Joep Franssens

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About Joep Franssens ( Donemus)
07-07-1998
Bas van Putten

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True, but rather trite, a brief biography of Joep Franssens might read as follows. Dutch composer, born in Groningen in 1955. Studied the pianoforte in Groningen, took composition in The Hague and Rotterdam with Louis Andriessen and Klaas de Vries. An exponent of the generation of post-serial Dutch composers using traditional tonality to create an accessible musical idiom whilst avoiding neo-romantic undertones, hiscompositions have, nevertheless, a distinctly emotional character. Conceived as a synthesis of monumental majesty and sheer harmony, his body of work includes compositions for chamber music, choir and orchestra, betraying early influences by Johan Sebastian Bach, the Ligeti of Lontano and Atmosphères. Inspired by the American minimal music and East-European mystics such as Arvo Pärt, his later works have a more austere character, epitomised in the static, diatonic Dwaallicht (1989) and the quasi-canonical Sanctus for orchestra (1996). The instrumentation reveals an affection for warm, rich textures.
The above observations, though correct, are, at the same time, quite superfluous in that they ignore the essential quality of Franssens' music - the ability to speak directly to the heart in a way not a thousand words could. It is, therefore, perhaps more interesting to review some of the less evident, but crucial factors in the life and work of this unorthodox composer. Such as the intense inner struggle which, in the face of powerful opposition, led to his own personal definition of music as a medium for the structured expression of emotions, and which motivated him to choose a ‘universal, accessible language'.
His instinctive, ‘audience-friendly' approach to composing drew considerable scepticism among his university peers, but Joep Franssens was never a conformist. Only once, in an ensemble piece (Low Budget Music, 1986) did he allow himself, on the insistence of his teachers, to experiment with the twelve note system, but there was no spark. And if, mostly by chance, he took a liking to any of the ‘approved' composers, it was always, according to his teachers, for the wrong reasons. "What appealed to me in the music of Ligeti - the latent tonality in Atmosphères and Lontano - were not the qualities one was expected to admire in The Hague." "Right from the word go", Franssens once confided in an interview with the author, "my artistic values seemed to get people's backs up. It is probably true that this has inhibited my development quite considerably, as I was constantly aware that people were expecting something from me I was naturally incapable of giving, and this, for many years, was a great source of insecurity. In retrospect, I believe the inner strength I feel now is partly the result of the resistance I felt all those years".

In order to properly understand Franssens' compositions, it is necessary to understand the influence of pop-music in his entire body of work. Not so much in the actual shaping of the sound, but in his approach to music as a means of expression in the sense noted above. Perhaps this explains the controversy surrounding this style of music, which levels the divide between high and low culture with a gravity and monomania that defies the compulsive crave for classification, displayed by Franssens' reviewers. Presumably, the sharp critique in the press reflects the impossibility of classifying Franssens in that grey area between art music and pop music. His music belongs to neither, nor lets itself be dismissed as a readily identifiable attempt to reconcile and build bridges between two, strictly independent, forms of art and culture. It was not until after the release of his orchestral works Echos, Phasing and Sanctus on CD, that Franssens gained the recognition he had waited for all those years, and which he had always felt to be his due because, as he puts it, "I write music that belongs to his time".
If the observation implies some degree of self-satisfaction, Franssens himself is quick to put matters in perspective. He is, in his own words, "not a prophet or a misunderstood genius, far ahead of his time, who considers it to be his mission to lead the ignorant masses through the darkness and show them the light, and who takes it as a compliment to be misunderstood". He is a product of his time, and therefore, by definition, writes music for the here and the now. "Music and society", he explains, "have always been intertwined. Music in the Netherlands and abroad has seen quite dramatic changes over the past twenty or thirty years, and my work is a product of those changes. The activist anti-culture of the sixties has made way for a much more armonious society, in which the emphasis is no longer on confrontation, critique, rebellion for its own sake, but in which people are seeking reconciliation, interaction, knowledge sharing; there are many roads that lead to Rome. I have assimilated those changes, both as a person and as a composer".
Such are the views of a musician who, imbued with the spirit of the times, can afford to practically ignore that Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Stockhausen and Boulez ever existed. At a young age, Franssens already realised that he had little affinity for the atonal masters. As a boy he would attend the weekly performances of the Northern Philharmonic, which introduced him in a playful manner to ‘the repertoire', an experience which cultivated his Beethoven-mania and set his standards in music until, at sixteen, he discovered pop-music. The world of popular music overwhelmed him beyond anything even a young Beethovian could dream of. Its musical idiom and intent fitted him like a glove. Among its merits he cites "technical polish and an immediacy of expression which is plainly lyrical, without condescending to false romanticism". The experience marked the end of his Beethoven period. "The confrontation with pop-music was so much more powerful, so much more intense", he reflects, "also because it was music that responded to what was happening at the time and which was in tune with the world of a sixteen year old youngster". Looking back, he considers pop-music and Bach as his greatest and most durable influences. How Bach, Yes, Tangerine Dream and Joep Franssens met one another is perhaps best demonstrated by the CD recording noted above, but also - and increasingly - in Franssens' chamber music. The Gift of Song for two pianos (1994) is not actually popmusic, but a ballad-style composition which clearly derives its roots from it. If, as is sometimes claimed, soberness and detachment are the typical constituents of the Dutch school, then the sacred, ritual and devoted music of Franssens', though subtle and subdued, is certainly not a textbook example of Dutch music. Emotion, with Joep Franssens, always remains emotion - indefinable and deep. But never too much. The Gift of Song is serene, not melodramatic; Sanctus grave, not pompous; Dwaallicht transcendental, not religiose.
Joep Franssens, a former student of philosophy who never lost his sense of curiosity, has an eye for detail, but not as a means of escaping into a safe, miniature world. Instead, he applies it in perfecting the process of meditative recycling within a larger time span, ever curious to see how a concept responds to the laws of time and form. Notwithstanding his economic, if not thrifty, use of material, many of Franssens' compositions are quite long. Sanctus lasts 20 minutes, and The Gift of Song not less than forty five. The time span of these works does not, however, reflect a desire to create latter-day romantic monuments, but is the natural consequence of the style and texture of the work- a slow, meditative spinning out of thoughts which, incidentally, explains why a work by Franssens for symphony orchestra without choir or biblical text came to be called ‘Sanctus'. The religious intention of the work is evident, and, even in the absence of the female voices used in Phasing and Dwaallicht to lend a metaphysical quality, he is able to create a choral effect in the flutes, the oboes, the clarinets and the bassoons. "When necessary", the composer notes in the score, "winds apply choral breathing."
One might, perhaps, wonder whether the length of these meditative, devoted works stands in contrast with the philosophy of a composer whose musical intention, in his own words, is to suggest, rather than to postulate. A mere suggestion, after all, need not take that much time. Yet his words contain truth, and therefore warrant a closer examination of another of Franssens' favourite terms: gestics. Gestics, or gesticulation, basically is a rhythmical pattern, which, metaphorically, can be interpreted as the first impulse of a physical gesture, designed to impress. Both - that is, the metric movement in time, and the gesture of the ‘clenched fist', play, however, only a subordinate role in Franssens' music. In fact, the near absence of structured rhythm (the composer prefers to use the word ‘pulse') in these meditative works virtually eliminates the option of creating the rhetorical clenched fist, although there are some quite dramatic climaxes, with thundering kettle drums, in places where the music wants it. There are also melodic gestures, shaped as such by frequent use, and melodic intervals which derive their effect from the physical impact of their ascending or descending movement. It is in these rhetoric formulas and in the mesmerising effect of variation in repetition, such as the descending seconds in Sanctus, that Franssens' strength lies. The formulas are simple, and pregnant in their simplicity, and, in their pregnancy, can be manipulated, especially when the melodic figures are stripped of the other parameters, such as rhythm and colour. Smothered, they are voices that imply. The polyphony of Franssens - his music is polyphonic, even in his seemingly most homophonic works - is a polyphony of shadows moving behind opaque glass.
Shadows which, nevertheless, are very much present, because the near-anonymity of the material is counteracted with an almost unusually intense performance intensification. The instruction ‘appassionata maestoso' (Sanctus) apparently is so important to the composer, that he finds it necessary to repeat it every few pages. Occasionally, such an anonymous germ, quasi-unprepared, serves as a catalyst for a dramatic harmonic condensation in which, engulfed in an aura of sound, the cell is made to shine in despite of itself. The motive of thirds, from which, in Dwaallicht, quite symbolically a melody emerges, later returns in a five-part setting already containing clues as to its next function, i.e. as the leading-motive of a closing choral, stuck on almost as an after-thought. However, this only becomes apparent at the end, and the process is so gradual that there is no impression of a premeditated dynamic build-up. There was no planning schedule on Franssens' drawing table when he was composing - he just started and kept going. Static is perhaps not the right word, but where there is development in Franssens' music, it happens quite unsystematically and probably unnoticeably, whilst in most cases retaining the original character of the underlying thought.
There is an unmistakable quality to a Franssens third, whether it be a minor third as in Dwaallicht, or a major third, as used in the canon motive which - reflective and grave, but not sombre - sets in, almost tentatively, at the beginning of his latest orchestral work, Sanctus, like a ship rounding the harbour once more to gauge the winds before sailing out to sea. As typical, perhaps, is the obstinacy with which he preserves the original character of ‘his' thirds, right up to the bitter-sweet closing of his last works for symphony orchestra. The suggestive quality of his music lies in his dogged concentration on detail. Nobody could be more orderly, or less of a constructivist, than Joep Franssens. His creed, first and foremost, is to keep going. Time will tell how and where it finishes.
In this almost obsessive tenacity lie some of the essential ingredients of an artistic personality, which blends form and person into a generous, cohesive whole; loyalty towards people and to the integrity of his material; solidity in expression and tonality; consistency in character, structure and stylistic development. If there is such a thing as the proverbial Groninger stubbornness, Franssens' music epitomes it. If, in the period between his early Echoes and his most recent work for orchestra, Sanctus - his music has changed, it is in its guise, not in its soul. Over the years, his music has, in his own words, probably become simpler, more diatonic, more homogenous. Behind this steady process of abstraction and austerity, however, lies a more interesting discovery: a string of constant elements which, concealed or not, pervade his entire body of work. The still quite complex chromatic polyphony in Echoes, borrowing from Ligeti (Melodies), but, in reality, being too tonal to withstand the comparison is gone, but the similarity with the technical and musical idioms which, in Sanctus, have replaced it, is striking. The almost inaudible but consistent polyphony; the subtle colour changes to which Phasing owes its title; the esoteric halos of sound around temporal centres of tonality, moulded from unison combinations of not necessarily kindred instruments: marimba and strings (Echoes), trumpet and soprano (Taking the Waters), female choir and orchestra (Phasing), ensemble and synthesiser (Dwaallicht). Block instrumentation v- a Bach influence , according to the composer - and the associated objective of achieving unity in diversity - ("when I throw in a trumpet, it stays"). The sense of space of the sound spectrum, as a whole. And, for those who persist in pointing out a divide: there is, of course, the apparent contrast between the exciting saxophone quartet The Straight Line (1992), the pulsating Roaring Rotterdam (1999) for orchestra on the one hand, and the coagulated sound of the orchestral works recorded on this CD on the other. But then again, if a fading of the pulse was the intention, acceleration or deceleration will, of course, in the long run, achieve the same effect.
Joep Franssens fortunately is not hampered by the false shame with which some composers will maintain that their work is entirely free of tonal contamination. Joep Franssens composes tonal music, not merely because of his natural affection for the triad, but rather because of the sense of security it provides; a mental harmony, floating in the placid waters surrounding the centre of that single, most dependable note the tonic.
Franssens did not consciously choose the triad, nor did he, in his artistic puberty - which, in most cases, follows regular puberty- consciously reject it. Save for the one time his teacher, Klaas de Vries, persuaded him to engage in an exercise in total chromaticism, he has, from the outset, experienced music in terms of tonality ruled by scale degrees and the phased tension it produces. "John Adams once said that you're either born with tonality or you're not. I feel the same way." True revelation is never a conscious choice.
The tonality of Franssens is a tonality the listener can relate to from within. It is not, however, a predictable tonality of tonics and dominants and binding keynotes. Nor is it a contrived, pseudo-modern tonality of the kind that pretends to make all other tonal systems superfluous. Rather, the melodic intervals in Franssens' music, by association, create an harmonic tension, in the same way the minor third in Dwaallicht eventually results in a, very tonal, mediant relationship - a turn that occurs frequently in Franssens' work . Nevertheless, the key signature of four flats in Sanctus means just what it says: the key of F- minor, and the gradual reduction of flats and ditto increase of sharps means nothing less: an almost traditional tour of the cycle of fifths, the only difference being that it ends in C major, stopping just short of closing the circle. And that, of course, is no coincidence.

       Bas van Putten



Background photo by Saskia Vleugel