American Record Guide - Longe Range Importance

Rob Haskins wrote an extensive review my music for the American Record Guide (American Record Guide 79, vol. 4 (July/Aug 2016): 119–20). The American Record Guide is available online through subscription-based databases.

With his permission I'm allowed to post the complete review here.





Motion; Passacaglia; Music of the Morning; Kick; House of Mirrors; L’Atlante delle Nuvole
Piccola Accademia degli Specchi

Zefir 9627—56 minutes


Music for Wiek Erik-Jan De With, sax

Zefir 9618—62 minutes


Quartet 1; City Lines; Piano Concerto; Dickens! Gerard Bouwhuis, p; Francis B Quartet; ensemble

Zefir 9606—60 minutes


Cloud Atlas, Les Chants Estivaux; Theme 1; City Lines; Growing Worm
Jeroen van Veen, Sandra van Veen, Marcel Worms, p

Zefir 9619—57 minutes


Douwe Eisenga (b. 1961) is a year younger than I. After what he calls a short career in pop music, he enrolled in a conservatory and discovered the wide world of 20th Century concert music. The music he has come to write bor- rows extensively from minimalism, but—like his older contemporary Simeon ten Holt—he chooses to eschew the term. For Eisenga, it’s maximal music: “a mesmerizing mix of mini- mal, rock, and baroque. All of these elements come together in music with maximum effect”.

I first became aware of him via a personal e-mail. For many reasons his music strikes a chord with me: the pieces have a certain pop sensibility in their use of a steady pulse, a triadic but essentially not completely functional harmonic scheme, a clear separation between melody and accompaniment, and a rugged urgency that reminds me of what life feels like. And he’s Dutch—for some reason I have the closest affinity for Dutch culture, music, and people: if I could find a way to live there, I would do it in a heartbeat.


He has a number of recordings. House of Mirrors is a suite of pieces especially conceived for the excellent Piccola Accademia degli Specchi, a group I’ve previously reviewed in a fine program of Glass, Mertens, and Sommacal (M/J 2010). Their colorful instrumentation (flute, saxophone, violin, cello, and two pianos) and excellent technique offer many possibilities for a composer, and Eisenga takes advantage of them all. His passacaglia uses the familiar descending tetrachord but with a few wellchosen variations and a haunting, unforgettable melody. The longest work here, Kick, includes very colorful harmony and delicate, interweaving melody that recalls nothing so much as the counterpoint of JS Bach; its progress is interrupted several times in the final third of the work by unexpected, mysteri- ous, but completely compelling solo piano passages. Needless to say, the ensemble’s performance perfectly captures the magic of this music.


In the dance piece Wiek (Rotor), “three dancers find themselves sharing a circular area with the horizontally rotating blades of a turbine. The seated audience surrounds the space, allowing no chance of escape; the dancers must confront the situation. Feeble humans are compelled to enter into combat with forces far greater than their own, and the audience is made complicit in the inevitable outcome.” The loop-based music Eisenga contributes complements this scenario perfectly, and the individ- ual movements employ less contrast than other works of his. Although only saxophonist Erik-Jan de With is credited (through overdubbing he performs all the ensemble saxophone sounds in the work), the music includes percussion, keyboards, and some additional electronic sounds. As befits theater music, the composition seems contrived to supplement and not overwhelm the activities an audience watches, though the breathless Dance 2 is an instance where the propulsive energy of Eisenga’s music probably assumes a greater promi-

nence in the proceedings.

Eisenga’s writing seems particularly well suited for the piano, and Zefir 9619 collects five works involving that instrument. The most arresting one is Growing Worm, a five-minute character piece that begins simply and seems to grow by adding more twists and turns to the opening material; the chromatic inflections Eisenga introduces as the development proceeds gives this piece a momentary, spiky dissonance, but the forward drive so characteristic of the composer’s aesthetic remains intact. In both Les Chants Estivaux (for 4 pianos) and City Lines (for two), he adds immeasurably to the pattern-oriented keyboard music of older contemporaries with a wealth of very different figurations that alternate unpredictably but with a marvelous sense of rightness. Theme I displays a more expressively straightforward approach as one simple idea gradually develops and eventually reappears transposed up a fourth to bring it to a close.


One of minimalism’s most pervasive problems is contrast. When the great process pieces of the 60s and early 70s gradually gave way to shorter pieces with more change—the post- minimalist turn identified by Kyle Gann—the newer style raised a problem that the elder generation has attempted to answer in various ways and with varying degrees of success. Nyman and (to a lesser extent) Glass populate their musical world with similar figurations that have appeared in earlier works, recycling them in an intertextual way (for Glass, without a hint of postmodern irony and, perhaps, with a workmanship that sometimes recalls nothing so much as extremely prolific composers of the past like Carl Czerny). Reich favors very attenuated contrasts in his new works, barreling through the design of each movement much like Bach might, but without his polyphonic richness.

In all three parts of his Piano Concerto—by far the strongest work of all the ones I discuss here—Eisenga poses what sounds to me like the first steps in a solution to this problem, one that could have long-range importance. About halfway through the first part, the musical character and figurations change noticeably; from then on, there’s a richer texture among solo piano and orchestral parts and more constant change in the figurations; the whole suggests to me a kind of updated Mozart piano concerto. It occurs to me that what minimalism needs is to retain its rhythmic pulse and pattern-oriented manner, but to introduce much more variation among the patterns that appear in a single movement or piece and introduce—much as Mozart did—sharply etched melodies that throw into sharp relief the inherent expressive contrast suggested by the varied patterns. The trick, of course, is to accomplish this without destroying the rhythmic momentum that minimalism depends so much on for its effect. (Or maybe also throwing that away will prove decisive.) Eisenga uses sharp contrast of pattern more consciously in the piano concerto, but the melodies are still a little bit too uncharacterized, often consisting of little more than linear presentations of the nearest chord tone, one per each change of harmony. Melodic they certainly are, but they seem to point up their inadequacy for the rich variety Eisenga seems to be aiming for elsewhere.

The degree of contrast in the much shorter Dickens! is even more palpable. Here as elsewhere, the musicians bring a joy and excitement to the performance that any composer would envy, and the sound is excellent.