no matter which party they represented.

Vienna, Zweig writes, is the city of music. But Paris is the true city of inspiration. Everybody felt at home in Paris, whether you were Chinese, Scandinavian, Spaniard or Greek, Brazilian or Canadian. Feeling no constraint, one could think, laugh, make noise as much as you liked, everybody lived his or her own life, alone or together, luxurious or like a bohemian, everything could be said, the city was full of opportunities. You should have known Berlin in order to fully appreciate Paris, Zweig observes. The blood of revolution, he adds, was still in the streets, no one felt less than the others, there was no separation between the well-to-do and the working class people. Nothing felt arduous or rigid. `Ah, how weightless your life felt, how good life was for you, especially if you were young.` It was the Paris of 1904. And the young Zweig had rented a room near the Palais-Royal, a romantic study in the innermost magic circle of the busiest city of the world. Freedom is what a genius needs, good food, and a huge and diverse crowd!

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A beautiful city

On 23 november 2015, in literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (1859) of Charles Dickens:


Have you read all those newspapers publishing on Paris this weekend? On all those killings, violence in the streets, terrorism, islam. Can’t get enough? I prefer rereading Charles Dickens. Dickens published his great novel on the French revolution in 1859. His own life was in a crisis. He divorced. In 1858 he decided to write ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, a novel on London and Paris in 1798, the year of the French revolution. Private and public revolution assembled in one book. His favorite source was ‘The French Revolution’ of Thomas Carlyle. The novel we wrote is almost Dostoyevski-like. It’s about Dicken’s obsession with destructive violence. Violence of the mob. “He regarded violence as the necessary end of violence; prison as the consequence of prison; hatred as the wages of hatred. He preached that we must not allow society to take on the condition of frustrated anger in which men become mobs and the world is violently upturned.” Such dangers, wrote George Woodcock in his introduction, could not be removed by repression, but only by recognizing and alleviating the conditions that caused them. So reread Dickens.

Charles Dickens had no programme for an ideal society. What he critized were the wrong moral attitudes of people. We have the moral choice between changing society and changing oneself. Better change oneself. “It is in fact by a moral resurgence that Dickens hopes to defeat the threat of revolution, and the idea of such a resurgence is clearly linked with the theme of resurrection that permeates every level of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’  and assumes an almost grotesque variety of forms.” Nothing new. Very difficult indeed. Dickens: “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.” (…). Just before the guillotine Sydney Carton thinks these thoughts: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” A minute later he dies.

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Bombing does not help

On 17 november 2015, in migratie, politiek, by Zef Hemel

Seen in the Opera house, Amsterdam, on Friday 13 November 2015:


Strange. Very strange indeed. On Friday night, while we were enjoying ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’ of Francis Poulenc at the Amsterdam Opera and were captured by the killing of all those nuns in revolutionary Paris by the mob’s guillotine – the end scene of the opera -, more than hundred citizens were being killed in …. Paris. What a coincidence! The terror and turbulence of the French revolution provides the backdrop for Francis Poulenc’s powerful opera of faith, bravery and redemption. The Dialogues culminate in one of opera’s most devastating final scenes, as Blanche – the timid daugther of an aristocrat – embraces death with her fellow nuns to a transcendent setting of the Salve Regina hymn: sixteen killings. The Canadian Robert Carsen showed us one of the most incisive scenes in the history of world opera, after its premiere in Milan in 1957 almost forgotten by the audience, but now staged in Amsterdam. At the same moment some eight very young islamic fanatics killed more than hundred innocent citizens in Paris. Can you imagine?

Of course, in the streets of Paris in history a lot of killings have been staged. I hope the people in the countryside will not conclude that cities like Paris are dangerous and evil places, where mobs of migrants, refugees and islamists are revolting against the people. Quite the opposite. It’s the countryside that is revolting against the city, or better even: former villagers, now living in cities and feeling disaffected, are the brainchildren of most revolutions. Nothing new. As Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit wrote in ‘Occidentalism. The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies’ (2004): “In Europe, the metropolitan behemoths that swallowed entire rural populations in their glittering maws were often identified with Jews and other rootless moneygrubbers.” Outside Europe, it was the West that was blamed for the metropolitan condition and the vanished rural idyll. The more the East gets urbanized, the more the urban poor in those countries think the West is to blame for their loss of faith, worship, peace, religion, community. Regimes in those countries feed this anger by adopting Western technology without fitting it into the local value system. The result: “The former dream of going back to the purity of an imaginary past: Japan under the divine emperor, the Caliphate under the Islam, China as a community of peasants.” Hopeless, but it happens. Bombing does not help. It makes it only worse.

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Importance of a ping-pong table

On 17 augustus 2015, in boeken, by Zef Hemel

Read this summer in London and on the beach:


At the beginning of every summer, more or less round the month of July, correspondents and critics of newspapers and popular magazines always give personal lists of their favorite books. ‘These are the books I advise you to read.’ I love those lists. So that’s why I give you my personal list of favourites now, even though it is late August, at the end of my holiday. This is what I read during this summer time, books – novels and non-fiction – which I found really worthwile reading:

1. London, the biography (2000), by Peter Ackroyd;

2. Freedom (2010), by Jonathan Franzen;

3. The Sleepwalkers (2012), by Christopher Clark;

4. Soumission (2014), by Michel Houellebecq;

5. NW (2012), by Zadie Smith.

The first book is about London, the city perceived by Ackroyd as body. Great. The second describes Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota, but it also gives a great portrait of the dullness of Washington DC. Not to be missed. The third is about Belgrade, Serbia, on the eve of WWI. Horrible history. The fourth concerns Paris. Awesome. And NW, by the British novelist Zadie Smith, describes Willesden, North-West London. Willesden I visited mid July, when I went to London. I walked through the sleepy street where Leah lived. Leah, “a state-school wild card, with no Latin, no Greek, no Maths, no foreign language (…)”, living amongst Nigerians, Sikhs, lots of immigrant people in the neighborhood near Willesden Junction. “In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside.” I even visited Number 37 Ridley Avenue, Finchley Road, Willesden lane. So this is London too. The non-touristic, non-billionair immigrant city. Enjoy the language: “Elsewhere in London, offices are open/floor-to-ceiling glass/sites of synergy/gleaming. There persists a belief in the importance of a ping-pong table. Here there is no. Here offices are boxy cramped Victorian damp.” (…) “Face east and dream of Regent’s Park, of St. John’s Wood. The Arabs, the Israelis, the Russians, the Americans: here united by the furnished penthouse, the private clinic.” Yes, a boring place, but a true emancipation milieu. Read this great novel if you want to understand how citites like London and Paris function these days.

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