Staying in the not-knowing

Interview with Merlijn Twaalfhoven, cultural entrepreneur and composer

Staying in the not-knowing

Merlijn Twaalfhoven is not only concerned with all kinds of aspects of music, but has a strong urge to mean something to mankind. A few years ago he used musical commissions based on his compositions to offer people, often outside the theatre, an essential experience and to connect them. Since a few years ago, he is no longer interested in art as an end product, but in the process of making art. Merlijn talks enthusiastically, quickly and very passionately. Not only does he find a lot of things interesting, but he also sees so much that should be different.


The 2020-3 edition of the NL-printed-LOGON is largely about all kinds of aspects and depths of learning. You have studied a lot, a musical instrument at the conservatory, composing, but also different aspects of music and art at the university. And now you are also on a mission, you want to convey something to others. What is learning to you?

To be honest, I don’t use the word ‘learning’ very often. I much prefer to talk about perception. I think a lot about how we can make sure we perceive well, clearly. Of course there is no such thing as objective observation, but we can create the conditions to observe as openly as possible. For example, it is good not to be intoxicated, by certain substances or something like that, but there are also many forms of micro intoxication, such as consuming news, reacting to loose messages or sharing your opinion about everything.

My thinking went through a paradigm shift when I was 26, when I was in Japan. In the West we often think in terms of good and bad, the higher and the lower. We pigeonhole everything and there is also a moral charge. In Japan it is very different. There, the view of the world is that everything you see around you has a soul (animism). There are forces that interact, give and take, so to speak, and you try to be in harmony with that, to accept what is there. For example, when you build a house, you say thank you and sorry to the spirit of the forest from which you cut the wood, but you are also serving the spirit of the house you are building. Something so beautiful, you drink tea there all day long, but still there is the tea ceremony, because all the everyday experience also has something sacred in it, as soon as you are really attentive. This Japan experience made me open to a totally different way of looking and experiencing, a totally different perspective on the world.

So for me learning is an open perception.


How can you do that, open up? What does it take?

There are many things that can complicate or promote open perception. So there is the aspect of time. Can you be in the now? Because when you live in the past or in the future, you cannot perceive openly, you are not there with your thoughts, your senses, your consciousness. You have a kind of blinker like a horse in traffic, that only sees certain things and excludes the rest. Also the aspect of space. We tend to fill our world completely, with ideas, with things, with certainties. It all has to be as efficient as possible and what you do has to be useful, according to the prevailing morality. I think it is important to create space that is not coloured by things you have already decided, space for not knowing. If you can really perceive openly, you may also see things that surprise you. Things that are unexpected, that touch you. Then you learn.

On the other hand, there are many times when it is extremely convenient to simplify our world into functions and symbols, so you can be efficient and purposeful. A story that was much appreciated in our family when my children were small is: ‘We come to a crossroads and see the colour red. Wow, what a beautiful colour red. Then we see the colour green. Wow, what a beautiful colour, that green. Then we see the colour orange. Yes, that’s a special colour. And then we see red again. ‘Okay, now it’s getting boring, let’s go. As you can see, being goal-oriented and being able to react to your environment according to labels is quite handy. But learning happens best in moments of delay, this present time is an example of this. In that delay you are open to all the new things the environment wants to tell you.


What do we have to learn as human beings in your view?

The world has become complex. In the past, a human being knew what he or she would become, so you only had to look at your parents and you knew what profession you would perform. Religion was there for the things you couldn’t explain and it gave you security around sickness and death. But nowadays you can become anything, for a while, that is. And religion is no longer self-evident. Then the grip that people had on it lapses, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t look for certainties anymore.

Consumerism is such a handhold that has developed very cleverly over the past hundred years, by attaching values to things. So when you buy that product, you have something to hold on to, about who you are and who you want to be. And with the new season you have to renew that. This moves us away from the inconvenience of not knowing. But we can all see that the earth can’t handle this. It’s okay to feel discomfort about that. So where is your grip and how much grip do you need?

In my youth and as a youngster I was involved with the Rosicrucians and there was always talk about seekers. I see this as a phase when people detach themselves from a kind of intoxicated state, like consuming. And then there is a paradox. You have to feel safe to ask certain questions. So in order to have doubts, you have to have certainties. For example, the safety of a social environment where people understand that you ask questions and have doubts. In this day and age we are allowed to be seekers for our own truth. But that starts with staying in not-knowing.


You say: ‘Stay in the not-knowing’. Is that what you are busy with right now, ‘insecurity skills’?

Yeah, it’s being okay when you don’t have a handhold. Artists know that very well, because they start with a white canvas and create something from nothing. I’m less and less concerned with the end product, like when I used to call myself a composer. Of course I do enjoy playing the violin. But even more valuable to me is the process of searching and researching. How does the environment react to what I do, what is my next step? It is embracing uncertainty. That is by definition not efficient or useful. Art just ‘ís’. That’s why I think it’s such a shame that, roughly over the last century and a half, art itself has become part of the economy, where it should be useful and where the artist should be the professional who knows.

I want to dedicate myself to the artist in everyone. That ‘artist-mindset’ can help everyone to find solutions to problems and to be okay without a handhold. If the current lockdown has taught us anything, it is that the future cannot be predicted. So how to proceed?


How do we get that, an artist’s mindset? 

That’s not what you get through a book. But there are conditions you can create, for example, that you’re open, and that you allow the amazement. But also that you allow beauty, I see that as an important condition to connect with something.

For me it is very logical that our ego stands in our way, but I have always had some trouble with what is sometimes called: detachment from the world. Because that is exactly my drive: meeting people, connecting with everything and everyone, seeing the beauty of the world, behind the surface. If in the encounter with others you feel intensely connected then I think that fights the ego. Then you get awe for that complex world, for the search and struggle of others, because you also recognise their fears and uncertainties. It may sound like a paradox, but the connection with others gives you freedom to let go of your fears. Fear of possession or matter is so relative then. I experienced this, for example, when I worked as a composer and musician in refugee camps. I thought, this is a completely different culture, we must be very different. But in music we could share so much, our emotions, our feelings are all so recognisable. Then I put my individuality into perspective and experienced the coherence. The unity.

The paradox that I mean, is that by connecting with others, I can let go.

So as a condition for that artist-mindset I see that we feel connected to the whole, that we have confidence and that we get the courage to do something ourselves. Because a lot has to change. It is not a passive process, because only dead fish float with the current. In Zen literature, for example, moving with the flow is a very active attitude.

As a human you are striving. You are striving for the higher, or for something you have to do, an urgency. With that connectedness, the trust, you also have the courage to accomplish concrete actions. As in a kind of knight’s story.


You said somewhere you’d want to live for hundreds of years. Then what do you want so badly?

Life is such a great miracle, of which we are a part for one moment. I see so many possibilities; unfortunately there’s so much I won’t be able to do, countries I can’t travel to, people I won’t be able to meet. I think it’s important to be able to change things, to make the world a more beautiful place. Then it is terribly frustrating that you have so little time for that.

In the future, I want to share the insights around that artist-mindset and make that process accessible, together with people who are familiar with it, such as artists. How can you approach life with that open perception, the playful and the imaginative? I want to bring those principles to the world. So that we can let go of our sense of scarcity. That’s what the planet asks of us. No more economic growth, but giving priority to things that work constructively for us humans, for our planet. This is about cohesion, about how people connect with each other, how they help and support each other, learning from each other. These human values come to the surface, especially in this lockdown.

As a spiritual human being, I think about creating space, if you bring the noise in our heads and in society, to silence. Not from an intoxicated atmosphere, or from the relaxed position of a yoga class or something like that. But an active not-knowing, an awakening and alertness. Then there is a voice from within. Maybe paradoxically, I’m talking about that silence. Because I would very much like to dedicate myself to stirring all this up in other people. So I am talking about slowing down, but it is a huge challenge for myself to find more peace. Because I feel the urge to share the insights.


Who’s Merlijn Twaalfhoven?


Merlijn Twaalfhoven (1976) is a Dutch composer, conductor and cultural entrepreneur. He studied composition and alt viola in Amsterdam, but also Art History (Leiden University) and Ethnomusicology (University of Amsterdam).

Merlijn is 44 years old and all his life a busy person, who does many things at once and doesn’t want to choose. In his work space often plays an important role, often outside a theatre. Early in his career he was already occupied, for example when he had 400 Turkish-Cypriot and Greek-Cypriot people perform the piece ‘Long Distance Call‘ on roofs and balconies on both sides of the border. Themes in his work are silence, meeting and disruption. For some years now, art as an end product has no longer been the central focus, but rather the process and what he calls the artist-mindset. For this he founded The Turn Club. He challenges fellow artists to spread their thinking and skills more widely in society in order to tackle the challenges of our time.

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Date: August 4, 2020
Author: Ansfrida Vreeburg (Netherlands)
Photo: Ri Butov via Pixabay

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