Simeon Ten Holt © Merel Waagmeester

Simeon Ten Holt © Merel Waagmeester

Composer Simeon Simeon ten Holt (1923-2012) was a Dutch Contemporary classical composer.

Ten Holt was born in Bergen, North Holland, the Netherlands and studied with Jakob van Domselaer, eventually developing a highly personal style of minimal composition. Van Domselaer’s influence on ten Holt’s musical philosophy was considerable, with the younger composer picking up van Domselaer’s interests in the links between music and visual art, in music’s relationship with mathematics, and in the use of the piano as a principal instrument in his compositions.

Ten Holt generally used consonant, tonal materials and his works are organized in numerous cells, made up of a few measures each, which are repeated Ad libitum according to the player’s preference. Many of his works are for piano or ensembles of multiple pianos. His most famous work is Canto Ostinato, which he wrote in 1976 and is one of the most famous classical works in (modern) Dutch music history.

In his earlier years, he joined a group of artists including Friso ten Holt, Gerrit Kouwenaar, Constant Nieuwenhuis and the young poet Jaap van Domselaer. They discussed art and philosophy. In 1949 Ten Holt moved to France, where he remained for a number of years, taking lessons from Honegger and Milhaud at the Ecole Normale in Paris.

In 1954 Ten Holt resettled in Bergen, this time taking up residence in a converted World War II bunker. It is here that he writes the important piano composition Bagatellen (1954). In reaction to the tonal influence of his teacher Van Domselaer, Ten Holt develops his own method to come to terms with the concepts of tonality and atonality. He calls it the diagonal idea, the simultaneous use of complementary keys in a tritone relationship. This results in the compositions Diagonaalsuite (1957), Diagonaalsonate (1959) and Diagonaalmuziek (1956-1958).

Ten Holt’s social engagement, his philosophical state of mind and his literary qualities show from a number of articles on music he published in the literary magazine Raster between 1968 and 1973. In 1968 he founded the Werkgroep Bergen Hedendaagse Muziek [Working Group Contemporary Music Bergen] which still exists. For this working group he organized concerts solely devoted to contemporary music, initially at the Arts Centre in Bergen, later at the Ruïnekerk [Ruin Church]. Ten Holt was also active as a pianist, performing his own works. At the 1969 Holland Festival his percussion piece Tripticon (1956) was performed. At the Institute for Sonology in Utrecht and in his own home studio he works at some electronic compositions (Inferno I and II, I Am Sylvia but somebody else).

During this period he was also a regular visitor to the Warsaw Autumn Festival and had contacts in New York. Ten Holt taught contemporary music at the Academy for the Visual Arts in Arnhem from 1970-1987. Here he experimented with group improvisations that, in later years, led to performances at Arnhem Festivals (a form of total theatre in which the students under his charge were responsible for music, choreography and dramaturgy.) A breakthrough is the performance of ..A/.TA-LON by the Asko Ensemble at the 1978 Holland Festival.

In 1979 his composition Canto ostinato (1976-1979) for four keyboards is premiered. In 1985 this work was performed at the Gala of Dutch Music at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, giving Ten Holt national exposure. During the eighties Ten Holt’s music was frequently performed, not only in concert halls, but often in a wide variety of places, such as the concourses of railway stations, parks and squares.

Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht played an important role in the promotion of Ten Holt’s music by organising concert series devoted to his evening-long compositions for keyboards. Various compact discs were recorded during these concerts. Ten Holt’s considerable oeuvre can be divided into periods. During the first period Ten Holt shapes his musical identity by struggling out of the influence of his teacher van Domselaer. The two works for piano Bagatellen and Cyclus aan de waanzin [Cycle to Madness] (1961-1962) are typical of this process.

By means of his own system of composing, the diagonal method, Ten Holt abandoned tonality and found his own way in the Cyclus aan de waanzin (1961-1961). (‘The tonal element drifts like a shadow through the Cyclus and presents, sometimes openly, sometimes in disguise, the bill of an unpaid debt.’) The second period covers music which is construed according to various theoretical principles in which the tonal material is determined by serialism. The important composition ..A/.TA-LON, dated 1966-1968, occupies itself with the relationship between language and music.

In Interpolations for piano, from 1968, Ten Holt used an aleatory composing technique. In the Five Pieces (1970-1972) the computer influences the compositional result. And finally Ten Holt wrote a number of electronic compositions:

‘The aspect of so-called emotionality, exaggerated into an almost idolized institution, the certificate of sensitivity, evangelized as the bearer of the “message” is returned (not denied) to its rightful and democratic place, subservient as an equal partner in the realization process.’

In the third period, Ten Holt returned to the instrument with which his life as a composer started: the piano. He spoke of a strong physical relationship to the sound of the instrument:

“My hands grasp at what my mind cannot ‘grasp’: I believe in my hands (…) Because of them I am in the dark, grasping at a reality which I (being the embodiment) only experience as a nebula, as a sensation.”

This resulted in the major composition of this period, Canto ostinato for keyboards, from 1976-1979. It took shape as a work in progress at the piano. The score is laid out as a route for the performers to take, using the so-called ‘drift parts’ at will. The number of players is undetermined, as is the total length and the number of repetitions of the various sections on which the composition is built. The freedom left to the performers gives them a great responsibility towards the final result. In these compositions, that border on repetitive music, Ten Holt develops his own unmistakable style in which tonality and repetition evoke a new sort of aesthetics (‘tonality after the death of tonality’). Characteristic compositions in this style, besides Canto ostinato, are Lemniscaat (1983), Horizon (1985), Incantatie IV (1990) and Soloduiveldans [Solo Devil’s Dance] II (1986) and III (1990).

With Palimpsest (1993) Ten Holt seems to be taking a new direction. After an exclusive devotion to the piano for years he wrote this composition for seven strings.

“My compositions take shape without any predetermined plan and are, as it were, the reflection of a quest for an unknown goal. A great deal of time, patience and discipline are the prerequisites for making a (genetic) code productive, that eventually determines form, structure, length, instrumentation etc. Such a process is laborious, as the perception of this generating code is constantly being troubled by human short-comings and one’s own will, and it is dependent on moments of clarity and vitality. And then, the sea washes and polishes, time crystallizes.

The only advantage of aging may be that a development can be viewed in retrospect. And that, in spite of the zigzag movements and the apparently opposing directions, one is able to discern a logic in this development that hitherto had a function that was hidden and blocked from view. A road then seems to appear, which is oriented towards a goal shrouded in mystery, momentarily hardly gains in height and only advances in the curves. In this image the curves refer to so many turning points, not only as changes in the perception of the landscape, but mainly as changes with regards to the attitude to life and a revision of the conditions to pursue the road any further. The curves are like the articulation in a pattern of movement, end and beginning from one phase to another, and appear to coincide with biological periodicity, with intervals from seven to ten years. As far as I can see, my relationship, both figuratively and practically speaking, to the tonal centre and the problem of tonality, has been a determining factor in the development of the achievements in my creative career. This relation gradually shifted from an initial intuitive understanding to a more conscious issue later on. The role of the tonal centre, first as an undisputed factor, starts to move, loses its authority, submerges into chromaticism and the equality of all tones, and finally emerges in a shape that is chastened by death and katharsis. A large-scale history reproduces itself on a small scale.”

Although Simeon ten Holt’s music is often categorized under the Minimal Music banner, the question is whether this characterization captures the true nature of his composing talent. Although the minimalist inspiration is undoubtedly present in all of his piano compositions, the distinctive feature is not so much the rhythmic and tonal structure which is so typical for this style, but much more the evolutionary space which his music actually creates for the players performing his music.

Simeon’s compositions are not just single works, but rather a collection of an infinite number of compositions, all hidden in a single written code. Like a multitude of images hidden in a holographic photographic image, the script outlines a solution space in which actual shape and form will develop in time towards its full extent and depth. Every performance is therefore unique, yet recognizable as a part of the larger collection. Like life itself, it emerges and takes shape in a complex interaction between the genotypes as a code in the score and the context of performers and audience. This evolutionary and interactive characteristic distinguishes the music from the mainstream minimal music and gives it a special position within this type of compositions. Whereas the minimal music is essentially a modernist, constructive style, Simeon’s music is better characterized as post-modernist and organic in nature.

The success of this music might be explained with this characteristic in mind, as it connects with audiences on an emotional level, taking them on a, every time unique, journey through a musical space. Adventurous but not unsafe, challenging but not beyond the stretch limit, uncharted but not random.

‘My life has been largely determined by chance’

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