From disc to disc, I am going from record to record. Only recently did I listen to 10 hours and 15 minutes of Minimalist piano on a similar Dutch-originated 9-CD collection by Brilliant - pieces of Glass, Nyman, Adams, Cage, Pärt, Satie, even Nietzsche and other less prominent composers, including a few Dutch ones, played by pianist and composer Jeroen van Veen, who also appears here (Minimal Piano Collection [Box Set]). It is in fact that set that directed me to the present one. It contained a superb piece by Simeon Ten Holt, Solodevilsdance No. 4, which immediately prompted me to want to listen to more of this composer. And more is exactly what you get here: 11 CDs, 11hours and 41 minutes.
Simeon ten Holt is a Dutch composer born in 1923. He studied with Jakob van Domselaer and in Paris with Milhaud and Honegger, then went through various compositional phases, first struggling out of van Domselaer's tonal influence, then becoming serially tonal (Berg obviously proves that this in no contradiction in terms), e.g. striving to organize the tonal material according to serial principles. But it is really his embrace of repetitive music, with his seminal Canto Ostinato (1976-1979, here featured on discs 1 & 2) that made his breakthrough to wide public attention in his home country - and, as could be expected, controversy.
I have a problem with the accepted term "minimalism". I prefer to reserve it to music - illustrated by Feldman, Cage sometimes, and in Europe Scelsi, Sciarrino or Lachenmann - that moves at the edge of nothingness, mostly slow-moving and based on very few and sparse musical events, each acquiring great dramatic impact. What is usually designated by the term "minimalism" - the music exemplified by LaMonte Young, Adams, Glass, Reich, Riley, Nyman, Gorecki, Pärt, Tavener - I prefer to coin "repetitive music". It is based on the repetition of basic structures, rhythmic/melodic cells, simple musical phrases, and while the basic elements can be minimal, the processes of subtle evolution out-of-sync tempos of the various voices, tiling and layering to which they are subjected can produce fairly busy results.
As much as I enjoy minimalist music as I've defined it, I must confess also to having some problems with repetitive music. It is not the repetition I mind - like everybody else I enjoy Ravel's Bolero - but the simplistic, predictable and neo-romantically saccharine harmonies that usually come with the music of Glass and Adams. Is there something to repetition that necessarily entails the tonic, dominant, sub-dominant, tonic sequence worthy of the most trite supermarket music?
Fortunately, I find the music of ten Holt better than that.
All the pieces contained in this set date from his repetitive period. Except, who knows why, for Shadow nor Prey (1993-5) which comes on the last disc, they are presented in chronological order, starting with Canto Ostinato, then Lemniscaat (1982-3), Horizon (1983-5), Incantatie IV (1987-90), Meandres (1997). Except again for Shadow nor Prey (played by Fred Oldenburg and Jeroen van Veen), they are all played by the so-called "Piano Ensemble" comprised of the two former plus Sandra van Veen and Irene Russo, but the notes (disappointingly silent on the individual works) aren't entirely clear whether they are played on four pianos or less: it seems to be the case, but the booklet has a photo with a piano keyboard and eight hands; I suppose this is purely a publicity gig. Also, ten Holt's catalog at Donemus publications shows that Incantatie IV is scored for "keyboard (and other) instruments, five in all".
So ten Holt repeats. Obsessively. Eleven hours and forty minutes of repetition. Don't take this comment as disparaging. Except for LaMonte Young's well-tuned piano, these are the longest stretches of repetitive piano music to have come my way. Except for "Shadow nor Prey", each runs over two usually well-filled CDs, the shortest being "Meandres" (1997) with 1:46 (discs 9 & 10) and the longest Canto Ostinato with 2:28.
From piece to piece the compositional process is also repetitive. Ten Holt picks a very simple, catchy, almost ditty-like melody, based on simple intervals, the kind of obsessive tune that will go circles in your mind, played in a delicate staccato touch like some fine mechanism, and off you go. Each piece is made of anything between 100 and over 200 short sections, each being repeated at will until the performers move to the next one, the variation from one to the other being sometimes quasi imperceptible, sometimes more pronounced. The performers' clockwork regularity - an essential feature of this music - is impressive. But really, it is music that should be played by performer-less, computer-processed pianos. Meandre stands out somewhat for containing, in its Part II, two cadenzas which break the pattern of obsessive repetition (tracks 10/2 and 10/8 at 1:00), but it is nothing very dramatic. The music is tonal, but at least the harmonies aren't so sweet and saccharine as to be maudlin (unlike often with Glass or Adams). It could be music written for some neo-classical contemporary ballet ("no plot, just movement") or experimental film. Think of a long, rainy day in the flat country, or again a long, idle train ride in the flat country (possibly on a rainy day) and you'll get an idea.
When Ten Holt factors in some dynamic progression (as in Canto Ostinato), it usually goes from mezzo-piano to forte and back over a long span, but he is also happy to remain for a long time in a given dynamic range, between mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte. He also likes to use the jazzy off-beat chordal syncopation in the upper range.
I wouldn't say that I always listened very intensely, but the music does produce a certain entrancing effect - like your favorite song played over and over again. I have gone to sleep on it, and played it over in the morning. I've played it while writing this review, or others, or bidding on the famous auction site. It nicely fills the void of ambient silence. It is a hypnotic journey.
February 17, 2013
And now the post-script announced in the title. Only today do I learn belatedly of ten Holt's passing, on November 25, 2012. Where I live (not in the Netherlands), that news didn't make the headlines ("a shockwave sent through the world" - I thought Obama had been assassinated by Al-Qaida. No, Michael Jackson had just died), not even a small obituary in the tail-lines. Upon listening to this set, back in 2008, I had been fascinated enough with the music of ten Holt to wish to hear alternative recordings of the same works, and I purchased the big ten Holt compendium published by the Dutch label Composer's Voice, Highlights - but stacked it up on the shelf for further listening, and never did. It is just the other day that I returned to Canto Ostinato, and learned of the news of ten Holt's death.
People like me, versed in the most demanding contemporary music, may feel some reluctance when first hearing the music of ten Holt. Too much of the repetitive minimalism of Glass and Adams is based on predictable, sweet and sacharine harmonies for us not to cringe, happy (especially with Glass) to remain in the most simplistic and sentimental alternation of tonic-dominant-subdominant-tonic. Were they conservatory-trained for THAT? This (we are prone to think) is not classical contemporary music, it is a bastardized distortion of it. Sure, everybody wants to be as popular as Elton John (and make as much money), but some seem more ready than others to sell their soul to achieve it. Certainly, the striving at a rational and tightly-wrought organization of the total sonic continuum, from Schoenberg and Webern (or should I say: Bach?) to Boulez and Stockhausen, the rent lyricism of Nono, the eery and outlandish sonic invention of Crumb, the atmospheric orchestral tone painting of Ligeti or the devastating explosions of Varèse, Xenakis or of Penderecki when he was a radical, are demanding, overbearing, not easy-listening, not popular with the masses, but then they are exactly that: demanding, and ultimately rewarding. Undemanding music may be, on the surface, very pretty, but it is ultimately unrewarding. Plus, it gives me the impression that the composer is trying to manipulate my emotions like if I were some Pinocchio, using very visible strings, and I resist it.
So it is easy to think that the catchy little tonal melodies of ten Holt, half nostalgic half dance-like, obsessively repeated and slowly evolving over the span of two or three hours, are simplistic, facile and vacuuous, and there was some of that caution in my review. But then, coming back to it, I find the obsessive beauty of Canto Ostinato hard to resist. And one reason why it is, I think, is that unlike the most saccharine pieces of Glass or others, those melodies are beautiful and full of feeling, but never sentimental. There's too much of a clockwork mechanism at play in ten Holt's music for that.
Now I think that this music may be important. I'm not sure many are aware of its existence and beauty outside of the Netherlands, but when the news starts spreading, it is going to hit the public (and not just the classical music public) like a tsunami, of the same magnitude as when Riley published and recorded In-C in the mid-1960s. Too bad ten Holt won't be around to witness it, but I'm sure it will happen, it's just a matter of time. I've promoted my rating from four to five stars.