Willem Jeths and his work"What can I say about my music? For me, intuition and associations are the keywords while composing, together with striving towards a clarity and economy of musical material. Nature is one of the main sources of my inspiration. In my opinion our present time has definetly left the focus of the abstract, atonal and intellectually constructed music of Modernism. I welcome this and experience in myself a new attitude towards beauty, fully aware of our present time frame and history, being neither regressive, 'romantic', nor conservative. I believe the art of music has to offer an opening, touching listeners as directly as colours in the visual arts, like the paintings of Eugène Brands. Therefore it is not surprising that people say orchestral colours and timbres are my 'trade mark'."
About his composing
Intuition and emotion
Form and content
A bout de souffle Brussels, Paris and Berlin (1993)
Flux / Reflux Toronto (2000), Berlin (2001), Jekaterinenburg (2002), Oslo (2002)
Bella Figura Sydney (2001) and USA (2005)
Bandoneon Concerto Norway (2001) and France (2002)
Chiasmos Germany (2001) and Australia (2008)
...Un vago ricordo... Italy (2004)
Intus trepidare London, New York, Australia, New Zealand (2005)
Chiasoscuro India and Italy (2007)
Piano Concerto Russia (2008)
Seanchai Prague (2006)
Clarinet Concerto China (2007)
Fas / Nefas Japan, Switzerland (2008) Germany (2011)
Violin Concerto No. 2 United Kingdom (2011)
Scale Beijing (2011)
Ombre Cinesi Germany (2012)
Elegia Taiwan (2012)
Epitheta Madrid (2012)
Chiaroscuro Madrid (2012)
Nero su Bianco...Danze? Madrid (2012)
Meme (2014) Porto (Portugal)
Chiasmos, Chiaroscuro, Doppelganger 2015 Alba (Italy)
About his composing
Willem Jeths' musical language has become gradually less atonal over the years. His most recent compositions even have a prominent ground tone. Densely orchestrated sound blocks rub along one another and overlap in an idiom that might remind one more of Ligeti or Rihm than a typical composer of the Dutch school. It is worth noting that Willem Jeths won two prices at the 1996 International Composition Competition in Vienna, for his violin concert Glenz and for his Piano Concerto. The jury included Wolfgang Rihm, Gerard Grisey, Franco Donatoni, Lothar Knessl and Friedrich Cerha - composers who, like Jeths, are intensely attuned to sound as an aspect of composition. Although a work by Willem Jeths might suggest the existence of a clear-cut plan, forms and structures fade to the background during the composition process. Jeths is driven by spirit and fancy, unfettered by predetermined routes or goals. Because he is so conscious of the basic material, the resulting form, individual and personal, appears to the listener as a taut, consistent concept that unifies the piece. This apparently contradiction, in which aesthetics and working method seem to collide, remains one of the most intriguing aspects, both musically and personally, of Willem Jeths.
Sounds colours have intrigued Jeths since his youth, when his maternal grandfather Anton Renssen, a noted violinist, brought him into physical contact with sounds. Later, as an adolescent, he became entranced by the visual arts and here too it was colour that fascinated him most - in particular hues that flowed into one another and colours that reflects other spectra. This innate feeling for colour had become an integral part of his musical language. Rebelling against contemporary trends, Jeths has always remained loyal to his fascination for extraordinary timbres. He experiments rigorously with the instruments for which he is writing, in order to wring out its sound potential. His working method is literally 'hands on'.
The composer is continually in search of new sound potential within traditional instrumental genres such as symphony orchestra and string quartet, and as a result is inclined to add foreign - at times extraordinary - sounds such as breaking wood or glass, tearing paper or unusual instruments such as overtone tubes, non-Western percussion instruments or children's toys. On the other hand he need not assemble a bizarre instrumental ensemble: the traditional symphony orchestra or string quartet will also suffice. But those bulwarks of the classical music establishment are like putty in his hands. Expanded sound possibilities often lead to new playing techniques to extend the limits of traditional idioms.
Jeths says of these sound explorations 'You have standard sounds as they have developed and taken root throughout history, but one can go further in enriching or manipulating these sounds. Some might use electronic means, but that doesn't suit me. For me, it's more interesting to get a traditional ensemble to produce new sounds by colouring it differently. I see that as an aspect of innovation necessary to the creative process. In that sense you could label me a modernist. As a composer you have to mould the material in your own, strictly personal way. There's no point in being merely an epigone. I am particularly keen on developing the aspect of colour. Melodies are less important than the colour constellations'.
Intuition and emotion
Jeths does not compose according to a predetermined system; rather, he approaches a composition intuitively and allows large forms to grow organically from sparingly-chosen material. This method of composing is ideally suited to the emotional eloquence and colourful charm of his compositions. The essence of Jeths' music, lies somewhere in between nineteenth-century illusion and twentieth-century reality. The expansive, emotional lines in his works are a direct link to the late-Romantic and Expressionist language of Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Alban Berg. Jeths makes no secret of his penchant for intoxicating emotional breadth perfected by these masters, nor does he shy away from a literal quote now and again. In his Flugelhorn Concerto - al fondo per l'oscuro, for example, Jeths appropriates the 'death chord' - an entirely chromatic harmony - from the Adagio from Mahler's Tenth Symphony. Or take the third string quartet Intus trepidare: here he refers to a fragment from Berg's Lyric Suite and weaves it into his own material. Still, only the most astute listener will be able to spontaneously recognize the link with these compositions. Jeths' fabric is too tightly woven for a quote to be as blatant as that. And his personal language is too far removed from that of the late Romantics and Expressionists. While Jeths gives free rein to his emotions while composing, the result is unmistakably 20th- and 21st- century. The emotions he borrows from earlier works are incorporated in a literal sense, as archetype or declaration. Ecstasy, hysteria, total submission: these are the sentiments that form the bridge between Jeths and the Romantics. But in expressing these emotions Jeths goes even further than his forebears, taking only the most passionate and most sublime and employing them as a motto that serves to characterize an entire work. Although Mahler's 'death chord' only appears at the end of the first movement of the Flugelhorn Concerto, the piece is drenched with the desolation associated with that chord right from the very first penetrating notes of the work.
Form and content
Jeths has a complex relationship with formal aspects in his compositions. Despite being a certified musicologist, Jeths avoids approaching composition from an academic standpoint. He eschews a predetermined formal progression: for him, composing is all about ideas and esprit. Systematic thinking is secondary. He considers each new work a quest in which intuition plays a crucial role. His broad, thorough knowledge offers a solid platform from which his intuition can take flight. And with this standpoint he distances himself from the intellectualism of the serialist composers who dominated contemporary music in the 1950s, '60s and 70s. That period nonetheless left its mark on Willem Jeths' music. The synthesis of form and content is a theme dear both to Jeths and to the serialists. In introducing rhythm and pitch progression as separate entities, Jeths in fact draws on serial techniques. Unlike the pure serialist, though, Jeths also explores the characterological aspects of these parameters. He juxtaposes taut metrical figures against sumptuous melodic curves and exploits their contrasting qualities, just as he can place sharply etched, linear polyphony alongside a grandiose, slowly paced sound landscape. Colourful, static passages often marked by experimental playing techniques are contrasted with dynamic, rhythmically oriented material. But the parameters rhythm and pitch progression have yet another function. Introduced early on in a work as separate entities, they fuse together later in the composition to form a single theme. The transformation only comes to light 'a posteriori'.
Although a work's intent might be clear from the very first notes, the form emerges only gradually, and in a roundabout way. In that sense Jeths diverges from the Classic and Romantic path, presenting his material in a bare-bones version and saving its full, extravagant glory later. Only when the work reaches its climax does a theme make its grand, carefully prepared entrance. And only then do the distinct fragments fall into place and coalesce. The nature of Jeths' motives themselves contrasts sharply with the extreme passion with which they are expressed. A motive can consist of an interval - preferably as small an interval as possible - or a rhythm. He pours his ideas into this tiny fragment of material, while the emotional motto serves as a foothold and source of inspiration.
Once Jeths has chosen a motto, he will expand and vary it to his heart's content, but never loses sight of its original form. The basic material remains the seed from which all elements in a composition and additional ideas sprout. In maintaining contact with a single concept he creates a firmly consistent, cohesive whole. It is this unity amongst the various elements that gives Jeths' work its potency. The limitations he imposes on his choice of material does nothing to inhibit his bent for exuberant timbres. In his oeuvre this concept of sound enjoys a status equal to that of rhythms and intervallic structure.
The solo concerto - the individual vs. the group - is a recurring genre. In addition to piano, violin, viola, cello, harp and clarinet, Jeths has written for less everyday solo instruments: the concerti for bandoneon, alto saxophone and flugelhorn have redefined the concept of the 'solo concerto'. In these works the solo instrument plays the role of a prism that illuminates the colours of the orchestra in a variety of ways. And inversely, the soloist in turn becomes 'coloured' by the orchestra.
Consequently the approach to the orchestra in, say, a violin concerto Jeths takes it to an extreme: in order to allow this low, muffled solo instrument to penetrate and shine he simply 'lowered' the bottom end of the orchestra, creating a sort of aural 'trompe l'oeil' effect. A synthesizer that can reach an octave lower than the double basses, a contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon and the lowest register of the organ allow Jeths to create the illusion that the alto voice of the flugelhorn can soar above the entire orchestra. As in his concertos, the soloist in Jeths' first opera Hôtel de Pékin - dreams for a dragon queen, is pitted against the masses. The protagonist, the Chinese empress dowager Cixi, single-handedly attempts to uphold the values and the hierarchical structure of ancient China in the late nineteenth century.
Willem Jeths goes to great lengths to achieve the sound he is after: he sinks to the nearly unplayable depths of the flugelhorn's lowest register (in the above-mentioned concerto) or sends the cello into the upper reaches of its range (for example, in the piano trio Chiasmos or in Bella Figura for solo cello). Conversely, the violin assumes the role of the cello in the third string quartet Intus trepidare.
return to top