Aspects of a life of listening

No obituary
A conventional obituary is inappropriate for Ton de Leeuw. He confined himself to the moment. So here are some of the ways in which he can be a source of inspiration to us now.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank
Here we will sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears …
(fragment from Ton de Leeuw’s Three Shakespeare Songs)
Listening to the endless inventiveness of man the musician.
Listening to the traditions of past and present, traditions from all over the world, the music of the cosmos. Ton de Leeuw once described it thus:

… above all Debussy is listening. Webern is listening too. Silence becomes audible. A new world opens up. He who has ears to hear hears the new sound. The sound of the overwhelming whole, in which man has lost his central place.

Listening to the discoveries of musicians during rehearsals.
Listening to the potential of composition pupils. As Tran Van Khê once put it:

Asian and African composition students receive from Ton de Leeuw without losing anything.

Listening: with such a great sensitivity for sound that it was sometimes hard for him to attend concerts. Ton de Leeuw’s own extended modality, that is: listening transformed into a compositional technique.
A lifetime of listening.

There’s not the smallest orb which thou beholdest
But in this motion like an angel sings…

Original music
I once heard Ton de Leeuw expound his ideas on originality and I was shocked by how radical they were. He appeared to see the notion of originality which has pervaded the New Music tradition since the early 19th century entirely in his own way. For him this striving for originality in complete contrast to what one would superficially expect – counted as reactive behaviour. He awarded egocentricity a central role in the argument: when people are obsessed by putting the spotlight on their own personality and everything that goes with it, then they are not acting, but are the plaything of reactive patterns, imposed by and forced upon ‘others’. These others are also not acting, but are themselves trapped in reactive patterns.

But De Leeuw went further. Even if people were to let go of this egocentricity, that would still not make them actors; it would merely then become apparent that man is an instrument of the spiritual. And for Ton de Leeuw it was always this which counted as true originality, the real ‘genius’. Some of his most revealing words on the subject are to be found in ‘Back to the source’, a meditation he wrote when he became 60 years old.

This question of originality lies at the heart of his stark music drama Antigone. De Leeuw makes an even stronger story of it than Sophocles. There is no path suggested, and no character who comes to an understanding of the drama of life. The audience is offered no shred of comfort. Kreon’s final insight into the tragedy is left out of the libretto. The seer Teiresias is cut altogether. Nor is there a narrator who oversees and understands everything. Not one of the dramatis personae ever escapes from their prescribed role. Even Antigone, although the only solo part, is performed as a ’type’, inextricably bound to her counterpart Kreon.

Insight should only come through the music itself: all the roles are fashioned from one and the same source, from one and the same ‘model’ as Ton de Leeuw called it, from one and the same basic melody which unwinds itself in an unbroken circle. The people do not act at all, and the highest thing which can be attained is insight into the nature of the play of Creation. For Ton de Leeuw, music which evokes this insight in us is, in a very fundamental sense, original music.

Ton, you were no armchair theorist, however much you may have enriched our thinking about 20th century music with your ideas. It is the experience of listening which shines through your brilliant analyses. You invited everyone to take listening as the touchstone. When you spoke about music, we could hear how deeply it had moved you. Your account of your trip to India in 1961 is an eloquent example. And your description of a Dhrupad recital by the Dagar Brothers in Delhi also applies to many of your own works from the ’80’s and ’90’s. The vocal art of the Dagars touched you because ‘it is not merely music, or music and poetry – it is an attitude to life expressed in this music’.

Your passion for music as a medium for spirituality has moved countless people. Amongst them are many who are not grounded in musical technique, many who are not specialised listeners to modern music. By the depth of your own response you took them beyond the confines of the ‘contemporary music’ arena.

Ton de Leeuw was very critical of performance practice in the West, especially where vocal music was concerned. He suffered greatly, for example, under the insensitivity of an involuntary vibrato. He also attached much importance to careful rehearsal, and himself attended rehearsals as often as he could. In various teaching situations he paid a lot of attention to the refinement of performance.

But, unlike Stockhausen, he did not assemble a specific group of musicians around him to be the bearers of his ideas and the potential carriers of a tradition. He cultivated a certain realism – and patience: he saw that any profound change in performance practise would need time.

A life-long torment: endlessly coming up against people’s inability to hear, people’s indifference. And your fierce criticism of the anaesthetizing effects of background music, which you saw as ‘sound pollution’ making us deaf.

It is to be hoped that people do not go looking for all kinds of ‘Asiatic’ qualities in your music for years to come. This might make them deaf to the music itself. You referred to Asian cultures for lack of other suitable examples. You were and remain a Western composer, at the heart of 20th century Western cultural developments. When you spoke about Asian cultures it was partly to encourage the deconditioning of listening. But the search for Asian features in your music could easily lead to new forms of conditioning. Let us rather listen to your music on its own merits.

Irrepressible laughter if you saw something absurd – and that happened frequently. It is true that you did not often let this laughter be seen. And laughing at yourself, like one November on an Amsterdam canal when you mistook seagulls for the cygnets of a swan family.

In your composing you were always guided by the search for balance. You spoke and wrote about it in every possible way. It was a result of the way you experienced your own time: one of painful imbalance. Yet according to you it was nonetheless a time when the treasure of insight was there for the asking. You also used to speak sometimes of the longing for inner balance. You were someone who seemed so much in balance, and at the same time could be so restless. You wanted to make a music in which sudden outbursts would be experienced as internal explosions, in which turmoil was transformed into a rippling calm (as you once said in a documentary about your life).

As a child Ton de Leeuw was bored by piano lessons. Playing came easily, all too easily. But above all he wanted to discover his own voice, not to play others’ notes. That became a life-long undertaking. Everyone who met him felt his call to discover their own voice, and by listening to it to acquire self-knowledge.

Ton, you radiated a kind of contained excitement over every interesting thing that you found on your musical journey. And ever since your youth you wanted to share these discoveries with others. For many years we heard your calm voice on the radio in the midst of the most extreme explosions of sound. The mere tone of your voice created faith in the value of the music you were playing.

You experienced intensely the musical developments of this century, and made your own contribution to them with your compositions, your careful thinking and your lessons, via a succession of preoccupations: electronics, serialism, musical and semantic stratification, the quotation and transformation of historical and non-Western musical styles, modality.

Your journey also took you into others’ worlds: constantly finding new aspects to the work of a composition student, to cultural life at home and throughout the world, while teaching and in ordinary conversation.

In an interview with Cage in the 1970’s Ton de Leeuw suddenly asked him straight out, in the middle of the conversation: ‘Are you feeling free?’ (To which Cage gave an honest answer: ‘[…] there are certain situations in which I am disturbed – where I would be freer if I would not be disturbed – by the lack of openness in others’). Freedom was the breath of life to Ton. And his effect on others was often to loosen the hold of fixed ideas.

Conversations with Ton de Leeuw were surprising and refreshing. It was as if he spoke from a great space. Whenever a discussion of musical structure threatened to become restricted to purely formal concerns, Ton would break it open with his living understanding of music as a medium between people. Whenever a discussion of music as a social phenomenon narrowed to schematic thinking, he would open up the wider perspective of music as a spiritual force. And if he found a discussion of spirituality too woolly, he would make it concrete with his great sense of musical structure.

He reacted vehemently to the threat of totalitarianism which lurks within every ideology: he loathed the (by definition, hopeless) claims of a partial view to have general insight and total control.

Ton de Leeuw also developed a ‘spacious’ technique of composition, a technique of omission, where all potentialities remain. By specifically not exploiting all the musical possibilities, there emerges the art of suggesting their presence. This art, extended modality in Ton’s case, ultimately became his answer to serialism.

Dreamed music provided a guiding thread for him as a composer. In a visionary audition, dreamed during his youth, he sits in an enormous hall (it could be Versailles). Somebody opens a door, very briefly, and from behind it comes music. What he hears is a sound which never then left him. Wonderful orchestral music, transparent, balanced and perfect. The music plays on, so clear and concrete that it wakes him up.

Ton de Leeuw would often describe this heard vision as being like the flow of a river constantly changing in form and colour and reflection, yet at the same time never changing. Much of his own music, from Mouvements rétrogrades to Gending and Résonances, can be understood as an attempt to realize this dream.

Unfolding like a flower
A surprising amount of Ton de Leeuw’s music manifests itself as an unfolding. The music more and more reveals what was present in the bud from the very beginning: listen to Car nos vignes sont en fleur, Résonances, Symphonies of Winds, Les adieux, Transparence. This unfolding never takes place hurriedly. Sometimes it takes up a whole movement.

This can also serve as a metaphor for the way Ton approached the potential of others. He helped his pupils to unfold themselves.

Ton described his own life as a slow unfolding. At a presentation for an International Composers’ Workshop in Bulgaria in 1991, he held up two scores in front of his audience. One was Haiku II (a work which had been enthusiastically received in the world of new music) the other was Résonances. ‘It is very probable’, he said, ’that Haiku II would be selected by the jury of a new music festival, but not Résonances’. But he felt the second piece to be much truer to himself than the first.

Perhaps those who swear by rapid development would be surprised to realize how much time lies between these two works: Haiku II dates from 1968, Résonances from 1984/5.

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
We are deeply glad, Ton, that you have been our guide in the discovery of music’s infinite tapestry, which you saw as a treasure within us. You perfected yourself as an instrument of discovery, of listening, of freedom, of authenticity. We thank you for the inspiration you give us.

Your final songs express a great truth: that beauty ‘whose action is no stronger than a flower’ will prove more powerful yet than ‘rocks impregnable … and gates of steel’. Long may the flower continue to unfold.

The exquisite end of your Three Shakespeare Songs still lingers in our ears. The music reflects the final words back to the composer: in your black ink your love shines bright.

Rokus de Groot, Summer 1996

This article appeared earlier in Key Notes, Vol. 30 Nr. 3 (September 1996)
For the references and quotations see The Sound of Silence, the documentary on Ton de Leeuw made by Eline Flipse in 1991. And further Ton de Leeuw, Muziek van de twintigste eeuw (Utrecht: Bohn, etc.: 3rd impression, 1991); ‘People and music in India’ and ‘Back to the source’, in Ton de Leeuw (ed. J. Sligter, Hilversum: CNM/Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 1992; English translation, Luxemburg: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995).
And finally, Ton de Leeuw’s final work, Three Shakespeare Songs
(Amsterdam: Donemus, 1994-95).