Platonic ID (2005-06) 17’59”
for 13 instrumentalists
Asko Ensemble & Bas Wiegers (conductor)
article 0 [transarctic buddha] (2000) 7’54”
for solo percussion: pitched metals and pitched natural stones
Arnold Marinissen (percussion)
article 1 to 3 (2003) 11’12”
for piano solo
Dante Boon (piano)
article 4 (2004) 10’02”
[landkaartje – la carte géographique – map butterfly]
for violin solo
Anna McMichael (violin)
Book of Mirrors (2001) 12’04”
for 19 instrumentalists
Asko Ensemble & Stefan Asbury (conductor)
The soft gleaming skin of sounds
Purified, as if washed clean—that is one way one might characterize the music of Rozalie Hirs (1965). Her work is presented with the greatest clarity; she creates a world in a few gestures. Within that world, sonic beauty is of greater importance than the display of technique or structure. Indeed, though Hirs’ points of departure are almost always austere and sober, she permits herself a great measure of intuition. The listener hears a number of associations that occur within the limits of the plot she has laid out for herself. This is not to say that the Dutch composer only works intuitively when constructing her works–quite the contrary. At first hearing, her gestures may seem simple but beneath them refined methods are hidden, rooted in mathematical or physical ideas. Perhaps this has something to do with Hirs’ background as a chemical engineer, her training before she devoted her life to the muses.
The unwary listener need not, in fact, be occupied with the mathematical framework underlying her music. Hirs seems to be most eager to show you the soft, gleaming skin of her sounds. Each successive piece becomes more and more soulful and warm-blooded – as exemplified by the most recent work on this CD, Platonic ID (2006), which Hirs wrote for the Asko Ensemble.
In Platonic ID, Hirs took the overtones described by Plato in his Timaeus as a point of departure: frequency relations that are, for Plato, the expression of the World Soul. The composer used these pitch relationships to create her harmonies: a number of fifths and octaves impart to the piece its particularly consonant character. Platonic ID elegantly unfolds in rustling waves of quick notes, with moments of repose where the chords are heard sounding out in the piano, or in which short, luminous chorales suddenly shine forth. ‘Usually, I’m looking for fluid transitions in my work, but in Platonic ID I chose to work with blocks that can be clearly distinguished. Within those blocks, the music is intentionally very fluid again’.
Not content to be only a former engineer and a composer, Hirs is a poet as well. Recently, her third collection, Speling (Leeway) was published, as in the case of her first two collections Locus and Logos, by the renowned literary publishing house, Querido. ‘I first took up poetry’, Hirs says when asked which art form she practiced first. As long as I can remember I have been fascinated with words and sound. Already, when I could only write my own name, I wished to rearrange the letters, just to see what it might say. Written language to me was a code, a mysterious thing whose workings I didn’t yet fully grasp’.
‘My first serious poems I wrote when I began my chemistry studies. At that point it didn’t occur to me to attend conservatory. In my upbringing my parents always emphasized the importance of learning a trade. As an emancipated woman, I thought I would enroll in a science program and keep music and poetry only as side interests. I sang in bands and I took classical singing lessons at the music school. I diligently passed my chemistry exams, but music and poetry turned out to be my real life’.
After graduation, Hirs took a year off in order to find out whether she really wished to take the big step into music. She did, and applied to the Royal Conservatory at The Hague. ‘I wanted to go there, because it was where Louis Andriessen was teaching, and I greatly admired his music’.
Hirs describes her time at the conservatory with Diderik Wagenaar and Louis Andriessen (and her subsequent studies with Tristan Murail in New York) as a period of discovery. Furthermore, during her first year as a conservatory student she took part in the poetry competition of the Pythian Games at Enschede, where she ended among the finalists, as a result of which Querido poetry editor Jan Kuijper invited her to submit some of her work, and Querido published Hirs’ first collection Locus in 1998.
When asked what poetry and composing have in common, Hirs says: ‘In both, you need distance, so as to think abstractly, and perspective, so as to see what you have made. On the one hand, creating is expressing yourself, but on the other hand you need this distance to improve yourself. The capacity for self-reflection is among the best qualities of any good artist’. This almost scientific attitude is also found in her Book of Mirrors (2001), in which Hirs connects the use of acoustical laws of overtones, sum tones and difference tones to how a listener perceives sound. ‘If you hear two tones at the same time, it turns out that the brain automatically adds certain others. I was wondering how I could use this fact to produce a harmonious and homogeneous sound’. Hirs wrote Book of Mirrors as music for an abstract film by Joost Rekveld. The ‘mirrors’ in the title refer to the prime numbers and the mirrored structures that form the foundations of the work, making Book of Mirrors into a kaleidoscope of ratios. Starting from the lowest level of the tones, through the chords and the tone-colors up to the level of time structures, everything is fixed by numerical measurements and their mirrorings. These correspond to the time structure of Rekveld’s film and to particular details, for example the use of color.
After her years with Louis Andriessen, Hirs studied for some time with Tristan Murail at Columbia University. ‘Murail’s music I found to be very beautiful. What attracted me in his work was the way it was highly concerned with harmony and timbre, and with the psychology of time perception. His gestural style may be closer to a late-romantic idiom, whereas Andriessen, who is more of a classicist, interested in clarity of form. In addition, Murail is a phenomenal orchestrator, who takes the overtone structures of the instruments into consideration when writing. This way, he is capable of giving a small ensemble an almost symphonic sound. What I learnt from Murail built upon my studies with Andriessen: how to listen carefully, elaborate and notate things—and why they should be that way. Every detail must be right, every note must be good’.
This eye for detail is most clearly found in Hirs’ series of solo works, each entitled article. Hirs primarily intends ‘article’ in the linguistic sense. ‘The pieces are meditations on the articles of language’, the composer explains. But ‘article’ might also be taken in the sense of ‘writing’ or ‘textual fragment’. Then, one might see Hirs’ articles as essays in sound – experiments, trials or treatises, like those of Montaigne – which treat some clearly delimited subject. Take, for example, article 4, in which Hirs lets go of the grammatical principle and takes a butterfly for her subject matter. ‘By way of the (grammatical) articles I came to the Hebrew alphabet in article 1 to 3. At that point, it was a small step to get to the map butterfly of article 4 and the buddha (article 0 was added to the cycle a few years after it was written)’, Hirs explains.
article 0 [transarctic buddha] is the first work that Hirs composed during her studies at Columbia University with Tristan Murail. This piece for percussion is an answer to Morton Feldman’s The King of Denmark. If in Feldman’s work the performer is given great freedom in the choice of instruments, in Hirs’ piece these are fixed, comprising of metal instruments and a set of 23 tuned slabs of stone (Belgian bluestone and marble). The stones reminded Hirs of a sculpture of a person and of a ritual. Thus the Buddha, who, for the composer, is of similar stature as Feldman. The adjective ‘transarctic’ was a free association on her transatlantic sojourn in New York. Stone and metal (the other material in the work) gave Hirs, as she puts it, ‘a cold sensation’: arctic, so to speak. transarctic buddha is a journey around the old, cold, bald head of a stone Buddha, around his crown; a terrestrial globe with ice on the poles, that keep sea and land invisible until the temperature rises above freezing point’.
The solo piano composition article 1 to 3 (2003) is in three movements. This work explores the harmonic spectrum of a low B, situated far below the range of the piano. At the same time, article 1 to 3 is an examination of the properties of this particular string instrument. Part 1, titled [the], concerns itself with the resonance of the instrument, the vibrations caused by the strings and the body of the piano. The second movement is a ‘meditation on the keyboard of the piano, on the relative position of the keys and on weightlessness’, says Hirs. In movement three the composer quotes a short rhythmic motive from Feu d’artifice, one of the 24 preludes composed for piano by Claude Debussy. Fireworks indeed: Hirs wrote article 1 to 3 for the occasion of her parents’ fortieth anniversary.
article 4 [landkaartje – la carte géographique – map butterfly] from 2004 is an exploration of violin harmonics, overtones that sound when you half press the string at certain nodal points. It is interesting to see that Hirs notated her score for solo violin on two staves – the instrument is usually given one staff only. The lower staff notates the musician’s fingering while the upper staff shows the sounding result of his actions. The ‘fingering staff’ is only seen by the player – the listener doesn’t hear it. It’s also a kind of phantom voice that plays an inaudible bass note for every sounding tone. The violin is like a virtuoso viola d’amore, or (according to the title) a butterfly flitting about and casting volatile shadows on the ground which travel along with it, ‘in a mysterious conjunction of body, light and motion’, according to Hirs. The map of the pitches comes into existence as the butterfly flies across the fingerboard. The harmonics and their ‘ground shadows’ were used again by the composer as a point of departure for the harmonies in Platonic ID.
One further point: in spite of her fascination with the shadowy world of the overtones and their harmonic relationship, Hirs doesn’t view herself as a spectral composer: ‘I don’t like the term spectral music very much because it has certain stylistic implications. I do let myself be inspired by spectra as they can be found in nature and analyzed by composers, and by the frequency calculations that we know from electronic music as well. I want to design an architecture of sound. I would like to move through a musical work as through a space. What others call ‘form’ I call ‘sonic space’, given by the relation between tones that built a structure during the compositional process’. Hirs may not want to be considered part of the spectralist movement within which Murail is generally placed, yet a work like Platonic ID has an unmistakably French sound to it. Hirs herself does not disagree with this view, although she was thinking also of jazz figures like John Coltrane. ‘But that association is very personal. May I tell you what seems ideal to me? To write a kind of music that engages in dialogue with physical and psychological processes in the brain. Composers like Claude Vivier, Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, for example, manage to do that. They literally create sensuous pieces, a music of the senses, which communicates with the listener. In the ideal case, music provides an experience the listener has never had’.
(translation: Samuel Vriezen/James Helgeson)