Notes and Editorial Reviews
I’m not normally one for seeking contact with musicians about their recordings in advance of writing a review. This is not that I don’t imagine they will have anything interesting to say, but the risk of introducing bias of one kind or another is always something which I feel should be avoided. Having first established that commenting on this box set was something which would give me nothing intrinsically negative or controversial to say, I was intrigued enough to find out more on the massive undertaking of this, the second release in a vast project which apparently also already has volumes XXI-XXX in the can.
Jeroen van Veen’s kind reply was too fulsome and generous to quote in its entirety, but essentially the Minimal Piano
Collection is the collective name he has given to his own collection of pieces, started after graduating from the conservatoire in 1993. Simeon ten Holt is a central figure in the progress of Van Veen’s recording and programming, and if the two piano version of Canto Ostinato in this set whets your appetite I can highly recommend the Brilliant Classics ‘Complete Multiple Piano Works’ 11 CD box 7795, also with Jeroen van Veen and colleagues and produced by Van Veen in his own studio. He is in charge of his own reordings and his own philosophy in terms of the chain of production is very much ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’; part of the attraction of much minimalist music as a starting point also being a similar freedom and flexibility given to the performer. The mesmerizingly compelling Canto Ostinato is a case in point. Performable on pianos of varying quantity or even harp, the amount of repetition is left in part to the performer, and a relatively few bars of music can easily cover 3 CDs, as the best-selling original recording shows. Simeon Ten Holt’s own comment on the recording in this collection is that it is “the best recording so far, and may overwrite all the existing ones”, so we’re off to a good start.
As you would expect, some of music in this collection is more minimal than others, and the arguments about what constitutes ‘minimalist’ can go on elsewhere. What we do have here are largely tonally based, often rhythmically fascinating works with an element of repetition as part of their musical DNA, and disc 2 explores some classic but less well-known examples. William Duckworth’s pieces adhere to the stricter 1970s minimalist fashion of revolving around a single tonality or fundamental, but with some funky additions of flashes of jazz and a compelling rhythmic drive in Forty Changes which uses the same phasing technique introduced by Steve Reich, and variations on a single note ostinato in Binary Images. Michael Parsons’ Rhythm Studies are good partners for these pieces, covering similar territory. Sticking close to what would at the time have been new minimalist techniques, these pieces do show their age somewhat. With a basic repeating ostinato centre the rhythmic elements revolve around slowly evolving satellite motives. These are nice enough, but the exploration of this material doesn’t go much beyond a certain amount of canonic chasing around over a rather four-square pulsing basis. I know these are relatively early minimalist pieces, but for me they leave a longing for more interesting material rather than a sense of discovery. Leaving the founding fathers of minimalism for the time being, the rest of CD 2 is given to a younger generation. City Lines by Douwe Eisenga is by the composer’s own admission a mixture of Tubular Bells and Simeon ten Holt’s Horizon combined with a Dutch folk tune. The result is a lyrical and charmingly pianistic piece which is easy and accessible. Gabriel Jackson’s Rhapsody in Red takes its title and concept from a work by British artist Richard Long, who recorded red objects on his ‘Red Walk Bristol to Dawlish 1986’. Jackson’s idiom in this piece is quasi-programmatic, creating a wide variety of imagery over the constant tempo of the journey. Events can be dramatic or lyrically expressive and each scene moves through a different tonality, so there is plenty of contrast.
CD 3 has been recorded with a certain amount of multi-tracking, and begins with an imposingly restrained piece by Kyle Gann. Long Night “was an attempt to extend the looping technique of Terry Riley’s In C into the ambient/atmospheric area of Harold Budd and Brian Eno.” The piece consists of three parts played at different tempos, and the result is a low, unified texture which would lend itself to “the pianos [being] around the audience and the audience walking, lying or otherwise lounging in the middle.” Jeroen van Veen’s arrangement of three of Philip Glass’s five Metamorphosis pieces involves adding more pianos and shifting the material to create phasing patterns. This kind of treatment suits Glass’s open tonalities and straightforward textures very well indeed, enriching the material and by the fourth giving it an almost symphonic feel without altering its essential character. Douwe Eisenga’s Les Chants Estivaux is a spatially conceived piece for four pianos and is attractively colourful, using the full range of the keyboard and with a gently rhythmic momentum and joyously refined harmonic progressions. Meredith Monk’s Ellis Island is an elegantly flowing miniature in which melodic lines intertwine atmospherically between the two pianos.
CD 4 brings us to a different kind of minimalism, and the time-sculpting vistas of Morton Feldman are well represented in three of his pieces from the 1950s. Instructions such as “Very Slow. Soft as Possible” say a great deal about these works, which as the booklet notes state, the music “is more about silence than about sound… it’s about how sound and silence define each other.” The notes are given as an extensive pdf file in a supplementary CD-ROM with this set and, given Johan van Veen’s research and experience with this kind of music, are a very good read. His collaboration with Marcel Bergmann in the two other pieces on this disc were written as a response to Feldman. Dampening the strings and using the overtones create worlds of metallic sculpture in Two Pianos on Strings, BACH in Strings taking this a step further with four pianos and a dramatic field of percussive and stormy resonance.
CD 5 opens with a characteristically lively piece from John Adams, Hallelujah Junction, which is the name of a small truck stop on Route 49 on the Nevada-California border. This is a substantial piece in four sections, with the two piano parts ‘interlocking’ or bouncing musical material between the two instruments in a way which has been a feature of Adams’ music since the Grand Pianola Music if 1982. This is a punchy piece, but, played here by the Bergmann Piano Duo I wondered whether this might have benefitted from a lighter touch in performance. This is one of the sessions recorded in the drier acoustic of Ever Snel’s piano studios and are not given the extra resonance which appears from the same location on disc 2 of the set. This gives the impression of the musicians having to work that much harder to create atmosphere, but the Balinese gamelan effects of Colin McPhee are nicely played and work well where the resonances melt together. As their titles would lead one to expect, Marcel Bergmann’s Morning Train and Midnight Journey conjure the motor-motion of locomotive travel. Both of these pieces create a powerful atmosphere, and are not restricted to a relentless pounding of keys. Midnight Journey in particular has a sense of echo and distance, as well as a highly satisfying structure which builds to a remarkable climax. The gamelan effects of McPhee are never too far away in Bergmann’s pieces, and this is in particular true of Incessant Bells, which works with developing patterns over largely pentatonic scales, creating another strongly atmospheric piece. Boogie Mania develops from formless-ness, a rolling bass which reminded me a little of something like Ligeti’s Vertigo in reverse. This works into a ‘boogie’ which is terrific fun. Carlos Micháns’ Joy has the subtitle ‘A Miniature Overture’ and was originally for orchestra. This is a piece made up from the notes of the scale of A major; a fascinating exercise in strict boundary-setting. The variations on this basic material are made to suggest a wide and colourful variety of worlds which are explored, but can never truly resolve due to the framework of the material. Douwe Eisenga’s Cloud Atlas was part of a production inspired by the eponymous novel by David Mitchell. This is another elegant, even eloquent piece which made the author “homesick for a place I’ve never been.”
I’ll never forget my first ever job working as a copyist, writing parts out by hand for an Amsterdam publishing house in the sparkling late 1980s. It was a piece by Chiel Meijering called No Shit, No Flies for flute quartet, and I was instantly introduced to the composer’s wacky and prolific world of mad titles. Inspired by Tamara Rumiantsev’s search for new repertoire for piano duo, Meijering launched a series of ‘poppy’ duos of which we are given a selection on CD 6. Not attracted by the ‘wearisome drone in one key’ of certain types of minimalism, Meijering describes his ‘pop music Satie-attitude’ as being a basis for these pieces, which actually turn out to have a good deal of substance and often of directly affecting emotive power. Some have a melodic ‘standard’ feel, like She disappears in my dreams, and there are jokey references such as to Canto Onstinato in Don’t put me in your box. Most of the pieces would fit hand-in-glove with something cinematic, having the some of the poignancy of later Michael Nyman film scores but with better ‘wrong’ notes. I’m always a fool for strong bass line, so you can count me in for Fast, cheap and out of control and I found a new baby, but all of these pieces have an unexpected grandeur which suits the piano duo medium to a ‘T’. This disc is rounded off with an arrangement of Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina, in which Jeroen van Veen multi-layers the piece as if played at different times, dynamics and locations. This is a works effectively with the basic material remaining in the same tonality, and at times creates the feel of a chamber full of music-boxes. Some of the lonely mystery of the original piece is perhaps lost, but something new is certainly created.
CD 7 opens with a classy performance of Steve Reich’s seminal Piano Phase. This recording is made using multi-track techniques with the same instrument on both parts, so there is a more homogenised effect than with, for instance, the 1986 recording made by the ‘Double Edge’ piano duo on the Nonesuch label album of Steve Reich’s ‘Early Works’. The micro effects of the gradually shifting parts are very clear however, with an actual ‘phase’ sound effect as they just commence diverging. Kevin Volans’ Cicada is another familiar work, known from a 2000 Black Box CD, BBM1029. The comparison is marginal; Mathilda Hornsveld and Jill Richards’ recording having a crisper edge, a tighter tempo and more information in the recording about the resonance from the strings, but Jeroen van Veen’s recording is beautifully atmospheric, and the composer’s comments about his experiences over two days in Killiney and his decision about the piece: “no composition; don’t change anything except the tone” is reflected warmly and sensitively. Steve Reich’s inspiring Six Pianos - the “piece for all the pianos in a piano store” also comes across well in the multi-tracked recording. Van Veen keeps the articulation quite brittle, preventing the texture from becoming too thick and allowing the rhythm to bounce along nicely. Again, there is an almost medicinal quality - I avoid the word clinical - which is almost unavoidable when producing a recording of this nature - responding to a click-track rather than the more lively and spontaneous feel to a band of pianists working together: the emerging and receding of the same piano from a different location on the stereo sound-stage also less texturally interesting than with a collection of matched but always subtly different instruments. This is still a marvellous performance however, and the strict accuracy of the pulse is acutely mesmerising. Welsh composer John Metcalf’s Never Odd or Even is structured on a series of musical palindromes, the result a sparkling and lively field of attractively open tonalities and progressions, packed in a gently rhythmic pulse around which the melodic notes orbit like luminous moths. Tim Seddon’s Sixteen is one of the highlights of this set for me. Starting out a little like a hyped-up Vince Guaraldi ‘Peanuts’ animation theme, the piece has a percussive drive, but more importantly some tremendous harmonic progressions and a feel of positivity and dancing flight which is more than infectious.
Disc 8 brings is into the striking world of Jurriaan Andriessen’s Portrait of Hedwig. This is a score which exists as a literal portrait of the woman he loved, in 54 separate pieces whose ‘greyscale’ effect creates a stunning image. I had only previously known this piece in a rather home-made sounding but still rather lovely recording of a selection of the pieces played on solo piano by the composer, brought out in 1992 on the Oreade label OR 2894. There are jazzy elements in the music, as well as plenty of reflective poignancy, and the canonic effects work very well on two pianos. This is a remarkable and highly approachable set of pieces which certainly deserves a wider audience, and it’s good to see part of it included here. 4 mains by Belgian composer Wim Mertens is one of his signature pieces - deceptively simple, with a limited selection of notes but a highly effective strongly driving bass and ‘variations on a theme’ over the top. My old teacher Louis Andriessen is very much on form with the opening The Hague Hacking, a title translated from Hague dialect, Haags Hakkúh and losing pretty much all of its potency in the process. Described in the notes as ‘efficient and demanding’, the pianists have to leap widely, hitting complex chords at speed. After a compact and intensely promising opening the effect of the fragmentation of the material in the bulk of the piece is a certain loss of steam, but who am I to criticise. Arvo Pärt’s Hymn to a Great City is little more than a collection of cadences around a ‘musette’ central tone, but shows a major-tonality brightness which is a side of the composer we’re not so used to hearing. Bad boy of Dutch composing Jacob ter Veldhuis is known for his ‘boombox’ soundtracks which subversively accompany live instruments. Views from a Dutch Train was originally written for accordion duo, and is a relatively ‘safe’ work, descriptive of the repetitive and intensely cultivated fields in the Dutch landscape when viewed from a train. The actual landscape is very flat indeed, but Ter Veldhuis seeks out all of the points of interest, and the piece has plenty of funky rhythmic bite and tonal charm.
Totti by Graham Fitkin has the feel of a fast train journey, providing a lively and exciting opening to CD 9. From the same period, White uses a slower off-beat rhythmic device from which to hang syncopated notes and chords. Fitkin also studied with Louis Andriessen but left The Hague the year I arrived. I’ve always been a fan of his technically proficient and characteristically unpretentious writing, and these two pieces are excellent examples of his work. I briefly shared a stage with Tom Johnson at a recent ad-hoc performance of Terry Riley’s In C at a minimal music festival in Amsterdam, and experienced some of his remarkable works live in the first half of the programme. Johnson’s mathematical working-out of his material suggests potential sterility, but somehow ends up creating something strange and often quiet theatrical. This is the case with Voicings, which is like sinking into ever deeper water surrounded by bursts of highly musical bubbles. I have real first-hand experience of Frederic Rzewski’s Les moutons de Panurge, which is a row of notes which have to be read additionally: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3 etc., and then when you reach the end you start subtracting from the beginning. This we played at a concert at the conservatoire in The Hague with an ensemble which later became the now up-and-coming group ‘Klang’, and I for one was eternally grateful for the get-out clause in the score which states “if you get lost, stay lost”. The effect of ‘getting lost’ results in marvellous canonic effects, put into good use in this powerful recording by the multi-tracking Van Veen. Julius Eastman’s personal style of minimalism is shown to good effect in his Gay Guerilla, a piece which develops a kind of vast chorale under its repeated notes and eternally growing pitches.
From the early days of minimalism and similar in appearance to Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, Philip Glass’ In Again Out Again is a piece in contrary motion, the two pianos playing and repeating 20 fragments, one going forward, the other in reverse. This is amongst the most ‘hard-core’ minimalism in the set, and develops a kind of hallucinatory grip on the listener, a kind of feverish ‘large-scale small-scale’ feel of micro-musical material expanded into fascinating patterns. Theme from Wiek is a gentle foil to Glass’ piece, Douwe Eisenga’s piece having been written for a dance/theatre collaboration; designed as an epilogue and creating a conciliatory atmosphere. Orpheus Over and Under was written for the ‘Double Edge’ piano duo of Nurit Tilles and Edmund Niemann, which emerged from Steve Reich’s ‘Steve Reich and Musicians’ ensemble. A version of the piece has appeared before on the Chandos label, and is heard here in two movements, an eternally rising Aria and a slowly developing Chorale; the material is presented as tremolos, like the repeated ‘sustain’ of a mandolin. You can’t separate a real Dutchman from his coffee, and Jeroen van Veen’s Incanto nr.I is his coffee machine embodied in music. With some material derived from a Röyksopp track as one of the starting points, the bulk of the piece has a superb cyclical feel like the wafts of steam rising from a hot brew on a cold day. There is a serious amount of structural development however, and the music leads one into some surprisingly verdant spaces on the way to its safe landing somewhere near to the original material - transformed but familiar - towards the end.
The final disc of this whopping collection, CD 11, begins with the iridescent harmonies of Joep Franssens’ Entrada. This and the other pieces on this disc use imitation or canon to create their own richness of harmony and texture. Old Songs New Songs also uses augmentation, stretching melodic material to create new harmonic relationships in another luminous arch of sound. Between the Beats is more typically ‘minimalist’, repeating and slowly developing a one-bar motive in a driving rhythmic pattern reminiscent of Steve Reich. Alexander Rabinovitch brings us into a minimalist world which juxtaposes the romanticism of Schubert and Brahms with cyclical repetition. Liebliches Lied translates roughly as ‘Gracious Song’, reflecting some of the lyrical sweep of the material. The collection concludes with a softly undulating Phantom Waltz, part of Meredith Monk’s contribution to a dance-theatre work on the theme of Edgar Allan Poe’s life and work.
With 11 CDs, most of which push close to 80 minutes, this is a collection which provides nothing if not excellent value for money. The additional CD-ROM also includes a number of the scores, so you can even try some of the pieces for yourself at home. Alongside the booklet notes as a pdf file there are also some photos, the entire Brilliant Classics catalogue for 2010 and a certain amount of interactive content. This programme course covers far more than just ‘minimalist’ music, and the qualities of repetition as seen from composers such as Morton Feldman explore worlds about as far removed from the ‘ostinato’ type of minimalist texture as one can imagine. Here we have just about everything in between, embracing terms such as ‘post-minimalism’ and with this and his other collections, Jeroen van Veen pretty much forms a one-man crusade in favour of his enthusiasms. These are musical selections which break down the barriers between ‘classical’ and other genres, and the elements of pop, jazz, world and other stylistic sources can all be found in this type of open and inclusive approach. Van Veen’s entrepreneurial spirit can provide an example to all of us in the music business, and ensembles and concert programmers alike should take note of the ‘new audience’ effect which he has noticed in his own live concerts. The Netherlands is not alone in seeing the ‘vergrijzing’ of audiences at classical concerts - ever dwindling older age groups whose replacement with a younger public is one of the problems of our times. Van Veen sees ‘minimalism’ and cross-media programming as a possible fishing-net for capturing new audiences, and this is the kind of realistic and ongoing field research which could benefit many organisations in an increasingly difficult financial climate.
Superbly performed and very well engineered, these are recordings which can stand alongside any in similar repertoire. As an introduction and deepening of one’s experiences with the world of ‘repetitive’ music this is likely to be an eye or ear-opener for many, including die-hard fans like myself. Like Dr. Who’s Tardis, this is a box which is so much bigger on the inside than the outside that you will stand agog with a similar kind of wonder. If your experiences of minimalism until now have been negative, this is a perfect place to commence rehabilitation.
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Ellis island by Meredith Monk
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1981; USA
Two Pianos by Morton Feldman
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1957; USA
Piano Phase by Steve Reich
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1967; USA
Cicada by Kevin Volans
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1994; Ireland
Six Pianos by Steve Reich
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1973; USA
4 Mains by Wim Mertens
Period: 20th Century
Gay Guerilla by Julius Eastman
Period: 20th Century
Written: circa 1980; USA
Liebliches Lied by Alexandre Rabinovitch
Period: 20th Century
Phantom Waltz by Meredith Monk
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1990; USA
Work(s) by Various
Tamara Rumiantsev (Piano),
Marcel Bergmann (Piano),
Jeroen van Veen (Piano),
Elizabeth Bergmann (Piano),
Sandra van Veen (Piano)
Canto ostinato by Simeon ten Holt
Sandra van Veen (Piano),
Jeroen van Veen (Piano),
Irene Russo (Piano),
Fred Oldenburg (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1979; Netherlands (Holland
Venue: Barbara Church, Culemborg
Length: 3 Minutes 54 Secs.
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