Music with a touch of craziness  (by Paul Janssen)


Sander Germanus is the type of composer who feels very much involved in music history: “I want to add something to contemporary music”, he states decisively, “and I have very clear ideas how I want to do it”. In fact, he feels that he is more inventor than composer. His music, thanks to his integrated use of quarter-tones, is indeed different, surprising, innovatory, exciting and adventurous — very much music for today. “I’m looking for something that I can identify with, for the spirit of the times that characterises today’s society. I was born in a wealthy land, I was brought up on a new housing development and I had a good childhood. Of course, there was always and is some distress and grief, but I never knew great suffering, not on the scale that the Russians have; as a Western European you shouldn’t even try to write about it”.
Sander Germanus prefers to give his ideas a more playful, joking and unexpected turn, aiming for lightness within a serious and complex formal structure. “I love playing with what my audiences expect to hear and surprising people”. A considerable amount of this element of surprise stems from one of the things that fascinate him the most: quarter-tones, or rather microtones, the ‘notes between the cracks of the piano’ as Charles Ives so pithily expressed it. “I didn’t think that the music that I heard that used quarter tones at that time was particularly beautiful, and I immediately had an idea how to do it better”.
Germanus was already interested in the emotional significance of consonances and dissonances, of chords in relation to other chords, when he was still studying saxophone and composition at the conservatory. He uses this idea of ‘horizontal harmony’ with quarter-tones as well; in a way his ideas stem from the rules for voice-leading in classical harmonic theory that he has adapted to microtones. “Ultimately the theory that lies behind my handling of microtones is somewhat more complex, but in the first instance it is all about gesture and musical language”.
Microtones are an extra addition to his palette and provide not only lightness but also an element of surprise. They add their colour to Hammerfest, a work composed especially for this recording for two acoustic pianos directed by computers: ‘an exercise with scales that first create interference and then together form spectral assemblies of overtones’. Much of the organised chaos in Le Tourne-disque Antique, composed by Germanus for the wind ensemble Calefax in 2000-2001 can be ascribed to the use of dislocating quarter-tone sounds and tempo changes. The antique record player is exactly what the title describes: the sounds from an old portable record player, complete with bumps, scratches and the speeding up and slowing down of old LPs, are all present. “I wanted to translate all these defects, scratches and bumps into music”. Between all the ‘bumps’ there is also a short quotation from Moro lasso, al mio duolo, madrigal XVII from Book 6 of Gesualdo’s madrigals. “When I heard it for the first time I was completely astonished. The piece is full of strange turnings that you can’t predict but which are totally convincing when you hear them. This is also a part of what I’m looking for, and why I used a quotation from this madrigal in quarter-tones in Le Tourne-disque Antique”.
The same plausible disorganisation also features in Germanus’ Lunapark Trilogy. Lunapark (2005-2006), Piccadilly Circus (2007-2008) and Waldorf-Astoria (2009) form a trilogy simply because the works are related in terms of musical theme and instrumentation. “The pieces aren’t intended to be played one after the other; each of them has its independent form and structure”. Germanus plays with the listener’s aural orientation in all three works, using rhythmic accelerations and decelerations as well as atmosphere and elements of art-deco style. Lunapark is in fact a memory of old-fashioned funfair attractions. It begins with a bird’s-eye view of the whole, after which the various attractions are explored in more detail; the full overhead perspective returns at the end of the piece. The work also contains continual accelerations and decelerations that do not, however, seem to have any effect on speeding up or slowing down the music, abstract clownish stop-and-start movements that seem to bubble up from out of the ground thanks to an inventive application of microtones and timbres.
Piccadilly Circus, like the place that gives the piece its name, is more chaotic and irregular in nature. It is also intended as a depiction of the eponymous London square with its characteristic profusion of visual and auditory influences. “To someone coming from Europe, all the swarms of taxis and double-deckers seem to be coming at you from the wrong side of the road; it was this confusion that I wanted to capture in music”.
In Waldorf-Astoria, composed for the Asko|Schönberg ensemble and Calefax, the old-fashioned chic, nostalgia and faded wealth of this hotel in New York’s Park Avenue are combined with subtle references to American music. “You go into the hotel, look around and then come out again. That’s more or less how it goes”. Not everything here, however, is what it seems to be either; the audience’s expectations are punctured with playful musical humour.
A good example of such a puncturing of expectations is the end of the string quartet Hallucinations, composed for the Danel Quartet in 2007. The work seems most of all to be a development of the ideas that played such a dominant role in Lunapark, with the quarter-tone voice leading that regularly leads to spectral sounds and the continuous movement of acceleration and deceleration both being presented in a subtle and surprisingly serious manner. After a grave discourse full of refined quarter-tone harmonies and rhythmic virtuosity, the composer cannot, however, resist poking out his tongue in his own inimitable manner.
Germanus’ work is not simply harmonic in character, for he also possesses an excellently developed melodic gift: this is clearly displayed in his Microphobia for alto saxophone and tap shoe, the solo work that he composed in 2005 for and dedicated to the saxophonist William Raaijman (d. 2007). The work is micromodal in character and is much more virtuoso in character than it sounds, thanks to the instrument’s large selection of alternate fingerings; it is here performed by Raaf Hekkema. Scales that are self-evidently microtonal form the basis for a fascinating solo that expresses his love for bebop and fusion to all those who have ears to hear.
His love for more popular musical forms can be seen in Steigers, a song for mezzo-soprano and six woodwind set to a text by Germanus himself. The song was composed for the opening of the Steigereiland on the Ijburg in Amsterdam and is the only piece on this CD in which the composer himself takes part: Germanus plays the quarter-tone saxophone in Steigers. “It’s an attempt to work within the framework of the modern pop song”, he notes in connection with this piece. It is, however a pop song with strong connections to the German Lied, and one in which both harmony and rhythm continually try to throw the listener off his aural balance; it’s like listening with a question-mark — and with a smile.
This, finally, is what Sander Germanus is working towards: music with a smile, a touch of craziness and, above all else, music that makes the unusual into the usual and the usual into something special.
It is precisely for this reason that Organic Movements, a work that he wrote in 2002-2003 for several mean-tone organs and later arranged for the Fokker 31-tone organ, is always astonishing. Despite the one-fifth of a tone intervals used in the piece, Germanus opines that the music is completely consonant, although the unsuspecting listener imagines that he is lost at sea amidst towering waves. Organic Movements is so disorienting at first hearing that the listener’s sense of balance is completely lost and he develops symptoms of mild seasickness. It is only after this initial astonishment that the strength of Germanus’ music is revealed, as the listener comes to realise that there is indeed a fully logical discourse that slowly but surely reveals more and more of its beauty. Sander Germanus’ sound-world may well seem strange in the first instance, even disorienting, but it finally unfolds to reveal a universe in which every element and influence finds its place in an unusual manner; even a fleeting quotation from a Tom and Jerry cartoon in Piccadilly Circus seems to be totally self-evident and completely credible.


Paul Janssen, 2011
Translation: Peter Lockwood


Sander Germanus studied classical saxophone with Ed Bogaard at the Amsterdam Conservatory and gained his soloist diploma in 1995. By that time, however, he had already begun to concentrate on composition and then went to the Rotterdam Conservatory to study composition with Peter-Jan Wagemans and orchestration with Klaas de Vries. He completed his studies in 1998 and was immediately awarded the incentive prize for music of the Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst for his composition Adamsarchipel. He has taken part in seminars and master classes with Pierre Boulez, Jonathan Harvey and Helmut Lachenmann amongst others and has composed works for Il Solisti del Vento, the Nieuw Ensemble, Slagwerk Den Haag, the Asko|Schönberg ensemble, the Calefax Reed Quintet, the Doelen Ensemble, the Residentie Orkest and the Noord-Hollands Philharmonisch Orkest.
His study of composition was primarily based on research into the individual character of Netherlands music, this being the motivation for his composition studies with Luc Van Hove at the Royal Flemish Music Conservatory in Antwerp from 1994. His interest in microtonality grew from that time onwards; he was admitted to the Orpheus Institute in Ghent in 1999, where he gained his laureate diploma with his thesis on microtonal music in the spring of 2005. Since that time he has given lectures on microtonality in conservatories both in the Netherlands and abroad. Microtonality has played a principal role in all of his compositions from 1999 onwards; from his Lunapark Trilogy that began with Lunapark in 2005, Germanus has achieved a natural balance in his use of the microtonal harmonies and the rhythmic devices that he himself developed. In 2007 Germanus was appointed Director of the Stichting Huygens-Fokker, the centre for microtonal music that has charge of the renowned 31-tone Adriaan Fokker organ; in 2010 he was also appointed lecturer in microtonal music at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven.   PJ


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