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Simeon ten Holt (1923-2012)

Canto ostinato

arranged for harp by Gwyneth Wentink
Gwyneth Wentink (harp)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: March 2023
Forde Abbey, Somerset, United Kingdom
Produced by Tim Oldham
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: May 2024
Total duration: 54 minutes 49 seconds

Famously offering unusual licence to prospective performers—while typically played on two or four pianos, the work has also been realized on the carillon of the famous Dom Tower in Utrecht—the immersive experience that is Canto ostinato here rises triumphant from the fingers and feet of ace harpist Gwyneth Wentink.

Canto ostinato
Simeon ten Holt is a singular figure in the history of 20th-century music: a minimalist composer who existed outside of the dominant currents of minimalism, and a Dutch composer, whose music sat to one side as the musical landscape of his country changed in the second half of the century. Yet he was also one of his country’s most popular composers, and later, one of Netherlands’ biggest musical exports.

That popular success was largely down to Canto ostinato. Written between 1976 and 1979, ten Holt’s magnum opus strikes an interesting parallel to the historical moment of American minimalism, arriving around the same time that Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach was staged at the Metropolitan Opera, and Steve Reich premiered Music for 18 Musicians. Canto has many qualities one might find in the piano ensemble music of both Glass and Reich, and follows a similar formal structure to Terry Riley’s In C.

Perhaps a bit of 'one-hit wonder' to Ten Holt that has restricted his wider absorption into the water table of mainstream minimalism. But it’s striking too that Canto, by some margin Ten Holt’s most frequently recorded composition, has proved remarkably regenerative through the years. As the composer wrote in 1999, 'Canto ostinato, as it were, creates itself.'

Ten Holt was born in 1923 in the Noord-Holland village of Bergen, which took the form of an artist colony. (Continuing that tradition today, Ten Holt’s old studio is available to rent as a space for artistic residencies.) His father, Henri ten Holt, was a painter associated with the Bergen School of artists, who employed expressionist styles with cubist elements.

The links between the worlds of visual arts and music continued through Simeon ten Holt’s studies with Jakob van Domselaar, a composer who was part of Piet Mondrian’s artistic circle De Stijl. (Van Domselaer’s Proeven van Stijlkunst, from 1913-17, transfers some of the abstraction and geometry of the De Stijl style into music, and, as a result, has a proto-minimalist character.)

In 1949, Ten Holt moved to Paris to study at the Ecole Normale with Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud. Returning to Bergen, he experimented with another visual-informed concept: so-called 'diagonal music', created using complementary keys simultaneously to forge a dual way through tonality and atonality. (The Diagonal Suite for piano is the best example of this.) But in the 1960s, Ten Holt abandoned concepts of tonality altogether, in what would be a brief but intense foray into serialism. He also studied the physics of sound, resulting in some electronic compositions in the early 1970s (Inferno I and II, I Am Sylvia but somebody else).

These experiments outside of the world of tonality weren’t to last though: 'A new kind of tonality presented itself, one that had been affected by the frosty night of serialism', Ten Holt later wrote. Exposure to the thinking of John Cage revealed Ten Holt’s own 'rigid rationalism', and he returned to a form of tonality with a different accent—not quite full-blooded Romanticism, nor especially functional, but definitely linear, sequential, and carrying a slightly distant, almost postmodern quality, he called this shift 'tonality after the death of tonality'. Was this a reaction, or an attempt to form a melodious avant-garde, or something different entirely? 'The role of the tonal centre', ten Holt wrote in 1995 summing up his relationship with tonality, 'first as an undisputed factor, starts to move, loses its authority, submerges into chromaticism and the equality of all tones, and finally emerges in a shape that is chastened by death and katharsis.' Organic metaphors were often employed by Ten Holt to describe his music, and its later preoccupation with death is a logical extension of those ideas.

The formalisation 'tonality after the death of tonality' is reminiscent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea of 'God after the death of God', which suggests an interesting lens to view Canto through. In a preface to the 2010 edition of the piece, ten Holt said that 'a performance of Canto is more like a ritual than a concert'. Interpreters of Ten Holt’s Canto have emphasised the work’s spiritual dimensions and, while not religious in subject—you couldn’t put Canto ostinato among the works of religious minimalists like Górecki, Pärt and Tavener, for example—there is a definite sense of socialisation to the piece when it is performed live by multiple people, that could well be interpreted as a kind of secular communion. Musicians come together, deciding when to move between sections as a collective, and altering the form and flow of the piece in the moment. Perhaps it’s best thought of as a bit like a Quaker meeting: traditionally framed but without formal prerequisites, unfolding organically and peacefully, fully in the knowledge that one person’s revelation can divert the total course in an instant.

The ritual aspect of the work has also been a jumping-off point for audiences in search of community. A kind cult has formed around Canto ostinato, captured and to some extent accelerated by Ramon Gieling’s 2011 documentary About Canto. The piece tells the stories of its fans through the music—a man with sections of the score tattooed on his body, a woman who gave birth while living the music, and even the harrowing story of a depressed man who allowed himself to end his life after hearing Canto because he felt life couldn’t get more beautiful. The Gieling film is an intriguing blend of fact and fiction, that feeds and feeds off the mysterious aura that Canto ostinato has taken on. 'It’s a kind of obsession, an infatuation that people have with music', Maarten Beirens of the University of Amsterdam said in an interview for The New York Times last year: 'It’s more often directed toward pop music in fandom-type models.'

The key to Canto staying fresh is its structural form. Ten Holt wrote the piece as an 'open scenario' for keyboards—though this hasn’t stopped recordings being made on saxophones, organs, cellos, in the case of this album by Gwyneth Wentink, harp. It’s made up of 106 small sections, but Ten Holt imbues these units with a great amount of freedom, giving performers control over the number of times relevant sections are played (there are some bridge sections that are played a single time), the dynamics choices, and the manner of articulation. As a result, there’s a radical disunity to recordings of the work. Wentink’s performance, for example, brings out a chorale-like quality in the middle sections, reminiscent of Rachmaninov or even Bach. Performances on record generally begin at around an hour in length, but can last for many more.

The piece begins how it continues—with a single, lop-sided ostinato, the essence of which carries the piece. The short cells—most a handful of bars—add up to a bigger organic whole, and there’s a gently ruminative quality to the musical material, that gently sways and oscillates, and is concerned with a gradual evening out which never quite happens. Parts drift in and out of the texture seamlessly, giving even more fluidity and elasticity to the work.

Though later indicating that he preferred shorter performances of his indeterminate works, one of the key characteristics of Canto (and Ten Holt’s music afterwards) is duration. While the live sections of Lemniscaat, first performed in 1985, last for 'between three and four hours', the length of the piece as a whole totalled around 30 hours. 'The length of the piece is undetermined, but is supported by an understanding of time in which the clock can be forgotten, the anti-stopwatch timing', Ten Holt said about Lemniscaat. It applies just as well to Canto too.

A motivating factor of America’s minimalist movement was a rejection of serialism, and composers saw their work as a clean break with prevailing trends. 'The same dissatisfaction was not necessarily true in Europe', said Beirens, 'with composers like Louis Andriessen or Karel Goeyvaerts, who went deep into twelve-tone serialist technique, and then went into minimalism, and who didn’t necessarily see this as a kind of breaking point with the past, but as some kind of continuation.'

Though Canto and Ten Holt’s later work did follow a rejection of serialism, and stands apart aesthetically from both Andriessen and Goeyvaerts, there is, eventually, the feeling of being connected to—or at least in the orbit of—a bigger historic span of music. Canto seems to work in the same rich seam of Romantic European pianism. It’s like Chopin, Mendelssohn, or Rachmaninov, with its revelling in tension and release, and its outbreaks of lyrical splendour.

Aforisme No 2
This is a transcription made by Jeroen van Veen on behalf of Simeon ten Holt. The work is an improvisation in which ten Holt uses electronics. In a harmonic and melodic sense you can hear a recursor of Canto ostinato, written a few years later. Ten Holt himself gives it this subtitle: ‘Very old melody’.

Hugh Morris © 2024

I first heard Canto ostinato on piano in 2011 and I felt as if I was on fire. THIS is something I wanted to play on the harp: I clearly recall the zeal and enthusiasm I felt at the time. I was buzzing with curiosity, excitement and vitality.

Exploring various musical genres, arranging music for the harp and working in interdisciplinary settings is something that has always been important to me. Playing the harp, one is being confronted with a rather restricted repertoire, and one almost evidently scans the horizon for what else one can arrange, commission and/or discover.

My own discoveries in music led me to Indian music and to American minimalism among other genres. It was through playing with legendary musicians such as Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia, Kala Ramnath and George Brooks that I was introduced to the music of Terry Riley and learned about the influential teacher of Indian classical voice Pandit Pran Nath. He was instrumental in bringing Indian vocal tradition to the West, inspiring composers such as Terry Riley and La Monte Young. There was suddenly a revolutionary new approach to music—new concepts of pulse, original navigation of a musical space and radical playfulness towards the experience of musical time—all things that I recognised in Canto ostinato by Simeon ten Holt. In classical music there is often a certain hierarchy and familiarity in how a musical composition is written and performed. It aligns very well with our western concept of linear time—with a clear beginning, developing phase and an ending. Not so with Indian music. Not so with Canto ostinato. Here time bends, spirals, loops back, implodes and explodes. It unsettles and liberates. Just like with In C by Terry Riley, written a decade before Simeon ten Holt’s Canto:

It was total disruption of time as we knew it. It was like being in a time capsule and floating out in space somewhere waiting for the next event to happen. And I enjoyed that kind of waiting.
(Terry Riley on In C)

When I traveled to Ladakh in India in 2012, I carried a small harp with me and transcribed the Canto ostinato. One of the challenges of writing or arranging for harp is the chromatic aspect. Playing fast chromatic chord or scale changes can be tricky on the instrument. The flats and sharps on a harp are produced with the harp’s seven pedals which we operate with our feet. As one can imagine, there is a limit to how fast one can change the 3 different positions of each pedal. Luckily there were only a few passages in the second part of Canto where this became a challenge—but not an insurmountable one. The transcription was completed between 2014 and 2018. I performed it extensively worldwide with an audio-visual version of Canto ostinato together with electronic specialist Wouter Snoei and visual artist Arnout Hulskamp. During these years—and after—I have performed a solo acoustic version as well. I often played it as part of a recital and it was always Canto that evoked the most fascinating responses. The audience would share the most intimate experiences and although audiences often are generous in sharing their appreciation, there was something different when they talked about Canto, something liberating, not holding back. Here I heard about their inner world, about their desires, their grievances and deep hopes. There was always the question ‘when I would record it acoustically on the harp’ and here it is at last.

Although this is a solo recording for 1 player so to speak, I decided to include the aspects of dialogue and interaction in the piece. You will therefore sometimes hear one harp, sometimes 2, sometimes even 3 harps layered on top of each other. This was recorded live—while listening to a recorded track I would add another voice to the existing layer, reacting live to what I was hearing. Canto is a voyage of discovery and this recording has proved no different to me. There is something universal about the piece that makes it so popular—the recognisable pulse, the organic musical tapestry resembling an Iranian carpet, the timeless symbolism of an Egyptian ouroboros or the mystical perpetual cadence of a drone or a groove. Then half way through the piece that almost folk-like tune. Don’t we know this? And so we do—as Simeon has so cleverly distributed tiny building blocks of this theme from the beginning of the piece onwards. Unconsciously the theme has been brewing inside the listener for 30 minutes or so and when it finally presents itself, it feels like coming home.

Gwyneth Wentink © 2024

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