In the Fall of 2021 I recorded a one-hour, multitracked solo performance of Canto Ostinato by the late Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt. Following are a few scattered reflections from the project’s inception to its release this month.
The music was written from 1976 to 1979 for ‘keyboard instruments,’ and is perhaps best known as a concert piece for four pianists. It is minimal in style, consisting of 106 short repeated sections, and it can be rather abstract as well as profoundly beautiful and lyrical. The score gives complete leeway to the performers in terms of timing (performances have lasted anywhere from one hour to multiple days), articulation (dynamics and styling of individual phrases are at the whim of each player), and even instrumentation (which I chose to assign to my 1910 Steinway grand piano, 1978 Rhodes electric piano, and 1962 Hammond M-101 organ). For various attributes you would find this piece in the same record bin as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, or Terry Riley, but to my ears its only similarities to these composers are that it is tonal, repetitive, and long.
Not coincidentally, those three words can be used to describe most music that I’m drawn to at this point in my life. In 2020 I released my first foray into contemporary classical re-interpretations, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, which is the piece I’ve probably loved the most throughout my life. The task emerged somewhat on a whim and happened to go well, so I’ve continued to carve out space to revel in existing works I adore by attempting to perform and record them myself.
Simeon ten Holt
Simeon ten Holt is unarguably the Netherlands’ most well known contemporary composer, and Canto Ostinato is his most beloved piece. He was born in 1923 in Bergen, North Holland, and he studied composition with serialism stalwart Jakob van Domselaer. This schooling placed an emphasis on the relationship between math and music, and ten Holt’s early compositions followed the atonal twelve-tone method. But he eventually rejected this style and boldly adopted the simple triad. He didn’t revert to classic harmonic development but instead forged a highly distinct tonal center that is isolated in time and develops ad libitum according to the performer. In short, the sounds are beautiful, but they move along at a pace that is entirely unique and unfamiliar. “Not only was Van Domselaer my teacher, he was also a nemesis,” he once said. “I had to free myself from him to be able to spread my own wings.” In a 2005 biography, Paul Janssen put it this way: “In the late 1970s, this Dutch composer provoked the wrath of countless musical know-alls by returning to sounds that every ear could understand.”
Eventually Canto Ostinato was born, among a list of other pieces written in his distinct new style. He reportedly didn’t even like it as much as some of his others works, but it is the one that caught fire and spread far and wide.
Records are books
In music school one of my professors was the late, great Donald Walden, jazz saxophonist of Detroit, Michigan. One of his most enduring refrains was “Records are books!” And while it may seem like an obvious concept for students of music, his point distilled something truly consequential in my experience.
In 2020 a friend sent me a link to Canto Ostinato, which I had never heard before. I spent months listening to little else, and somewhere along the way I decided it would be the next piece I tackle. This is a stage of the process that can’t be rushed or cheated. Listening is the laying of groundwork, and I mean listening a lot. Brand new neural pathways are blazed for your brain to later take an easy stroll down (or at least I assume, my wife would call this a science feel). I just know that for me it takes many hours of listening and absorption over time to establish familiarity that can be properly built upon before ever starting to read and play, let alone hit ‘Record’. (The same was true for my undertaking of 18 Musicians, though conveniently I’d already been listening to that piece for many years.)
So there is a self-serving ulterior motive here for choosing to undergo the re-creation of a meditative and blissful longform work. The months-long process serves as a full immersion of study, execution, and all out embodiment of a beautiful and mammoth piece of music. During this period it exists not as a mere current project but as a companion force and welcome soundtrack to your days and thoughts. On some level I suppose this happens any time a record is being made, but there’s something about the duality of being the performer as well as a listener of a piece you already know and love that adds a whole dimension of enjoyment. Highly recommended.
There is a pianist in the Netherlands named Jeroen van Veen who is the world’s foremost torch-bearer of Canto Ostinato and Simeon ten Holt’s legacy. He knew the composer well and even inherited his scores. He has performed Canto hundreds of times, undoubtedly more than anyone else, and he has said that every single performance is unique. For him the piece is “a way of life”. I can’t possibly claim to share his dedication, but I do feel very fortunate to understand even just a little bit of what he means.
It’s an interesting time to release longer music— be it classical, any of its apparent intersectional sub-categories, or anything else— right alongside the paradigm of popular music. In the age of the streaming single, a piece like Canto inherently eschews the algorithmic expectation of perennially refreshed content. Despite ten Holt’s best wishes, the piece exists as a timeless monolith in his arc as a composer, and generations of listeners will continue to gravitate to the same small handful of recordings. At anywhere from one to three hours-long, it is meant to be heard from start to finish (and then maybe started over again), and it is utterly un-playlistable.
Rather than mere ‘ambient’ or any so-called ‘focus’ music, there is something about music that simply takes a long time to listen to that feels mildly rebellious in the 2020s. It could be Canto or A Love Supreme or Low’s “Do You Know How To Waltz”, let alone most actual classical music. (Ironically, since this initial writing, one eight-minute segment of my Canto recording has been spun off and tacked onto such editorial playlists as ‘Not Quite Classical,’ ‘Atmospheric Piano,’ and ‘Creative Focus’, go figure…)
I recognize that one hour isn’t even that long. The original live recording of Canto that I initially fell in love with is two hours and forty-four minutes, and to have sat in attendance of that concert would have only been to scratch the surface of hyper-durational performances. Erik Satie’s infamous Vexations comes to mind, which at its core exists as a sort of prank on whomever is willing to execute a proper, days-long performance. And there has been all manner of all-night concerts from Terry Riley to Max Richter to Phish to who knows who else. Last year in The Wire magazine, musician David Toop pointed out age-old ritualistic performances, as well as modern-day multi-day installations as perhaps “a resistance to drudgery, a pushing back against the arbitrary temporal limits set by technologies, a questioning of spurious theories about human attention span.”
I can (and have) gotten down with this expedition-level attendance as a (much younger) concert-goer, and I’m wide open to its potential allure. But it is an entirely different endeavor and experience. If I’m being honest, I have about a 50% success rate of hearing that original Canto concert in one sitting, and on a practical level I believe there is power in the dedicated, roughly-one-hour listening experience. For me it simply seems to coincide with a good and healthy chunk of human attention on a regular day.
I was talking with a friend recently about writing— whether words with pen and paper or music at the piano— and the sometimes delicate challenge of maintaining your own voice. I’m someone for whom mimicry has always come easy. I once earnestly fronted an all-Neil Young cover band. As a guitarist who grew up on 90s grunge, I later scratched out pure Afrobeat patterns in the earliest incarnation of our old band NOMO. So this is all to say that, for better or worse, my tendency is to exist as somewhat of a musical chameleon, mingling into the habitat of the project at hand.
The downfall to this ‘skill’ is that it can distract and mislead my best impulses when I’m at work creating something of my own. I have to step back and ensure that I’m sticking to an idea that existed in the first place, rather than blindly follow any crumb that might have fallen from something else I’ve heard before. (Of course there is a balance to be struck here…)
Simeon ten Holt was a reclusive composer who found himself displeased with the musical lexicon of his schooling, and seemingly his entire circle. While training in the twelve-tone technique he realized— allegedly after attending a Philip Glass concert in Amsterdam— how much more interested he was in harmonic consonance than atonal serialism.
Thankfully for us he found an entirely new way to present repetitive, harmonically pleasing music by spinning such gorgeous interwoven patterns, dismantling the fundamental system by which they are interpreted off the page, and leaving so much of their essence to the performer. This year he would have turned 100. For many, hearing the piece for the first time, it is as fresh as anything else happening right now. And it is a conversation. It began almost fifty years ago, and it will go on indefinitely. I am deeply grateful to have taken part in it; and I’m happy knowing that anyone can join at any time.