Canto ostinato

Terry Riley's In C is by far the most well-known and frequently-performed piece of its type.  It consists of 53 short musical phrases, which an ensemble of performers (Riley suggested 35, but much larger and much smaller groups have played it) play, in order, repeating them any number of times, and moving from one phrase to the next when the performers feel that it's time to.  The piece is over when the last performer plays the last repetition of the 53rd phrase and stops.

This turns out, as the composer David Bruce observed in a recent video on the subject, to be a really difficult kind of piece of music to write.  Like all of Bruce's videos, this is informative, thoughtful, and opinionated (in a good way):



But I think he makes a little too much of the uniqueness of the piece.  I think David Bruce may not know about Simeon ten Holt.

ten Holt's pretty well-known in the Netherlands, though seemingly not so much elsewhere.  (All of the recordings I've been able to find of his work seem to feature guys named Kees, Ivo, and Jeroen.)  His 1976 Canto Ostinato is similar in structure to In C, in that it's made up of small fragments that the players are to perform in order, and repeat to their taste.  

(A gripe.  Wikipedia translates "Canto Ostinato" as "obstinate song," which is not right.  An ostinato is any continually-repeating musical figure.  It's also the Italian word for "obstinate," but that's not what it means in a musical context.)

Unlike Riley, ten Holt also gave players the freedom to straight up skip sections if they weren't feeling it.  He wrote bridges between some pairs of sections.  You can play section 13 as many times as you want, and you can play 14 afterwards or not, but you should only play 13A, once, if you play both 13 and 14.  There's one group of sections that, if you play it, you play in unbroken order, repeating each section twice, and the whole group four times.  Or you can leave it out.  Some of the sections are multiple-choice; you choose whether you're going to play 88A, 88B, or 88C before moving on to 89.  (Or 91, if you feel like skipping 89 and 90.)

When I talk about the freedom to leave things out, ten Holt meant it, and his performers take it to heart.  The performance in this recording is of sections 1, 5, 10, 14, 20, 25, 35, 41, 56, 60, and 69 - maybe a tenth of all of the sections in the score.  It's possible for a performance to be three times as long as this one and contain nothing that these performers played.

It isn't what you think it's going to be.  Everything I've told you about this piece has made it sound like a work of minimalism.  It absolutely doesn't sound like one.  

It's certainly got a lot of repetition, but that thing that minimalism depends on, the deepening of the listener's apprehension of a phrase by hearing it over and over again, that's not what's at the front and center of this piece.  Something different is happening here.  

In a piece by Philip Glass, you hear one phrase repeated, and it shifts into another and back again, and the whole thing works out to be all a single shimmering pattern.  This feels more like the repetition is just building a sturdy platform under you that you then jump from to get to the next.  There's much more of a sense of progression and development.  There's a lot more drama, a lot more tension and release, than you expect from minimalism.  This music is going somewhere.

Also, it swings.  It's not driven by a pulse, it's driven by syncopation.  Hearing it makes me realize how much of the vocabulary of music the great minimalist composers decided to leave on the floor.  Steve Reich probably knows more about rhythm than anyone alive, and he doesn't use this one.  You want to rock from side to side while listening to this.  It's hard not to.

This performance is really lovely, and it's one of the better-known recordings, performed before a live (which is to say, occasionally coughing) audience by Jeroen van Veen, Sandra van Veen, Esther Doornink, and Peter Elbertse.  I don't want to judge before all the results are in, but I think these musicians may be Dutch.

Also, the visuals that the person who assembled this video found are just wonderful.  They're completely unrelated to the music and somehow fit it perfectly.



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