Canto Ostinato

Simeon ten Holt

Canto Ostinato

Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Canto Ostinato, for any number of keyboard players, was a minimalist breakthrough for Europe. It was also a key work in the development of the personal style of Simeon ten Holt (b. 1923). By the time he wrote it, ten Holt was ready to reject the serial (twelve-tone) method as an expressive dead end, at least as an all-controlling method of style.

Ten Holt had studied with Jakob von Domselaer, a teacher whose preoccupation with creating a musical version of the ideas of artist Piet Mondriaan seriously influenced ten Holt. In an effort to break clear of that influence, ten Holt adopted a style of heavily dissonant polytonality -- several keys played simultaneously, in practice producing atonal music. This naturally led ten Holt into adopting serialism as his method and style in the 1950s.

Signs of interest in returning to tonality began appearing in the music written just before Canto Ostinato. Ten Holt says that he conceived this work at the keyboard. He gave it its premiere in Bergen's Ruïnekerk on April 25, 1979, after a three-year period in which he worked out various sectional ideas and effects.

The work gives the impression of being directly influenced by American West Coast minimalism, particularly that of Terry Riley, who had composed his seminal work In C a decade earlier. Riley's work comprises 53 one-line cells of music, which members of a performing ensemble -- and it can be any grouping of instruments at all -- move through cell by cell, individually deciding when to go to the next.

Canto Ostinato is also made of a large number of sections. From the beginning a rapid ostinato figure appears, and it keeps up throughout the entire piece. The basic version of the work is written on one system of staves for the player or players. Each measure is set apart by repeat signs, leaving the player free to decide how long to remain with a single one of the sections. Above and below the main part are variants of it, the right hand above and the left hand below.

The player can decide when to shift one hand or the other (or both) over to playing the variant. He can decide dynamic contrasts, which mix of variants and basic parts to play, and length of the composition, as well as when to shift from one section to the next. If multiple pianists perform it, they can decide these questions beforehand, map out certain moments when the members will be playing in unison, and so forth.

The music is harmonically mellow, lightly pop-classic in feel, keeping it from going stale in the course of a long performance. (In the case of the CD used as reference for this article, which is for two pianos, the length is 75 minutes.) The composer says the composition demands a new way of playing and listening, and in his notes for Emergo Classics says that a concert of it " more like a ritual than a concert."