Best known for creating large-scale minimalist multiple piano works, the Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt died in hospital in Alkmaar on November 25, at age 89.
Born in Bergen, Netherlands in 1923, Ten Holt first studied piano and theory with Jacob van Domeslaer. In 1949 he moved to Paris and studied at the Ecole Normale with Honegger and Milhaud, moving back to Bergen, where he founded the Werkgroep Bergen Hedendaagse Muziek. Ten Holt's earlier creative endeavors embraced serialism, electronic media, theatre and improvisation. In the late-1970s the composer evolved a style featuring simple chords, shifting rhythmic patterns and repetition that achieved a hypnotic, multi-layered cumulative effect. Canto Ostinato (1976-1979) is the first and arguably best known of Ten Holt's keyboard works in this style, and surely the most frequently performed. The composer designated its ideal performance option for four equal-sized grand pianos, although any number of keyboards can participate. The notes themselves are set, yet performers largely determine the dynamics, phrasing, register, articulations, alternative passages when given, and the number of repeats. As a result, a performance has no predetermined duration. Indeed, another multiple piano work in this style, Lemniscaat (1983), lasted 30 hours at its premiere.
The musical vocabulary can be as static as early Philip Glass, yet also embrace the harmonic intricacies and big tunes of late-Romanticism, along with unexpected dramatic build-ups and sudden silences. And despite the modular nature of Ten Holt's methods, the music always sounds fluid, interactive and in constant flux. As the composer wrote in 1995: 'I have no idea of the next port to which my compass is set.'
Watch a complete performance of Simeon ten Holt's Canto Ostinato below: