CD liner notes for NMClassics 92074 (1999).
Works by Andriessen, De Graaff, Emmer and Torstensson
The Piano Duo (Cees van Zeeland and Gerard Bouwhuis)
When and by whom the label was first coined can no longer be determined, but since the eighties 'The Hague
School' has become a familiar term in the Dutch music world.
'The Hague School may be characterized as writing loud, aggressive, rhythmically energetic music devoid
of all neo-romantic sentiment, and often amplified or manipulated electronically' according to the composer
Gene Carl, writing in 1987. And six years later the musicologist Pay-Uun Hiu identified the group Hoketus
as 'the nucleus of this school ( ... ) with Louis Andriessen as its spiritual father'.
To what degree the four pieces on this CD are 'Hague-ian' is a matter of opinion, but the Pianoduo is
without a doubt a Hague ensemble. Gerard Bouwhuis and Cees van Zeeland were, after all, the pianists in the
legendary group Hoketus. Hoketus came to an end in 1986, after ten years spent bombarding stages at home and
abroad with its radical, percussive, electric and yes extremely Hague-ian retort to American
minimal music. The heritage of Hoketus can still be heard in the performances of the Pianoduo
an approach which I once described as 'building-site piano playing' and although, with their
performances of Messiaen and Boulez, Bouwhuis and Van Zeeland have certainly proved that they have more
strings to their bows, their muscular language unmistakably finds a resonance in the works on this CD,
which, with one exception, can literally be said to be tailored to suit their needs. That single exception
comes from an earlier era but provides this collection with an historical perspective; the piece was written
by Louis Andriessen, the godfather of the Hague School.
Louis Andriessen was 19 when he wrote Séries. It's his second official composition and
probably the first serial piece written by a Dutch composer. During the fifties Dutch composition was still
dominated by neo-classicism and post-impressionism, but Andriessen and his contemporaries would soon put an
end to that. Although Séries appears to be a kind of exercise in style Andriessen soon
abandoned strict serialism the work has not lost its freshness.
Serial technique, in which pitch, rhythm and dynamic are determined by the manipulation of mathematical
series, is a method for producing the maximum variation without sacrificing musical unity. Andriessen
employs this method with great dexterity. Séries consists of twelve parts, each of which is
twelve bars in length. Although the entire system cannot easily be surmised from the score, each of the
parts has a musical symmetry which will not escape the listener. The system finds expression in palindromes
and in mutated repetitions, or in combinations of the two. A palindrome, just to be perfectly clear, is a
structure which reads identically forwards or backwards (for example: 'Rats live on no evil star'; 'Sums are
not set as a test on Erasmus' or 'A man, a plan, a canal: Panama').
Eight of the twelve parts of Séries have a palindromic structure. This is most obvious in
parts 3 and 11, which consist of quite literal mirror images. Variations 1, 6, 7 and 9 consist of a
twelve-tone series that is subsequently played backwards, albeit in different registers, with other note
values and sometimes condensed into chords. Part 5 is the most ingenious: here each bar contains all twelve
tones, most of them arranged in pairs. After the sixth bar the music turns back on itself, while the
contents of each bar are 'jumbled' together but the characteristic pairs of notes are preserved.
The structure of the remaining parts is less transparent. The second variation is a skeletal, finely
balanced miniature containing four series, within which vague reflections can be made out. The eighth is in
two parts, within which the mutated repetition can easily be heard, The tenth displays a three-part, though
skewed, ABA form; and, in the twelfth, four segments can be identified, in the second of which the series
condenses into a twelve-tone chord.
Huib Emmer was also once part of the group Hoketus and his Point Blank is unmistakably a work in
the Hague-ian vernacular, with its crossfire of inaccessible, granite-like chords. A typical feature of
Emmer's style is his use of editing or montage, a principle which dates back to Stravinsky's
Symphonies d'instruments à vent of 1920. Emmer, though, seems to have borrowed the technique
more from film editing. The title Point Blank refers to the 1967 thriller of that name by John
Boorman, a film notable not only for containing a generous helping of violence but also for its refined
use of the 'hard' edit.
Point Blank consists of three parts, which, however, is not distinguishable to the naked ear. The
music is, as it were, constructed from a limited number of building-blocks, which undergo a degree of
transformation in the course of the piece and even adopt properties from each other. Each aggregate is
identifiable by its own type of chords and angular, signal-like motifs.
The acidic, monomaniacal, signal-like blows which open the piece consist, for instance, of nothing more
than two chords which repeatedly appear on a different step. The heavy bass notes which underpin them serve
to place the repeating chords in a constantly shifting perspective.
The main features of the second element are repeating notes and a considerably lower sound level. This is
followed by a duel between hermetically-sealed chords which collide and rebound and splintered, flashing
figures. The most important ingredients have now been introduced. The first part closes with a reprise of
The second part initially follows a similar route, but the third element, the duel, is given far more
weight. This part can be characterised as a development on the first. New material is introduced and the
editing of the different materials gradually becomes faster and more variegated.
The third part consists mainly of a development of the second, quieter element, which is interrupted
halfway through by a heaving, concerted eruption of chords. What follows after can be regarded as a coda.
The music congeals into tonal repetitions, which are haunted by fragments of the opening chords.
Although the Swedish composer Klas Torstensson has lived and worked in the Netherlands since he was 22,
his highly individual idiom has no typically Dutch (or typically Swedish) features. His style and working
methods display some similarities with those of Iannis Xenakis. The developments in his music always take
place along the borderline between order and controlled chaos. He approaches sound as though it were a
physical material. Much as a sculptor or etcher uses a steel brush or fine sandpaper to achieve a particular
surface structure, so Torstensson uses the computer to generate tonal particles and sound fragments. But
that is more a question of the final detail. Like a choreographer, he keeps a tight reign on the overall
form. This can be heard clearly in the first part of Koorde. It sounds rather like a ballet or,
better still, a carefully staged mock-fight between two fencers, who continually circle each other, thrust
and parry and try new tactics in the hope of forcing a breakthrough. Of course, it's also possible to listen
to the music as abstract polyphony, a counterpoint of lines and movements. But, even then, the concept of
two opponents is an essential element of the music.
The geometrical term koorde or 'chord' means a straight line connecting two points on the circumference
of a circle (and, of course, the English word also has its musical meaning). You could say the two pianists
are constantly trying to draw this connecting line, but that centrifugal forces keep pushing them back to
the circumference of the circle. Whether this is what the composer intended is another question, but it's
certainly a fitting image.
In the second part, the fight gradually turns into a joint effort. In this part the pianos are prepared
with weights and rubber wedges on and between the strings. Moreover, the pianists employ a variety of
techniques to attack the exterior and interior of their instruments, for example by scraping the strings
with coins. But there's no question of random action: all these effects are described in detail in the
score. Eventually a series of quartertones, played as flageolets, leads to the third part. Here the music
unfolds in ultra-rapid tremolos from a single tone to huge fans of sound with (compared to the first part,
at least) an open, diatonic timbre. As this part progresses the chords slip away, becoming drier and sharper
until the music slowly comes to a halt.
'De Biggenweg is about the fear of losing control,' writes composer Huba de Graaff in her
explanatory notes. 'Following a significant event in my life, full of fear and sorrow, I tried to compose
from an emotional state, to take control. But it's impossible. You can't even keep it up for three bars.
Fear blocks your thinking and your ability to act. In order to get back to work, I developed a system, a
super-system, with pianos as the infallible instruments for maintaining order. All the parameters are
arranged according to simple ratios. Both the rhythmic structure and the pitch, tempo and density of sound
are based on the ratio 1:2:3:4. These ratios are applied both absolutely and relatively. The ratio 1:2, for
instance, stands for the octave in relative terms, but in absolute terms it represents the interval
C + 1 = C#. The same goes for the ratio 2:3. It's not only the fifth, it's also C + 2 = D.
The piece progresses by a continuous process of addition. Occasionally it marks time on the spot, like a
jogger at traffic lights, but normally it continues to pelt ahead. There is no notation of dynamics in the
score. Both pianists have to bash their way through the notes and keep things on a tight rein (it's an almost
Kafka-esque image, as though they're controlling the system from behind these huge black machines, with
The pianists are situated in the centre of a field of interference: speakers emitting synthesized noise
are set up around the grand pianos. Interference forms a conceptual contrast to the music order created by
Fear sounds like interference, it hisses in your ears.
'De Biggenweg (The Piggy Way) was a dream in which a herd of stampeding pigs ran towards their
deaths, despite my attempts to intervene. It shimmers constantly, without an apotheosis, without a finale.
Nothing but the rising tension.'
A few words may be added in this connection. De Biggenweg is in a certain sense post-Hague-ian. The
use of the 'system' is ambiguous: it's not only a method of generating the piece, but also a veiled criticism
of system-based composition. That's why the composer regards the interference noise as an essential element
of the composition. In performance it results in the paradoxical image of two living musicians acting like
machines, surrounded by dozens of makeshift speakers which provide the (relatively) non-mechanical field of
Finally, the very concept of a compositional system is unthinkable without serialism. With its large
numbers of fifths and octaves and its relentless pulse De Biggenweg in no sense fits the stylistic
doctrines of serial composition. But the principle is serial. And that brings us full circle. A straight
line can be drawn between De Biggenweg and Séries a Chord.
(Translation: Iain Macintyre)
© Frits van der Waa 2007