Department of Music

Avant-garde music in 1960s Amsterdam

Arts and Humanites Research Council

Funding body:
Arts and Humanities Research Council

Prinipal Investigator:
Dr Robert Adlington
Associate Professor in Music

The 1960s saw the emergence in the Netherlands of a generation of avant-garde musicians (including Louis Andriessen, Willem Breuker, Reinbert de Leeuw and Misha Mengelberg) who were to gain international standing and influence as composers, performers and teachers, and who had a defining impact upon Dutch musical life.

Fundamental to their activities in the sixties was a pronounced commitment to social and political engagement. The lively culture of activism and dissent on the streets of Amsterdam prompted an array of vigorous responses from these musicians, including collaborations with countercultural and protest groups, campaigns and direct action against established musical institutions, new grassroots performing associations, political concerts, polemicising within musical works, and the advocacy of new, more ‘democratic’ relationships with both performers and audiences.

The Exotic Kitsch Conservatorium, c. 1968

The Exotic Kitsch Conservatorium c. 1968


 My research investigates this scene as an exemplary case study in the complex and conflictual encounter of the musical avant-garde with the 1960s’ currents of social change. While avant-garde musicians were often keen to equate aesthetic and political radicalism, the contradictions faced by artists wishing to reconcile often recondite artistic pursuits with progressive social convictions were equally apparent. In order to analyse some of these contradictions, my study is structured around a number of the decade’s defining topoi: modernisation; anarchy; participation; politics; self-determination; the people. Dutch avant-garde musicians engaged actively with each of these themes, but in so doing they found themselves faced with distinct and sometimes intractable challenges. For instance, how was the ‘modernisation’ of musical life in the Netherlands to be related to the modernisation argued for by social reformers? How could the fashionable principle of anarchism be accommodated in musical practices that assumed the assertion of kinds of authority? What kind of collective participation was possible in music that prioritised the conquering of innovative aesthetic territory?

I am writing a monograph, based on this research, for publication in 2013.

Department of Music

The University of Nottingham
Lakeside Arts Centre
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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