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CD liner notes for Composers' Voice 113, 2001

Cornelis de Bondt:
Die wahre Art and Dame blanche

In all his compositions, Cornelis de Bondt engages in a dialogue with the past, a dialogue which may or may not be apparent to the listener. In itself, such a dialogue is not new: since medieval times composers have been guided by the notes of their predecessors, and then had their own way with them. The difference between De Bondt and his fellow composers is that he does it a good deal more rigorously. As Beethoven in his Diabelli Variations took an innocuous little waltz apart and from the pieces wrought an impressive hour-long work, so De Bandt needs no more than a handful of notes to build a monumental structure, whose rhythms, pitches, proportions and other parameters all stem from the same musical DNA.

De Bondt uses complex manipulation techniques – so complex that already in the early 1980s he decided to enlist the help of a computer. As his father ran a computer business, it was easy for Cornelis to get his hands on one. He started writing his own programmes and set the machine tasks that kept it busy for nights on end. It was laborious work, but it paid off in the end. A modern PC with its gigabytes performs the same tasks in less time than it takes to print the results.

This does not mean that De Bandt can produce a complete piece of music at the push of a button. What the computer produces are no more than raw materials – chords, rhythms, time proportions –, materials that the composer has to sort and process further. The actual composition (literally: putting together) remains a human act in which, says De Bondt, the computer serves only as just another tool, like a pencil sharpener, so to speak.

Although De Bondt's music is always incantatory, ritual, and therefore formalistic in character, it is never mechanical (with the possibie exception of Bint, a piece he wrote in 1979/80 – before he began using a computer – for the minimal-music group Hoketus). His more recent works, notably Dame Blanche and Die Wahre Art, are proof of a great flexibility and diversity in style, without any prejudice whatsoever to the characteristic elements of his musical language.

Dame Blanche was written for the recorder-player Walter van Hauwe, who premiered it on 11 November 1995 with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra under Ed Spanjaard. "Walter is a musician who always carries a saw in case his flute is pitched too low,' says De Bondt. "For this piece he has drilled an additional hole in his sopranino and (with adhesive tape and rubber band) fitted a key to it."

Van Hauwe not only plays the sopranino, but the soprano, alto, basset and contrabass recorders, as weil as a dozen pedals and footswitches controlling four Lexicon echo processors to stretch the recorder notes as prescribed in the score. The piece also employs a frequency divider, operated by a sound technician, which doubles the tone one or two octaves down.

For this piece De Bondt uses the customary orchestral instrumentation with the addition of bass guitar, two shawms and same unusual percussion instruments, including a No. 60 spanner and a huge wooden rattle, made espešially for this composition by the carpenter of Theatergroep Hollandia, Leo de Nijs.

The distinctive feature of the 'Dame Blanche' dessert – ice-cream with chocolate sauce – is that it is at once hot and cold. Grist to the mill of a composer who seeks to strike a perfect balance between passion and ratio in his music.

The title Dame Blanche also refers to medieval courtly love, an association obviously supported by the 'archaic' character of the recorder. The work is in ten movements, grouped in pairs. Each odd-numbered move ment is an air, followed by a harmonie variation, a double. Thus the Prelude is the basis for Double I, and the Postlude derives from the 9th movement, Dame Blanche. This movement is, naturally, the most comprehensive of all, even bearing its own subtitle (' ... mit einem Feuer, kalt wie Eis', a quote from Richard Strauss' Salome). The grand chorale in th is movement casts its shadow ahead: from the first double we occasionally hear majestic chords in the brass.

Each of the airs is based on a medieval melody, which weaves through the music in long notes like a cantus firmus, and each melody features a Dame. The first air, Douce Dame, signifies unattainable love. The distended melody is played by the recorder and also provides the basis for the figures in the strings, giving this section and the subsequent double a decided F minor character, which is to some extent undermined by Stravinsky-like duets of oboe and cor anglais.

The fifth movement, La Lune, says De Bondt, stands for 'Mother, fertility, relationship, reality'. This movement is based on two melodies: the anonymous medieval tune Lune très belle and the song La lune blanche luit dans les bois by Gabriel Fauré. The first melody is played in long notes by the bass recorder, interspersed with rapid, stuttering, all-computer-generated notes. The recorder player not only plays but sings the long notes, using the vowels of the original words. The rapid figures from the winds in the ensuing double derive from nine-tone modi, or scales. The long notes of the solo part are based on the Fauré song.

The third air, Madone Noire, is based on the song Mariam Matrem from the Livre Vermell de Montserrat. "The Black Madonna is a somewhat mysterious phenomenon, presumably of Moorish origin," says the composer. "To me, this Lady represents religion, magie, witchcraft." Once again the notes of the song are in the recorders, only this time the melody is distributed over different registers, and consequently over different instruments: each note has its own, fixed register. In this – fairly short – movement, the shawms make their entry, their whimsical lines being gradually taken over by the recorder. The subsequent double is dominated by two darabukas (finger drums), going all out to disprove the notion that there are four beats to each bar. (Tempus Imperfectum, Prolatio Minor, notes De Bondt).

The ninth movement, Dame Blanche, is built on a fourteenth-century folk song from Morocco, Por qué llorax blanca niña ('Why are you crying, white girl?'). "The white girl, or white lady, to me represents Art,' says De Bondt. The melody, now in the trumpets and the second violins, constitutes the basis for the large chorale-like structures, snatches of which could al ready be heard in earlier movements. To this, the recorder adds long 'fiery' trilIs. This movement also closes the network of strokes overlying the entire composition. High strokes, preceded by the crack of the rattle, alternate with low strokes, followed by an echo from the thunder sheet. At first the strokes are far apart, but now they occur at shortening intervals, until they take over the musical discourse and eventually coincide, resulting in a fierce rattle, after which the recorder, in the composer's words, "beheads the orchestra" (the fate befalling John the Baptist in Strauss' Salome), to be left all by itself in the Postlude, together with the tones revolving in the Lexicon boxes.

*

The title of De Bondt's piano concerto, Die Wahre Art, refers to the famous treatise Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen (1753-1762) by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In structure and idiom the concerto is far less rigid than Dame Blanche, with a largely 'free' piano part, composed in close collaboration with the soloist, Gerard Bouwhuis, who has premiered most of De Bondt's piano parts since 1980. It was Bouwhuis who gave the first performance of Die Wahre Art at the Vredenburg Music Centre in Utrecht on 6 May 2000. "His influence on the notes has rarely been more apparent than in this piece," says the composer. Bouwhuis, indeed, is familiar with working the Lexicon samplers that De Bondt uses in this and other works to extend certain notes.

In this composition as in so many others, the contrast between sense and sensibility plays an important role. It explains why De Bondt has to some extent identified himself with C.Ph.E. Bach, who in his treatise provides some practical recipes for the player to evoke certain moods. "I find this ambiguity fascinating,' says De Bondt. "In th is respect the Storm and Stress period is totally different from the Romantic era. Jan Kleinbussink, a colleague of mine at The Hague Conservatory, once aptly described the difference: 'In the nineteenth century the artist carried the emotion, whereas in Carl Philipp Emanuel's days he directed it'."

Die Wahre Art consists of a Chaconne and a Scherzo, then another Chaconne and Scherzo, a cadenza and a final chorale. Both Chaconnes are closely related, as are the Scherzi, but the first Scherzo and the subsequent second Chaconne are considerably shorter than the 'embracing movements'. The Chaconnes are marked by a sequence of whirling garlands on the piano, short staccato figures and flowing string textures full of suspensions. The Scherzi have a clearly identifiable theme in A flat minor, which Bondt develops and varies in a 'classical' manner, and are played in fast 6/8 time, occasionally interspersed with bars in 4/8 time. The cadenza in its written form – a lightning-speed sequence of hammered chords – is unplayable, but here 'the true art' comes into play, as the pianist sets about varying and ornamenting the chords at his own discretion, while keeping the harmonie structure intact. The score even has two appendices, intended for Bouwhuis' possible successors: a list of tone series for the pianist to choose from, and a worked-out 'possible' version of the cadenza.

For De Bondt – a true dialectic – a dialogue with only one composer was too one-sided, so he introduced a double entendre: the first 25 bars of Anton Webern's Symphony Opus 21, composed in 1928. This work is a textbook application of strict twelve-tone technique. Not only does the passage in question include a double canon; each of its twelve tones, moreover, occurs in only one register (with the exception of the E flat, which occurs in two octaves). One might say that all one hears, in fact, is a thirteen-tone chord being exposed in ever changing lights.

De Bondt feels that this work finally puts paid to the principle of part-writing, which dominated musical composition from the Renaissance period until the end of the nineteenth century. He sees his piece as an attempt to tonalize Webern, using the precepts of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. He did this by stretching the first 25 bars of Webern's Symphony to ten times their original length and weaving them as a cantus firmus in long notes through his piano concerto. The long notes are produced by the brass and the piano in electronically lengthened tones.

In the final chorale, De Bondt combines Webern's steering notes with chords that are based on his own composition De Namen der Goden (The Names of the Gods, 1992-93) and the tones of the choral melody, here distributed over the registers according to the chord from Opus 21. The melody thus treated may be hard to recognize, yet De Bondt's choice for the Dies Irae is entirely in his character. Life is no picnic, and even in a work as exuberant as this piano concerto, the message prevalent in all his compositions cannot be missed. Memento mori – to all things there is an end.

Translation: Ko Kooman


© Frits van der Waa 2008