Earlier this year IFMCA member Kees Hogenbirk was knighted to the Order of Oranje-Nassau in the Netherlands for ‘spreading the awareness, understanding and love for film music as an art form in The Netherlands,’ in recognition of his 40-year career in journalism, radio making, festivals, juries, conferences, and guest lecturing, as well as the current exhibition about the history of film music in Art House Cinema The Hague.
This is a tremendous and unprecedented honor for a member of the IFMCA, and we are very proud to congratulate him for this outstanding achievement. The following is an article about the event, in the words of the new Sir Kees himself!
After Forty-Five Years: Knight of the Turntable
By Kees Hogenbirk
Unlike the countries around us, The Netherlands can hardly boast a tradition in film music. Whereas the Germans, the Belgians and, on the other side of the North Sea, the British accept the score as an indispensable contribution to their motion pictures, the Dutch have always been too sober to acknowledge the value of the composer in the process of movie making.
Although the province of Holland probably is the only place on Earth where the people do not know the story of the boy who saved the land below sea level by putting his finger in the dyke, it certainly is a fact that The Low Countries have created their own living space by conquering it from the water.
To maintain this safety, one cannot wander off in romanticism. It explains why Dutch painters were the first to depict household scenes of everyday life, instead of saints or mythical figures. It makes sense that Dutch photographers and documentary makers are famous. And it clarifies why no Dutch novelist has ever won the Nobel Prize for literature, and our most praised composer died 401 years ago. We are focused on reality, we’re not good at fiction.
As a consequence, cinema was regarded as carnival, not as art. For the calvinists who dictated morals after the battle for independence from catholic Spain – the 80 Years War ended in 1648 – this remained true through most of the twentieth century. For them, even worse than the shallowness of these moving pictures, was the temptation of music in films, for its power to ‘manipulate’ the viewer.
Such was the general view in The Netherlands when I wrote my first published soundtrack review, of John Williams’ score to Superman, in 1978. A year before I had started my studies, of History and Art History, at the University of Groningen, in the North of the county. Still a student, I was invited to join the board of editors of film music magazine Score. It was the periodical of the Foundation Cinemusica, formerly known as the Max Steiner Music Society.
This is where the battle began, to promote film music in these barre terrains of a no-nonsense nation. Or maybe I should say – to use a trendy description -– a ‘challenge’. In reviews, articles, essays and critiques I have tried to make the audience aware of the function and history of film music. In radioshows I proved how beautiful the film score can be, in interviews with many composers I explained that this is a form of art as impressive as so called ‘serious’ or ‘abstract’ music (which is hardly ever heard compared to a film score, on top of that).
In 1991 I started a radio programme for the Amsterdam broadcaster, AFM, called ‘Watching with Your Ears’ (Kijken met Je Oren). When children complain with their mothers that they can’t find their toys, Dutch moms say: ‘You probably watched around with your nose’. My goal was to show film viewers how much they can learn when analyzing with their ears, i.e. by listening to the music. We all know that it needs special training to overrule the dominant visual aspect of cinema, but that our ears unravel many a secret in the story before it has been seen on the screen.
When I went to see the first Star Wars movie in 1977, I told my friends that Luke and Leia would never be a romantic couple. Why? Because their ‘leitmotiv’ is no love theme, but only has harmonies that point to deeply rooted friendship – which proved to be correct in the third episode, Return of the Jedi (1981).
Unraveling the mysteries for a wider audience has been my purpose ever since. In 1995 I started a weekly radioshow called ‘The Sound of Movies’, on national broadcaster, De Concertzender. The initial idea was to explain the role of ‘Jazz in the Film’, and after that compose programmes about ‘Unheard Scores’ (with rejected and ultimate scores in comparison) or ‘Remakes’ (with the old and new scores for the same story, as double bill). But after 27 years I’m still not done with the jazz, so I have continued ever since.
My 25 years’ jubilee was the reason for De Concertzender to call for a celebration. This was picked up by the Chancellery of the Royal Dutch Orders. On 26 April 2022, I was knighted in the Order of Oranje-Nassau, in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The motivation for these honours: for spreading the awareness, understanding and love for film music as an art form in The Netherlands, during a 40 odd years career in journalism, radio making, festivals, juries, conferences, guest lecturing and the current exhibition about the history of film music in Art House Cinema The Hague.
The Chancellery had dug up much more than just my ‘Sound of Movies’ series. From the official report: “Most people watch with their eyes. But with your journalistic skill and knowledge of film music you have managed to enable other people to ‘see’ new things with their ears”. The most beautiful compliment, as spoken by the Lady Mayor of Amsterdam, was that my work hasn’t been in vain, “since younger generations nowadays have great interest in film music, to which you have largely contributed”. Lately film music concerts, by the likes of James Newton Howard, Ennio Morricone, Hans Zimmer or the music of John Williams are sold out.
I must admit that I feel happy making The Netherlands a little bit less calvinistic, after everything I learned form scholars like Tony Thomas, Derek Elley and Christopher Palmer. This does not mean that my work can be concluded. Just this summer, from 9 September to 2 October, Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam (the national ‘cinematheque’), organizes a retrospective of classic films, titled ‘All That Jazz’. Their objective is to show “the rich relationship between jazz and film”; many giants of jazz, such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon and Ornette Coleman have made music for a film, at one or other point in their careers, according to the press release.
Of course Eye shows Ascenseur pour l’Échafaud (1958), with the Miles Davis score that according to urban myth was completely improvised at first sight. Also, Round Midnight (1986) can be seen, with Herbie Hancock arranging Dexter Gordon’s compositions into source music (and wining the Original Score Academy Award for it).
As for truly originally composed jazz scores from the past, people can enjoy A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The Connection (1961) and Bullitt (1968). But sadly missing is any jazz score by Elmer Bernstein – The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) was too expensive to import – or Kenyon Hopkins, Art Blakey, Martial Solal, Quincy Jones, Gerald Fried, Pete Rugolo, Johnny Dankworth, Duke Ellington, Michel Legrand, Claude Bolling, Henry Mancini, Piero Piccioni, Johnny T. Williams, Jerrald Goldsmith… to name just a few. They all integrated cinema with composing a score in jazz idiom, for reasons of story telling and psychology. I drew up an entire list of motion picture titles that show how jazz can be used when scoring a film. But the music specialists of Eye responded that choices had to be made. They chose not for film music as a highly specialized part of cinema making, but for music in film as entertainment that will attract jazz fans. This is how far the educational goals of the Dutch Film Museum reach. After all these years, Eye still does not meet the Ear. That is why I cannot rest on my laurels yet.