So I’ve been living in Belgium—though, thanks to barely concealed cultural and ethnic tensions, it’s hard to think of the place as a unity—for the past year. I’ve been quite impressed by the musical scene here in Brussels, with regular new music available at the opera house, La Monnaie, and from ensembles such as Ictus and Musique Nouvelles, and a fairly decent array of underground and mainstream musics in evidence at venues such as Recyclart and Botanique. A little further afield, in Ghent and Aalst particularly (the latter mainly thanks to the Kraak festival), much more is on offer.

One thing that I felt has been missing somewhat is an idea of a living Belgian tradition of notated composition. Beyond the raft of medieval Flemish composers (Marais, Obrecht, Josquin etc.), and Henri Pousseur and Cesar Franck closer to our own time, I wondered who might be in the ascendant in 2010. Dolphins into the Future had impressed at Kraak, but outside of an impressive enough work by Luc van Hove a few months ago, and the Tim Mariëns‘ arranged Harry Partch Ictus concert, I’d heard nothing of contemporary Belgian notated music. Until, that is, last night’s highly interesting portrait concert of Philippe Boesmans given by Ensemble Musique Nouvelles under the astute and generous direction of Jean-Paul Dessy at La Monnaie.

The concert featured five works ranging from across Boesmans’ career. Emerging out of this was a sensitive and exciting composer clearly indebted to earlier models derived from Stockhausen and Pousseur, but clearly in possession too of a distinctive voice of his own. The latter was to some extent evident in the tensile rhythmic periodicity of Boesmans’ music, but it was particularly apparent in spectral tendencies that manifest at two outer edges of his work; as fields of extended resonance concerned with the music between the cracks of equal temperament on the one hand, and as an openness to octave doubling, to tonal gravitation, and to augmented consonant triads on the other. Boesmans’ music alights at the pivot of spectral music, the postwar avant-garde, and restorative postmodernism, but does so as a conclusion, rather than a premise.

This worked-through multiplicity subtended the second work (following the short but intriguing foreplay of Boesmans first published work, Sonances I), Sur mi, tantalisingly. Written for the Stockhausen-like ensemble of two pianos, one percussionist, and live (in this case extremely restrained) electronics, Sur mi worked through cycles of piano harmonies—with enigmatic vertical dominant complexes playing off of Boulez-derived serialistic hyper-sequences of overbearing figuration—marked off by colotomic striking of crotales, and enhanced by the high partial apostrophes of the barely-there electronic organ.

The third, Ornamented Zone, utilised the Messiaen quartet of violin, cello, clarinet, and piano to whirlwind effect, subtly developing the tension between an imitative ripple motif on the one hand, and more oleaginous and tonally elastic glissades on the other. For the rest of my review go here. I’m going to see Boesmans’ opera, Yvonne, at La Monnaie this week, and am now looking forward to it all the more.


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