Reflections from the GMLSTN JAZZ festival in Gothenburg, Sweden

Olle Stenbäck

What constitutes a music festival? The answer to the question would likely generate a number of answers, for example a limited geographical space, a question that soon turned out to be focal while conducting fieldwork on the 2016 installment of the GMLSTN JAZZ festival.

The 2016 installment of the festival took place on no less than 17 stages. The festival was dispersed all over the town of Gothenburg; spanning from pubs and churches in the suburbs, to established, renowned venues in the core cultural center. During the festival week in April 2016, we tried to map the festival as a whole in order to depict how it was distributed in the urban space and, equally important, how it appropriated it.

By interviewing members of the audience and analyzing answers from the online query we (Olle Stenbäck, Niklas Sörum and Helene Brembeck) made accessible during the festival week, we soon found that the lack of a limited, geographical space, raised questions among the festival goers. Some said that the festival, due to the dispersion, lacked a sense of community; a festival atmospheric.

Artistic director Eric Arellano and friends playing in the soon-to-be thriftstore Lokalen GBG.

Focus soon turned towards the theoretical term festivalisation, which is often used as a tool for critique. Researcher Nikolay Zherdev observes that urban planners attempt to “galvanize local cultural life” and “build a continuity of ‘happening’” to attract creative individuals (Zherdev 2014:5). Festivalisation have become a key concept for urban cultural production, whether it’s within the sports sector or city development; a part of the creative economy. Festivalisation marks a translation of sorts; transforming an ordinary event into something else, to differentiate. The term can also be used as an empirical, investigative tool to map the audience’s understandings of what a musical festival is and what it can be, which is how we operationalized it during the festival week.

 “There is no generally accepted typology of festivals (Getz 2010:2, Mackley & Crump 2012:16f). From a North European perspective, there are several easily distinguishable types of musical events that are labelled festivals. One, especially common in the field of rock and pop, presents many acts on a few large stages over a rather short period of time (often a weekend) and in a limited, often fenced, space” (Ronström 2016).

Though there might not be a generally accepted typology of festivals, there’s obviously some understandings more dominant than others; the limited, often fenced space, being a distinct example of such.

“All over town” – a map showing some of the GMLSTN JAZZ 2016 locations.

While conducting fieldwork we were especially interested in finding out how – and/or if –  the GMLSTN JAZZ festival committee worked to communicate the festival as part of the temporally translation of the Gothenburg jazz club scene into a more coherent festival space.

However, one of the focal ideas behind the GMLSTN JAZZ initiative is to function as a promotor, a unifying network, for the local jazz scene. Emphasis is put on tying scenes and venues together, where jazz – as a musical (yet broad) genre – is the unifying factor. The scenes/venues are not necessarily transformed into something else, but remains the same. They’re made part of the festival mainly by being represented in the festival program.

Programs outside venue Oceanen at Stigbergstorget, Gothenburg.

Apart from posters and festival programs, there wasn’t much that glued the 2016 installment of the festival together. In terms of communicating unity, there could have been more obvious visual-symbolic cues, moderating the festival goer’s experience, thus generating a uniform festival atmosphere.

GMLSTN JAZZ is still looking for its form. The festival is a young player on the musical festival field, which means there’s more – for them and us – to explore. In terms of branding mechanisms, the festival currently act mainly as an occasionally prominent, other times subtle, jazz promotor.

Improvising heritage at the New Music Festival in Zeeland

Willem Breuker at the Vleeshal in Middelburg, 1980. foto: Jaap Wolterbeek, Zeeuwse Bibliotheek, Beeldbank Zeeland, recordnr. 13805
Willem Breuker at the Vleeshal in Middelburg, 1980. Photo: Jaap Wolterbeek, Zeeuwse Bibliotheek, Beeldbank Zeeland, record nr. 13805

An interdisciplinary and multi-sited festival located in a historically rich area, the New Music Festival (Festival Nieuwe Muziek, FNM, 1976-2005) is an interesting site to explore one of CHIME’s research questions: How does (jazz) music facilitate a connection to heritage? In this blog I will give an overview of ways in which Dutch improvised music intersected with cultural heritage sites and cultural landscapes during the New Music Festival.

fullsizerender-2The New Music Fesival took place between 1976-2005 in Zeeland, a province in the southwestern region of the Netherlands meaning “sea land” and known as the eponym of New Zealand. The province gained wealth as a gateway to the prosperous regions of Flanders and Brabant and as a key player in the colonial trade, as Zeeland merchants, together with their fellows in Holland established Dutch East-India Company (1602) and West India Company (1621). Furthermore, the founding of the Middelburg Commercial Company (1720) gave Zeeland “majority control of the Dutch Republic’s lucrative slave trade” (Neele 2012, 289). While Holland retained its international trading position, Zeeland has increasingly focused on agricultural activities, which because of its high productivity levels and superior quality have gained international acclaim. Also, consisting primarily of islands, peninsulas and beaches, the province has become a popular tourist destination.

While the province has delivered state-of-the-art in terms of agriculture, tourism, and civil engineering, it has remained a rather traditional agenda in terms of culture and arts promotion. As the website of the Zeeland tourist office announces: “Zeeland is proud of its heritage and has the most museums per capita. Many of the museums focus on traditional life in Zeeland, including farming, fishing and shipping.” The focus on traditions and skills rather than on modern arts is partly informed by the religious background of the Zeeland inhabitants, which is predominantly Calvinistic and does not allow for much frivolity.

muziek-op-straatConsidering this rather conservative climate, the organisation of the New Music Festival seems all the more remarkable. The festival was part of the activities of (Jeugd & Muziek Zeeland, JMZ), a member organization of the Jeunesses Musicales International. While most departments set a more traditional course that focused on classical music, the departments of Amsterdam and the province of Zeeland proved particularly vital in the support and promotion of contemporary and experimental forms of art. Zeeland-born Van ‘t Veer (1941), both programmer of the festival and JMZ manager, played a decisive role in the organization’s radical course, which focused primarily on ground-breaking artists such as Greek-born composer Iannis Xenakis and Dutch improvising musicians.


Zeeland Suite performance at Fort Rammekens, FNM, 1977
Zeeland Suite performance at Fort Rammekens, FNM, 1977

To stimulate the musicians and audience to meet in a loose, informal setting, JMZ in 1971 moved the majority of its activities from the concert hall to the street. Under the name of Muziek op Straat (“Music on the street,” 1971-1976), the association organised a series of concerts, workshops and film screenings. Van ‘t Veer, who considered improvised music specially fit for this purpose, regularly invited Amsterdam-based improvising musicians to create performances that were easily accessible to all layers of society. In 1971, for example, JMZ organized an open-air workshop including works by Ton de Leeuw, Misha Mengelberg and Daan Manneke, which from Van ‘t Veer’s installment in 1969 specifically aimed at “renegotiating the interaction between performer and listener, beyond the restrictions of the traditional concert practice.” Also, on several occasions composers wrote pieces for Lange Jan, the carillon of Middelburg, which could be heard all over town.

Likewise, the performance of the Zeeland Suite (1977) a multi-movement work for jazz septet by pianist and composer Leo Cuypers is a fascinating example of the use heritage sites as part of musical performance. Cuypers came up with the idea of an outdoor “conceptual art performance” that covered all of the province’s peninsular islands, an idea that fitted in with the JMZ’s principles. The different parts of the suite were performed on historical, industrial as well as natural sites typical for the province of Zeeland, including the medieval Haamstede Castle; the artificial island of Philipsdam; the harbour of Hoedekenskerke; the marshlands of the Westerschelde estuary; the beach at Domburg; and Fort Rammekens.

Under the pretext of “provincial promotion”—and thus provincial funding—Van ‘t Veer added a historical locomotive and a folklore group to the initial plans. One year before the suite’s performance, the construction began of the Oosterscheldekering, the largest and most ambitious of the thirteen Delta Works. Considering Van ‘t Veer’s attempts to use the Zeeland Suite as a promotional device for the province of Zeeland, it comes as no surprise that part of this project received a prominent place in the performance as well.

Kloveniersdoelen, Middelburg, ca.1984. Photo: Jaap Wolterbeek, Zeeuwse Bibliotheek, Beeldbank Zeeland, record nr. 13763
Kloveniersdoelen, Middelburg, ca.1984. Photo: Jaap Wolterbeek, Zeeuwse Bibliotheek, Beeldbank Zeeland, record nr. 13763

JMZ organized activities in different historical buildings, an idea that was born out of a lack of suiteable concert venues. Most of these buildings were owned by the local authorities and designated as “cultural space”. Before it found a suiteable, fixed concert venue, JMZ regularly organized concerts at the Vleeshal (“meat hall”), a space in the former town hall of Middelburg that was used to sell fresh meat, and the Kuiperspoort, a seventeenth century building formerly owned by the coopers’ guild and in the 1960s and 1970s acting as a youth centre. Between 1985 and 2003 the city of Middelburg allowed the JMZ, now called the Centrum Nieuwe Muziek Zeeland (New Music Centre Zeeland, NMZ) to use the Kloveniersdoelen, both as office and as a performance venue. Built in 1607 in Flemish Renaissance style it was originally home to the city’s civic guard, until the end of the eighteenth century, when it became the local headquarters of the East India Company. Because of the limited space—the venue held ca. 100 seats— NMZ in 2004 moved its headquarters to Grote Kerk Veere, a church built in the thirteenth century that also happened to accommodate the local Tourist Office. It currently still functions as the headquarters of NMZ, now known as MuziekPodium Zeeland.

Han Bennink performance at the Grote Kerk in Veere, 2001. Source: PZC, June 2001.
“Possessed drummers”: Han Bennink performs at the Grote Kerk in Veere, 2001. Source: PZC, June 2001.

As appealing as these historic buildings were from the outside, as problematic they were as a performance space. The Kuiperspoort, for example, was hardly accessible for transport vans as it was located in the historic city centre with its narrow streets. “It is impossible to get a grand piano here,” remarked Van ‘t Veer, when asked about the Kuiperspoort. The Kuiperspoort was also infamously known for its bad acoustics, caused by the low ceiling. When in 1974 the local authorities refused to give permission to use amplifiers, JMZ cancelled the scheduled theatre performances by Orkater and Baal and limited the programming to film screenings and piano recitals.

Altogether, the monumental status of the the Vleeshal, the Kuiperspoort, the Kloveniersdoelen and Veere’s Grote Kerk challenged the re-use of the building as a performance space, as it restricted the ways in which these spaces could be adapted. Moreover, the monumental status caused restoration to be very costly. In the coming months I will be investigating further the performances that took place in these venues and the ways in which these interacted with the space.

The Festival T-shirt


Judging from the crowds lining up at the stands that sell festival merchandise, the festival T-shirt is a much sought-after item. At the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival some of the T-shirt sold out quickly, at 35 USD a piece. The T-shirts at the Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival (CNSJF) carried a similar price tag, which, to the island’s economic standards made them even more pricey. Then again, with a ticket price of USD 180 per night, the festival is the most expensive I’ve witnessed so far. Those who have dished out that much money surely want bring to home a tangible souvenir, and the price is not going to stop them.

The fate of many festival tees must be pretty sad. I, for one, have a decent stack of them at home, but I basically wear them around the house when doing chores. After all, the quality is usually rather poor, they tend to fade after a couple of rounds in the washer and many loose shape quickly. Still, buying a shirt is clearly part of the festival fun, and all those newly printed shirts, caps, scarves and tote bags at the vendor’s area certainly look alluring. Many head for that section straight away.

ZJFT-shirts and some custom-made dresses. At the central tent in Garnwerd, people parked their car, unloaded their bikes and then changed into their festival shirt. The man holding up his 2008 shirt still had to change.

At the Summer Jazz Bike Tour (ZJFT) I photographed people who wore ZJFT-shirts from earlier editions. The festival has no fixed logo so the design changes every year. Most images play with musical instruments and bicycle parts, bringing out the unique and playful aspects of the event (past posters here). The design for 2011 had a sax with handle bars, 2008 and 2015 had a pump-like device that ended in a trumpet (‘a pumpet,’ as team member Nick Gebhardt called it), and the 2013 design merged a double bass with a unicycle (that sounds smarter in English than in Dutch). Not only are these shirts collectibles, they are also the perfect gear for biking from concert to concert, especially if the weather is as good as it was this year. By contrast, the CNSJF makes for a classy night out, and the festivalgoers wore much more festive dress than a printed festival shirt.

The CNSJF spells it out for you: Proud to be part of the Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival.

Everybody I asked at the ZJFT gladly posed for me, and those modelling their tee often announced they had a shelve full of them, typically of all the editions they had visited. With a T-shirt one supports the event financially and connects with the other attendants. But there is more. By wearing a festival shirt, the ZJFT-ers celebrate the festival’s heritage and traditions, which they have helped to shape. Indeed, the ZJFT has a high number of returning visitors, who truly perform the festival together with the organizers. After all, the event is as much about its tangible locations and concerts as it is about the intangible activity of connecting those locations by cycling through the landscape. That active role is understood by the participants, and the festival shirt helps to express it all.