Willem Boogman


»no la persona, ma la sua figura«

Talk on transformations in music

Willem Boogman talks about transformations in his music on the occasion of ›Composer Portrait: Willem Boogman‹ | February 24th 2019, in the Orgelpark, Amsterdam.
[Voor de Nederlandse tekst zie: writings]

composer portrait: talk by Willem Boogman
Willem Boogman | Photo: © Co Broerse

[performance of the Waltz from Nous le chant III arranged for The Busy Drone, organ, accordion and dance]

Welcome to the Orgelpark, sanctuary for music, welcome to my composer portrait. I am Willem Boogman.

You heard (just now) the opening up of the local acoustics, so our auditory space for this afternoon has been somewhat explored. The listening space into which we are going to project another seven compositions for you.

First I would like to tell you something about what is going on in the background of these compositions. It is tempting to go on and on about the different backgrounds which played a role in my ways of composing through the years. Time is lacking though, to sketch all of those developments. I will restrict myself to explain one departing point which to a large extent determined my work in recent years. To do this I will go back to the 13th century.

In a sonnet the 13th century poet Giacomo da Lentini seriously asks himself how his beloved one, »who is rather large«, can enter into him through his eyes, »which are quite small«. He answers himself that just as light penetrates glass, it is »her image, not the person«, »no la persona, ma la sua figura«, that entered his heart through his eyes. [Agamben, Stanze. La parola e il fantasma nella cultura occidentale, Torino, 1993]
I like how he said it: we don’t internalize the person, but the image, ›figura‹, of this person.
Giacomo da Lentini is also very enthusiastic about this phenomenon of the senses. Even if his beloved would actually be absent, she is still present in his imagination. Even better: the image of his beloved awakens his desire and relishing he sings of her in verse and sound with »a never ending joy«, a »gioi che mai non fina«.
When I read this I asked Sandra Macrander to write verses for a madrigal cycle about love with the motto ›never ending joy‹.
From this cycle, of which two parts have already been performed, you will hear the premiere of Liefde een woning, nr. 1 later this afternoon.
This cycle called Gioiosamente Canto [› I sing with joy‹] is about celebrating in song the unity of imagination, enjoyment, word and sound in relation to the beloved one who is present.

But let’s take a step ahead.

The person, ›persona‹, gets a figure, ›figura‹, in our imagination. And our imagination can manipulate this figure. So can I! For me as a composer the figure is a musical figure. It is even tempting to speak of a musical personage. This personage, or figure really exists! It is a melody you can whistle, or can remember, or that pops up in your memory. The fact I can do things with it is because a melody is constructed from elements, the DNA of the musical figure. This DNA contains a very own world. The world of the elements. These musical elements form the material with which I as a composer work and which I handle every day.
The handling of the musical elements is the theme of a series of solo pieces which bare the overall title Genieting (›Enjoyment‹). This afternoon you will hear two compositions from this series: Genieting VI for piccolo and the premiere of Genieting VI for piano. These pieces are, among other things, about discovering and using the physical aspects of the instrument. Resonance is a particular characteristic of the piano: when you press the pedal a softer reflection will ensue above the notes you play, in which notes fade into each other. This fading is something I can compose. For the large part the piccolo itself dictates the dynamics. You can’t do much about that as a player.
The point for a soloist to play a Genieting is to master and use the particular characteristics of his or her instrument to attain a personal, musical expression. On top of that the soloist can show what he or she is capable of. For me all these aspects form the starting point for inventing the notes and shape of a composition.

But let’s take a step ahead.

In my imagination I investigate, test and measure the musical figure. Sometimes I call this measuring investigation ›modulation‹. This is a musical term which has existed for centuries, known already from the start of our era, meaning among other things measuring, measurement, singing and playing. In later days the term also implies a transition from one constellation of sound, figure, to another. Sometimes I use ›modulation‹ as a subtitle, as I did with the Intermezzi you are going to hear this afternoon: Modulationes super Passionem secundum Joannem.
›Modulationes‹ indicates that I used a technique of transition which in this case had Saint John’s Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach as a starting point.
I transformed motives from the arias of Saint John’s Passion into an entirely new music of my own, in which Bach occasionally may sound through.

Let’s take a step ahead and consider what is actually going on here.

What goes on is that I metamorphose musical figures into another musical reality. I can only do this because a musical figure consists of different elements, which can each by itself be composed. This becomes clear as soon as one inactivates one of the elements, by connecting a certain value to it. I can for instance fix the pitch of a melody on one note, while keeping the rhythm active [sings]. In another voice of the same piece I can give the notes an equal duration, thus fixing the rhythm, whereas the melody remains unchanged [sings]. The elements of one and the same melody now move independent of each other, forming a polyphony.
Once penetrated to this musical DNA it is also possible to combine elements of different melodies. The pitch of one can be combined with the rhythm of another [sings]. Thus new melodic shapes are generated.

These and many other transformation techniques I applied in the already mentioned Intermezzi, in Duik langs het Koraalrif, The Road to Here, and somewhat in Genieting VII for piano.

These techniques have been described by Stockhausen in his article Musikalische Metamorphose (1983) and have often been used by him.

But let’s take another step ahead.

I can vary the extent to which the new melodic figures can be related to their donors, also within a certain composition. This means there are many gradations possible in abstracting from the figure which served as a starting point.
This process of abstracting can be compared with the work of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, in which he makes the transformation visible from a tree to a constellation of small lines, which only remotely reminds one of a tree. Or need not even make one think of tree.

In The Road to Here I stayed relatively close to the different styles of the original melodies. - In other words: one somehow keeps seeing Mondrian’s tree -. Stylistic characteristics are very determining for the identity of a musical figure. In The Road to Here I explicitly wanted to make style the subject of the transformations. Said otherwise: In The Road to Here I transform classical music into popular music and vice versa. Of course I could have had the metamorphoses end in very abstract music, in which you would hardly have recognized anything you ever heard. But in this case, that was not my choice.

But let’s take one more step ahead.

I make musical figures change shape and thus create new music. With modern techniques like transformations and interpolations on the level of their DNA I make the identity of the figures flow like clouds moving along and over each other against a blue sky. I definitely deregulate the identity of the known. And along gradations of abstraction I can make perspectives audible, an ultimate polyphony, in which you experience more than you think you hear at first …

But let’s jump back to what is to come now.

I hope you will enjoy yourselves this afternoon. Enjoy the Orgelpark, the musicians and the sound.

Thank you.