dutch version

CD liner notes, spring 1996

Cornelis de Bondt:
Actus Tragicus

Cornelis de Bondt: 'There was a kind of depth inherent in tonality. In the twentieth century, with the falling away of tonality, this depth has also disappeared from music. I don't want tonality back, but I want what could be reached with it. And that is depth, space, drama.'

It will strike many as paradoxical thay a composer who strives for drama can, in the process, make such intensive use of tools as clinical as numbers and, more extreme still, the computer. But the paradox is spurious. De Bondt is not dependent on the power of numbers. Quite the reverse, in fact. He exploits it. He gives the numbers their marching orders and then lets them get on with it untll they do what he wants. This costs time and effort, and therefore the composer leaves the humble spade work to the computer. In the next stage there is still so much resistance to overcome that the energy input seems to reverberate through the final result.

While the number of works which De Bondt has written in the last twenty years might be termed modest, the works themselves are anything but. Apart from a few occasional pieces they are uncompromising, demanding and large-scale, imposing musical rituals in which the composer again and again returns to confront the past and to search for the missing hierarchical values of former times, but without falling back on the obsolete grammar of tonality.

But vestiges of this very tonality turn up all the time in his music, like half-erased footprints. Thus the four works which together form the cycle Het Gebroken Oor (Broken Ear, 1983/87) are based on fragments from Bach, Beethoven, Purcell and Schönberg. The processes which De Bondt lets loose on them are however so extreme that by the time the composition reveals its origins it has already left them far behind.

With De Tragische Handeling (Actus Tragicus), written in 1992/93, De Bondt in some sense returns to his own past, and at the same time to that of the ensemble LOOS for which the piece was written. The five musicians of LOOS make up exactly one half of the renowned Hoketus ensemble of fond memory, for which De Bondt wrote his scarcely less renowned Bint in 1980.

Bint was minimal music, albeit of an unusually climactic sort. De Tragische Handeling is not, but possesses a similar severe (although much more complex) structure. The repeated appearance of the fifth C-G is a quite conscious reference to Bint, in which this interval plays the key role.

After the first performance on 6 November 1993, I wrote as follows: 'The building blocks of De Tragische Handeling are few in number. Violent drum beats. Crunching low dissonances on the piano, the guitar and the bass guitar. In the middle register we mostly hear horrible tenor-sax screeches (all meticulously notated by the composer). High above this layer of anti-aesthetic, machine-like (but seldom rapid) sound we hear chords like tongues of flame, sustained with the help of sample machinery, with ever more painful high notes on the sopranino clarinet.

To all this is added, unobtrusively at first, but then more prominent, a boy soprano (the only sound in the piece which is not generated live). With these elements De Bondt forms a web which slowly, over the course of fifty crushing minutes, closes in on itself, unpredictable but inescapable.'

Two years later I again attended a performance of the piece, and the image of those tongues of flame forcibly returned. The five musicians, as they stood there toiling away, seemed like mythlcal smiths in the midst of a titanic sheet of fire forged of the endless, complex sounds which they were producing.

The music of De Tragische Handeling is, first of all, an absolute, abstract music; it is about the notes. But still the piece has a theatrical component to which even the most brilliant recording cannot do justice. Strangely enough, the dramatic effect rests partly on the tension between technical and live performance: the fact that the electronics stretch out the sounds made by the players to virtually infinite lengths, easing them free of thelr origins, bestows a kin of superhuman status on the making.

It is the musicians themselves who control this process (although the assistance of a sound technician is vital). The reed player (Peter van Bergen) and the pianist (Gerard Bouwhuis) each service two digital effect processors. Using pedals they can feed in the sound, and let it fade out, as required.

De Bondt used this equipment for the first time in De Namen der Goden, and again recently in Dame Blanche. The sound produced is unpolished (especially when one reverberating sound is stacked upon another) and not entirely predictable, given that tiny variations in the performance have a considerable effect on the output of the equipment. 'In one way it is very primitive', says De Bondt, 'But if you set it next to Boulez with his whole IRCAM I think it sounds rather good'.

As the title suggests, De Tragische Handeling has the character of a ritual or, more specifically, of a requiem. The title is taken from Bach's Cantata No. 106, the 'actus tragicus', Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit. In Bach too it is funeral music. One component of De Bondt's composition – the notes of the sampled boy soprano – comes directly from this cantata, from the passage where, above the three lower voices (with the text: Es ist der alte Bund: Mensch, Du musst sterben ['Twas from the first decreed: Man, thou must perish]) a joyous soprano part continuously sings: Ja, ja, komm, Herr Jesu, komm [Yea come, yea come, Lord Jesus come!J and finally, when the wheels stop turning, dissolves in a solitary liberating melisma – as of the soul leaving the body. This final melisma also forms the conclusion to De Tragische Handeling.

The work is, according to the composer, wholly based on series of the type 1 / 1-2-1 / 1-2-3-2-1 / 1-2-3-4-3-2-1 etc. where it is understood that the 'curve' of this series can also be projected on itself: 1 / 1-2-1 / 1 / 1-2-1 / 1-2-3-2-1 / 1-2-1 / 1 / 1-2-1 /1-2-3-2-1 / 1-2-3-4-3-2-1 / 1-2-3-2-1 etc. Virtually all the parameters of the work are set by means of these series (or rather: networks of series). For example, even the vowel sounds (not audible as such) sung by saxophonist Peter van Bergen follow this system, not to mention the duration of the chords and the intervals from which they are compiled. Another important principle is the arsis-thesis figure, which is clearly audible in the guitar parts (and elsewhere) as a continual alternation between sustained and staccato notes.

Although on listening the piece declares itself unmistakably as a crossfire of contractions and expansions, a detailed analysis of the score – even with this key to hand – turns out to be rather less simple (apart from the very basic structures). We find a straight-forward example, not yet grown too large to grasp, in the percussion part [bars 339-351 - * The note example was not printed in the booklet and unfortunately has become since mislaid]. The basic pattern of the composition is clearly visible in the eight drums between bar 341 and 348, albeit in groups (separated by rests) which reflect the numerical logic of the series: (4x2 / 3x2 / 2x2 / 1x2 / 2x2 / 3x2 ... etc.). In bar 349, on the seventh 32nd, an 'inversion' of this pattern begins. The deployment of these groups is again related to a pattern in the time structure carried by the bass drums (which can also be heard in the guitars). Each group is no more than the arsis-thesis figure of two notes, but the lengths of these notes expand according to the pattern 1 / 1-2-1 / 1 / 1-2-3-2-1 / 1 / 1-2-3-4-3-2-1.

The overall form is also built up from a series of expanding arcs, six in total, preceded by a short infroduction and followed by an impressive percussion solo, which functions as a 'coda' or 'final chord'. Each of these arcs consist of three segments: a build-up (A), a climax (B), and a gradual decline (C). The start of each segment (there are twenty in all, including the introductory and closing passages) is clearly signalled by a blow on a Tibetan temple bowl (the score specifies a 'Mass bell'), a sound which is also repeated a number of times in the C segments.

The length of the A and B segments (build-up and climax) remains relatively constant, a few fluctuations notwithstanding (thus the first A section is conspicuously long, like an exposition). By contrast, the C segments (decline) expand enormously; the sixth is nearly eight times as long as the first. The form this expansion takes is chiefly that of an increasingly extreme 'dilution' with long notes and rests, so that the music seems to fall almost silent; finally, however, the A-flat clarinet holds the 'nothingness' at bay with long, painful strings of falling notes.

The piece is tailor-made for the members of LOOS. The composer has also awarded them all a kind of solo. In the first B segment Peter van Bergen is allowed to let rip on the tenor sax (not his only great moment, however – he also plays dominant solos in other parts of the piece). In the third B segment the guitars of Patricio Wang and Huib Emmer emerge to take the foreground and the fourth contains a cadenza-like piano solo. Here we meet strange sequences of dominant seventh chords, an echo of Schumann's piano concerto discovered by De Bondt in the course of composition (and thereafter somewhat accentuated). In the final solo, as mentioned above, the leading role is reserved for the percussionist, Paul Koek.

At the premiere of De Tragische Handeling De Bondt made a brief statement. 'That which applies to most of my works, applies to Bint and De Tragische Handeling in great measure. They are not written to please, seduce, or worse still amuse, you the listener. Even less are my works an attempt to imitate or describe nature; they are not a direct expression (or report) of my emotions, because I don't need music for that. But it is true that emotions play an important role in the production of a work. This applies not only to my own work, but to every work of art which touches me: the work itself contains no emotion, it portrays no emotion, but it stands alongside emotion. And thus it does refer to emotions, but always at a certain remove; always in a general sense. [...J You make love with your beloved and mourn someone's death with your family and friends. Art has nothing to do with these intimate occasions. [...J Nature leaves a trail; Art leaves a trail beside it. Nature gives life and takes away life; man sets an action beside it. Nothing more, nothing less. Either directly, as a result of a concrete event, or indirectly, in a general sense, and then it really becomes great, but we would not do it for less; art is then no longer about that one death or about this one lover, but about Life and about Death.'

(transl.: Rob Bland)

© Frits van der Waa 2007