dutch version

Pubished in Key Notes, October 1996

Love, death and the pencil-sharpener

by Frits van der Waa and Emile Wennekes

Working boldly on the grand scale Cornelis de Bondt strives to recapture the space and depth of tonality. He is assisted in the task by a battery of computer programmes. But cerebrality is only one side of the coin. `Watch out, he might well be the most intuitive of us all!'

Their last recorded sighting was in a glass jar standing in the room of the Viennese coroner's assistant Anton Dotter. After that the trail goes cold. A few years after his death, Beethoven's damaged petrosal bones (from the inner ear) disappeared, but that is less of a disappointment than the doctors would have us believe. It is true that modern medical analysis of these relics might explain the cause of his deafness, but we would at the same time be deprived of a host of spicy speculations. Did Beethoven suffer from syphilis? A bone condition? Or Paget's Disease? Was Hyperostosis Corticalis Generalisata the cause, or was it Van Buchem-Hadder's Disease?

The explanation can also be sought, however, in a quite different area: in the music itself. One of the most intriguing ideas on Beethoven's deafness comes not from a doctor but from a composer: Cornelis de Bondt (b. 1953 in The Hague). His theory is that Beethoven could not help but go deaf because, while composing, he was constantly hearing the piece upon which he was working in its entirety – indeed, he must have been, or he would not have been able to write such organic music. Cornelis de Bondt took this theme as the subject for his music-theatre piece Beethoven is Doof [Beethoven is Deaf] (1993), but he also uses the metaphor of Beethoven's deafness to express an essential problem which remains a daily experience for the contemporary composer.

De Bondt: 'In the development of the First Movement of the Fifth Symphony there is a fantastic movement. From g minor he goes right down and finally comes out in A double flat major. And then the incredible happens! Just before the reprise he brings about a inimitable synthesis between the mottoes of the first and second themes. The rhythm is that of the second theme motto, the pitch is based on the thirds from the first theme. At this point the A double flat changes into the key of G. In a fraction of a second he shoots through the circle of fifths. You hear the moment of transition because this G suddenly turns out to be the dominant in C again. Et voilà: the reprise has begun. For me that moment is the symbol of the perfect synthesis. That is turning form into object.'

'The consequences of this are awesome, because if you think it through it means that every time you have an idea you also have to compose its relationship with all the other moments. Thus you have constantly to hear the piece as a whole. Then you go deaf. It can't be otherwise. This is the ultimate result of the discovery of musical notation. From the moment that music is written down, the composer is obliged to oversee the whole, because otherwise he might as well be improvising.'

In order to oversee the whole, to realize order and unity in his compositions, Cornelis de Bondt makes use of an ingenious system of computer programmes which is being constantly perfected as the years go by. You could say that, on the one hand, De Bondt uses the computer like a medieval model book, where isolated figures and forms were written down to be later adapted in endless variations and disguises into new works of art. On the other hand, the computer functions as a clever assistant who can rapidly screen innumerable models for their suitability.

De Bondt: 'For example, I use this chord from De Namen der Goden [The Names of the Gods] (1992-92), my piece for two piano's and electronics, as a model [chord 4]. I start by analyzing the chord to discover why the sound appeals to me. The bass is nice and low in relation to the other notes, there is an augmented triad but at the same time it has something tonal about it; I hear a major sixth, a minor second inversion. I then give the computer the task of producing chords in which there must be at least a tenth distance between the lowest two notes, and I put in a number of other preferences and limitations. For example, I don't want conventional root triads to be in there. Suppose I want to use a series of six note chords as the foundation for a piece, based on the mode C/C♯/D/E♭/F/F♯/G/A/B♭/C (that is; three minor seconds, major second, two minor seconds, major second, minor second, major second). I then encode this series via numbers in the programme and set the computer computing.

'Out of half a million possible chords the computer takes less than an hour to select around 50 which are all built on the same bass note. I then play through all these chords on the piano and immediately throw a lot of them away. This consonance [chord 7] is too jazzy – you have to watch out with diminished chords – chuck it. This chord [chord 9] sounds like a Hollywood gangster movie – no good. In the end there is only a handful of usable chords left.'

Thus on this basic level a degree of unity is already guaranteed. One side effect of this method is that it sets the composer off on new tracks and becomes a kind of self-generating system providing almost inexhaustible riches.

The model chosen might be an original chord for De Bondt to embroider upon (as with this chord from De Namen der Goden) or it can refer to something else (as if the composer briefly assumes the role of chorographer attempting to recapitulate the musical landscape from a distant past in a single gesture). The placing of a diminished seventh chord in the piano piece Grand Hotel (1985-89) presents the listener with the whole spectrum of Beethoven's piano sonatas in freeze-dried form. And not just the sound, but a whole pianistic tradition. 'De Bondt sets the world of the piano virtuosi, who are primarily concerned with phrasing, use of the pedal, legato and other facets of the sound, against that of musicians for whom the notes come first', writes Paul Luttikhuis in the Donemus brochure (1993) on De Bondt.

And just as one little chord can stand as a model, so a complete composition can function as a matrix, without being automatically expressed in quotations which are immediately recognizable as such. The ground plan of Het Gebroken Oor [The Broken Ear], written in 1983-4 for the Schönberg Ensemble, has its origin in fragments from Schönberg's Kammersymphonie op.9. In the orchestral work De Deuren Gesloten [Doors Closed] (1984) the funeral march from the Eroica is reworked, as is the aria 'When I am laid in earth' from Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. There are other examples: in La Fine d'una Lunga Giornata (1987, for large ensemble) the listener hears a quotation from Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles and use is made of a chord series taken from the B flat minor fugue from Book I of the Well Tempered Klavier. Dame Blanche (1995, for large orchestra and recorders) is founded on four medieval songs, and we can also hear fragments pared from Fauré's song, La Lune Blanche.

De Bondt: 'In Het Gebroken Oor I was not particularly concerned with penetrating to the musical essence of the Kammersymphonie op.9. The starting point in this case was purely anecdotal: the complement of the Schönberg Ensemble happens to derive from the Kammersymphonie. At the same time I wanted to do something about the destruction of tonality and this piece was an ideal starting point. But it is decidedly not a remake of the Kammersymphonie in another idiom. To a certain extent the source work is exchangeable; the important thing is that I am doing something with the past, and with the tonal past in particular. And that is because I think that tonal music possessed a depth, a dramatic dimension, which in my opinion has been lost in the twentieth century. I would not even think of writing more tonal music today, but there is a problem here which interests me and I want to solve it as a composer, not as a theorist.'

Working from the overall form is essential for De Bondt and here too the computer renders invaluable service: 'Given the enormous quantity of data generated by the computer, I can choose to adopt a rough method of writing, a kind of crude brush work, in which you lay down a whole layer in one stroke; a rapid sequence of chords, for example. That is just one thing, the actual order is not so important. My real task is to then set something against it, a line or a single note, which enters into a dialogue and thereby becomes suddenly very important. This is way of creating a feeling of space and depth again. For me, it creates a more interesting kind of complexity than in, say, Ferneyhough, who is not concerned about a hierarchy, but merely with adding all sorts of complicated layers. I find it more interesting and actually more complicated for there to be less, but with meaning. That is the advantage of using pieces or fragments from the past. These things sit in your memory, every listener knows them. If you hear a second inversion, you immediately hear all those other pieces. Then you have meaning, and when you add something else to that you create tension.'

This re-use of tonal works from the past provides what De Bondt calls a 'borrowed' sense of drama. 'In one way it is a bit dishonest, a bit like stealing. But if it produces a nice piece, let's get on with it. In fact, I have only done it directly in a limited number of pieces. And in the end the threshold turns out not to be so solid. In pieces like Dipl' Ereoo and De Tragische Handeling [Actus Tragicus] I just made my own chords, and if I look back now I am struck by the fact that a similar sort of idiom was produced, even without old music as a basis.'

By adopting such a model-based, abstract or conceptual approach, Cornelis de Bondt inevitably gives the impression of being a cerebral composer. Even at his final exams at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague somebody was beginning to imply as much, but De Bondt's teacher, Jan van Vlijmen, put in: 'Watch out, he might well be the most intuitive of us all!' And that 'us' was aimed at a board of examiners which, besides Van Vlijmen himself, included Louis Andriessen, Dick Raaijmakers, Ton de Leeuw, Frederic Rzewski, Jan Boerman and Theo Loevendie.

All De Bondt's pieces are written with a specific musician or group of musicians in mind. When he begins a piece the very first thing he does is to imagine himself sitting in the audience: 'I ask myself, "What am I hearing?" Not just the first moment, but what is this piece as a whole doing here? That is what I call the soul of the piece. For as long as I have no answer I do not write a note. When I have the overall form – and that again is a matter of intuition – then it goes quite quickly. But only after a lot of brooding and cursing and careful thought.'

According to De Bondt the cerebral aspect is limited to the tools, to the computer in this case. 'The role of the cerebral system is comparable to that pencil sharpener over there; it is a technical aid. You can have a load of nice ideas, but at a given moment they must be materialized. And for that you need techniques, and that involves craftsmanship. It is intuition which makes the piece, which ultimately determines its identity, which lends the soul to the music. But the one cannot exist without the other. Both aspects are necessary and are powerless without each other. That is the interesting thing about art in general and about music in particular. This is why I find Bach such a good composer. His music is both cerebral and intuitive. The musicality of the fugue structures and contrapuntal principles goes far beyond the intellectual aspect. He plays with it, he sublimates it. Maybe that is why Bach puts in an appearance in so many of my pieces.'


(a telephone rings)
'Good Evening, Amsterdam Callgirls'

(the buzz of a filling concert hall rises from the left–hand speaker; the telephonist's voice continues from the right:)
'Yes, we can do that, we have ladies to visit gentlemen at home or in a hotel....we have a variety of ladies available; from Holland, the Caribbean, South America and Asia.'

So runs the intro to Ecce Homo, a radiophonic composition which De Bondt made for the Dutch broadcasting company NCRV early this year. No abstract notes here, but several sounds from the everyday world, where fragments from a performance of the St. Matthew Passion sound as much like news footage as the other two ingredients: the sound of a rowing boat and the panting and sighing of a prostitute at work.

The reality here is unashamedly direct, even voyeuristic. But here too we find the ordering hand of the composer. The 'client' has been completely cut out, which in itself produces a strange stylized effect. 'It is a sort of Bach fugue in a way,' says De Bondt. 'All the coughs and kisses which you hear in the places between the arias are organised with numbers as in Bach. The sound man did not know what had hit him. Two seconds of this, three seconds of that. Terrific.'

For this remarkable project a real callgirl and an actor were taped up with microphones and wires and went to bed together for the sake of Art. De Bondt himself, ears plugged with miniature microphones, recorded a performance of the Matthew Passion 'The initial idea was even to make it a live broadcast,' says De Bondt, 'which had to do with the nature of radio. The commission was to make something about Holland, so I immediately thought of water: sewers, lock-gates. Those are nice sounds sure enough, but you still have no music. Then I thought of the Matthew Passion, which has long been such an important part of musical life in the Netherlands. But while you sit on the pew listening to Bach for three or four hours, someone else is going whoring. I found it an interesting idea to combine these different worlds.'

With the water providing a sloshing, surging link, De Bondt succeeds in all but abolishing the boundaries between the sacred and the profane. The Bach fragments are so selected that they always have some bearing on the sex scene. Thus the play reaches a climax in a sort of Bach orgasm, on the words Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden [The lightning, the thunder have vanished in the clouds]. And we even have a moral, because after the callgirl's mundane comment, 'Time's up', the choir comes in with O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross [Oh Man, repent thy great sins].

Similar excursions beyond the domain of the notes, extravagant for a composer and not always comfortable for the listener, crop up increasingly in De Bondt's recent work. In another of this year's pieces, Singing the Faint Farewell, alongside the aural component – a Thomas Weelkes madrigal played in slow motion and a web of percussion slowly closing in on itself – he prescribes a visual obligato counterpoint in the form of a dancer who slowly undresses herself. Another combination of the vulgar and the exalted?

'It is not meant as a striptease,' explains De Bondt.'There must be a hint of the erotic in it, but ultimately it must be the opposite. Because dying – which is what the madrigal is about – is not so erotic. It is intended more as a symbol of nakedness, the idea that you must leave everything behind you when you die.'

For De Bondt the action was an integral part of the piece from the outset ('I rang immediately to see if it could be done. Because otherwise I would have written a whole other piece'). The audience which attended the premiere in the Utrecht Muziekcentrum found it hard to cope with. But how did the people who were listening on the radio manage? Did they not miss something essential? 'Certainly,' admits De Bondt. 'But that is true for every piece. A symphony orchestra in the hall is utterly different from one on the radio. It is just the same in pop music. I do not understand the people who only listen to CD's. You have to hear music in the hall. That is theatre too, seeing people play.'

This is overwhelmingly true of De Tragische Handeling, composed in 1993 for the ensemble LOOS. A live performance of this piece produces an effect to which not even the most brilliant recording can do justice. Strangely enough, the dramatic charge relies to a major extent on the contribution of the electronics (four digital resonance processors, operated by the musicians themselves) which stretch the chords fed in by the players to virtually infinite lengths.

Long notes: here more than in any other of his works, you can still hear the effect of the shock produced on De Bondt the student, who was little more than a blank page musically, when he first encountered the music of the thirteenth century organum composer Perotinus. In De Tragische Handeling the long notes stack themselves up into chords like tongues of flame, a titanic curtain of fire in the middle of which the five musicians stand to beat, slave and sweat like mythical smiths.

De Bondt's tendency to 'theatralize' has gone so far that a lecture which he recently gave at the Arnhem Academy of Art was couched in the form of a performance. 'I come there as a composer; so the lecture therefore had to be composed, to show what someone like me does.' The text of the lecture was interspersed with several blows on a gong and with fragments from Jorge Luis Borges' The Aleph. Not surprisingly, the idea of the Aleph, 'the place where all the places of the world come together, without overflowing into each other, and seen from every angle', is for De Bondt the perfect metaphor for the composer's ability to oversee the structure of the still unwritten work in its entirety.

Just as a lecture can grow into a performance, so a performance can take the form of a lecture. Beethoven is Doof [(Beethoven is Deaf], which was performed in 1993 in Rotterdam's Disco Nighttown, is essentially a textual composition. Here too De Bondt gets 'old' and 'new' meanings to bounce off each other. While an actor (Hans Dagelet) reads Boulez's notorious article Schönberg is Dead, we simultaneously hear a tape of De Bondt declaiming, in almost identical words, his own text Beethoven is Doof. He himself, alive and kicking, sits behind a piano and mimes to a recording of the largo e mesto from Beethoven's Sonata op.10 no.3, which is gradually compressed by a digital resonance processor into a diffuse piano pulp.

De Bondt regards such pieces, with spoken text, electronics or dance, as preparatory studies for a large projected music-theatre work, to be called De Man van Smarten [The Man of Sorrows]. 'I really want to do this with a team,' says De Bondt. 'A group of us have already talked it over a few times, but it still has a lot of maturing to do.' What he has in mind is a production where two operas are laid on top of each other; one layer follows a traditional nineteenth century model, with characters who are driven by love and jealousy; the second layer is a 'performance', produced by a small group of musicians with electronics, which at given moments must intervene in the underlying drama like a deus ex machina.

The work may still be at the ideas stage, but the ideas are on the grand scale. 'The Man of Sorrows, that is Jesus,' De Bondt explains. 'But Jesus himself does not appear; it is actually about two other stories, those of Pilate and Tacitus. The idea is taken from the theories of Robert Ambelain, a French priest or ex-priest. According to him, the authorities in Rome tried to put Jesus, who was a descendant of Judah after all, on the throne of Israel to keep the province under control. Herod was King at the time, and he was naturally against it. Pilate too. According to Ambelain the authorities were furious that Herod and Pilate had had Jesus killed and they were banished or kicked upstairs. That is historical fact: Pilate was later transferred to Vienne in the French Alps.

'The Tacitus story comes much later. That has to do with the censorship which Ambelain says took place when Christianity became the official religion in Rome. All the different stories and legends had to be reforged into one official version. It so happens that Tacitus' book describing the province of Palestine disappeared at the same moment. And Ambelain says: "This is no coincidence. It contained things which were not in the interests of the official religion." What I want to do now is to rewrite this book.'

This account, a story about overlapping stories, contained within a structure where the theatrical and the abstract overlap each other in a similar way, is typical of De Bondt's attitude as a composer; namely, a microscopic approach to the tiniest details coinciding with the macroscopic effort to roll up Time into the ball of one eternal moment. It is an attitude which has characterized his music from the very outset. 'Over the years I have developed all sorts of techniques and then built on them', he says, 'but, rather like Mondriaan, I still have the feeling that I am painting the same tree.'

(transl.: Rob Bland)

© Emile Wennekes / Frits van der Waa 2007