dutch version

Text for a Donemus brochure, June 1994

Guus Janssen: the construction of ramshackleness

On the left a pile of black, on the right a pile of white sticks. It takes a while before you begin to realize just what is depicted in the illustration of the Guus Janssen tast toe (Guus Janssen takes hold) LP. Black, white, elongate; not merely sticks...

Yes, of course. The keys of a piano.

The illustration offers a perfect metaphor for Janssen's music. Something taken apart, then reconstructed in a new way, the basic premise at the centre of the vast majority of Janssen's work.

Innocence goes hand in hand with sophistication. He does not rebel against traditions but always approaches them via a detour. The order in his music always takes an unexpected form, and is so painstakingly prepared that listener is caught unawares and often inwardly amused. This talent alone, the gift to be humorous with tones, makes Janssen's work unique in contemporary composition. But there are even more reasons for labelling him as the Dutch Haydn.

Janssen is one of the few musicians active in both improvised and composed music. Yet his compositions are anything but notated improvisations, and his improvisations, however impromptu, are remarkably concentrated and bear witness to sense of form.

His recycling of 'worn out' chords, ragged progressions of tones, and his predilection for tinkering with the instruments could be labelled deconstructivism, were it not that such a pretentious term would ill-suit the playfulness of his music. Moreover, this deconstruction is just the very beginning. The constructive element that follows it is every bit as important, if not the most important of all.

The string quartet Streepjes (Streaks), composed in 1981, is perhaps one of Janssen's most characteristic works. The piece is mostly made up of natural flageolette tones, but by tuning one string of each of the four instruments differently, the composer has all twelve tones of the octave (within a certain range) at his disposal. So doing, Janssen remoulds the quartet to a single flageolette instrument that can hardly do more than play a single-voiced line: note by note, the four players put the melody together.

As ponderous and laborious as this method may seem, so elegant and spiritual is the music that Janssen gains from it. The brittle butterfly flights of Streepjes are like the most dexterously played glass harmonica. Shutters open from time to time in this texture, whose tonal threads sometimes rise to the surface of the predominantly chromatic language, letting out the sound of chords played 'normally', complete with classical-string-quartet vibrato. The rough-sounding passages of Streepjes (like the unruly wriggling from chord to chord in the midmost section) are carefully designed and are an important component of the musical narrative.

Streepjes is unusual music, but this is only partially caused by the built-in handicap. Janssen's tinkering away with the instruments is no more than a means to an end. He comes up with comparable results in other compositions, using normal instruments. The point of departure in Ut re mi sol la, for eleven instruments, is a pentatonic scale – let's say the black keys of the piano – which, to begin with, is torn asunder by all of its degrees being taken an octave too large. As the music progresses, the scale first begins a peregrination and then some of these wandering scales are superimposed over one another. A mostly single-voiced line results, with each player contributing his tones – like in Streepjes - and where branches of the five beginning tones form chromatic and even 'atonal' patterns. But the music is much less streamlined here than in Streepjes. The rhythm jerks and totters along, and each additional tone must at first be conjured by a glissando.

This simulated exertion, where the music must overcome strong resistance merely to move on, is characteristic of many of Janssen's compositions and is undoubtedly tied up with his experiences as an improvising musician. Aside from appearing with his own Guus Janssen Septet and Trio, Janssen also performs as a solo pianist and for several years now as a harpsichordist as well. 'When I improvise I'm trying to polish diamonds', he said in 1984, 'but at the same time I also think that the mistakes are an important part of improvisation: like having to pass through a deep valley, terror, thrashing around in search of a mouse hole that will lead to freedom. The funny thing is that it's precisely the moments of walking on burning coals, struggling to keep your head above water, that later prove to have a kind of beauty you didn't suspect at the moment itself. The valleys are important as well for they force you to take a jump out of the precarious situation, and you land somewhere that you didn't know was in you. It's a somewhat uncomfortable experience but I don't avoid it. Sometimes it yields material which later crops up in a written composition; things I never would have come across just sitting at a writing table.'

Janssen has a gift for stylizing the anecdotal into something with an abstract quality. He shapes chaos and 'misplaced' notes into a new logic. His compositions are abound in laws: tone rows that modulate according to some pattern, rhythmic machinations that run to what he himself calls 'ramshackleness': awkward accelerating and decelerating patterns as though rhythm were driven by mismatched cogwheels. But at the same time, Janssen never slavishly submits to the laws he creates. Predictability and uniformity are staved off by complementary rules of the game. Similar to the classical quartet sound forcing its way into the flageolettes of Streepjes, the statically swirling bodies of strings in the orchestral piece Keer are progressively 'turned back' by their 'obligation' of imitating with pizzicatos the protracted brass chords.

An equally essential component of Janssen's vocabulary is his way of splicing the elements: a quick or slow, but always abrupt shift of contrasting 'musics', each usually characterized by its own spacing, register, instrumentation and tempo. In the second segment of Keer, this principle – complete with 'switch ticks' provided by the percussion - is blatantly at work. Although any semblance of regularity is cut off at the roots, a gradual and extraordinarily exhilarating quickening of pace sets in.

Thus, rules and their undermining hold each other in perpetual balance and not for a moment does the laborious headway hide that Janssen is a master of form. Many of his compositions are in a three-part form with a sort of exposition, development, and recapitulation. Other pieces have more the character of variation rows. In this respect, his music leans towards classicistic simplicity.

The large-scale, monumental, the expressive and grand gesture of Romanticism is not to be found in Janssen's path, although his most recent work shows a slight preference for a somewhat broader, more harmonically oriented flow. His interest lies in the abstract - whether it be the abstraction of a bar pianist or of the overtone series - and a weightlessness that can lead to a certain lyricism. As important as the instrumental sound may be in his music, the main issue is still the structure of tones (it is no coincidence that his first orchestral work is entitled Toonen (Tones).

This classicistic bias and aversion for ballast (and who knows, perhaps the composer's modest nature as well) are in perfect keeping with the small-scale range and setting of much of Janssen's music, and it comes as no surprise that there are hardly any vocal compositions in his list of works.

Nevertheless, the few vocal works that Janssen has written are certainly impressive. The compressed texts by Friso Haverkamp taken up in the choirwork Zonder (Without), the radio cantata Faust's licht (Faust's Light) – both composed in 1986 –, and the opera Noach (Noah, 1993), fit Janssen's music like a glove a hand.

Faust's licht is to opera what Streepjes is to the string quartet. The absurd, deathly earnest, but illogical quality we call nonsense reigns supreme throughout this opera - originally conceived as a scenic work but later revised to a concertante, but no less theatrical, version. Even the Leitmotiv techniques applied by Janssen take on a nearly surrealistic form.

Janssen has also made forays into the realm of music for the theatre. He has worked on many occasions with mime Teo Joling. His part in Bianca van Dillen's ballet Dag en Nacht (Day and Night) should not go unmentioned for the entire project was so Janssenian. Janssen played the music beforehand into the Vorsetzer (roughly speaking, a computerized pianola), which was developed at the electronic studio of the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam. During the performance, the dancers, could influence the succession of parts, the tempo, and the amount of notes sounding at any given moment with the help of eight switches and they would of course tailor their movements to match the music.

The opera Noach, premiered in the Holland Festival 1994 with stage design by Karel Appel, also makes frequent demands on the players' input, although considerable passages of it have been thoroughly notated in the score. The performance will bring together the New Artis Orchestra (a reinforced Guus Janssen Septet) with the Tuva Ensemble, a company of Siberian overtone singers. In a sarcastic tone, it creates havoc with the Old Testament story. Noah is portrayed as a self-made God who delights in the destruction of animal species. He is thwarted by his wife, who sides with the animals and refuses to board the ark.

Janssen: 'There's an element dealing with man's abuse of nature in the story, something I endlessly found confirmed in the two years I was working on the opera. You read a story in the morning newspaper about a sea captain dumping oil overboard, complete with photos of birds drenched in the muck that were washed ashore. You try to picture the captain standing on the bridge: Noah, of course. It puts you in the right frame of mind for the composition.'

But Noach is not a Greenpeace opera. It is also a tale of rage, sorrow and the failure to communicate, of building and destruction. It is only fitting that the opera makes a full come-about, ending as it began. 'Open ended', says Janssen. 'It had to be that way. Just imagine it had turned out a moralistic tale.'

(transl.: John Lydon)

© Frits van der Waa 2007