THE PENDULUM OF KRISTOFFER ZEGERS, by Edo Dijksterhuis
Some days the world is a black hole, God seems to be hiding behind dark clouds and all mankind is like a pitiful ant nest. Some days the sun shines. Then the smallest gesture is pregnant with meaning and Bach salves the soul.
The world of Kristoffer Zegers is polarized. He moves between the positive and negative, sometimes like a pinball, sometimes like a sailboat slowly tacking on an almost windless day. Were Zegers a trash collector or accountant, this would be of interest primarily to him alone. But he is a composer. And his emotional state directly affects what he writes and we hear. It is, perhaps, the foundation beneath his work.
When in one of his "lesser" periods Zegers was prescribed an antidepressant, he worried that it might flatten his feelings, that he might not get to composing anymore. And indeed, one of the side effects of venlaxafine, as reported on the product instructions, was: decreased emotional response and a feeling of emptiness. As he dutifully sat before the music paper, the chemicals trickled into his intended composition, for electronics and saxophone quartet. The piece, which Zegers christened Venlaxafine and has described as "an ode to the antidepressant", strings short, forcefully blown notes together like obsessive-compulsive thoughts. The longer lines, especially those of the baritone saxophone, try to suppress these thoughts and ward off the imminent psychosis. But the low tones become distorted electronically and bent an octave lower into a malevolent humming. The work ends in a panicked, siren- like shrieking.
Venlafaxine (2001-02) is one of the most recent pieces on this CD. The oldest, Praetor and Matth, were created five years previously - by what on first acquaintance sounds like a different Zegers - when he was a student. Structural considerations take precedence over expression. Ritual patricide is on the menu.
In Praetor, the disjointing first piece on the CD, sacred music by Michael Praetorius is put through a meat grinder. At first, the lively Baroque music sounds as it was meant to, consoling any who feared they were in for some unfathomable electronics. But after a few bars, Zegers adds a layer, an exact copy of Praetorius' music, but a fifth higher. Somewhat later a third layer, another fifth higher, is added. The process continues until six layers, at a fifth distance each, are piled atop one another. Amid all the parallel Praetoriuses, the sound begins to shimmer and distort, and more so when Zegers further deforms it with sinus signals. The piece ends in a multi-tonal hail storm with a Hague School slant, concluding on an "untouched" final chord. In the space of four minutes, the listener is transported from the 16th century to the present and given in post script a memento of the journey's beginning. Winds, harpsichord and drum lose their organic quality and become tinny as the piece progresses. Praetorius is routed through a transistor and dissected into Praetor.
A similar process unfolds in Matth, in which Zegers takes a knife to the St. Matthew Passion. As the title implies, Bach's oratorio undergoes transformation and amputation. The three-hour piece is compacted into less than four and a half minutes. In the hyper-accelerated version, Zegers connects the tops of the frequency vibrations to a rolling line that produces a rumbling. The acceleration is not uniform and varies from 10 times to 100 times speeded. As the music slows, Bach gradually emerges. The choir punches through the speeding wall of sound and the chorales become recognizable. About a minute and a half into the piece, relative calm sets in. Here, Zegers isolates the first notes of the couplets and forges them together. like a swarm of angry bees, flashes of the beginning reappear. In the background sounds a 20-times-slowed version of the Passion. The contrast is driven to the forefront until the sound is abruptly lopped off.
Matth and Praetor are sample compositions; in them, Zegers quotes and mutilates. They are not the sort of autobiographical tales he later tells, but rather commentaries. Conclusions can, however, be drawn from them. The rigorous iconoclasm manifested in them could only have arisen in a skeptical, rebellious period. Zegers shouts out his countersound, even goes so far as to hold his hand over Bach's mouth.
A swing of the emotional pendulum yielded more reflective compositions, such as Singularity II and Singularity IV. The term used in these titles was coined by the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who meant by it the point that contained the entire universe immediately before the big bang. It is a place beyond our comprehension, a moment where the question looms: Does God dwell as "the prime mover"? It is a phenomenon that inspires dreams and belief, precisely as heard in Singularity II.
In this piece, a gliding tone fans out, is distorted into a drip-like sound, and then transforms into chalk scraping on a blackboard, giving one goose bumps. The introduction of an organ restores the dreaminess, but its tone is quickly hollowed out and loses all depth, as though time and space, the dimensions of our existence, are eliminated. The sound grows increasingly thinner until nothing but dismal peeping remains. It is a heart monitor signaling that life has ended; a memento mori in a musical piece about the "great beginning". Then, what follows seems to indicate that death is but a continuation of life shrouded in a slightly different sound palette.
In Singularity IV, death takes a more personal hue. The vocal part was based on a newspaper article about euthanasia. Typical of Zegers, who concedes to having a love-hate relationship with words and attaches more value to sound, the text was manipulated. With the self-written computer program TXT2AleA, Zegers opened the door for Cageian chance. The program calculated the relationship between vowels, consonants and the number of times letters appeared in the text. Based on that information, new letters were substituted into words, which retained the same number of letters. The result is a fantasy language though one that apparently struck a chord, for listeners at live performances identified it as "something eastern european, "a Germanic language" or Esperanto.
The text is sung on a single pitch, giving the work a nearly religious quality that at times is reminiscent of Stimmen by Karlheinz Stockhausen - a work, incidentally, that Zegers had not heard before composing Singularity IV. As in Praetor, the material is duplicated at various pitches, creating layers that are piled atop one another. The voices, which swell to a schizophrenic polyphony, are made further unrecognizable by bending of the sound. A constant glissando-making creates a tale between the main chords. Ascending and descending pitches mix in a bubbling sea of sound that is neither off-pitch nor disharmonious. Beneath the voices lies a thick carpet of strings which also move in glissandos. As the conclusion nears, these thicken into a pernicious buzzing that overpowers the still relatively natural-sounding voices.
Singularity II and IV are introspective pieces. light and darkness, existence and non-existence, life and death - the existential extremes continually alternate with each other. But these are abstract concepts that one can intuitively recognize in the music. The pieces are more atmosphere sketches than narrative. And what rudiment of a story that there is - the newspaper article in Singularity IV - Zegers buries deeply in the process of the composition.
Detonatie is considerably more narrative. The work unfolds in a story line that, rather than turning in circles, proceeds logically from A to B. The deafening booming is immediately noticeable. According to Zegers, the piece was initially about a disaster at a fireworks factory in Enschede, but the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York later also entered the picture. The relationship clearly emerges when you hear the blasts. The first - exploding fireworks - shakes everything to its foundation, it is the impact of the surprise, but the second blast - the Twin Towers - is much more forceful, reducing by comparison the first to but a minor disturbance. But the listener must wait before the explosions come. Detonatie is an exercise in delaying the climax. Even before the first blow, the sound restlessly fans out in circles before entering into an ascending motion.
All of Detonatie originated from the sound of a harpsichord (played by Annelie de Man). As is usual in Zegers' universe of poles and inversions, though, the instrument seems robot-like and mechanical, even more than the saxophones in Venlafaxine. It has become the opposite of the computer, which Zegers treats as earthly, warm and organic. The rocking thunder of the explosion was produced by dropping a pile of CDs inside the plucked-string instrument and then repeating the crash an octave lower. The harpsichord, which sound again is reproduced and the resulting layers piled atop one another, is the building block through which an evocative story is told. Clearly discernible are the nervous rush to the explosions, the collapse of the buildings, the fire leaking from the ruins, the mourning characterized by emptiness and a brief reliving of the disaster, and the bell-tolling of the commemoration.
The two commissioned pieces on this CD are much less programmatic. Horologium Oscillatorium, written for the ensemble "De Ereprijs", is something of a pumped up hocket. Its rows of five or six tones get squeezed out in fits and starts by wind instruments alternating in rapid pace. The rhythm is compacted and stretched out, like the pendulum clock described by Christiaan Huygens in Horologium oscillatorium sive de motu pendularium (1673), to which the title of the piece refers. The gamboling notes in the winds - later slightly enervated by hardly perceptible electronic manipulation - are at a given moment cloven by a curtain of electronics.
Electronics again plays a larger role in Introductie Transformatie, commissioned by the Royal Conservatory in The Hague for the opening of the academic year by director Frans de Ruiter. The piece begins in an airy, almost carnivalesque tone, but right away, an ominous machine sound lies somewhere beneath, and it later comes to the surface. The middle section is made entirely of electronic sound fields in which reverberation, cracking and ticking sounds play a major role. A saxophone routed through a square wave heralds a return to acoustic instruments, which immediately lapse back into their hobbling little waltz. This piece, too, ends with a clear bang, Zegers' electronic version of the classical timpani stroke.
In these two compositions, Zegers' predilection for clear structures comes to the forefront, perhaps because they follow no compelling story line. Zegers likes to have something to go by, and his pieces always conform to a clear structural plan that shimmers through the sound. The long themes, which are often repeated, are like one another's counterpoint.
Zegers often uses canon technique. There is always a clear start and a pronounced coda, which frequently is like an exclamation point. The patterns of melting and sliding tones are nearly classical in form, something he readily admits with the confession that in this regard, he is "quite the Brucknerian".
It is logical, this apparent contrast between firm structure and liquid sound. It stacks up so well: dry acoustic instruments versus warm-blooded computers, esoteric dreams versus rebellious shin-kicking, abstract sound versus concrete stories, an intimately directed personal versus formalistic. Add to this good days versus bad days, up versus down. It all comes together in Flexinom III. This piece - which Zegers called "a study into my own feeling" and gave a title that joins "flexibility" and "metronome" - is the expressionistic climax of the album. The sound deepens and flattens out, seems to enter a tunnel, becomes numbed, ebbs away in waves, compresses itself into peeping and finally broadens again to nearly orchestral proportions. Amid every kind of sputtering and crackling, triads are richly sprinkled into the mix and a sawtooth wave provides relief. It is an emotional self-portrait of a composer who is aware of his mood influence.
Translation: John Lydon/Muse Translations
Kristoffer Zegers (1973) studied composition at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague from 1992 to 1998, specializing for two years in electronic music. His teachers were Gilius van Bergeijk, Jan Boerman, Clarence Barlow, Diderik Wagenaar and Martijn Padding. Since 1998, his music has been regularly performed internationally. This is his first CD. More information about Kristoffer Zegers can be found on his website www.kristofferzegers.nl and at Music Center The Netherlands.