Vanessa Lann zooms in on Hieronymus Bosch in ‘Big Picture’

The new music festival November Music that runs from 4-13 November will dedicate its last day to an ambitious ‘art music route’ through the beautiful city of Den Bosch. From 12 am to 6 pm short concerts are staged at various locations, where some of them are performed three times. Thus you get several opportunities to hear the pieces of your choice.

In my 5 tips for the festival I already included two of these events, but here’s one more: Big Picture by the American-Dutch composer Vanessa Lann. It was written in January 2016 for the Storioni Festival and is inspired by the triptych Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch died 500 years ago and is a central figure in November Music. Big Picture will be performed by the Storioni Trio in De Toonzaal. Only once though, on Sunday 13 November at 4 pm.

Jeroen Bosch, Tuin der lusten

Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch

Vanessa Lann (New York, 1968) has been a composer and pianist since the age of five and studied composition with composers such as Ruth Schonthal, Earl Kim and Louis Andriessen. In 1990 she moved to the Netherlands.

Limited amount of material

Lann likes to compose for specific performers, and builds her compositions from a limited amount of material. She creates clear, often circular structures, in which (varied) repetition plays an important role. ‘The listener has an experience of starting off in a world that doesn’t yet make sense’, she says. ‘But through the use of repetitive elements, or an increased density of the instrumentation or number of notes, he or she gradually comes to an understanding of what role a seemingly meaningless detail plays in the entire set-up of the piece.’

Background versus foreground

Lann likes to play with our expectations: ‘I’m interested in the path a listener follows, and in the dichotomy between background and foreground. This is rooted in my fascination for time and repetition. Often we concentrate on what draws our immediate attention, missing the things that are going on at a different level. How do we appreciate music when we hear it once, twice, three times or even more? At what point do we realize that what at first seemed to be the background, may well have been the core of the composition?

Storioni Trio (c) Studio 305

Storioni Trio (c) Studio 305

Big Picture

Big Picture was a commission for the 20th jubilee of the Dutch Storioni Trio, that premièred it during their Storioni Festival in January 2016. For what was to be her first piano trio, Lann enthusiastically embraced their request to reflect on Bosch’s hellish representation of the garden of Eden. ‘There are so many repeated images in the Bosch triptych that I’ve attempted to repeat elements in the three main movements of the piece’, she said in an interview.

In Big Picture Bosch’s triptych opens itself up to the viewer/listener as it were, first displaying the overall picture that’s replete with naked people, water, outlandish animals and hellish creatures in multiple repetitions. The composer was fascinated by the question whether we focus on the details, or rather on the ‘big picture’, in other words: what is the foreground, what the background?

Vanessa Lann (r) interviews Anna Korsun, Gaudeamus Music Week 2014

Vanessa Lann (r) interviews Anna Korsun, Gaudeamus Music Week 2014

Instruments become part of a bigger picture

In an interview with The Strad the composer explained how she translated this into music: ‘In the first movement, the violin serves as a background element, playing with mute, without vibrato and with slow patterns in a soft dynamics. When the same exact notes return later, the violinist is in the foreground, playing with much vibrato and a much louder dynamics. Throughout the piece the cello echoes the lines of the violin yet it sounds different as the cello has another timbre. It brings up the question of what on one instrument sounds heavenly can simply be hellish on another.’

‘The audience will find some of the repeated patterns as strange as the images in Bosch’s painting. Yet, once the piece nears completion all of the musical gestures make sense. They grant a role to the listener to see what he or she notices just like different people pick up on different things when looking at a visual image. The musical juxtaposition between foreground and background gives each instrument the chance to become part of a “bigger” picture.’

After its première The Strad concluded: ‘The boundaries between visual arts and music are indiscernible.’ You can check out for yourself on Sunday 13 November at 4 pm in De Toonzaal, Den Bosch.


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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3 Responses to Vanessa Lann zooms in on Hieronymus Bosch in ‘Big Picture’

  1. Pingback: Kate Moore wins Matthijs Vermeulenprijs – as first woman composer ever | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

  2. Pingback: Freudiaans: ‘Sofia Goebaidoelina, een vrouwelijke componist’ | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

  3. tijn vellekoop says:

    At least Lann realizes that vibrato is somewhat more than just a romantic embellishment


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