Amsterdam

Part 3: Dies Irae

The Groeneveen flats are in Amsterdam’s Zuidoost district, close to metro station Ganzenhoef.

Surrounded by the honeycomb of high-rises that makes up the Bijlermeer neighbourhood.

With 372 flats and more than a thousand residents,

Groeneveen has become a monument to the ‘society in the sky’.

Soundscape on?

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November – December 2019. Winter.

#1. Overture

The ritual of the first meeting.

Groeneveen. An apartment building in Amsterdam Zuidoost. A building with 372 postal addresses, 372 front doors, 372 sets of bedroom windows and (approximately) 1,500 residents (the exact number is unknown owing to a group of unregistered persons and sub-tenants.) Early morning. At about seven thirty in the morning, the building is just about still asleep. Before sunrise, two pairs of eyes glide along the gallery on the tenth floor. Naomi and Timo pause at the bedroom windows – their gaze kept out by the curtains; they see mostly themselves, reflected in the window panes. Like an impenetrable fortress, Groeneveen presents itself as a monument to concrete high-rise architecture. The first impression of these flats: a wall made up of bedroom windows; a façade, closed windows, eyes still tight shut. What do the curtains, the windows, tell us about the people sleeping behind them? What do the colours chosen say, the knickknacks and figurines placed on the windowsills, about the people who live inside?

Naomi and Timo move into 160C, an apartment on the first floor, on the first bend. The flat has been made available by housing corporation Rochdale, and they are borrowing the space from Groeneveen’s residents’ committee, which has been temporarily suspended – so the flat is empty. Naomi and Timo introduce themselves to the neighbours, and to the other residents they meet in the galleries. They post notes through all 372 letterboxes. They hold an open studio session on a Friday afternoon. They make a living room performance: to each first meeting they take a box along, from which they produce a show on one square metre. Maps, photos, drawings, text fragments and a few audio clips bring the project to life in the residents’ homes.

Listen to... Pauline

Tine

Urmy

This is how Timo and Naomi gradually worked their way in during this exploratory phase – in through the concrete façade. Curtains were pulled aside, doors held ajar. Hans and Myriam on the tenth floor are ‘Groeneveen veterans’ – they have lived in this building since the 1970s. Pauline came to the Netherlands twenty years ago from Guyana and has lived on the first floor ever since. Urmy, from Radio Zuidoost that operates from the ground floor, plays Surinamese records for the whole district several times a week. Henk lives a few doors down, also on the ground floor. Behind his blinds, little scale models on the windowsill reveal that he’s an architect. He was taught by Siegfried Nassuth himself – the architect who designed Amsterdam’s Bijlmermeer estates. Tine also lives ‘on the zeroth’, just next to Entrance D. And Ibrahim lives on the eighth floor, on the last bend. These residents give insights into the worlds behind the bedroom windows. The pair listen to them – the first voices to initiate them into the stories of this community. On this Facebook page you can follow as the doors slowly open. The residents present themselves in the doorways to their apartments: small stories on the threshold. Sometimes the door is wide open, sometimes just a crack, or somewhere in between – depending on how the residents experience the meeting.

Listen to... Henk

Ibrahim

Myriam

The keynote for a multi-voice protest song.

The residents of Groeneveen will sing the Dies Irae. In the classical, Catholic tradition, this is a song that begs forgiveness – begs from an ‘angry’ God: ‘dies irae’ translates literally as ‘day of wrath’; the Day of Judgment. With this version of the song, Timo and Naomi zoom in on the phenomenon of the wrathful citizen. What is simmering away in the hearts of the residents of Groeneveen? What slogans could bring these people together?

In this first period of residency, the makers gather inspiration for the composition. The first sounds merge to form a soundscape: the planes and underground trains that constantly pass by and overhead; the green ring-necked parakeets and urban sparrows; children playing; the showers and toilets being flushed during the morning and evening rush; the RAZO radio station and the rhythmic music that reverberates now and then from the different apartments ... The musical key of this block of flats is found during this first meeting. From a ringtone that resounds loud and clear, like a waterfall, based on the Eb major triad. Eb: the root note for the composition of the Dies Irae.

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April 2020. Spring.

#2. Balcony Choir

Groeneveen in times of Corona.

Pauline woke up this morning with a melody by Bill Withers in her head. Lean On Me. She is in daily contact with her daughter, who works in an Intensive Care Unit in Brooklyn. She herself goes out for her cleaning job three times a week. “Lean on me. Yes. That is the message that Groeneveen needs now.” Like many others, Ibrahim is staying at home. He is an actor and theatre maker – now, he is mostly writing. From his apartment on the eighth floor, he senses that fear is the dominant mood in the building. During this period, 75-year-old Myriam has come to see the building where she has lived for so long in a very different light: “There’s no life in the flats anymore. It’s all so quiet”. She says people don’t seem to be looking around anymore. No one has yet offered to do shopping for her and her husband, Hans. She is still seeing too many people hanging around on Bijlmerdreef, by the supermarket. There is a ‘Corona / Social Distance Bus’ driving around in Amsterdam Zuidoost, telling people to maintain a metre and half distance in eight different languages: Dutch, English, Spanish, Twi (Ghanaian), Papiamento, Somali, Arabic and Turkish. Myriam hopes the people will listen.

During this residency period, Timo and Naomi work remotely, at safe distance. They speak by phone to the residents they got to know in the autumn, and with them rewrite the text of the first verse of the Dies Irae. They drop ‘David and the Sibyls’ and replace ‘the flush of shame on sinful cheeks’ with the healthy blush of people singing. They consider the question of what should ‘arise from the ashes’. In the classic Dies Irae, forgiveness is asked of God, a ‘(higher) other’. This maintains an attitude of powerless dependency; an involuntary dependency. With this new Dies Irae, Timo & Naomi wish – together with the residents of Groeneveen – to start a movement towards autonomy, consciousness and a sense of responsibility; towards a voluntary dependency. “We are in this together”, they hear every day on the news. “We will only get through this if we all – all 17 million of us in the Netherlands – do it together.”

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A balcony choir serenades the world.

During this residency period, the first verse is sung. At a safe distance: the first verse is chanted from the balconies. Letters are posted containing the rewritten text. A week is spent rehearsing from the garden, and from the safety of the residents’ balconies. This first verse poses the question: what systems oppress us (consciously or unconsciously)? Which (sacred) structures would we like to burn down? This time of standstill represents an opportunity to come closer together; to change something. Today is the day of ‘wrath’: the Dies Irae links the wake-up call of the protest song to the communal experience of singing together. Rehearsals take place on the basis of the idea: full lungs contain life. This verse is an ode to a fearless breathing in; to confidence; to waking one another from slumber; to the wake-up call, the hope, the vision and the dream. An ode to blushing and the human flame.

Dies irae, dies illa On this day of wrath, today,
exponantur systemata all systems are exposed
stamus nudi in maenanum. and we stand, naked, on our balconies.
Quis sum, quodcumque cognovi Who am I, apart from what I knew,
clamat cutis propter famem now that my skin screams in hunger,
et silentio excitavit. and the silence rouses me.

The tempo of Groeneveen.

The key was found during the previous residency Stemmen uit Beton #1 Overture, using the ringtone, and expresses the Eb major triad. Now the tempo for the Dies Irae has to be found. It is derived from the architecture of the part of Groeneveen that was lost during the Bijlmer Disaster on 4 October 1992. Tine, who lives on the ground floor, was there in 1992 when it happened. She remembers how, during and after the disaster, all the seemingly irreconcilable differences between residents dissolved. For a while. Until the crisis was over, ‘normal’ life resumed and people disappeared back behind the walls of their own compartments. Groeneveen used to have another 162 apartments after Entrance F – another three entrances from the grass field. That section destroyed in 1992 still echoes like a phantom pain today in the heartbeat of Groeneveen. 162 (apartments) divided by 3 (entrances) = 54 (beats per minute). 54bpm: the echo of history is the pulse of the Dies Irae.

The Dies Irae

The Dies Irae is the third part of the urban requiem Concrete Voices. This part is all about the Day of Wrath: the day of the Last Judgement on which, according to the Christian faith, judgment is pronounced on all humans by ‘an angry God’. This is the longest of the nine parts of the requiem and was the last to be added to the official Mass. In the 1960s, it was removed from the Mass by the Vatican, as it was considered to focus too much on fear and trembling. Although it is therefore missing from many classical compositions, the Dies Irae still often plays a prominent role: for example in Verdi and Mozart.

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Naomi and Timo have incorporated this into their urban requiem. They rewrite the text to make it more contemporary and ask how the themes of this centuries-old text relate to the world of today: shame, judgment, forgiveness, hope, protest, strength, wrath, dreaming. They have transformed the Dies Irae into a protest song that allows everyone to take part. This is a Dies Irae that expresses differences and listens to all voices. As in every community, there are voices that clash and are not always in harmony. But they all have a place. In one song.

In the classical Dies Irae, fear is accompanied by simmering wrath. ‘Wrath’ is an emotion that connects: people look for others who share their views to join forces with them – often against an injustice. Timo and Naomi see this as a positive force: people looking for a voice, a way of making change. Wrath is often wrongly seen as a synonym for anger. Dramaturge Florian Hellwig writes the following about this in his article ‘Theater moet weer een politieke ruimte zijn’ [‘Theatre needs to become a political space again’]:“ Anger is destructive, while wrath is an appeal to love. In other words: thanks to wrath we can put something we consider important on the agenda; something we want to protect and retain. If we really love something, we have to become wrathful when this is taken away from us or seriously damaged. Wrath is a characteristic of rebellion, just like a love of something. Rebellion and rebelliousness need wrath as an engine – and love as the creative factor.”

This creativity, this constructive power, this love is what Naomi and Timo want to tap into among the residents of Groeneveen. They are listening to their stories. They are asking about the love, the wrath and the forgiveness. They are searching for the dreams, the hope and the protest. ‘Protesting’ is having the confidence to speak, to make the space in which to express dreams. Whereas in the old Dies Irae man begs forgiveness from God, the new Dies Irae instils the confidence to do it yourself. This Dies Irae is about the strength of self-determination and is a plea for the right to take responsibility – for everyone, for every human being. It is Groeneveen’s protest song, taking the themes from the classical text as its example, conversations with the residents as its guide, and the world as its mirror.

About the project

Stemmen uit Beton is a series of ten theatrical audio productions in which the residents of Groeneveen, a block of flats in the heart of Amsterdam’s Bijlmermeer district, sing an interpretation of the Dies Irae together. It is a three-year project by Naomi Steijger, Timo Tembuyser and Frascati Producties in cooperation with the Rochdale housing corporation. Stemmen uit Beton is the third part of Concrete Voices, a series of theatrical urban projects by Naomi and Timo, and is being developed as part of Frascati’s programme strand De (on)vertelde stad in which theatre relates to urgent urban themes and is made in close cooperation with institutions and residents of Amsterdam.

Groeneveen

This third part focuses on the Groeneveen flats, located in Amsterdam’s Zuidoost district (also known by the proud nickname ‘de Bijlmer’). The neighbourhood where the flat building stands – Bijlmermeer – was built in the early 1970s and was intended to be a showcase project for social high-rise culture. But unfortunately, the ‘concrete dream’ of architect Siegfried Nassuth didn’t turn out that way. In addition, the Bijlmer Disaster of 1992 still resonates in Groeneveen. This layered history and the building’s enormous size (372 apartments) prompted the decision to live with this community for a longer period.

Residency

Eventually, more than 1,000 residents of the Groeneveen flats in Amsterdam Zuidoost combine to form a choir – without ever physically coming together. They sing an urban requiem, each from the safety of their own home. They are finally united in a digital composition. An ode to the multiplicity of voices that make up society, and an exercise in listening to one another. Timo and Naomi will have called at all 372 apartments in this microcosm to have conversations, record stories and collect sounds. Housing corporation Rochdale handed over the key to number 160C (the ‘flat studio’), where they will stay for a month during each season until the spring of 2022. Such a long-term cooperation is a characteristic of De (on)vertelde stad, which aims to bring theatre and the city together in a radical way. To give a platform to voices that are usually not heard. And so the theatre becomes a place where the residents of Groeneveen feel welcome, where the meeting is key.

Three years

The Groeneveen digital choir is being created over a period of three years, and the work process is divided into different periods. Each of these ten residency periods will close with a theatrical presentation in Groeneveen, an audio theatre production in Frascati and a new web page on the www.ConcreteVoices.com website, presenting the progress of the project.

Stemmen uit Beton #1 Overture was created in the autumn of 2019, and in December 2019 the first in the series of audio productions Stemmen uit Beton was presented in Frascati. This was followed in April 2020 by Stemmen uit Beton #2 Balcony Choir, a ‘show’ on the balconies of Groeneveen (owing to the measures against the Coronavirus) – a balcony concert, encouraged and supported by Timo and Naomi using a set of megaphones. After four seasons in 2020 and four seasons in 2021, the project will conclude with a grand finale in the spring of 2022, featuring the voices of a thousand different people coming from the Groeneveen flats.

Stemmen Uit Beton

Concept, makers: Naomi Steijger & Timo Tembuyser
Coproduction: residents of Groeneveen, Frascati Producties with housing corporation Rochdale
Web design: Casper Wortmann, Jonas Kouwenhoven, Martijn Maiwald
Artistic coordination Hekse van den Ende (Frascati Producties)
Production manager Saskia Reynolds (Frascati Producties)