Back to the source

Ton de Leeuw could be considered one of the most influential composers at the crossroad between Eastern philosophy and Western technique. In the Fifties, he did play an important role in the introduction of serial techniques and electronic music to the Netherlands. However, since his first visit to India, in 1961, Ton de Leeuw has concentrated more and more on the possibilities of uniting Western techniques and Eastern philosophy.

In part because of this, the majority of works in De Leeuw’s oeuvre are stamped by a search for balance in the creative process: balance between the material and form, between what is notated and what is heard, between the role of the composer as an intelligent, thinking being and that of the music as fleeting stuff, like the audible passage of time, the result of age‑old cultures.

‘The Asians have discovered a few fundamental values in life that I find very appealing. For instance, a continual search for balance. People in the West are more expansively oriented, more enthralled by creation of tensions. That is something that does not concern me in the least.’

‘Back to the Source’, as one of his last essays is entitled, meant in De Leeuw’s mind returning to those cultures where music was assigned not only an esthetic but also an ethic function. In other words where the musical value was not only assessed by the concepts beautiful or ugly, but ‑ particularly ‑ by the concepts rich or poor (for the human organism).

This view is a direct correlation to the words spoken by ethnomusicologist Jaap Kunst on Javanese art: ‘Western music is full of action and tension. The music of Java, on the contrary, could perhaps be best described as “time conveyed in music”. It does not develop, it is.’ Ton de Leeuw explains further: ‘The artist’s Ego steps to the background. Rather than an act of will, it is the transmittal that is essential, which by no means precludes a personal signature.’

Here also lies the source of Ton de Leeuw’s rejection of art as an article for mass consumption: there, crude and superficially oriented ‘seductive wiles’ are at play and leave no place for reciprocal transmittal. This means that the listener of Ton de Leeuw’s music must assume a different attitude than that to which he is accustomed: instead of sitting back and waiting for the music to take control, he must attempt to fathom its essence, to consciously absorb it in his ‘system’. Music and listener will meet each other somewhere in the middle.

The essence of Ton de Leeuw’s composition does not lie in his mastering of various techniques (which speaks for itself), but rather in the choice of the right basic premise, the right material, the right frame of mind. In this regard, a title like Résonances refers to that which emanates from the music, the resonance that it sparks in man. De Leeuw is referring here to the healing effect of music, and to its ethical‑symbolical background. Music as a microcosmic reflection of the macrocosm. It is an audible image of everything man experiences in this relation as unity, oneness.

For this, one need not want anything. But he must be able to do various things. In this case, to compose (so that no technical hindrance impedes the congealing, or rather the notation and fixation, of the flowing material) and to stand open to everything that comes from within both himself and, especially, from the material.

Interviewed by Eddie Vetter for Het Parool, Ton de Leeuw commented: ‘What I miss in Western musical life is the very thing that still exists in the East: that the performance of music is so intertwined with your entire personality, that one is so intensively and for such a long time involved with it, that it penetrates much deeper than in the Western system of production, where you are only a good musician if you can perform something spotlessly at any given moment.’

If we were to review the work of Ton de Leeuw, from the time of Treurmuziek in memoriam Willem Pijper (Funeral Music in memoriam Willem Pijper, 1948) up until works like Chimères (1984), Résonances (1985), the Trio (1990), the Piano Concerto ‘Danses sacrées’ (1990), and the opera Antigone (1990‑1991), we would find several constant factors: a preference for pure, inner equilibrium and for simplicity, frugality and concentration. This develops into the ‘extended modality’, characteristic of his work since circa 1980. Apart from a few exceptions Ton de Leeuw has never wanted to compose expressive music in the nineteenth century sense of the term.

One of the most essential constants in De Leeuw’s work is that of modal variation. Used properly, it can result in a versatile and rich music that, rather than progressing from here to there according to Western methods of development (lacking, thus, an exposition of themes that are later developed), it moves forward through time (music cannot do otherwise), setting a basic idea, a musical phenomenon or a structure in a continually new light. With regard to his Mouvements rétrogrades (1957), the composer used the image of ‘a revolving crystal that remains the same in itself but reflects nonetheless constantly varied rays of light’.

In a certain sense, many of Ton de Leeuw’s compositions give the impression of not having been (wilfully) composed but to have written themselves on the basis of their own modality. It is not so much a question of modality in the Western sense of a series of tones, such as has been evolving since the beginning of our era and of which the twelve tone series must also be counted, but rather in the original, simultaneously ethical and musically technical sense, as stands at the source of both Eastern and Western musical cultures. Like the type of modality of the Indian raga or the Arabian maqaam, for instance, which are based on a particular series of tones, but musically speaking are equally characterized by their thoroughly individual melodic curves, important tones, adequate ornamentations and manners of singing, and ways of playing as coupled with certain instruments.

In the compositions of Ton de Leeuw, the material develops itself, the music unfolds unaffectedly and its intimacy is a logical consequence of the acoustical capabilities of the instruments for which it is written. A fine example of de Leeuw’s way of composing is the opening of the Concerto for two Guitars: the first guitar explores the modal region demarcated by the composer. The second guitar goes to work in the same way. One thing leads to another. Even the contrast effects are a consequence of this interplay of action and reaction that seems to blossom naturally.

The fact that hidden behind this seemingly guileless exploration of the musical terrain is an ingenious tour de force of technique ‑ whose tools, incidentally, are set fully at the service of the above‑mentioned basic compositional premises ‑, in no way detracts from the naturalness of Ton de Leeuw’s compositions. These qualities are equally apparent in the intense Cinq hymnes (1987‑1988) as in the multicoloured Symphonies of Winds (1963), as much in the gossamer Mouvements rétrogrades as in the frequently exciting orchestral Résonances, both in the more experimental Spatial Musics (1966‑1988) and the exquisite hymn to love Car nos vignes sont en fleur (1981).

Leo Samama, 1993
translation: John Lydon