Lionel Trilling cooking quality cheese
Italo Calvino love cats humour
John Cage composing Beethoven silence
Richard Serra designing New York Venice


The descriptive titles of his works, which often refer to cities or other locations, do not immediately reveal that Richard Rijnvos (Tilburg, the Netherlands, 1964) is first and foremost a radical composer. Someone who generates tones from non-musical, numerical sources such as magic squares and chessboards — and who loves to endlessly stack melodic lines on top of each other. This rigorous, dispassionate approach produces sensual works that bear a unique signature that is not specifically Dutch.

Rijnvos says that he is not concerned too much with modern music, and that he prefers to listen to masters of previous centuries. Beethoven, Janáček, and Sibelius are some of his favourite composers. Still, the discrepancy between the way these romantics worked and his own modus operandi could not be greater. As he himself says, “The traditional notion of a composer is someone who conceives a musical idea in his head and wants to commit that to paper. I do not envision anything in my head, yet I want to create music. I am fascinated by music that springs to life once you combine certain conditions and allow yourself to observe what happens. I find it repugnant to burden other people with my personal musical idiosyncrasies.”

This approach implies that style is never a starting point for Rijnvos. To quote the composer as he expresses his convictions: “Style is remarkably instantaneous. Whether we listen to music, or admire a painting, read a novel, or watch a film within mere moments Style shows itself to be an apposite protagonist. True, it is not easy to put into words what Style is, but that makes reflections on this subject all the more fascinating. On the other hand, Style is never the point of departure for my creative process. As I explore new, unknown sounds I travel through many areas, such as: Concept, Design, Structure, Process, Form, Development, Character, Mood, and Meaning. In fact, Style is the unexpected final destination.”

Since the mid-1990s Rijnvos has only created musical works that are part of a larger cycle. No longer does he compose detached pieces. This started with the three sections of Stanza, followed by the four-part Block Beuys. In recent years he has simultaneously been working on three different cycles. The oldest is about urban life in New York, the second relates to Venice, while the third cycle (Riflessi) consists of ‘companion pieces’, exploring the same exceptional scoring of existing classics from the past.

The six-part New York cycle comprises three dances for double orchestra named after the main squares in the American metropolis, the Manhattan Square Dances. Together, the other three parts — when performed consecutively — make up a piano concerto entitled NYConcerto (pronounced as ‘New York Concerto’). “The piano is typical New York”, says Rijnvos. “Although the roots of the instrument can be traced back to Europe, it has been popularised in the United States for example by Scott Joplin, Broadway musicals, George Gershwin, and jazz.”

As well as from contemporary cities and their history, Rijnvos draws inspiration from music by other composers. In Stanza he uses the chessboard canon created by Ghiselin Danckerts (ca 1510-1565), in mappamondo he quotes Johannes Ciconia (ca 1370-1412) at length, while Times Square Dance contains a hidden quotation. For the series Riflessi (which so far consists of two works) he openly starts from material derived from different composers.

For the three parts of NYConcerto he also uses other people’s music as a springboard. On Central Dance in the Park, the first completed part of this cycle-within-a-cycle, Rijnvos says: “Central Dance in the Park is based on the concept of crossroads. One road is Central Park in the Dark by Charles Ives to which the title alludes. The other trajectory consists of my own material. And we meet halfway. I had set myself the challenge to present the Ives quotation, no more than a single 2/4 bar, as organically as it appears in the original. In my composition I lead up to this until I meet Ives, then I move away again. Tongue in cheek, for as our paths cross I ‘accidentally’ take the wrong turning. So aside from this one bar, the listener slides into Ives during six bars, precisely at a time when chaos reigns supreme. Subsequently, my music again takes over.”

In the other parts (unabatedly up-tempo) Rijnvos also crashes into colleagues who are somehow linked to the city of New York. In the preface to the first part of the piano concerto Grand Central Dance he evocatively writes: “It is January 1924 and George Gershwin returns by train from Boston, having attended the premiere of his musical Sweet Little Devil. New themes slumber in his mind for a piece he has yet to write. Unconsciously they mingle with the rattling sound of the carriages. A mere three weeks is all he has for his contribution to a concert by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. By the time his train thunders into Manhattan’s Grand Central Station the definite plot of his Rhapsody in Blue unfolds.” It goes without saying that Rijnvos based his drastic morphing technique in Grand Central Dance on a fragment of Gershwin’s aforementioned piece for piano and jazz band.

The text of the preface to the score of the final part, ’cross Broadway, initially conceived by Rijnvos as a piano solo, is as short and snappy as the music itself. This time, the angular jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk seems to pop up on every street corner. “Running across Broadway I bumped into Thelonious Monk”, Rijnvos writes. “It didn’t hurt a bit.”

Whereas the New York cycle is all but finished, the cycle about Venice currently consists of two works: acqua alta — an abstract piece for harp and ensemble on the subject of the frequent floods inundating the city — and the semi-theatrical mappamondo (Italian for ‘map of the world’). The latter focuses on the Venetian cemetery of San Michele, which Rijnvos often visits, and where famous 20th century composers like Stravinsky and Nono were laid to rest. In the 15th century the monk Fra Mauro worked on his map of the world in this very spot.

Rijnvos’s imagination was especially fired by the fact that Fra Mauro achieved his ultimate life’s work without ever leaving his monastery. The monk drew the map based on stories by seamen who came to tell him of their experiences. Rijnvos considers his discovery of the map, which is almost two metres in diameter — he saw it in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice — ‘heaven-sent’ because it brought together so many themes. “To me, composing does not mean that I have to reach a certain objective. Rather, it is about the road itself. Or, as Luigi Nono said: ‘no hay caminos, hay que caminar’. As a composer you never know where you might end up. That’s terra incognita, as it was for the explorers of old.”

Not surprisingly, Rijnvos also chose ‘the road itself’ as the central theme of this booklet. He proposed to work with a magic square, as he does in his compositions. More precisely, he decided on the square depicted by Albrecht Dürer on the copper engraving Melencolia I from 1514, albeit as a mirror image.

Instead of the notes from his own composition outlines, the vertical and horizontal columns and rows represent respectively the senses (apart from smell), and the verbs associated with the evolution of a work of art: thinking, making, being, experiencing — the whole gamut from contemplation to perception. The sixteen squares, at the intersections, came to contain issues and people that hold a particular significance for Rijnvos. Heedful of the writer Italo Calvino (number 12 in the magic square), the subjects were subsequently arranged in 4 x 4 small chapters. With a knowing wink to the methods of John Cage (number 8) Rijnvos imposes a time limit of 16 minutes on every topic of conversation. Everything that was said outside the allocated time bracket was dropped.

This introduction is one of few exceptions to this working method as without it, non-insiders might find it difficult to follow the approach to the subjects in this booklet. ‘Cooking’ (14) would not have been complete without a recipe, while ‘composing’ (11) demanded a Rijnvos DIY Method for Dummies. Also, describing and analysing ‘humour’ (9) can kill it off completely, just as it would have been quite easy to talk ‘cheese’ (4) to death.

The result is a ‘network of lines that intersect’ (from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller) — as fascinating, enigmatic, radical, intelligent, complex, multi-layered, sensual, humoristic, and passionate as the man behind the composer Richard Rijnvos himself.

Anthony Fiumara | Amsterdam, 29 September 2008