dutch version

This article was published in
Key Notes XXVIII, 3, september 1994
and in a shorter Dutch version in
Entr'acte of July 1994.
There's also a German version.

Guus Janssen and the
skating-on-thin-ice feeling

Guus Janssen (1951), composer and improviser, is always on the lookout for material that is suitable for carving-up. Music should never be put in an straitjacket, but then, that is, a question of trompe l'oeil, or rather tromper l'oreille. How do you make a hi-hat drunk? Answer: you equip an entire studio.

Composer Guus Janssen and I live in the same village. It is called Nieuwmarktbuurt and lies amid the many others that together form Amsterdam. Walking through the Buitenbantammerstraat to the Prins Hendrikkade, I think of the first time I heard Guus's music. It must have been in November of 1980, when the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra performed his Toonen at Vredenburg Music Centre in Utrecht. Or was it before that? Toonen had been performed a month earlier in Donaueschingen, and I seem to remember something about a radio broadcast, with the audience buzzing in indignation.
The music of Guus Janssen was - and still is - wayward. Very Dutch too, like the bicycles here: rickety and rattling perhaps, but more economical and manoeuvrable than any other means of transportation. It is possible that people outside Holland do not always see its charms. But I am devoted to Guus's music, in roughly the same way I am devoted to my bicycle.
I have seen him improvising at the BIM-house, also nearby, but in the next village, across the water of the Oude Schans. Raging, bone-dry martellato's, as though he were trying to hammer his fingers through the keyboard. I heard him play the harpsichord in The IJsbreker. Pogo III, the piece was called, teeming with tones hopping about like so many trained fleas. I ran into him in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw when Riccardo Chailly conducted Keer. ‘What that man does... that the piece sparkles everywhere’, said Guus. ‘It's as though he gave it a good buffing with Lemon Pledge.’ His face sparkled too.

There is a splendid view of the IJ from where Guus lives. His home, though not so bare as it was ten years ago, is still soberly furnished. I dropped by on several occasions. The first time was in 1984, just after he won the Matthijs Vermeulen Prize (Amsterdam's annual music reward) for his composition Temet: completing the recognition of his dual musical career, for he had been awarded the Boy Edgar Prize for Jazz and Improvised Music three years before this.
As soon as I come in he begins telling me about the piece he is working on: a rush assignment for the final concert of Gidon Kremer's Carte Blanche Series in the Concertgebouw. It is for a small ensemble in which, next to the violin, a high-hat is prominently featured. ‘It will probably fall outside of all accepted and even non-accepted norms’, says Guus. ‘I took the assignment on condition that I could base the work on some existent material of mine. To write it from scratch would have been impossible in the month they're giving me. I've taken a theme from Hi-hat: it's also on my solo CD. I imitated the hi-hat on the piano in that piece. On the CD I improvised an elaboration of the theme, but I could just as well compose it. It's to be a kind of essay on jazz: swing, in this case. About a swinging violin, and a swinging violin quickly sounds wrong to my ear.’
‘Whenever I think of the violin in a jazz context, I remember a character from one of Pasolini's films, I don't recall which. A man called Herdhitze, a blue-blooded type, who lives somewhere on an estate in Germany. He expounds incredibly frightening theories. Speaks German with an Italian accent and, to top it off, preferably while playing a harp. I can't forget that image, or the name. I want to recreate the same feeling in this piece. The name really fits too, it has something so sharp about it. Kremer is looking for a lighter segment in his programme - he said a homage to Stephane Grappelli, but at the same time he sounded ambiguous about it. I'll give him the lightness, but then with a Herdhitzian undertone, which may turn out to be extremely macabre.’

In what way does it fall outside of all acceptable norms?
‘The hi-hat: first I'll poke around with it, almost literally. Eventually, it will start playing that same basic pattern it always does in jazz, but endlessly varied and elaborated on. One could ask if this isn't going too far: the hi-hat pattern is jazz, no bones about it. A different composer would leave it aside. But it's another one of those trivial interests of mine. I can't defend it, I just do it. And then hope it turns out to be a good piece.’
A state of marvelling, in no way clashing with his levelheadedness, is a natural condition in Guus's personality. He seeks out and gives form to the logic of amazement in his music. This is often confusing, and at times even extraordinarily comic.
Preludium, the first improvisation on his harpsichord CD, opens like a piece by Scarlatti, but, shifting gears abruptly, it thoroughly derails, and before you know it, it lands in a distorted blues pattern. Anything can happen, but the disarray is never without its own order. His improvisations are veritable instant-compositions, hence he is not a jazz musician. He always puts jazz between quotation marks.

‘I look for material that's suitable for carving-up’, he says. ‘And that's not Wagner, at least not for me. It's not that I don't find his music beautiful, it's incredibly beautiful, but even today almost everyone is preoccupied with it. A lot of times I have the feeling that we're still living in a sort of convulsions of the Romantic Era, at least in composed classical music. Really abendländisch - the field has been literally exhausted. I feel exhaustion creeping over me whenever I consider adding something to it.’
‘Jazz, to me, is a kind of musical reality - one of the many in fact - and this reality can be taken as a starting point in creating something. It can be confronted with a separate reality, or elements of the one can be transplanted to the other, and so on. Many composers consciously close themselves to these types of realities. They keep trying to follow a single path, and that's enough. Not that I don't try to do this too, but it's very nice to look around me along the way.'
‘I recognize there are many different paths, each with its own charm. You're free to choose a prickly mountain trail, but you could also take a pleasant beach boulevard. And on top of it, all these different paths influence each other too. This range of possibilities really appeals to me. Don't forget, in life too, if all goes well, you come across the most widely divergent things. I once read in an interview with Edo de Waart that he has model trains. That's intriguing. He conducts a symphony by Mahler, or an entire opera by Wagner, and then goes home and plays with a model train. In composing, similar things are possible. It's not so easy in performing, but a composer can integrate the two worlds, so to speak. Of course, the crucial issue is in how far the artistic personality remains intact.’
‘Another example that comes to mind is Philip Guston, the American painter friend of Morton Feldman. For years he worked at monochrome surfaces and very abstract things. But when he came home from his studio he would sit at the kitchen table sketching, let's say, an ashtray. The incongruity of the situation nagged at him more and more. There was something wrong with it: he got every bit as much pleasure from drawing the ashtray but he had no desire to give up his studio. Then he thought: “I'll just make a painting of the ashtray.” That was at the end of his career. In the portrait of Feldman on his collected essays, made by Guston, you can see the same dilemma: it's unheard of, an abstract painter drawing a head like that with a cigarette dangling from the lips. I think it's wonderful. But it would be better not to wait an entire lifetime, seventy years, before saying: “I think I'll go ahead and allow myself to use a triad in my music again”’

It must have been in 1965 that Guus's piano teacher, Piet Groot, let him hear a Donemus LP of Peter Schat's Concerto da camera. Guus, fourteen years old, knew immediately: That's what I'm going to do one day.
‘That composing began in the shadow of my piano studies. There was not a thought in my mind of becoming a Tchaikovsky or something like that.’ He consciously chose to study composition with Ton de Leeuw, even though his interest lay more along the lines of people like Schat and Louis Andriessen: ‘It's very risky to take lessons from someone you already imitate. It's no good for your development.’
‘Even before that time, I was interested in doing things with the psychology of music making: what happens when you botch a passage, or you're nervous. Ton de Leeuw was against it. He said it was too anecdotal. That's a stock objection that has dogged me for a very long time and I still don't understand it.’

I have an inkling of what they mean. In Toonen for example, you let the main theme return as though it were on a pick-up at 33 rpm, then later at 78 rpm, and it sounds in the end as if the needle gets stuck in the groove. There's some story behind it, and it does in fact add an extra-musical dimension.
‘True’, admits Guus. ‘But you could go on to ask if there's anything wrong with that. That type of aural information didn't exist before the pick-up. So it's impossible that anyone could have got the idea of using it. But historically, there certainly have been composers who used the things they heard around them. The clatter of horses' hooves for instance has often found its way into music. But you don't hear it in the streets anymore, so it's no longer used. It's all a matter of how you handle such things.’

It is tempting to compare Guus's way of speaking to his music: one moment faltering, circumspect, hesitant, and then fluent, teeming with asides and unfinished sentences. But in his music, these qualities are premeditated.
‘Most times I come up with the material sooner than the form. In any case, I'm not a composer to choose a form and then fill it in. Usually, it works both ways: a composition grows, like an organism. If one arm grows, so must the other, and that's a very complicated business in composing. The context changes with each new alteration, so it can lead to endless rewriting, or to cutting and pasting.’
‘I love a kind of folly. But good folly has to be done well, it can't be corny. in Keer I wanted to construct a texture that keeps dissolving, but each dissolution poses at the same time the following question. I imagined waves dashing on the shore, washing over each other. The question was: what material would fit the image? And then: what tools were need to shape the material? In a manner of speaking, I had to equip an entire studio before getting started.’
Now sheets of music line the table. Schemes with chords and rhythms. Guus relates that in earlier compositions he often employed a type of ‘endless modulation principle’ through the circle of fifths. He began with a few tones from the scale of C that would immediately modulate to G, then D, and so on. The quicker he swirled through the circle of fifths, the less ‘tonal’ the music sounded. But through constant alterations in the rate of modulation, the music would evoke tonal associations, without actually being so.
Other compositions, namely Bruusk, were based on the overtone series of the bass clarinet (ex. 1). Concealed in this series, made up of the uneven harmonies, are, moreover, two dominant seventh chords. In Keer, he combined the two principles by applying the endless modulation principle to the Bruusk chord. ‘I had to resort to all kinds of tricks to close that immense hole at the base, it's gaping’

Guus let the 'root' of each following chord leap one or more octaves (a), omitted in many cases the lowest tone of the chord - as well as the very highest 'peaks' (b) -, and expanded each chord to a twelve-voice texture by foreshadowing the following chord (c). The result was an extended cycle of 'tone reservoirs', that enabled him to build the 'string-instrument clouds' he envisioned (d).

‘I very much like the idea of combining that tenet of twelve-tone technique (that all twelve tones be sounded before moving on) with something so simple and natural as the overtone series', he said in a lecture about his music. ‘It results in the trompe l'oeil of a music that is boundless and directionless but at the same time seeks out directions in a mad way (unrationalized and machine-like). Is there harmonic progression in the music or not? In Keer the pitch machine also runs at repeatedly changed rates. When it looks as though it will come to a stop, we hear endless chains of arpeggiated dominant-seventh chords.'

In this way, Guus consistently probes the margin between the familiar and the unheard of. ‘The only way I've ever been able to listen to strict serial music is by recognizing things in it: Ah... I hear a fifth, or a triad, or even a children's song. We are evidently conditioned this way. That's what comes from a lifetime of musical education. Maybe there are people who can shut it off. That would be ideal, of course, at least for this music. Then it would be appreciated on its own terms, so to speak.’

Yet, you often work with rows, I counter. Is that an influence of serial thought?
‘In a sense, I began with serialism. I made actual twelve-tone compositions when I was fourteen, in my own primitive way, of course. And now... I certainly turn to rows for more than just working out the pitches, for rhythmic things too a lot of the time, although you can hardly hear it in the music. It often comes up when I'm trying to construct a continuum, something that moves but doesn't develop. If approached intuitively - to my mind, the better way - then it's off to a good start, but things creep in unnoticed. After a few bars it might turn out to be much too fast, proportionately, to the beginning. So then there would be development. If you're clever about using rows, you can avoid problems like this.’
‘The hi-hat pattern, say, could be written in such a way that it begins to waver. I could get this effect by running it through a grid that has a variable pulse in itself.’ Guus takes a piece of paper and begins to write: quintuplet, quadruplet, triplet, quadruplet. ‘This isn't what is played, it's the grid that the hi-hat pattern is pushed through. 3:2:1, very simple actually. Essentially, a form of isorhythmic thought, I'd say.’

‘Now, if we play this...’, but then the craftsman takes over: ‘No... this doesn't really work, does it. Well, if we were to do something with the accents, you could hear it a bit, it would sound like a very drunken hi-hat
Guus based a number of compositions on this principle, among which are Voetnoot (see example) for piccolo, and the orchestral piece Deviaties. ‘Deviaties is totally based on a 2:1 ratio, the swinging rhythm, in fact. This caught my imagination for the simple reason that swinging is such a strange phenomenon, it can't be pinned down. I worked it out in repeatedly changing proportions, 3:2, 5:3, and so on. It has a strong stammering effect. But I also coupled it to various tempos in Deviaties, giving, so to speak, one bar a particular rhythmic feel, while the next could suddenly be fast, but with the same stammering effect. I was pleased with how it turned out. A real combination of things you can't combine: rickety but at the same time performed with unswerving consistency. This type of thing can't be done in improvisation.’
‘I'm sure it stems from my dissatisfaction with rhythms that sound like they're being counted. In so much music I get the feeling: oh, this a triplet, or, this is a quintuplet, as the case may be. Even in my own pieces. I don't get that feeling with improvised music. It's the same type of thing with good Baroque music. You don't hear a single sixteenth-note, and in fact it's nothing but. This naturalness of rhythmic flow intrigues me and that's why I do this type of things. It's absolutely impossible to hear any given metre or even an accented beat in Deviaties. Even though everything has been carefully measured out, it sounds haphazard.’

At home, rummaging through my LPs (yes, I do still play them), I come across Guus's LP of improvisations Tast toe. I am struck by the same shortcircuit when I see the cover. A black and a white pile of rectangular sticks... #shortcircuit# - no... piano keys. Disassembled and then reconstructed in an new way: the perfect metaphor for Guus's music.

Another LP, Guus Janssen on the line, hand-dated April 24, 1980. Apparently, I had come into contact with Guus's music earlier than I had thought. Now I remember having had the score of Brake in my hands, even before the LP. (Looking over Guus's liner notes I read: ‘Someone who makes mistakes while playing will try to regain control by slowing down (the rallentando), which is also what happens in this piece.’) The notes looked so strange on paper, I could make neither head nor tail of them.
‘They didn't understand it at all’, says Guus. He is speaking of Juist daarom, written in 1981 for Ensemble M. ‘Well, it is in fact a very strange piece, a dear but peculiar child. But it's the first of a line of compositions, Streepjes and Temet, for example.‘ Giving the impulse to set out on this line was an encounter with Six melodies, an early work of John Cage for violin and piano composed in 1950. ‘I performed it myself, with Jan Erik van Regteren Altena, and it's never really let go of the composer in me. It has such a measured and businesslike quality, and a paper-thin lyricism, a real skating-on-thin-ice-feeling.’
All the reason for Guus to programme Cage's piece in a ‘composer's portrait’ in this years's Holland Festival as a tangent of Guus's opera Noach. Next to his own music, a trio by Wolfgang Rihm will also be performed there. ‘Just a single movement, the others are a bit further from my taste, you might say he expands on Schumann. But the first movement is very concentrated and very sharp. It's also about very primitive musical premises: fifths, unisons, all those basic concepts one finds at the beginning of music theory books. I'm really taken by it and this fellow Rihm is a first-rate composer; especially that breadth of view, something that I perhaps lack.'

I don't quite understand what you mean by breadth of view.
He laughs a bit. ‘How can I put it?... What I do is a sort of burrowing, that's how it feels a bit. And burrowing is burrowing, although it can be done in an very thorough and interesting way. But with Rihm, there's more of that Caspar David Friedrich feeling (a German Romantic painter) and inside that panoramic vision the small human being goes almost unnoticed.’
‘This, too, is not what I want to do. Well, I sometimes do take a stab at it. There's a passage in Noach, for example, describing the sphere of paradise on the island of Mauritius when the dodo still lived there undisturbed. One of these motionless passages. That's my stake when it comes to that breadth-of-vision quality. It's easier in opera. It comes of itself, if for no other reason than that the time is structured. If I were to burrow away throughout the entire two hours of the piece, I think it would be extremely tiring for the audience. So I immediately set out to find ways of creating this tranquil effect. And, obviously, the most beautiful, or starkest contrast to burrowing is doing nothing at all. Call it structured standstill.’
‘It has to do, of course, with the sorts of communication between Mr. and Mrs. Noah. There just aren't any! All shapes and sizes of non-communication, and the most basic form is to totally ignore each other - what normal people do with strangers when they pass them on the street.’

Guus Janssen, the note-burrower, master of the finely etched line, finished an evening-filling canvas last year: Noach. Clearly, it is not your everyday opera, for Guus is Guus. And its librettist, Friso Haverkamp, who had teamed up with the composer in a previous opera, Faust's Licht, is not your everyday writer either.
Noach is a topsy-turvy, cynically framed rendition of the Old Testament story. The dove becomes a Skeleton Bird, the rainbow is transformed into a high-voltage arc of light. Noah is portrayed as a self-appointed god, glorying in the annihilation of animal species. He becomes embroiled in an head-on conflict with his wife, who sides with the animals and, perched on the back of a humpback whale, a ‘counter-ark’, refuses to come aboard.
Guus: ‘The story deals on one level with man's abuse of nature. Noah, for example, has a sort of species-meter, a device for gauging the rate of extinction. In actual fact, it seems that every fifteen minutes an animal species dies out somewhere in the world. This contraption of Noah's measures in actual time, demonstrating over the course of the opera that at least eight sorts of animals have vanished forever. In the two years that I was working on the opera these types of things would come up all the time. I'd be sitting with the newspaper in the morning and read an item about some sea captain pumping oil into the ocean, pictures of birds washed up on the shore. You can imagine him standing there on the bridge: he simply becomes Noah. It fires you up to get down to composing.’
‘It's a real opera, though, about emotions, expressions of feeling... but not in the sense you find so much in classical operas: am I in love or am I not? Noah's raving lunacy stands at one end of the spectrum, and Mrs. Noah, with her profound sorrow and rage, is at the other end. That was something very new to me, I had to dig into very different reserves. It was beautiful at the concert performance of Wening, the fourth act, that people were really moved - which is also very operatic, in a Verdian sense.’

Noach is scored for an enlarged setting of Guus's own ensemble, which appears in the production under the name of New Artis Orchestra - with the permission of Artis, Amsterdam's zoo. Guus describes the final product, a score of 400 pages, as being ‘as full of holes as a Swiss cheese’. Alongside the through-composed sections, namely, are segments for improvisation, guided by various sets of rules. In addition, there is a battery of electronic apparatus: a vast array of taped (mostly animal) sounds, ring modulators, etcetera. ‘Really old-fashioned stuff’, says Guus, ‘but for what I needed, these Sixties-tools work the best.’
‘The music was made in the same way as the pieces I write for my ensemble. The composed parts are even rather simple. All those things I'm up against in composed music have no part in improvisation. On the contrary, that over-tight rhythmic quality you find in a lot of composed music comes to good effect here. It can be a catalyst for all kinds of escapades.’
The catch to this overall conception is that the opera can only be performed by the musicians for whom it was written. The participation of the Tuva Ensemble, a company of Siberian overtone-singers, makes it unlikely that it will be produced again after its series of performances in June comes to an end [* I was wrong here].
‘The Tuvans sing the fluting of the wind, that was the first association that came to my mind and that's the reason I asked them. Wind plays an essential role in the opera. But, they also sing the “wind” in the sense of “anima” or “spiritus”, the soul or spirit. You can imagine all those extinct animals hovering over the stage in the form of wind.’
‘Not so long ago, I heard Stravinsky's The Flood, and there's a moment in it too where Noah's wife hesitates. It's just a brief moment, strange enough, and ten seconds later she's persuaded. In my piece it lasts two hours an even then she won't come aboard. She understands that it's all Noah's delusion and she takes the side of nature and the free animals.’
Little solace is to be found in the close of the opera. Everything comes crashing down. But the story could start again where it left off. Guus: ‘It closes with the line it began with. Open ended, and that's a good thing too. Just imagine if it had turned out a moralistic tale.’

The next time I see Guus is on the 1st of March. Gidon Kremer has just finished playing in the Concertgebouw and a small crowd throngs outside his greenroom. Among them, I see Guus Janssen and Theo Loevendie, both with a score tucked under the arm. They both have been granted an audience. Guus waves cheerfully.
Printed on the cover of the score is the title Klotz. ‘I looked it up’, he says. ‘It comes from Porcile. And the man who plays the harp is Klotz, not Herdhitze.’ We leaf through the pages. ‘Look at this’, gushes Guus, pointing at one part. ‘I'm especially pleased with this.’

What does that mean, ‘civettuolo’, I ask. ‘Flirtatious’, answers Guus. ‘That's now exactly what I mean.’ Then the door opens and score in hand, he is swept along inside.
Translated by John Lydon

© Frits van der Waa 2006