Luc Van Hove on the novelty of pure listening

On Friday 11 February, the premiere of Symphony IV by Luc Van Hove will take place in Antwerp. So the time seems ripe for a philosophical conversation about the artistic meaning of the symphony, the lust for life of the opera, the changing role of the composer and the importance of learning to listen again.

Luc Van Hove: “I am sixty-five now. But with my experience, my life experience, the man I am now, but also the musician and the composer, I wonder how I relate to the orchestra as an instrument and to orchestral music. It’s about just making an orchestral work an sich, so absolute music. What musical thoughts can you develop? What are the challenges, how do you place it in these times? And: who on earth can still benefit from a symphony, who still writes a symphony? Is there any sense at all in immersing oneself in such a large and complex musical development? It demands a lot from the listener – attention and sustained attention. That is an artistic question. Can it still mean something to people, does it have the potential to convey something, in such a way that people have an artistic experience that is useful to them? As with any work of art, that is ultimately the intention. It is an invitation, either to listen or to look, so that it can trigger something in people. That is the dialogue that art enters into with the ‘user’ – if I may say so irreverently. But despite these questions, at some point you set out on your path. I have chosen my path as a composer, there is my eloquence, my expression — I have found it now. My life is a witness to that.”

Symphony IV

The basis of Van Hove’s new symphony is a division of the twelve notes of the octave into two complementary groups of eight and four. As in more of his recent work, he tries to achieve a symbiosis between the traditional style in which tones are organised hierarchically and a contemporary approach in which each tone is of equal value. He calls this style post-tonal.  The piece consists of three short movements that eventually culminate in a larger whole in which the musical material of the shorter movements is reused, relaunched or composed, but then in the larger symphonic context.

Van Hove: “I got the idea from a work by the Polish composer Witold Lutoslavski, Livre pour Orchestre. He literally made a book, it is also called ‘book’, with, indeed: premier chapitre, deuxième chapitre, troisième chapitre and then comes the chapitre final. In the finale, the great symphonic development is fully realised; those first three chapters are actually only small tastes. That is actually the core of Lutoslavsky’s idea. He connects those different chapters by musique intermediaire, so intermediate music that you don’t have to listen to, typically in his aleatoric style. That just runs for a while, that’s three clarinets playing together. Very simple little songs. But then you can talk or blow your nose, he says. And then it goes on to the next chapter, but the nice thing about that is that you get used to it as a listener and you think: oh, it’s another one of those in-between chapters. But after the third chapter, the song doesn’t stop, but very gradually evolves into that enormous finale. So that piece of music invites you to pay attention again and then you join in the enormous story. That is Lutoslavsky in full. That’s why I wanted that four-part harmony.

Moreover, I wanted to concentrate on the symphonic genre, that is, to write absolute music. Pure and simple music, to tell an abstract musical story. And then I ended up with parts. Because developing a certain train of thought in several movements is also pleasant for the listener, as it completes a certain idea. The first movement is a kind of introduzione, the second a scherzo. The third movement is really a kind of interludium, a kind of pause section that is actually closest to Lutoslavsky’s musique intermediaire.”

Story without words

“I always like to use the word ‘story’ but of course that is in a metaphorical sense, because I mean a story without words. Yet it is a story. You have a sense of representation, of beginning, you also have a sense of development. You feel a certain antagonism between musical ideas, contrasts. You have a whole box of tricks to create a sense of drama, of an event. Something happens, the listener is led through a whole musical event. It lasts thirty-seven minutes but it is broken down into smaller events. What they tell us is the experience of the sound being led through space and time. And it evokes emotions. Yes, and those emotions are a consequence, they are not the starting point.”

Story with words: the opera La Strada

“A highlight of my career is the opera La Strada (libretto: Eric De Kuyper), commissioned by the Royal Flemish Opera, based on the film of the same name by Federico Fellini. It premiered in late January 2008, but the commission itself already dated back to 2002. So it has been a very long run.

And they were great experiences. First the creative process itself and then gradually the process of realisation, the production, the rehearsal time, the dedication of all the performers, the opera house itself. In that sense, it is a collective work, where everyone has his or her specific task and in which a process must arise that also respects everyone’s task and gives them the freedom to excel in it. Since then, I have greatly admired the role of the conductor in the realisation of my pieces.  After all, it is the conductor who moulds and shapes the work. As a composer, you can draw everything out nicely and indicate accents, dots, fortes and mezzo-fortes, but ultimately you give your composition away. Because the ‘real thing’ is the work of the conductor, who ensures the right pauses, timing and tempo. And takes into account the acoustics of the hall, the potential of the singers, the specific characters of the voices, and so on. In the case of La Strada, that was Koen Kessels. Very important is that people got the message of La Strada. That was because opera is not only music. Opera is also text, is also image. You see the people, you see the story, it is words, you see it happening. And music supports that happening and makes it live. Opera lives.”

Analytical approach

“When I got my final degree in piano, I felt that composition would eventually be my direction. Strangely enough, I wanted to include the discipline of music analysis in this at the same time. Compositionally, I was attracted to the analytical approach, the architecture of the building itself. All my life, I have taught music analysis as well as composition. In the meantime, you grow in style and eloquence. And that is climbing and descending, there are also deep valleys, that you really doubt everything.

You could compare it to mysticism. Mystics also have moments of great connection and on the other hand they also have long nights of barrenness and formlessness. Creative people like me have that too. You have moments of numbness, rigidity, and then moments when it suddenly evolves very simply and organically, naturally. Some people pick up a book or go for a walk, but for me it works well if I stay busy with music. Playing the piano is a great help to me, it’s always a great stimulus to feel the connection with music again.”

Tonal and atonal    

“I am a product of my family, of my parents, of tonal music. I grew up with that, heard a lot of music all through my childhood, always eighteenth and nineteenth century. I am crazy about it. And then you become a composer and enter a world that rejects that. As a young man, a composer and a musician, you have to find your place in it, find your voice. It is this dichotomy between the harmonic old hierarchic tonal thinking, the logical language structure of the great German romantic tradition and above that the second layer that has come to me since my adulthood, namely the expression of twentieth-century man. I have tried to unite them and I am still trying. I don’t want to get rid of this love for tonality completely, because then I am not authentic. But I do try to do something with it structurally, because I believe very strongly in a music that is linguistic. In that sense, one of my great examples is the French composer Olivier Messiaen. He tried to give every tone a place in his thinking, in his system. He did not write just anything. And I feel like a kindred spirit to that. I can’t just write a tone either. No, for me, the tones must have a meaning from their mutual coherence. I look for structure, just as music used to be.”

Inside and outside         

“I often say this to my composition students: you have the inside of the music – how are the tones organised, which chords, which functions. But you also have the outside of the music and that is what people perceive first. How does it sound, what do I hear?

That outside has become much more important. Many young composers, with or without the help of electronic means, start from the outside of the music, i.e. from a sound experience. That sound experience is magnified in a story. There are collaborative composers, for example. That is the advice we always give to our students: go and work together with instrumentalists. Sit together, create a piece if necessary, explore the instrumental possibilities, research the sounds and let it inspire you. Some work not only with instrumentalists but also with technicians and with videographers. This then becomes a total concept in which composing is only one part. Take my former student Stefan Prins, for example. His compositions are theatrical events.”

Different historical line        

“My style of writing could be interpreted in a very clear historical line, but this has already become non-existent for a large number of composers. They are no longer concerned with it or they have other histories. Many composition students at the conservatory want to write film music because it appeals to them. There is also a demand for it, for video games and TV series, you name it. Music is needed for everything. For those people, their history to fall back on is that of film music.

There is also a different role for a score. Many new scores are not more than an indication, a starting point with which a musician can do something. There are also scores that have no dynamic or tempo indication but only tones. It is a very rich palette. You can no longer say: where are we now? No, it has become a mosaic.

Pure listening

“I think it’s important that people rediscover listening as such. Forget for a moment system and tonal and atonal, these are all just words that once had a meaning, but that’s not what it’s about in the first place. It is about the quality of listening, and how open-mindedly you can listen to sounds. Because music is ultimately the art of sound, no more and no less. A tone is a very civilised form of a sound. And we learn to listen again in a different way. And that, I believe, is where the future of contemporary music lies. That is to hold uninhibited listening. The newness, time and again, of pure listening.

  • AGENDA: Friday 11 February, Symphony IV by Luc Van Hove, Antwerp Symphony Orchestra conducted by Elim Chan. Queen Elizabeth Hall, Antwerp, Belgium
  • PHOTOS: Wynold Verweij

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