Whilst in the early 1970s many composers – most of them operating from the Randstad, the most densely populated region of the Netherlands – occupied themselves with serial, atonal or electronic music, Simeon ten Holt from Bergen, North Holland, returned to tonality. He wasn’t conservative nor aiming for easy success, Ten Holt felt he had to do this. He was suffering from what he called ‘artistic and creative anemia’.
It wasn’t that Ten Holt had not mastered modern, for listeners sometimes hard to comprehend, complex musical techniques. Indeed, between 1950 and 1970, he had composed several compelling, well-written pieces in a post-serial style. These included: Bagatellen (1954); Cyclus aan de waanzin (Cycle To Insanity) (1962); and the impressive A/.ta-lon (1967) for mezzosoprano and 36 speaking and playing musicians. But modern was never truly his idiom and composing language.
‘Until then, intellect played an important role in my life and atonal music seemed to be the only way to innovate’, Ten Holt once declared. In the late 60s, early 70s, however, he began to doubt the music he was composing. ‘I realized I was passing myself, allowing a process of impoverishment of my music.’ He fell into a sort of crisis, realizing that his approach had to change. One evening between 1973 and 1976, he sat behind the piano and rediscovered the physical aspect of composing. ‘The ecstasy, the flesh and blood of my own hands’, as he described that moment, ‘It was stronger than me and this gave me so much fulfillment that I continued.’ There and then, in his little house in Bergen, the first notes appeared of what would become Canto Ostinato, an evening-long composition for keyboard instruments – a musical landscape without a horizon; a composition without beginning or end.
The musical piece itself was a beginning. It was the start to a series of musical pieces based on the same principle, and it initiated the beginning of unprecedented popularity. Canto Ostinato came in like a wrecking ball. From the early 80s, almost every performance turned into a musical marathon attracting hordes of people. Simeon ten Holt had finally found the idiom that suited him. It gave him wings and thus he created one composition after another for two or more pianos, including the dramatic Lemniscaat (1983), the apocalyptic Horizon (1985), and Méandres (1999), featuring a more chromatic and a more explicit allocation of roles for the performers.