Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt passed away last November, and groups all over have been honoring his memory by performing what is perhaps his most well known composition, Canto Ostinato. Composed of repeating musical cells, the piece is of an indeterminate length (anywhere from one to four hours depending on how many times the performers decide to repeat the cells), and is written for the unusual combination of six keyboard instruments.

Simeon ten Holt © Friso Keuris
Simeon ten Holt
© Friso Keuris

I saw Ostinato performed live recently at the bar/venue (Le) Poisson Rouge in NYC’s West Village. The performing ensemble, Grand Band, debuted last summer at the Bang on a Can Marathon and is a veritable powerhouse featuring some of NYC’s finest avant-garde keyboardists.

Though often labeled minimalist, ten Holt’s music, as evidenced by this piece, is really more of a hybrid breed. As I listened to Grand Band – performing on keyboards because, as pianist David Friend put it in his introduction, six grand pianos simply wouldn’t fit in the venue – it struck me that Ostinato was Schumann in minimalism’s clothing.

The piece began quietly, with the pianists entering one by one, all the while spinning out complex metrical relationships over a steady pulse and cueing each other at the points at which a new cell was beginning. So it continued, swelling gradually in volume. There was something intimate and confessional in the tone of the piece as ten Holt danced you across a wide-open landscape.

Then, about 20 minutes in, the lighting changed from red to blue and something surprising happened: the pianists all dropped dramatically in volume, and a funny, sad little melody appeared out of a staccato texture (the first snippet of this melody reminded me forcibly of the Downton Abbey theme music, but perhaps that says more about me than the music). All of a sudden we were in something that sounded like a Romantic-era piano sonata, with the record needle skipping at points so that the constituent phrases were repeated more often than you’d expect.

Even though the pianists had been bobbing and swaying to the rhythm before, here they began to emote in earnest as they played. Certainly I can relate; playing a Schumann or Beethoven sonata alone can be an emotionally transformative experience, but playing this style of music with five other pianists must be positively exhilarating.

The rest of the piece, which in this incarnation lasted about 90 minutes, was really about the play between minimalism and romanticism, at times shaded more minimalist, at others shaded more romantic, always with that distinctive melody weaving in and out of the texture.

Of course what’s always nice about being at the live performance is the juxtaposition of the aural and visual, in this case being able to see how the individual pianists contributed to the overall sound. As I watched and listened a memory popped into my head of seeing fifteen pianists strewn over Zankel Hall performing John Cage’s Winter Music. A friend complained bitterly of his disappointment that the pianists in that performance never all played simultaneously (actually it was rare for more than three of them to be playing at once), though I thought it was clever of Cage to thwart that expectation. Ten Holt, however, approached his multi-piano piece from a different perspective: never holding back, he opted instead to lay bare intense emotions in perpetuum mobile.