Here you can read the English translation of the Toonzetters album booklet:
by Primo Ish-Hurwitz
What does the music of the future sound like? A fascinating question I think, especially given the enormous musical changes that happened in only the past century. And even though this question seems now still impossible to answer, part of the answer lies hidden in the minds of young composers. Toonzetters (Dutch for tone setters, or figuratively: pioneers) is my attempt to showcase the newest generation of composers, among which are many of my friends and colleagues that I admire tremendously, from as many angles as possible. A musical ‘food tasting’ inevitably presents a subjective and incomplete selection, but can hopefully show how big the differences between individual composers in 2023 are. The musical front lines keep moving, fed by an unprecedented artistic freedom, that until quite recently was not that common at all. Next to that, new music is now more often accessible for a broader audience. Musicologist Saskia Törnqvist comments extensively on the current situation in the text that she wrote especially for this album booklet.
Hopefully this album ánd the concert tour of Toonzetters can introduce even more people to the exciting world of living composers. In the musicians I found four enthusiast allies, who threw themselves with extraordinary commitment upon all twenty pieces. During two rehearsal periods in the MuziekHaven, a clandestine church just outside Amsterdam, that now serves as an serene workplace for chamber musicians, they worked intensively with all composers. The CD was, guided by producer Frerik de Jong recorded a few days later, with a lot of enthusiasm and devotion. And I think you can easily hear that: I wish you much fun listening to this album!
COMPOSED WITH TOTAL FREEDOM
by Saskia Törnqvist
That a simple composition commission can lead to a rich listening experience, has been proved by the project ‘Toonzetters’, of which this album is a reflection. In 2021, twenty young composers received the request to write a piece of about three minutes for the instrumentation of percussion and piano. The choice of a certain style, form or technique was completely free, only one clear assignment was fixed: their musical essay needed to have an open ending. Why? Because in a concert situation, it needed to be possible to play all works in one go, under one large musical arch, without the interruption of an applauding audience.
On the album, such a musical arch can also be heard, even as the pieces have been recorded as separate tracks. For the initiator of this project, composer Primo Ish-Hurwitz, it started with a brainwave while he was showering. He was thinking how refreshing it could be when upcoming composers of very different kinds would all write a short piece to be part of one kaleidoscopic whole. In a conversation on zoom, he elaborates: “I wanted to show that at the moment there many different ways in which people compose, and it seemed to me that this variety would be expressed in the clearest way if everyone wrote for the same ensemble.
A proven combination
Ish-Hurwitz chose two pianists and two percussionists; a combination that soundwise has a lot to offer: “A piano, especially with two pianists playing quatre-mains, provides endless possibilities in terms of melody and harmony. Percussion, on the other hand, offers extremely diverse colours. Almost any sound can be produced by a percussionist. So piano and percussion complement very well.”
This combination of instruments has proved itself before. Already in 1937 Béla Bartók explored the percussive qualities of the piano in his Sonata for two piano’s and percussion. In 1974 American composer George Crumb wrote for the same ensemble in his classic work ‘Music for a Summer Evening’ (Makrokosmos III); mysterious and evocative music that lives in the twilight zone between sharply defined pitches and sounds of reverb, rustle and noise. With his choice for the same instrumentation, Ish-Hurwitz certainly places himself in a fine tradition.
But which young composers have enough fantasy, courage and craftsmanship to write for this rich combination of sounds?
Ish-Hurwitz searched for composers between twenty and thirty years old through several networks, and created a longlist of over 150 candidates, of which most had graduated at the conservatory. Weighing up all possible choices, helped by four colleagues, he distilled a selection of twenty composers: all original minds, each of them with a very clear signature.
To optimise the diversity of the works, the instrumentation varies from solo piano or solo percussion to the tutti ensemble. The composers were also able to play a trump card: using electronics. Listening to the album, you immediately notice how different every composer filled in his or her musical universe of three minutes. There are sound alchemists and musical storytellers, some are striving after pure beauty and others challenge the tolerance boundaries of the ear, there is music by hyperactive and by meditative minds, we hear solid musical architecture and intimate musical confessions, there are masquerades and musical rioters.
But if one word binds all these pieces together, it is ‘freedom’. All participating composers used their three minute window to the fullest and created inalienable personal worlds of sound with their own invented rules. There doesn’t appear to be an overarching technique or esthetic. These composers don’t need to justify their music to anyone but themselves.
From musical churches to a musical free port
This optimal musical freedom, where does it originate? In the project plan of Toonzetters, Ish-Hurwitz formulated this as follows:
“The developments at the musical front lines are moving fast: twentieth-century taboos like romanticism and tonality are no issue anymore, many are flirting with old traditions and the use of electronics is getting more mainstream. I think those new freedoms, the blurring of borders between genres ánd our growing entanglement with other cultures result in a very diverse group of young composers.”
That boundless freedom didn’t arrive overnight; it was the outcome of a long process. Many twentieth-century musical pathways were carved by pioneers and
iconoclasts, but they often paved those paths with new taboos and dogmas. Art movements with manifestos full of muscular statements functioned as
direction signs and every movement automatically created, intentionally or not, it’s own outsiders. Musical churches were built, complete with high priests and apostates. And the audience? It started to associate new music with an intellectual affair of insiders, only to be understood by listeners with a cartload of musical knowledge. The twentieth century produced numerous masterpieces, but at the same time a large part of the audience lost their way.
As I’m writing this, it is 2022, and the situation changed drastically. Toonzetters composer Rick van Veldhuizen summarizes it like this: “Contemporary music is, luckily, much less of a hermetically sealed community than it used to be for a big chunk of the post-war era. Now we only have to show the rest of the world how much we’ve opened up.”
What happened in the past decades? The age of digital information stirred a lot of new developments. In a rapidly changing cultural climate more and more composition teachers threw the doors and windows of their musical domains wide open, partly thanks to new impulses their received from their own students. Especially the Netherlands, where composition students from all over the world settle down, became a musical free port in which the exchange of ideas can happen anywhere.
Ish-Hurwitz considers it to be a great richness: “my own conservatory teachers are very open to the large variety between their students, already from the moment they decide who they accept as students. That changed my view on new music a lot. I now know that people can listen to music in very different ways. I find that very fascinating and inspiring.”
Can’t this new composing climate just be explained as a form of post-modernism? That is to be seen. Listening to these Toonzetters compositions one might realise post-modernism is coming to an end, at least, if we think of it as art in which the fragments of different genres are clearly recognisable, in which you can talk about mixing ‘high’ and ‘low’ art (peculiar qualifications by the way) and in which the borders between genres are first clearly defined before they are crossed explicitly.
The Toonzetters project shows that it is no longer a statement to consciously incorporate music from different periods, styles or cultures; all that information has by now been included in our collective musical DNA. Many young composers avail themselves of a musical vocabulary that is in all structural levels a product of multiple musical languages. Or, as Toonzetters composer Martín Mayo simply states: “My music doesn’t belong to a certain group or place, but to all of us”.
Inventing the wheel all by yourself
The beaten and paved tracks of the past, the direction signs with names as serialism, minimalism and spectralism, have unlocked fascinating new sound landscapes. Now the time has come where every composer must navigate through all those landscapes all by him- or herself. That freedom is of great value, but at the same time presents a big challenge.
Toonzetters composer Melle Heij formulates the current situation as follows:
“for lack of broadly followed movements with strongly cultivated characteristics we need to - or have the change to - invent the wheel all by ourselves, almost every piece again. This freedom is both a curse and a blessing.” Mathilde Wantenaar says something similar: “There is no rule to follow or to break with. The world then becomes a endless plain on which you might feel lost. But you can set boundaries for yourself, and stick to that. I think this freedom is a good thing.”
This ultimate freedom has left composers now on their own, a position that Melle Heij described as ‘ a curse and a blessing’. Why do so many composers take up the challenge again and again? Often because they just can’t help it, the pull of music is too strong. Jan-Peter de Graaff says about that: “It is everything, always and everywhere, to the point it becomes annoying. Ignoring it doesn’t work, so then you can really only just go with it.”
A welcome bycatch of this project is that composers with totally different backgrounds, views and intentions are, in a seemingly random way, placed together,
soaked off the isolation of their own working place and the safe online bubble, dictated by opinion-confirming algorithms. During the rehearsal process, shortly after the covid lockdowns, some of them met in the analogue world for the first time. Throughout the rehearsals and concerts, they got to know, understand and appreciate each other even more.
Telling the composer's story
Next to providing the program with his own composition, Primo Ish-Hurwitz also composed on a meta-level by putting all twenty works in such an order that they would form one fluent whole, complete with styles fading into each other, razor-sharp cuts and contrast effects. In concert situation this requires the musicians to be extremely flexible.
Pianists Ramon van Engelenhoven and Shane van Neerden and percussionists Arjan Jongsma and Agostinho Sequeira worked very closely together with the composers; a rare opportunity to come as close as possible to the intentions behind the music. By performing this cycle they experienced first-hand how it feels to put yourself in the shoes of another composer every three minutes.
Shane van Neerden, always looking for adventure, found in this project a special opportunity to stretch his musical boundaries. Both he and Arjan Jongsma experience a special sensation in the moment Celia Swart’s piece Losing connects to Hammer und Tanz by Jan-Peter de Graaff. Jongsma tells me: “This transition moves from very spacial music full of emptiness, to music in which structure and rhythm are the dominant forces. I think it’s fantastic that this project offers so many forms of diversity.”
A quick round of all compositions tells us that composing in total freedom can be a freeing experience for the listener as well:
Nuno Lobo - Hypothermia
In a graphic score for kalimba the composer paints the picture of four different stages of hypothermia, with possibly a fatal ending.
Frieda Gustavs - vaak genoeg
A layered composition, driven by a heartbeat and among other things inspired by the detuned piano of Gustav’s grandmother.
Primo Ish-Hurwitz - The Missing Piece
Polyrhythmic structures for percussion generate a musical shower that washes the ears of melody and harmony.
Tijmen van Tol - The Zealot
This work, in the words of the composer a ‘hysterical diatribe of a fanatic’ appears to zap back to the interbellum, complete with pianolas and variety theater, even though this music is unmistakably from 2021.
Ramin Amin Tafreshi – Soorbâng
A love confession to positive energy, bright colours, dances and stories of Persian culture, everything bundled in a virtuosic score for piano and percussion.
Dimitri Geelhoed – IJsjager
Geelhoed, who has a background as a producer of dance music, compares this electronic sound sculpture with a scary children’s story: “the atmosphere is cold and lonely”.
Martín Mayo - Anti-March
To Mayo, his music is all about cuento, canto y ritmo: story, song and rhythm. As is this grotesque march that undeniably faces it’s own downfall.
Melle Heij - Grace
In his own explanatory note, Heij speaks of “a feeling of a shining light that radiates through everything”. The music does the rest.
Karmit Fadael - Vereende
For this Fadael researched the timbal combination of the vibraphone and the piano. It results in a fascination journey through several tone color spectra.
Alexandre Kordzaia – Marimba No. 5
Fiery, repetitive rhythms evoke associations with an earthly dance.
Bram Kortekaas – Forty to the Dozen
A rhapsodic composition in which the piano and marimba are trying to outdo each other with their scale gestures.
Nils Davidse – Coco
A tribute to the fringes of sound, where cracks and noise call the shots.
Mathilde Wantenaar – Sprookje No. 1
Wantenaar wrote various ‘sprookjes’ in which the listeners themselves can imagine their story. Ma mere l’oye, but then in the Wantenarian way.
Rick van Veldhuizen – les grillons sont d’exquises bruiteurs
A pointillistic cloud of cricket sounds passes before the mind’s eye, an ominous sound landscape stays behind.
Boris Bezemer – Toonzetting
What would happen if a shimmering vibraphone sound would engage in a dialogue with groovy piano patterns? The composer figured it all out.
Celia Swart – Losing
A layered and enigmatic composition in which windswept arabesques, stillness and a compulsive tone repetition alternate.
Jan-Peter de Graaff – Hammer und Tanz
The title refers to the infamous strategy to control a covid pandemic with lockdowns. Furthermore, hammered percussion instruments play an important role. “Hammering.” wrote the composer, “The physical pleasure of it and the total abhorrence of the result.”
Thomas van Dun – Anxiety Attack + Shower
A heavy personal experience was the starting point for this composition, commenting on feelings of anxiety and how to calm down from them.
Arjan Linker – Zoekspiegel
Linker invites his listeners to the inner spaces of the marimba sound, complete with a deep reverb and a shimmering spectrum.
Julian Schneemann – Tri-Angle-Square
As the composer of the cycle’s capstone, Schneemann was the only composer allowed to put a point behind his work. After a swinging discourse of ascending lines filled with shifting accents, the piece ends in a euphoric exclamation mark.
PERFORMERS & ARTISTIC DIRECTION
Agostinho Sequeira (1998, percussion) is a versatile musician, with a lot of experience as a soloist and in various ensembles. He feels just as much at home with African drums or a marimba in a jazz ensemble as with timpani in the back of a symphony orchestra. In 2020 Sequeira won the prestigious TROMP International Percussion Competition. The young Portugese percussionist made a dazzling impression on the international jury and the press. And if that wasn’t enough, he was also announced the audience’s favourite.
Arjan Jongsma (1995, percussion) is a specialist on the marimba and timpani. He frequently performs as a soloist or as a member of the Colori Ensemble, among others with the Concertgebouw and the International Festival Schiermonnikoog. In 2009, he won the first prize in the national finale of the Prinses Christina Competition. As a percussionist he is a jack-of-all-trades. He works for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, RCO Brass and the Dutch Ballet Orchestra on a freelance basis and is very experienced with performing contemporary repertoire.
Ramon van Engelenhoven (1995, piano) is seen as one of the most talented Dutch pianists of today. His playing is especially precise and extremely musical. After winning both the Steinway Competition in 2012 and the YPF Competition in 2015 Van Engelenhoven appeared as a soloist with many orchestras, like the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev, the Real Filharmonía de Galicia, the North Netherlands Orchestra and Phion. Furthermore, he regularly gives recitals in the most prominent Dutch concert halls. In 2018 he recorded his debut album for AVROTROS Klassiek.
Shane van Neerden (1999, piano) was admitted to the Juilliard School in New York, but decided to study with Frank Peters in Amsterdam instead. In the first year of his studies, he performed Liszt’s virtuosic Totentanz a soloist with the orchestra of the conservatory lead by Ed Spanjaard. Next to this, he performed solo at the Royal Concertgebouw, the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ and in many recitals all across Europe and the USA.
He won several prizes, including the audience prize of the prestigious Concours International de Piano d’Île-de-France. Van Neerden performs with extraordinary musicality and a flawless technique, and has a weak spot for less played composers like Medtner and Schoenberg.
Primo Ish-Hurwitz (2001, artistic direction)
currently studies composition at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam with Willem Jeths and Meriç Artaç. With his works he tries to connect new music with a broad audience, getting inspired himself by classical and other music from many different styles and periods. In 2019, Ish-Hurwitz was interviewed at Podium Witteman about his work De Ketelmannen, written for the JongNBE wind ensemble. Three years later, his work Listen was granted the shared first prize of the International Alba Rosa Viëtor Composition Competition. His music can be heard regularly at the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, the Royal Concertgebouw, De Doelen, TivoliVredenburg, Amare, November Music, Grachtenfestival, Oranjewoud Festival and abroad.
WORD OF THANKS
This album wouldn’t have been possible without:
Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst
Conservatorium van Amsterdam
Stichting Fonds voor de Geld- en Effectenhandel
76 private donors, with extra special thanks to:
Leonie Versteegh, Roos van der Burg, Maurice Rodrigues, D.L. van der Peet, Declan Nolan, Pieter Tanis, Yulia Geydenrikh, Gerda Nobel, Leo Meyer, Sharon van Neerden, Lowine & Joost Versteegh, Caroline Weber, Sabine Smulders, Roland Kieft, Ivo Witteveen, Jan Kersten, Marc van der Velden, Piet Bandell
ABOUT 7 MOUNTAIN RECORDS
7 Mountain Records is a Dutch record label for classical music founded by recording producer Frerik de Jong. Key elements of a 7 Mountain Records production are complete musical freedom, fresh liner notes, striking graphic design and state of the art recording technique in venues with the finest acoustics.
7 Mountain Records, The Netherlands
Frerik de Jong (Kleinman Audio)
Additional audio post-production by Dimitri Geelhoed (5), Alexandre Kordzaia (10) and Arjan Linker (19)
The portraits of the composers are places in order of the cd tracks, and are stills from the film that Bowie Verschuuren made for the concert series of Toonzetters
Marije van den Berg (Shane van Neerden)
Merlijn Doomernik (Primo Ish-Hurwitz - biography)
Han Ernest (Agostinho Sequeira)
Foppe Schut (Arjan Jongsma)
Duco de Vries (Ramon van Engelenhoven)
Primo Ish-Hurwitz (cd-tray)
7 Mountain Records
Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, studio 1, Hilversum, the Netherlands
24-27 September 2022