How Franz Schubert led Klaas de Vries to neotonal heaven

The music of the Dutch composer Klaas de Vries (1944) combines Stravinskyan clarity with southern sensuality. He cherishes a love for poets like Pablo Neruda and Fernando Pessoa and his work excels in recognizable melodies and rhythms. ‘No matter how innovative, to be communicative music must always contain a traditional element’, he once said. On 28 and 30 November, Asko|Schönberg will perform a revised version of Mirror Palace (Spiegelpaleis), which he composed in 2012. Herein De Vries questions the future of music: ‘I ended up at Schubert, but I didn’t find the definitive answer.’

When and why did you hit on the idea of Mirror Palace?

For years, I had been wondering what direction Western composed music should take. I wanted to explore this in a full-evening piece, somewhat in the vein of The Fifth Book by my colleague Peter-Jan Wagemans. That incorporates a chamber symphony, a number of ensemble pieces, a mini-opera, a part with only electronics, and a complete Mass. But instead of a succession of different genres, I envisioned something that would be rather more continuous and coherent. A piece in which two opposing developments take place simultaneously.

When the Doelen Ensemble asked me for a new composition in 2012, I decided to work out the idea. I wrote a ten-movement work for mezzo-soprano, electronics and ensemble in which two sound worlds collide. One is becoming increasingly harsher and dissonant, the other ever more sonorous and consonant.

Simply put, Mirror Palace is made up of two types of compositions, an A-group and a B-group. The first moves away from the music towards sound-art, as it were. It contains a lot of live electronics that distort the sound of the instruments on the spot. This development culminates in the penultimate movement in a text from Nostalghia by Tarkovsky, spoken by the mezzo-soprano.

The B-group becomes increasingly consonant, resolutely moving in the direction of tonality. In my first version Mirror Palace ended with a performance of the adagio from the Octet by Franz Schubert. But that solution was born from lack of time and I wasn’t happy with it. Therefore in my revised version for Asko-Schönberg I have added a vocal line, on a hopeful text by Cesare Pavese.

In your own programme note, you call this final movement a ‘utopian neotonal heaven’. Do you think the future of music lies in a return to tonality?

I must honestly admit that I do not know. I am not in favour of or against certain trends either, but I do have a lot of criticism of the neonatal movement. After all, it almost invariably concerns a simplification of real tonal music, it is much more primitive. If you want to repeat Brahms or anyone else, you must be able to improve on them. Or at least be equally good. That’s why, in the end, I didn’t quite succeed in writing my own neotonal piece either.

Inevitably I arrived at Schubert, a great love from my youth. But he had already realized the tonal heaven, what could I add? In the end, I made an adaptation of the second movement of his Octet. First of all by adding a vocal line. That was quite difficult because the adagio itself is already a song, with beautiful, spun out melodies of the clarinet. I have fully adopted Schubert’s notes, but the mezzo-soprano part is completely new. In my own melody, I have stayed as close as possible to his tonality, however.

In the low register of the piano I have added a gong-like chord, as a halo around the original music. That’s why it sounds a bit nostalgic, which emphasizes that it’s about something from the past. At the same time, the poem of Pavese speaks of hope, of a door that opens, after which ‘you will come in’. It was about a woman he was in love with, but for me it is also a symbol of the future.

Asko|Schönberg, foto Gerrit Schreurs

Partly because of the Italian texts, the song sometimes sounds almost like Puccini. Schubert is thus lifted a little closer to our time, while at the same time the romantic chords act as quotation marks. This section also contains electronics, not to distort the music, but as a kind of super echo. This makes it almost kitsch. At least I hope that it will balance on the edge of kitsch like some of Puccini’s music. I find that exciting.

The electronics were developed by René Uijlenhoet, what is its function?

I can’t even turn on a computer myself, but René knows how to translate my sound conceptions into electronics. It serves to bring the outside world in. For example, Mirror Palace starts with two percussionists playing woodblocks, standing on either side of the stage. They play in hocket, alternately producing the notes of the same theme. The electronics pulverize this, making it sound like a hailstorm. In this way nature enters the music.

Nature is gradually becoming more grey and fiercer, which is in line with the text of Tarkovsky in the ninth movement. This turned out to be surprisingly topical. It is about ‘so-called healthy people’ who have brought the world to the brink of disaster. How freedom means nothing if we don’t dare look at each other, dare not eat, drink or sleep together. Such observations seem to reflect the current fear of immigrants and our tendency to destroy the planet.

Tarkovsky’s text expresses both homesickness for a paradisiacal past and a desire to do better in the future. He believes we should dare to dream together and strive for a higher goal. His words are spoken and whispered by the mezzo-soprano, her timing is improvised. She is accompanied by the two percussionists, again standing on either side of the stage, each playing a large drum with their hands. Finally, she says: ‘And now music!’, after which she sings the Pavese song over the adagio from Schubert’s Octet.

In the score she is referred to as ‘lab assistant’. Why?

Though she is on stage from start to finish, the mezzo-soprano does not play a leading role, contrary to what you might expect. In the beginning she makes some general announcements. ‘This piece will last ninety minutes and has ten movements. Please do not applaud in between,’ She also speaks a text from Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror, in which Alexei dreams of becoming a child again. This was a happy time in which the future was still completely open.

Meanwhile, we hear plucked chords from the double bass player, while the pianist is tinkling some fragments from the Octet. He is completely turned into himself, seemingly unaware of his environment. The two musicians are already playing when the audience enters the hall; you wonder what that lady is doing on stage. Gradually she reveals herself as the stage manager, who arranges the lecterns and microphones for the changing formations of instruments. In the ninth movement, she suddenly addresses the public directly: ‘Hey, healthy people!’ This has a somewhat disruptive effect.

Whence the title Mirror Palace?

The piece is full of reflections. First of all, Schubert’s Octet shines through all the notes like a subcutaneous mirror. Even the extremely dissonant sound-art passages are inspired by its opening measures. Each of the ten movements reflects the previous one and together they mirror the Octet. The electronics in turn reflect all the music that is played. Because the sounds are distorted live, it sounds different every time, like a mirror sometimes changes colour. And then of course there is the text from Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.

Have you found an answer to your question of which direction music should take?

Certainly not. Mirror Palace is only one possible answer from thousands. Nor is it a plea for a return to tonality, which has never been lost anyway. I am amazed at the ease with which atonality is condemned today. For what, in fact, is atonal music? Look at Alban Berg or even Arnold Schoenberg, who developed the twelve-tone technique. Even in their music, you always feel the gravitational force of a tonal centre. Luciano Berio reintroduced tonality by way of quotation in his Sinfonia and even in Notations by Pierre Boulez there are tonal elements.

Our ears experience them as a matter of course. But, as I said earlier, I have no sympathy whatsoever for the neotonal movement in music. To call a spade a spade: you hear so much Philip Glass today, which I find absolutely ter-ri-ble! I have the feeling that he’s taking us on a ride with cheap shit. After all, what is it you are listening to? To very bad, continuously repeated triads. Loads of people listen to it with their eyes closed, swaying to and fro and cheering afterwards. I do not understand why. There isn’t a shimmer of anything that might disturb you or that makes you think: hey, this is a memorable moment. Apparently mankind wants to be deceived !

You also quote Tarkovsky: ‘The real evil of our time is that there are no more great masters’.

I fully agree with that. Everything has become so democratised these day. I sometimes visit the composition class at the Rotterdam Conservatoire. There are students from all over the world, enormous talents. This also applies to Amsterdam and The Hague. What will all these people do after their studies? They will each acquire their own little place. But great masters? Those were Boulez, Ligeti and still Kurtág. Today, I really would not know.

Doesn’t this thwart your own creativity?

No, because I simply can’t stop composing.

More info and tickets via this link:

About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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