PICTURE:Cornelis de Bondt
The Tragic Act
Jannie Pranger (singer)
Reviewed by: Peter Grahame Woolf
Reviewed: 15 October, 2002
Venue: Purcell Room, London
We are not a “catalogue group,” explained Peter van Bergen, artistic leader of LOOS Ensemble, introducing a programme of music by ’The Hague School’ and telling us that all the musicians come from the world of free improvisation. Everything the group plays has been composed for them in close collaboration, and van Bergen’s own Factorseries, improvised but with complex ’gamestructures’, are central to their repertoire and to a performance style which is characterised as “flinty, granite and confrontationally precise”.So not everything LOOS Ensemble presents can be expected to please everybody.
To an unschooled ear, I found Fl.1.SF desultory, despite the complexity of its ’rules’, and not dissimilar to the seemingly inconsequential guided improvisations of Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, which sounded dated when resurrected in January. Andriessen’s Hout is a canonic piece with the successive voices so close as to approach unison monody; the effect was diminished in this performance by the preponderance of baritone sax, which reduced piano, marimba and electric guitar to accompaniments.
Jannie Pranger, with electronic enhancement, was impressive in her depiction of the Satanic obscenities of a 14th-century nun who not surprisingly had become deranged after being immured for 38 years for the love of God; finally she was burnt as a witch! The record of her trial provided Martijn Padding’s choice of text for his disturbingly effective setting, but it is sad that ’modern’ music so often has to trawl such material to justify its dissonance.
Cornelis de Bondt (b.1953) introduced The Tragic Act by telling us that the work came to him as a whole in a flash whilst experiencing the dying of his father. For five musicians and sound engineer, it has a Brucknerian expansiveness, taking most of an hour, seemingly depicting interminable attendance at a deathbed, with evocations of a failing heartbeat and, with a continually screeching saxophone, was prolonged pain for those present. It was at once both fascinating and repugnant – one stayed to the end expecting a calming resolution, which never came. References to Bach’s funeral cantata “God’s own time is the best time” and sampled boys’ voices played a smaller part in the scheme than anticipated.
Prompted by this unsettling musical experience – first thoughts were that its point could have been achieved in about half its 55 minutes – I returned to his cycle The Broken Ear, and reminded myself that de Bondt is a composer who, like Stravinsky, pillages models from the past. In his case, he manipulates them rigorously with computerised serial processes. In The Broken Ear de Bondt “cadges from Beethoven repeatedly; Beethoven is omnipresent even when he is not directly quoted”. De Bondt is a major figure in the Netherlands new-music scene, and The Tragic Act brought to an end a concert that will resonate in the memory. It is recorded, but for a broader perspective on a unique composer I recommend first the double-CD of the five works comprising The Broken Ear.