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Klaas de Vries finds neotonic heaven: 'I can't resist composing'

Dutch composer Klaas de Vries (Terneuzen 1944) pairs Stravinskyian clarity with southern sensuality. He harbours a love for poets such as Pablo Neruda and Fernando Pessoa, and his work excels in recognisable melodies and rhythms. 'However innovative, to be communicative, music must always contain a traditional element,' he said. On 28 and 30 November, Asko|Schönberg will play a revised version of his Mirror Palace from 2012. In it, De Vries questions the future of music: 'I ended up with Schubert, but haven't found the definitive answer.'

When and why did you come up with the idea for 'Mirror Palace'?

I had been wondering for years what direction Western composed music should go. I wanted to explore that in a full-length piece, a bit à la The fifth book from my colleague Peter-Jan Wagemans. There is a Kammersinfonie in, some ensemble pieces, a mini-opera, something with only electronics, and a complete Mass. But instead of a succession of different genres, I envisaged something that would run through. A piece in which two opposing developments take place simultaneously.

Sound worlds

When the Doelen Ensemble asked me for a new composition in 2012, I decided to develop the idea. I wrote a ten-part work for mezzo-soprano, electronics and ensemble in which two sound worlds collide. One becomes increasingly shrill and dissonant, the other increasingly sonorous.

Simply put Mirror Palace composed of two types of compositions, an A-group and a B-group. The first moves away from music, as it were, towards sound art. This contains a lot of live electronics, distorting the sound of the instruments on the spot. This development culminates in the penultimate movement in a text spoken by the mezzo-soprano from Nostalghia By Tarkovsky.

Meanwhile, the B group became increasingly consonant, moving decisively in the direction of tonality. At the time, Mirror Palace with a performance of the adagio from Schubert's Octet. But that was born out of lack of time and I was not happy with it. So in the revised version for Asko|Schönberg, I added a vocal line, on a hopeful text by Cesare Pavese.

Asko|Schönberg, photo Gerrit Schreurs

In a comment of your own, you call this final movement a "utopian neo-tonal heaven". For you, does the future of music lie in a return to tonality?

I must honestly confess that I don't know. Nor am I for or against certain movements, but I am very critical of the neo-tonal movement. After all, it almost always involves a simplification of really tonal music, it is much more primitive. If you want to imitate Brahms or anyone else, you have to be able to improve on him. Or at least be as good. Hence, in the end, I also didn't quite manage to write a neo-tonal piece of my own.

Schubert

Inevitably, I ended up with Schubert, a great childhood favourite. But he had already realised tonal heaven, what could I add? So I ended up reworking the second movement from his Octet. First, by putting a vocal line over it. That was quite tricky because the adagio is itself a song, with beautiful, drawn-out melodies from the clarinet. I copied Schubert's notes in their entirety, but the part of the mezzo-soprano is completely new. In my own melody, though, I stayed as close as possible to his tonality.

In the low register of the piano, I added a gong-like chord, like a halo around the original music. This makes it sound a little nostalgic, emphasising that this is something from the past. At the same time, Pavese's poem speaks of hope, of a door opening, after which 'you will enter'. That was about a woman he was in love with, but at the same time is a symbol of the future.

Kitsch

Partly because of the Italian lyrics, the song almost sounds like Puccini at times. This lifts Schubert a little closer to our times, while at the same time the romantic chords act as inverted commas. By the way, this part also contains electronics, not to distort things but as a kind of super echo. This makes it almost kitsch. At least I hope it balances on the edge of kitsch like some of Puccini's music. I find that exciting.

The electronics were developed by René Uijlenhoet, what is its role?

I can't even turn on a computer myself, but René knows how to translate my sound performances perfectly into electronics. That serves to bring in the outside world. Mirror Palace begins, for example, with two percussionists playing woodblocks, standing on either side of the stage. They play in hoketus, alternately producing the notes of a same theme. The live electronics pulverise that further, making it sound like a hailstorm. This is how nature enters the music.

Surprisingly topical

Nature gradually becomes grayer and fiercer, in keeping with Tarkovsky's text in the ninth movement. That one turned out to be surprisingly topical. It is about 'so-called sane people' who have brought the world to the brink of catastrophe. About freedom meaning nothing if we dare not look at each other, dare not eat, drink or sleep with each other. Such observations seem reflective of the current fear of immigrants and our tendency to destroy the planet.

Tarkovsky's text expresses both nostalgia for a paradisiacal past and a desire to do better in the future. He believes we should dare to dream together and strive for a higher goal. His words are spoken and whispered improvisationally by the mezzo-soprano. She is accompanied by the two percussionists, who play a big drum with their hands. Finally, she says: 'And now music!' After which she sings the Pavese song over the adagio from Schubert's Octet.

In the score, she is referred to as amanuensis. Why?

Contrary to what you might expect, the mezzo-soprano does not play a leading role, even though she is continuously on stage. At the beginning, she makes some housekeeping announcements. - 'This play is going to last ninety minutes and has ten parts. You are not supposed to clap in between.' She also utters a text by Tarkovsky, from his film The Mirror. The first-person dreams of becoming a child again, a happy time when the future was still completely open.

Disruptive

Meanwhile, the double bassist plays plucked chords and the pianist pings some snatches from the Octet. Completely introspective, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. In fact, they are already playing when the audience enters the hall; you wonder what that lady is doing there on stage. Gradually, she emerges as stage manager, preparing the desks and microphones for the changing formations of instruments. In the ninth movement, she suddenly addresses the audience directly: 'Hey, healthy people!' This has a somewhat disconcerting effect.

Why the title 'Mirror Palace'?

The piece is full of reflections. First, Schubert's Octet shimmers through all the notes, like an understated mirror. Even the highly dissonant sound-art-like passages are inspired by its opening bars. Each of the ten movements mirrors the previous one, and together they mirror the Octet again. The live electronics in turn mirror all the music played. Because the sounds are distorted live, it sounds different each time, like a mirror sometimes changes colour. And then, of course, there are the lyrics from The Mirror By Tarkovsky.

Have you found answers to your question of how to proceed with music?

No, definitely not. Mirror Palace is only one possible answer out of thousands. Nor is it by any means a plea for a return to tonality, which, by the way, never went away. I marvel at the ease with which atonality is condemned these days. After all, what exactly is atonal music? Look at Alban Berg or even Arnold Schoenberg, who developed twelve-tone music. Even in their music, you always feel the pull of a tonal centre. Luciano Berio, in his Sinfonia tonality as a citation and even in Notations by Pierre Boulez contain tonal elements.

No great masters

Our ears experience those naturally. But, as I said, I have nothing to do with the neo-tonal current in music. To call a spade a spade: you hear so much Philip Glass these days. I hate that! I have the feeling he's cheating with cheap shit. Because what are you listening to? To very bad, all in one run repeated triplets. Masses of people sit with their eyes closed rocking along and cheering afterwards. I don't understand any of that. There is nothing anywhere that upsets you or makes you think: hey, this is a memorable moment. Humanity apparently wants to be conned!

You also quote Tarkovsky: 'The real evil of our time is that there are no more great masters.'

I heartily agree with that. It's all so democratised now. I sometimes visit the composition class at Rotterdam Conservatoire. There are students there from all over the world, enormous talents. The same applies to Amsterdam and The Hague, and well, what are all those people going to do after their studies? They also conquer a small spot. But great masters? Surely those were Boulez, Ligeti and now Kurtág. Other than that, I wouldn't know at the moment.

Doesn't that inhibit your own creativity?

No, because I can't resist composing.

 

Klaas de Vries: Mirror Palace
Asko|Schönberg; Gerrie de Vries, mezzo-soprano; live electronics René Uijlenhoet
 28-11-2017 Doelen, Rotterdam
30-11-2017, Muziekgebouw aan het IJ, Amsterdam

 

 

Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: https://www.boekenbestellen.nl/boek/een-os-op-het-dak/9789012345675 In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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