On 28 November 2014 Willem Jeths was officially appointed the first Dutch Composer Laureate at the Buma Classical Convention in TivoliVredenburg (Utrecht). Fulfilling this position for two years, he seized upon every opportunity to act as ambassador for new national notes. He put the spotlight on 20th century Dutch musical heritage, focused on the latest composer generation, championed music education and in passing reflected on the current state of musical composition:
'During the second half of the 20th century an explosion took place in our musical culture', according to Jeths. 'What is on offer now is more fragmented and variegated than ever. The challenge that a contemporary composer faces, is to distill something authentic from this vast ocean. Whether he succeeds doesn't really depend on the concept of "innovation". I think that passion and inspiration are more relevant nowadays.'
Willem Jeths (Amersfoort’, 1959) never quite understood why a composer should break with tradition at any cost. ‘When I started out composing in the 1980’s, the avant-garde had those tenacious dogmas. Everything had to be new, so history was ignored in a flurry of modernist amnesia. That way of thinking has always made me feel uncomfortable. Musical tradition is part of our collective memory, after all. It surrounds us every day, in concert halls, on the radio, online. Isn’t it logical that these sound worlds resonate somehow in what is being composed today?’
Consequently, tradition is never far off in Jeths’ music. Take his First Symphony (2012), a work about the cycle of life and death on texts by Goethe. In the score Jeths' own colourful, expressive language is closely intertwined with references to Richard Strauss, Alban Berg and – particularly – Gustav Mahler. In the second movement, ‘Wie ein Kondukt’, a Mahlerian ‘fernorchester’ plays an equally Mahler-like ‘marcia funebre’. An arching trumpet solo seems to be derived from the Viennese composer’s Tenth Symphony, as is the nine-tone ‘death chord’ that is being blasted out in a deafening tutti section.
‘I am convinced that music can be more vigorous and expressive if it contains identifiable elements’, Jeths states. ‘After more than a century these notes by Strauss, Berg and Mahler have been overlaid with a patina of interpretations. Precisely for that reason such references imbue my music with emotion and meaning. That nine-tone chord from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony is a case in point. Even if you have never heard his music, you immediately feel that this sound is a foreshadowing of death.’
Instead of literary quotes Jeths prefers to speak of ‘archetypical references’: ‘I am not a “quotation composer”. I really try to incorporate these references into my music, to merge them with my own material until they are barely recognizable. Of course, someone with a well trained ear and a large frame of reference may be able to single out a quote and attach a literary meaning to it. But far more important is the non-literary significance, which works on a subtler, prescient level. Sounds such as that nine-tone chord are rooted very deeply in our subconscious and immediately stir up fear. It really is a primordial sound, an archetype.’
Apart from archetypical references eccentric timbre explorations have been part of Jeths’ musical ABC for a long time. In the award winning Glenz Violin Concerto (1993) vibrating soundscapes continue to vary in colour and light intensity, as if dense clouds above the orchestra evaporate into transparant wisps of mist. Sophisticated instrumentation is the secret ingredient of the musical clair-obscur effect. Glenz does not just require a full string orchestra but also a nine-instrument scordatura ensemble. Its singular instrumentation and higher string tension adds a fierce metallic hue to the timbre palette. Also worth mentioning is the First Piano Concerto (1994). In its closing bars Jeths twists the highest tone on the keyboard with a tuning fork until an eardrum-screeching percussive sound emerges.
Jeths has always felt a strong affinity for genres such as the symphony and the concerto. The sonorous abundance of the orchestra appealed to him. Moreover he saw a whole range of unreclaimed possibilities: ‘When I started out as a composer, the symphony orchestra was completely in disfavour. The avant-garde preferred to write for ensembles they had founded themselves or for ad hoc outfits. Orchestral writing was stuck in a 19th-century ideal of saturation for a long time. I wanted to incorporate unusual playing techniques and instruments in the apparatus of the orchestra in order to prize open the sound and allow for sharp contrasts.’
The Harp Concerto Fas/Nefas (1997) illustrates this. Jeths approaches the solo instrument from a percussive angle. It is played with a wooden stick and constantly explores its low rumbling registers. The outcome is a primitive exotic colouring; aural fauvism. And yet Fas/Nefas also contains passages of enchanting tranquility, as when the soloist delicately sounds out the overtone spectrum of the low e-string. Meanwhile a mist of swirling vibraphone glissandi, string flageolets, and softly whooping hoover hoses passes through the orchestra.
Pieces such as Glenz, Fas/Nefas and the Piano Concerto illustrate Jeths’ typical view on the concerto format. So far, he has written fourteen concertos in which the classic dichotomy between soloist and orchestra is largely absent. Instead Jeths prefers a close interaction between the soloists and other instruments, whereby the soloist acts as a ‘prism’.
Jeths: ‘The soloist has to be the focal point through which I can refract the sound of the orchestra. Of course each soloist will add individual nuances but I deliberately try to position the other instruments in line with its timbre in order to place the sound in a different perspective.’ Timbre and instrumentation are at the very heart of Jeths’ composing practice. ‘This is why I begin composing with an orchestral score right away, al fresco. It is the only way to allow the timbre to become a formative element of the piece. Otherwise the composition becomes a colouring picture.’
Timbres too tend to get an archetypal treatment in Jeths’ hands, as is illustrated by Hôtel de Pékin - Dream for a Dragon Queen. In this 2008 opera on Cixi (1835-1908), the last empress of China, Jeths cleverly uses sound and colour to explore the nature of his main characters. So the erhu, a traditional Chinese knee violin, weaves like a shadow around Cixi’s vocal lines. The instrument sings of her fate, which is inextricably linked with ancient China’s decline. The supple, quicksilver characteristics of the clarinet symbolise the cunning personality of the malicious court eunuch Ainzi, who hard-handedly whips the Chinese aristocracy into obedience in the Forbidden City.
After all, according to the official Chinese censors Cixi conducted an oppressive reign of terror that was almost as cruel as the darkest dictatorships of the 20th century. But in his opera Jeths paints a subtler picture of a woman who fell prey to the merciless forces of history and faced the impossible task of perpetuating the dominion of the ancient empire at a point in time when China was creaking under the weight of western imperialism and large-scale opium smuggling. Fully aware that the dynastic norms and values are no longer in step with modern times, Cixi makes the ultimate sacrifice as she takes her own life to make way for a new order. Jeths: ‘At heart Hôtel de Pékin is about self-sacrifice. It is an opera dealing with the act of disappearing so that something new can be created. Transformation, in other words.’
Jeths’ work may thrive on retrospective references, archetypal quotations and nostalgic undercurrents as it builds on traditional genres and formats, still his notes are without the typical postmodern aesthetics that usually underlie such procedures. In his music one searches in vain for postmodern characteristics such as collage, pastiche, parody or irony.
Jeths’ take on tradition is different. For him history is not a burden but a source of inspiration that he dips into at will. He does not carry musical tradition on his shoulders but keeps it under his belt, close to his skin, intimately familiar, and always within reach to feed an emotionally charged and lyrical-expressive idiom, which hints at an almost romantic urge for individuality and inwardness.
Although it would go too far to assume that his work literary translates his inner life, autobiographical prompts often add an emotional charge to his notes. His mother’s death in the orchestral work Throb (1995), his own fear of death in the Flügelhorn Concerto ‘al fondo per l’oscuro’ (2002), an individual metaphysical ‘inkling’ of an afterlife in the First Symphony. For the Recorder Concerto (2014) his youth was an important source of inspiration. Juvenile tensions, resulting from a complex relation with his father, have left their marks in the music. Dramatic tutti chords sound in the opening measures to which a water gong adds eerie hues. In the riotous middle section the soloist extracts piercing high Cs from his instrument – forced gestures, sounding repugnance. This is offset by moments of tranquil remembrance. Such as the solo cadence, accompanied ‘molto fragile’ by softly rubbed crystal glasses, a musical metaphor for the pureness and fragility of a child’s soul. The slowly ebbing final measures seem to reflect chastened resignation. Jeths: ‘To me, the end of the concerto is about surpassing yourself and saying goodbye to your inner child. Again, it is about transformation.’
The idea of transformation is an essential theme in Jeths’ music. In some way or another it is present in all of his major works. Whether in a strictly musical sense (i.e. the ongoing evolution of material), or as a contemplative subtext, such as the idea of the cycle of life and death that underpins the First Symphony, or the notions of personal transition in Hôtel de Pékin and the Recorder Concerto.
Asked about his fascination for the transformative, Jeths says: ‘In essence transformation is about the liminal condition, the moment when one state shifts into another while it is impossible to pinpoint the exact boundaries. As far as I am concerned this boundless creative energy is the essence of everything. I recognize it in life, in nature, and I also hear its workings in music, in the continuous metamorphosis of themes, motives, and timbres.’
According to Jeths, the most far-reaching transition is death. ‘This change-over from being to not-being is the most profound mystery of life. It evokes fear as well as fascination as it is unfathomable.’ In essence, all of Jeths’ music tries to capture that single moment of ultimate detachment. ‘Which is of course impossible’, he puts his comment into perspective, ‘for that moment is both unknowable and impalpable. But the search continues.’
Jeths’ list of works shows that his musical language is subject to transformative forces as well. If it were possible to listen to his entire oeuvre in one go, it would become obvious that the roughy edged bravura in early pieces such as the First Piano Concerto and Fas/Nefas were gradually replaced by the softened lyricism of the Recorder Concerto. That the earthly, physical sound eruptions in Glenz and Throb evaporated into the metaphysical reflections of the First Symphony. Over time, the sound bruiser has morphed into a music whisperer.
Diptych Portrait (2009), Jeths’ Double Concerto for two viola’s, was pivotal in this evolution. ‘I was about to turn fifty as I worked on the piece’, the composer says. ‘That was a kind of milestone. I started to wonder what I actually wanted to write. Earlier I used to think that I should compose in a complex way in order to be taken seriously. I was inclined to pull out all the stops, purely to show off what I could do and what I knew.’
Over time Jeths came to see that he was simply hedging his bets. Complexity and decibels can easily become an armour for a composer to hide behind. Jeths: ‘I do not want to play hide and seek any more. I want to write music that really affects me. In recent years I got closer to my musical core. My work has become more introverted. Quieter, simpler, purer.’
The Requiem that Jeths currently is writing for the NTR ZaterdagMatinee Concertseries is exemplary. In the ‘Introïtus’ the music sporadicly builds up to a swelling climax. Two devastating hammer-strokes in the percussion section sound like the blows of fate that knock on the door in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. However, bare textures dominate. Often a flute and a muted trumpet play a single melody surrounded by a halo of rubbed crystal glasses. ‘Fragile’, ‘de lontano’, ‘intimo’, ‘morendo’, is written above the staves. Jeths: ‘I wanted to write a kind of white music that whispers very softly until it’s almost inaudible. I’ve come to understand that it is not necessary to make a lot of noise to say something of note. On the contrary.’
International performances (selection)
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)
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