Joep Franssens

In the media

Key Notes 12-03-1997
Johan Kolsteeg

Joep Franssens: I want to communicate with my music.


Composer Joep Franssens sees himself as a deviation from the Dutch norm in his quest for the directness and the emotion of 'now'. As he explains to Johan Kolsteeg, `sound' and `beauty' are crucial elements of his music.

On the outskirts of Amsterdam lies the Bijlmermeer, a vast suburb of towerblocks and family housing, where most Amsterdammers rarely go. But should they do so, they  cannot but be struck by the unmistakable calm of out of town. Not many artists have sought their refuge out here, but I know three composers who have. Joep Franssens (1955) is one of them. He lives here because it leaves him quiet and undisturbed to get on with his work.

Our conversation took place in his sober and efficiently appointed living room. We talked about new spirituality, new tonality, new inwardness, the meaning and content of music, and about his relationship with the musical establishment. Franssens is a musical omnivore who, after a youth steeped in traditional classical music, could not bear to hear anything but pop music in his late teens.

`As far as I am concerned, pop has given music back her sensuality, the idea that the musical experience is also an emotional affair. As a lover of pop music it was soon clear to me that what I find important in music just is not there in contemporary music: directness and emotion.'

Franssens' musical taste is not restricted to a particular style, something he has in common with most people of his generation. His passion is for the similarities between divergent forms of music, not just on the technical and rational level, but on emotional levels as well. Because only when these aspects are connected do they give music her communicative qualities. They determine the intention with which the music imposes itself on the listener. Nor does he duck the impossible question: `What does this music actually have to say?' And thus the conversation turned to that element which is so crucial to almost all music but which seems to play only a minor role in much modern music: `sound'. Do not ask what it is. It is what is left when you get rid of rational and intellectual reflection. Sound is that in the music, whether it be Bach or Zappa, which makes contact with the listener, which communicates, which touches your innermost parts. `You can call it sound, sensuality or beauty. They are all just tools with which you achieve communication.' If Joep Franssens has a goal in his composing, then it is to find the sound by which he can most affect us, the listeners. His music is strikingly individual and quite recognisable. Over the last sixteen years he has produced a body of work, not particularly large, which clearly bears his signature. This lies in the warmth of his palette and in the remarkable consistency between the works, despite their great length and their lack of traditional forms. Franssens' music reflects specific characteristics of the composer: it is marked by large dramatic gestures, continuous, sometimes almost maniacal movement, spaciousness, monumental sound effects and a complete absence of the cerebral and the affected.

Most of his works present an alternative world which, by means of its harmonic qualities, offers the listener the chance to find another, more personal, harmony (if I may, just once, use that word in two senses). A link between musical and psychic harmony is anyway not so fanciful and certainly not new. Rather is it the essence of music. But sometimes there is a searching in his music, as in A New Departure (1995) for cello and piano, a desperate expression of the supreme longing for a balance which can never be achieved. As if you wanted to have a view of an exquisite landscape but are not tall enough to look over the wall.

Or take Solo for flute written in 1980. This work emerged from Franssens' interest in philosophy, both Western and Eastern. The need not to exclude any possibilities, to take on Eastern philosophy having once embarked on Western philosophy, is typical of Franssens. So is his music, which does not let itself be pinned down to any definitive choice that would automatically turn possibilities into impossibilities. The listener thus retains the freedom to orientate himself within the sound. It is the quest for and the revelation of possibilities which are his musical hallmarks. And thus composing becomes far more than the writing down of notes. Although the step from the notes to the underlying story can be made with all composers, it seldom happens that a composer presents his storv as merely one possibility, and confesses that he too, like his audience, is also searching. `It is all about searching; as soon as you have found an answer to one question you must get on with searching for something else'.


For me, relying on intuition is a powerful weapon.'


THIS INTERVIEWER was somewhat confused by Joep Franssens' regular use of the term `beauty' to mean not the superficial layer of varnish (as one might perhaps expect) but rather the whole body of factors which give music her outer form.

Franssens distinguishes two sides to composing: the rational and the irrational. `Take the music of Bach. His fugues are commonly taken as the high point of the fugue: if you want to know how to write a fugue then you studN- Bach. But the theoretical, rational knowledge this gives you is seldom any use, especially in Bach's fugues, if you isolate them from their surroundings. Bach changed the notion of "fugue" constantly, and there is maybe not one fugue of Bach which conforms to the rules of Bach fugues which we learned at school. How Bach managed to forge together apparently incompatible elements into a perfect whole has always filled me with awe. Consummate structure and deep emotionality come together in him. That is why he is such a great example.'

A good balance between the rational and the irrational, the analyzable and the intuitive, is essential for music. But according to Franssens this balance has often been hard to find in this century: `Reason was clearly overvalued by the composers who made it the fifties. I know what it means to do that: I did it in my last assignment before finishing my studies with Klaas de Vries. The piece was called Low Budget Music (1986) and was written more or less according to the prevailing norms. De Vries talked me into it actually, and it is dedicated to him. In Low Budget Music you get fully applied chromaticism, and I realised very quickly that I did not want anything to do with chromaticism like that. What is missing in fully applied chromaticism is beauty. What is beauty? A triad is beauty: a sound built clearly upon a tonic. Beauty is something like beauty of sound and I think that chromaticism takes this beauty away. I have to think from a tonic. For me beauty is essential. It is trusting the intuition that I am able to let the irrational in, at the expense of the rational upon which we have been taught to rely. Beauty is not an aspect which you can split off from music. For me, relying on intuition is a powerful weapon. For example, I lay down no structures for my works in advance, except for specific harmonic formulae, which keep the piece upright. After all, reason is form, structures, everything which can be named. Intuition is quite the opposite: it is that which you do without reasoning about it, and where no reasoning is required.'

Low Budget Music thus marked a major change for Franssens, and it was not always easy, at least in the beginning: `I began more and more to develop an identity of my own and that is where the trouble began. And no vonder: it %a as a shock for me to discover at that time, dominated by modernism, that everything I stood for in my music was not accepted. I would define modernism as a position from vi hich reason is overvalued and the emotional appreciation of music is neglected, through which it is reduced to a redundant 19th century phcnomenon. But renewal is inherent in music, and always has been. If you reduce it to the rational element in music, to technique, then the proportions get distorted.

`There is no problem with the audience. It is with colleagues. When mv instructors once reproved in(, with wanting to present the public with a ready-to-eat mcal, I thought: Yes, that's right, that's what Ia ant to do, that is exactly the composer's job. If you want to captivate the audience you have to tell it something. I make no apology at all for consciously writing for the audience. I know, feel and understand that communication is inherent to music, so long as the composer's head and heart are in balance. That is wh the music of Stravinsky and Shostakovitch is emotionally convincing, and that of Sch6nbcrg is not. That is why Reich's music works and Boulez' music doesn't. ObNiouslv every composer finds his own music emotionally convincing, but the public can decide otherwise.

`I certainly have the feeling that something v< hich is very alive at the

moment comes out in mv music. For lack of a better term, let's call it the "ncw spiritualitv". People recognize this it seems. INa-ant to communicate with mti music. You have to write from the feeling of "this must be". I know that I am deviating from the Dutch norm by thinking like this. And in the Dutch music world there is little toleration for deviant thinking- This has caused me a lot of trouble. I had no freedom to think_

'titv motivation is to reveal the best of ma-self in music. It is all about searching for a harmonic balance, writing music which shows the listener that it can be different, that you can think in a different Na-av. It mav be a balance which maybe you cannot realize in your own life - that is for people to judge for themseh-cs. But the beauty of music is that as a composer you can create an ideal world, without needing anyone else to help you, and then present it to your audience. People often slot me into the New Age compartrncnt. Let them, if they must. But I am against the need to institutionalize thin~s, because I know the kind of trouble that causes.'


'Sensuality, in an aesthetic sense, is vital for Art.'


THE REMARKABLE THING about the works of Joep Franssens is their length. Works lasting between twenty and fifty minutes are the rule rather than the exception. That is quite possible given the way I compose, because there is alwavs a connection between the small and the large scale, between beginning and end. The music grows organically, as it were, and is organised by the dramatic power of the harmonic structure.

'There is nothing wrong with writing a long piece with a lovely full orchestral sound, and there is nothing wrong with writing music to which a lot of people feel drawn. Think of Pärt, Górecki, Taverner, Reich, Kantcheli and Glass etc. Why are there no exponents of these schools to be found in the Netherlands?'

One part of Joep Franssens wants to keep the classical tradition in place, the rest wants to have done with it. `Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, Mike Stern; for me these are interesting musicians. I feel akin to them, because sound is so important in their music. We composers, and certainly our artistic progenitors have learned that art is difficult

and that it should not be sensual in any aesthetic sense. I see it quite differently: complexity is not, on the whole, a precondition for Art, but sensuality, in an aesthetic sense, is vital. What I have in common with pop musicians is this need for sound. I do not know what the future will bring, but my work will remain in the realm of strong emotion, be it very extroverted or even unusually introverted. "To strive unconcerned for the expression of the inner dynamic", that is how you could describe my artistic credo.'

"Sound", "beauty", if you add these together you get another loaded concept, namely quality, but then again in Franssens' definition. "'Quality" is that which survives a few generations, and which establishes contact with the public. Quality can therefore on1y arise if the public becomes involved in the music, if it is taken seriously by the composer and used as the touch stone for the cultural vitality of his music. In literature, in film and of course in pop music, the public enjoys a far greater say, but in contemporary music and the visual arts this is either not the case, or much too little. This also owes something to the strange Romantic fallacy that masterpieces can never be recognized in their own time. There are still lots of Romantic clements in this musical culture. And in the music itself: gesture and expressiveness in a lot of contemporary music is distinctly 19th century. Pop music is totally unaffected by this and for me that is what makes it so attractive. That is why it is such nonsense to maintain the distinction willy-nilly between so-called Popular and High Art. What we should be demonstrating is that both can be dealing with the same subjects, the same quest if you like. In any case, that is what I try to do in my music. The split between High and Popular Art does not exist for me. Part of me must be American'.


In the summer of 1997, Composers' Voice will release a cd containing Franssens' Echo's, Sanctus and Phasing, performed by the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Thierry Fischer.

Background photo by Saskia Vleugel