The imperturbability of the most recognizable composer in the Netherlands
`There's Simeon ten Holt and then there's all the rest,' the composer of works including Canto Ostinato, Horizon and Lemniscaat once said jokingly of his position in Dutch musical life. Even today, one could say that, in a certain sense, this is still true. Anyone challenging a select group of contemporary music lovers to a fiery debate need mention only one name: that of Simeon ten Holt (b. 1923). In the late 1970s, this Dutch composer provoked the wrath of countless musical know-alls by returning to sounds that every ear could understand. He had the courage to abandon the complex, twelve-tone scores of the post-war era, which he traded in for simple triads, shifting rhythmic patterns and repeat signs. Completely independent of American composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Ten Holt created a Dutch version of minimal music. Although Ten Holt deviated from the American approach by placing more importance on process than on technique and by taking an interest in the social interaction that occurs (in the case of several musicians) and the `liberation of the musical object', the listener need not be aware of this to appreciate his music. The music that was and still is denounced by the diehards of the serial school as `insipid cult music' and fatal, new simplicity became the new music that spoke to the experience of an ever-growing audience.
For Ten Holt, the road to apparent simplicity was anything but simple. He began as a true disciple of Jakob van Domselaer, his teacher, and was just as strict in applying the principles of the angular tonality that Van Domselaer displayed in his Proeven van Stijlkunst (Excercises in style) and just as inflexible in relation to other techniques. "Not only was Van Domselaer my teacher, he was also a nemesis", Ten Holt once said of him. "I had to free myself from him to be able to spread my own wings." Notwithstanding his quasi-orderly compositions, the anarchist streak Ten Holt had always had soon asserted itself. With his own `diagonal notion', based on the simultaneous sounding of tonalities a tritone apart, he stubbornly broke new ground for the first time in the mid 1950s and surprised audiences with slightly torsional structures like Soloduiveldans 1(1959) for piano.
Ten Holt would rather not be reminded that, shortly after this voyage of discovery, he briefly conformed to the rules of serialism fashionable at the time, although his experience with electronic music during this period was invaluable to his later compositions it also played a role in arousing his interest in purely musical processes and he tired of `composing in [his] head, seated at the table, from the intellect and not from emotion'.
Once again, Ten Holt seemed averse to the most important influences around him and he dared to return to tonality. "While its true that I make use of traditional harmony, I have freed the elements of tension and relaxation so characteristic of it and have turned these into musical objects. Although the listener hears recognizable chords, these do not follow a conventional musical route because they have been isolated." His development of `tonality after the death of tonality' has made him a composer as celebrated as he is solitary. His first large work in his new language, Canto Ostinato (1976-1979) for keyboard instruments, put him on the map of Dutch music and managed to provoke the entire musical avant garde.
The imperturbability with which Ten Holt used Canto Ostinato as a model for all his subsequent compositions is remarkable and has earned him the unofficial title of the `most recognizable composer in the Netherlands'.
Although he uses familiar consonances, he has rejected the old laws of harmony. The basis of all his work is a sound pattern with a highly distinctive melodic and rhythmic character and a clearly defined tonal centre which can fill one or more measures. Ten Holt employs overlapping, repeating structures to imbue this `musical object' with a life all its own. "The repetitive procedure is intended to create the conditions in which the musical object can affirm its independence", he said of Canto Ostinato. In this respect, the performers have enormous freedom and, within certain limits, may determine their own work. Consequently, the length of the piece can vary to some extent and, because of the `social process' which Ten Holt believes constitutes music-making, can often take on extraordinary proportions. Lemniscaat for keyboard instruments (1983), for instance, took thirty hours to premiere.
With these works for several keyboard instruments, to which Horizon (1983-1985) and the more recent and chromatically coloured Meandres (1995-1997) belong, Ten Holt created his own world in which he gave musical shape to his ideas of time and space. "Time becomes space in which the musical object will float", he said cryptically in the summary notes to Lemniscaat.
In the Soloduiveldansen 11, lll and I V - written in 1986, 1990 and 1996 respectively - he transferred his repetition and selection procedures explicitly to one keyboard instrument: his beloved piano. And despite its thinner texture, this piece hardly differs from the works scored for larger groups. Ten Holt also searches for the inner workings of the sound of a motive in the Soloduiveldansen. However important time may. be, he has focused all his efforts on eliminating the experience of time and on letting the musical `object' speak for itself. Naturally, the repetitive patterns are ideal background music for cleaning the house or the perfect accompaniment to the most blissful daydreams. However, listeners who make an effort to follow actively the shifting elements Ten Holt employs, his playing with fore- and background and the sudden introduction of new material will experience unprecedented adventures with musical means that, until now, were so well known. Listeners who can muster the concentration to listen in a truly intense way will be as surprised as the composer himself by unsuspected tonal relationships and melodic manifestations.
Simeon ten Holt is now 80 years old; his experience as a composer covers the entire gamut from vilification to celebration. Since Canto Ostinato, he has devoted himself to composing an oeuvre unique in the world of Dutch composition. Although his oeuvre has apparently spawned no school or tolerated the slightest imitation, one must not underestimate his influence. Ten Holt has dedicated much of his life to redefining the beauty of the triad and other, related tonal means. He single-handedly cleared the way for many composers employing tonal elements today, a fact that will likely become fully evident only several decades from now.
PauI Janssen
Translation: Muse Translations, Josh Dillon