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CD liner notes for The complete tape music of Jan Boerman, 1998

The music of Jan Boerman –
the story of a creator

A lot can be said about Jan Boerman's work, but like all good music, it ultimately defies description. His music even eschews the advantages of musical notation. For Jan Boerman's scores are readable, but not playable: carefully defined time-structures and wavy scrawls make the concept of his work clear, but they fail when it comes to expressing its essence – its timbre, its sound, its movement.

In fact, we really don't need those scores for that expression. Jan Boerman doesn't note his music on paper, he notes it on tape. The tape is actually his manuscript. And the digital copies which you are holding now are, to continue the analogy, the printed scores, that are only waiting for the CD-player to bring them to life. So far, nothing out of the ordinary – this is also true for the music of, for instance, the Beatles – but the difference is that the Beatles' work is available all over the world, while the equally unique oeuvre, covering a span of forty years, of Jan Boerman, has remained practically inaccessible until today.

Jan Boerman (born in The Hague on June 30th, 1923) is generally considered the most important Dutch composer of electronic music. Together with Dick Raaijmakers and Ton Bruynèl, he is one of the pioneers who have remained true to the medium all their lives. But, unlike Dick Raaijmakers, who incorporated all sorts of theatrical elements in his work, and Ton Bruynèl, who focused on the combination of electronic and live music, Jan Boerman concentrated on 'pure' tape-music.

Boerman's first encounter with electronics took place in 1959, in the studio of the Delft University of Technology. The foundations for Dutch electronic music had already been laid in the studios of the Netherlands Radio Union and the Philips Physics Laboratory. The first compositions were created there by Henk Badings (1907-1987) and Ton de Leeuw (1926-1996), whose interest in the medium diminished in later years.

At this time, Jan Boerman was 35. After his piano studies at the Royal Conservatory under Léon Orthel he took composition with Hendrik Andriessen. He earned a living by teaching and made a modest name as a composer. Like many of his peers, he wrote music in which, according to him, the influence of Bartok and Pijper can be discerned. He was certainly interested in the, at the time and for Dutch standards, 'modern' twelve-tone technique, but did not manage to obtain satisfactory results with it.

Until then, electronics had had no particular appeal for him. He made the step to the studio at the instigation of the choreographer Conrad van de Wetering, with whom he was planning a ballet opera. This opera was never made, but his introduction to electronics was a revelation for Jan Boerman, and it was to give his career a completely new direction. He soon realized that he had ventured into virgin territory, which offered unprecedented new possibilities. He felt, as he describes it himself: 'compelled morally to use them'.

Boerman had the advantage of having been until then a total innocent. The directional conflict between Elektronische Musik and Musique Concrète which had characterized the earliest history of electronic music had by then died down, but the relation with the new medium was still strongly dominated by serial thinking. Like others before him, Boerman noticed early on during his experiments that it was imperative to provide the virtually 'dead' sounds generated by the equipment with an inner movement. But thanks to his uninhibited, clear vision he also quickly realized that this movement relates poorly to the demands of bars and pitch-screens. The human movement of ordinary music irrevocably becomes 'mechanical' in electronic music.

So he decided to concentrate on one of the most essential yet elusive aspects of electronic sound, namely the timbre. To this day, this focus on the timbre is one of the most important, and instantly apparent characteristics of his work. The most fundamental problem – how to arrive at a delimitation of the basically boundless possibilities – was however not yet resolved.

In Boerman's three Delft pieces (Musique Concrète, Alliage and Alchemie) one can hear how quickly he came of age as an electronic composer. The first two works still show 'seams', and the material often has a rough or machine-like character. Yet even here Boerman already successfully transgresses the borderline that can still be found in the electronic repertoire: on one side of this line are discontinuous, often over-cerebral compositions, on the other side evolving pieces, that mainly came into being through experimentation. Boerman has managed to reduce these two esthetic concepts – roughly speaking, the sound-bombardment and the sound-bath – to a common denominator, simply because he doesn't let himself be led by the equipment or by dogmatic compositional rules. Thus from the very start, he has allowed 'concrete' sounds next to electronic ones in his music, though they usually have been drastically manipulated.

The third piece, Alchemie, is a mature work, a proof of technical mastery, in which one can nowhere hear that the composer has been fiddling with knobs or splicing pieces of tape (where montages can be recognized as such, they have a musical significance). And Alchemie was the first work that brought Jan Boerman some recognition. At Rudi van Dantzig's request, Boerman wrote an enlarged and adapted version of the piece for his ballet Monument voor een gestorven jongen (Monument for a dead boy), which has seen many a performance since 1965. In a sense, the title of this CD-collection, 'the complete tape music of Jan Boerman', is not quite correct: in the sixties, he several times contributed music for theatre and ballet productions. These were often preliminary studies or derived versions of the works collected on these CDs.

In 1962, Boerman set up a private studio with Dick Raaijmakers. This is where De Zee was created, a work which, together with Kompositie 1972, has a key position in his oeuvre. These are the first pieces that are entirely based on a division of time in compliance with the principles of the Golden Section. The Golden Section is an irrational proportion in which the smallest part relates to the largest as the largest to the sum of both parts. This is a classic ratio which was already known to painters and architects during the Renaissance. Boerman picked up on the idea after reading an article by M. van Crevel about the Missa sub tuum presidium by Jacob Obrecht.

Moreover, De Zee and Kompositie 1972 are Boerman's purest, 'strictest' works, through the sharp delineation of the sound material. De Zee nearly exclusively contains sounds that have a noise-character, which blend in a tidal movement ruled by the Golden Section. For Kompositie 1972, Boerman designed a scale of eight sound-characteristics, progressing from noise to tone. It is the first piece in which the arrangement of pitch also has a great significance. In a way, Boerman engages here in a confrontation with the serial way of thinking. But by allotting the interval of the quint a dominant position (even the eight tone sequences used are in fact filled-out chromatic quints) he gives the music a strong tonal effect.

Kompositie 1972 is probably the composition of Jan Boerman in which he succeeds best in making audible the interplay of formal elements and elements which are determined intuitively. The 'content' of the music – which includes the important decisions that were made with regard to questions of timbre, dynamics and contrast – is in the first place a matter of compositional considerations, and thus, of personal, subjective choices. The network of Golden Section-proportions is a guideline, a way of preserving balance. With its ramified hierarchy it is somewhat comparable to a mobile: you can hang all sorts of things on it, but every object needs to be counterbalanced by another. In Kompositie 1972, Boerman has grouped the smaller elements in 'families'. In later works, particularly Kompositie 1979, it is the opposites that he brings into equilibrium with each other.

Of course this comparison falls short of the reality, and it certainly does not do justice to the overwhelming, visionary power of this music, its perspectival effect, which can be described in no other way than by evoking landscapes and natural phenomena. Boerman's music is as abstract as music can be, yet it procures a nearly physical sensation, as if it is about materials and structures that are tangible, that have resistance, call up tension and bring about resounding discharges. It is music in which the hand of a creator is always perceptible.

In 1972, the private studio was transferred into the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, where Jan Boerman was appointed two years later to teach piano and electronic music. All his compositions after this date were created there. After his retirement, Jan Boerman continued to work in this studio – which has been greatly upgraded in the course of time. On the other hand, he only very rarely uses new technological devices such as samplers. He prefers to work with the old techniques.

This is characteristic for the traditionalist he is at heart. His great models are Debussy ('because of the colour quality'), Monteverdi ('the dramatic potential') and Bruckner ('the landscape quality'), though he also confided that he learnt a lot from Stockhausen. The form of his compositions is often grafted on classical structures like the rondo and the sonata.

At the same time, his eye is on the future. He says that he has always considered the whole phenomenon of electronic music as an intermediary stage, the precursor of a really novel music, to be produced on a new instrumentarium. Like Varèse, he cherishes the vision of 'the liberation of the sound' and in this respect he considers the emergence of keyboards as rather a step backwards than forwards. He himself has continuously, step by step, tried to expand the borders of his medium and has always chosen new lines of approach.

In this way, in Kompositie 1979 the domain of tone and noise that he opened in Kompositie 1972 has been expanded to an area of sharp contrasts. Three years before, Boerman had already tried to combine the human voice with electronics in one piece. That remained a preliminary study. Vocalise would only be completed eighteen years later. During the seventies, Jan Boerman worked on several pieces for two pianos, that were partly based on the Golden Section.

A composer of electronic music does not often make a name outside a small world of 'insiders', certainly not if he is as modest as Jan Boerman. His work only became known in a slightly larger circle in 1977, when Donemus released an LP with Kompositie 1972, De Zee, and Alchemie. Five years later, he was awarded the Matthijs Vermeulen prize in 1982 for his entire oeuvre. Thanks to his job at the Royal Conservatory and improvements in the system of commissions, he was able to go on with his work without material worries. It was much later, in 1988, that Donemus released a second Boerman LP with Kompositie 1979 and Ontketening II, and again Kompositie 1972. In 1992, a CD followed with Vlechtwerk, Kompositie 1989 and Tellurisch, released at NMclassics.

In the eighties, Jan Boerman became absorbed in the combination of tape and live musicians. The first two pieces of this type, Weerstand and Ontketening I, were the result of his collaboration with a group called 'Het Nieuwe Leven', a rather casual association of musicians and composers. Three works followed, with larger casts each time: Ontketening II for percussion, electronics and tape, the Maasproject for brass players, keyboard, Fairlight computer and tapes, and finally Die Vögel for a choir, a brass quartet and tapes. Especially the latter has a peculiar hybrid character, not only because of the line-up, but also because Boerman the composer for tape has clearly gone through a greater development than Boerman the composer for notes. On top of that, the latter had to manage without the – for electronic music – so 'natural' Golden Section method, which is less compatible with instrumental and vocal music.

All these works are attempts to find a solution for the presentation of electronic music, a problem which has occupied Boerman continuously. The 1984 Maasproject, a large scale outdoor work, designed in collaboration with the architect Jan Hoogstad, was the most daring experiment in this respect, which moreover allowed Boerman to compose 'three-dimensionally'.

Boerman finally arrived at the conclusion that 'live music' and sounds emanating from loudspeakers did not get on well together, but the experience stimulated him to write Muziek voor slagwerk en orkest in 1991, his first non-electronic work in over 25 years. In the following years, he composed several pieces for two pianos. In the meantime – he had already retired – he was as productive a tape-composer as ever. In the last ten years, he has composed no less than six new pieces – which is about half of this collection.

Because Boerman has established a large 'archive' of sounds over the years, which he freely uses and manipulates time and again, these works bear clearly recognizable 'fingerprints', which sometimes might seem to be self-quotations. But also here, Boerman explores new material each time, scans unexplored regions and comes up with new contrasts to then reforge them once more into a musical unity.

A certain dichotomy can be observed in these compositions: on the one hand there are the works which seem to be focused on the exploration of the material itself. The two Kringloop pieces are a good example. In a way, they are descendants of De Zee. This is ontic music, music that is. It is as if the composer wants to reduce his own role to a minimum, and creates an open continuum where meaning occurs between the ears of the listener.

On the other hand there are the works in which structure – the narrative, if you like –, plays the dominant role. Not surprisingly, these are the works in which the Golden Section has been applied most rigorously, and which are described by Boerman as 'educational pieces'.

Both these aspects are united in an impressive manner in Vocalise 1994, the composition which lay ripening for eighteen years. Even though the music, more than any other tape-piece of Boerman's, is dominated by sounds with a recognizable pitch, it is a magnificent refutation of the idea that music can only thrive where tones affect each other. Although the power of Vocalise is partly due to those passages in which the pitches are caught up in a momentum, most of the music takes place on the fascinating cutting edge between tone and timbre, and the result, in all its soberness, is a tension which makes this work a new apogee in Boerman's oeuvre. Vocalise 1994 was distinguished in 1997 with the Willem Pijper prize.

Ruïne, which was completed that same year, can be seen, for the time being, as an epilogue to a modest but impressive oeuvre. Jan Boerman has by now reached the age of 74, and the high frequencies of those noise-sounds he loves so much are starting to elude the limits of his hearing more and more. Moreover, he finds that his material is 'exhausted'. But he himself is nothing of the kind: he is working on a big piece for choir and several piano pieces. And, if he is allotted the time to approach his own musical truth even more closely, I venture to bet that this 'complete' tape-music of Jan Boerman will soon turn out to be 'incomplete'.

(translation: Hepzibah Kousbroek)

© Frits van der Waa 2007