Diderik Wagenaar

 

Diderik Wagenaar – Metrum
Diderik Wagenaar – Rookery Hill
Diderik Wagenaar – Tam Tam

 

 

Composers’ Voice / Donemus: CV94

 

Diderik Wagenaar is a sandy-haired Dutchman from Utrecht who has lived and worked all his adult life in The Hague. Born in 1946 to a musical family that includes among its number Johan (although not Bernard) Wagenaar, he began playing piano at the age of eight and by the time he was fourteen had set his sights on a musical vocation. As a teenager in the early 1960s he loved Renaissance music, Bach, Ravel, and Thelonious Monk; at the age of eighteen he began studying music theory with Jan van Dijk, Hein Kein and Rudolf Koumans and piano with Simon Admiraal at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. As a composer he is essentially self-taught.

It was during his student years in the mid-60s that Wagenaar began to develop as a composer. Although fascinated by the concerts given by Pierre Boulez and Bruno Maderna with the Hague Philharmonic, he admits to having “no real grip” at that time on the musical avant-garde, and began to look around for other starting-points for his own music. In addition to his fascination with jazz, an important encounter at that time was with the music of Charles Ives, which taught him the value of inclusivity. It also encouraged his tendency to attempt a synthesis between tonality and atonality, to connect previously disparate systems of musical thought. Today Wagenaar feels that the notion of a “music of inclusion” can be seen as an important aspect of the new Dutch music as a whole.

This CD is the result of the long-standing interest in Wagenaar’s music by the English ensemble Icebreaker, which John Godfrey and James Poke founded in 1989, initially to play Dutch repertoire that at that time was practically unknown in England. Icebreaker’s earliest concerts included music by Louis Andriessen and Wagenaar’s Tam Tam. Poke and Godfrey liked the non-Romantic aspects of this music, its precision and vitality.

Tam Tam (1978-79), dedicated to Louis Andriessen on the occasion of his fortieth birthday, is scored for two pan-pipes, two alto saxophones, two pianos, two electric pianos, two bass guitars and two congas with marimba. Wagenaar developed the piece through working closely with the musicians of Hoketus, the ensemble that Andriessen founded at The Hague Conservatory in the mid-1970s to work on techniques of minimal music. Invited to compose a piece for them, Wagenaar began by writing some rhythmic “exercises” which the musicians tried through almost as soon as they were written; and the success with which his rhythmic inventions came to life encouraged him to persevere. The compositional process thereafter grew into a “voyage of discovery.” It no longer mattered whether he discussed “questions of technique or compositional aesthetics” with the group, he later recalled: they had become “one and the same thing.”

Tam Tam inhabits a new rhythmic world, different than anything Wagenaar had explored to that time. (The title, which in the mouth of a Dutchman becomes “tom tom,” alludes to the drum sounds and patterns of African music.) Technically the music is based on the principle of irregular divisions of the metrical unit, creating a constant feeling of unpredictability-or what might be called “rhythmic dissonance.” Among the first of the ideas Wagenaar brought to the musicians of Hoketus was a “short three and longer four” rhythm (three quavers in the time of two and four quavers in the time of three, notated in a 5/8 metre, but resulting in a rhythmic ratio of 9:8). This conceptually advanced but musically fascinating rhythmic idea is gradually built up and explored throughout what became the first main section of the finished piece (after the marvellous introductory passage for two pianos).

Another of Tam Tam‘s starting-points was the idea of breathing in and out: a kind of inhalation/exhalation, like the way one plays the harmonica. Much of the repertory composed for Hoketus explored the rapid passing back and forth of chords or single notes between instrumental groups (as the ensemble’s name implies). The second main part of Tam Tam - after the “interlude” for pianos and bass guitars – begins with the inhalation / exhalation idea between two (differently constituted) instrumental groups. The irregular and constantly changing meters, together with the lack of a steady pulse, give it the feel of a strange kind of dance: a soft-shoe shuffle that keeps tripping over its own feet and becomes progressively more agitated.

Tam Tam is a work that could not have been written by any other composer of the Hague School. One feels it was a breakthrough for Wagenaar. In some respects it is his response to the American minimal music of the late ’60s and early ’70s, with which it shares a predilection for repeating patterns and gradual, cumulative change; except that it avoids the sterile predicability of the more straightforward kind of “process” piece. Wagenaar himself says it is “a sort of great-grandchild of jazz,” adding that “great-grandchildren do not necessarily resemble their great-grandfathers.” And although it borrows harmonic material from his earlier two-piano work Praxis (1973), Tam Tam is perhaps the first of Wagenaar’s compositions successfully to realise a unity of idiom. The rhythmic language of the piece, in John Godfrey’s words, helped consolidate “a new way of thinking about rhythm” that has become a permanent part of the vocabulary of younger composers.

In a 1987 article on Wagenaar in the Dutch magazine Key Notes, Gene Carl suggested that the manner in which the four pianos of Tam Tam “throw the chords back and forth to one another” gave the music a spatial quality which “paved the way” to Wagenaar’s Metrum. To the listener, the differences between the two works are readily apparent, but there are deep-lying affinities as well. There is hardly any polyphony in Tam Tam, rather a hocketing of the musical material between different sub-groups within the ensemble: in contrast, Metrum has a great deal of polyphony. Metrum is built from the juxtaposition of three different layers of rhythm; this layering is not expressed as a superimposition of gestures (unlike, say, in Stockhausen’s Gruppen) but rather as a mass of sound, and in this latter sense it connects to Tam Tam.

Metrum is characterised by a great complexity of rhythm and harmony. The music requires, the composer says, “a form of close listening” because of its great profusion of detail. Wagenaar is the first to acknowledge that such close listening to this twenty-minute work is a challenging proposition. But, as he has said, “I like music with different possibilities of musical observation”: and Metrum provides a listening experience in which the ear can follow a great diversity of elements.

In its original form, Metrum (composed 1981-84, revised 1986) is scored for symphony orchestra and obbligato saxophone quartet. The intention was not to produce a concerto for saxophones, nor a latter-day concerto grosso. Rather, Wagenaar’s initial idea was to connect the saxophones with other “quartets” within the orchestra (of oboes, bassoons, French horns, etc.) as well as to the two pianos, which play a crucial role in the orchestral texture. As he composed, however, the severity of this original scheme came to seem unnecessarily restrictive, and the piece began to grow along different lines. The musicians play tutti almost all the time, and the result is what the composer describes as a “hurricane of sound” (which, as James Poke points out, is an approach highly suited to Icebreaker).

In composing Metrum Wagenaar followed a strict concept of form. This helped him to marshal the highly diverse materials of the piece, which he describes as “various gradations of rhythmic and/or harmonic complexity” that “alternate in irregular patterns.”

Metrum is dedicated to Wagenaar’s old counterpoint teacher Hein Kein, whom he credits with having taught him to think in new ways about musical material, such as the large-scale melodic aspect of form. Metrum, the composer says, is a “study in large-scale development,” visceral in its impact and architectural in its conception. (Wagenaar, himself the son of an architect, is delighted that several architect friends over the years have said they liked and understood the piece: and he recalls in 1987 being driven for the first time around midtown Manhattan and feeling strong affinities between the “overflowing, overwhelming” cityscape and the “architecture” of the recently-completed Metrum.)

The title, Wagenaar writes, “refers not only to the phenomenon of metrical foot, but also to measure. The 3/4 metre that is used forms the basis of the most important rhythmic proportion: three against four. The rhythmic contrasts based on this proportion are at times manifested in symmetrical, foot-like figures, and at others in asymmetrical figures.”

Not long after Icebreaker’s formation John Godfrey asked Wagenaar to make an arrangement of Metrum for the group. After some consideration Wagenaar decided that he couldn’t face the enormous amount of work that would be needed – on a piece that had already consumed many years of his life – so eventually Godfrey proposed he do it himself. Wagenaar agreed, imposing no specific restrictions on Godfrey’s treatment of the piece except that the result “must sound well.” Godfrey set himself four principal aims: to retain as much of the original as possible (no easy task when rescoring a large orchetral piece for fourteen players); to recreate the sound world of the original as faithfully as possible; to make the rhythmic layering clear to the listener; and to retain the visceral impact of the original (in performance, Icebreaker’s preference for loud amplification brings out this aspect of the music). His arrangement, completed in 1995, uses flute/piccolo, wind synthesizer, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, electric violin and electric cello, accordeon, three keyboards, vibraphone, electric guitar, and bass guitar. Wagenaar has said he is delighted with the result, which in some ways is “completely different” than the original; but he stresses his gratitude that Godfrey has so faithfully captured “the scenario of the piece.” (At the premiere in Hamburg of Icebreaker’s version, Godfrey recalls, Wagenaar told him the piece sounded “like Mozart” because of its clarity.)

How do the two versions compare? Wagenaar suggests the analogy of walking through a great cathedral on a sun-filled afternoon, and then later looking at a black-and-white photograph of the interior of the same building. In no sense does the photograph devalue the first-hand experience: it gives you something else. Contrasts, shapes, proportions become clearer. (James Poke adds that many people value black-and-white photographs for just those kinds of reasons.) Wagenaar points to the penultimate section of the piece, before the monody at the end, in which Icebreaker’s version brings out a precision of gesture that cannot be realised by a symphony orchestra, a quality of rhythmic ensemble that is closer to his original conception of the piece. Icebreaker’s recording uses close miking and was done by multitracking, using modern technology to pinpoint the sounds and the rhythmic details very precisely.

In its profusion of material and relentless energy, Metrum marks one of the extremes of Wagenaar’s output. It is, he says, his own “statement on what is possible within the confines of music.” However, “knowing how many details had been buried under its total effect,” he turned in his next works to an emphasis on clarity and simplicity. A more open texture characterises such works as the string quartet Limiet (1985), the orchestral work Tessituur (1990), and the percussion ensemble piece Solenne (1992). These works represent not a change of idiom or aesthetic but rather a clarification of “what fascinates me”: a renewed concentration, for purely musical reasons, on leaner textures. We might say that the music of these years was a way of “cleaning the lenses of perception” after the tumult of Metrum.

Icebreaker had long hoped for a new work from Wagenaar, a hope that was fulfilled in 1997-98 with the composition of Rookery Hill. In this new score Wagenaar honours the promise he had made in an interview with Johan Kolsteeg in 1994: that “the next step will be to combine the clarity that I think I’ve hit upon [in such works as Tessituur and Solenne] with the rhythmic energy of Metrum and Limiet.”

Rookery Hill, commissioned for Icebreaker by John Godfrey, is scored for flute, wind synthesizer, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, vibraphone/orchestra bells, electric guitar, bass guitar, two keyboards, violin and cello. It takes its name from the corner of rural Surrey in which Icebreaker rehearses. Rookery Hill is concerned once more with rhythmic energy and velocity but is characterised by transparent textures. Wagenaar says the ideal of this new piece, as with many others, is “surveyability.” “Surveyability” is not the same thing as simplicity, but a situation in which the listener can recognise all the elements of the musical structure (a concern Wagenaar says he learned from the music of his beloved Bach, Stravinsky, and Ravel). In Rookery Hill, he adds, “my ambition is that as a listener you are able to recognise the differences between the chords.” The music is built from very fast, nervous rhythmic gestures with mostly triadic harmonies; the piece seems to gyrate around the atonal/tonal axis that has been one of Wagenaar’s obsessions since his student days.

James Poke sees in Rookery Hill a refreshing of Wagenaar’s musical language and points to a logical connection between it and Metrum: Rookery Hill, he says, lies somewhere between the monody at the end of Metrum and the complex texture of the rest of that earlier piece. “I like music that makes possible different points of observation,” Wagenaar himself says. In Rookery Hill he has once again fulfilled that imperative.

Bob Gilmore, 2001