Article by Jacqueline Oskamp for the CD: Composers Voice Highlights – CV 72
Huib Emmer (b. 1951). Music always stands in relation to music; at least, this is an opinion commonly expressed. It implies that music always makes use of, refers to and comments on existing music. No matter how many cases this rule may be applied to, it would not be doing justice to Huib Emmer’s music. Even though he would not deny his knowledge of music history and he once compared his working methodology with a ruminating cow chewing its material beyond recognition, it is from non-musical sources that Emmer derives inspiration.
Film (and preferably the tackier type of B film), architecture (in particular, a run-down industrial site) and literature (bizarre science fiction stories) provide ideas for his pieces. The aesthetics underlying Emmer’s work were once succinctly put into words by Ken Hollings, the English writer Emmer frequently works with. Prompted by a series of black and white photographs Emmer had made of industrial landscapes, he wrote: “These images are exact, rigorous and uncompromising(…). Their precision is an immediate comment on how deterioration and decay expose the meaning of things, leaving what remains disorientating and ruling out vapid explanations.”
In a word: ‘Dissonant.’
Not only does Emmer draw inspiration from other art disciplines, other media serve as examples while processing the material: film and literature being his two most important teachers. The legendary Russian film director Dziga Vertov developed a cinematic model for polyphony; how layered material may be played at different speeds. The techniques of montage and the cut-up, derived from film and literature (William Burroughs especially), are ones Emmer usually applies.
A good example of this is Singing the Pictures. The piece is constructed as though it were a box of building bricks, with sharply defined blocks of music that are heaped together vertically, horizontally or set at an angle. As in most of his compositions, a powerful, rhythmical motif forms a continuous element running through the piece. In addition, working with contrasts is also a main theme, not only by rounding off various ‘blocks’, but also by exploiting the contrasts in instrumentation and colour. For example, by setting the weighty sound of the saxophone or the clarinet against the sham sound of a flute, the hovering reverberation of a rich synthesizer chord or the indeterminate sound of a prepared piano. Clarity and precision are set in opposition to seediness and the rough and ready in this way.
In Singing the Pictures, these contrasts are encapsulated in a compelling idiom. A fast and vehement hammering figure gives the piece an agitated character. Muffled strokes on the timpani suggest a concealed force and the melodic intervals give it a strange whimsicality. As the composition progresses it reveals a process of thinning out. The material, already so sparing, becomes increasingly stripped and more naked until all that remains are a few powerless drones.
In Pulse Palace it is as though a monument has been chiselled in music.
Enormous chords are rammed like pillars into the ground while fast runs on the violin function as arches. In this way, static blocks and clattering movements are combined. Simultaneously, the piece has an air of thinness. Owing to a continuing change in the placements of the chords, the timbres, colours and the perspective of both foreground and background, the listener is deluded into finding himself in a castle in the air. In fact, it is a labyrinth of mirror images and illusions. Constructed from sparse material, Pulse Palace is an intriguing work.
Compared with Pulse Palace, Crawling up the Wall is a nervous piece. This comes as no surprise when you learn that it is based on a short story, The Flood, by Kobo Abe, in which humanity becomes liquid. While the machines in a factory steam full power ahead, the workers flow under the doors and up the walls. Every surface, including the walls, is covered with this fluid mass.
The complex layering is distinctive of Crawling up the Wall; fast, fidgety violin strokes, vigorous chords and richly arranged percussion – everything resounds and moves simultaneously. This whirling stream, which consists, in fact, of individual instruments, flows into a restrained, tender flute solo. It is the beginning of a majestic progression of chords that gains momentum towards the end. Although the ending is fierce and almost vitriolic, the last impression remains a question mark suspended in space.
Memory Drums is the only piece on this CD that does find its origins in other music, namely techno. It was the discovery of techno music that led Huib Emmer to electronic music and Memory Drums, written for acoustic instruments and electronics, marks a turning point in his work. Nowadays he is increasingly working with purely electronic instruments.
Although it is fair to say that Memory Drums is inspired by a musical source, it has to be noted that the modern world of music regards techno as a B genre not to be taken seriously, and in this way it fits in well with Emmer’s artistic perception. Irrevocably, the music conjures up images that are indelibly fixed in the collective mind; the type of Vietnam film set deep in the jungle, including exotic noises, the heat, the threatening silences, the low hum of the helicopters and the salvoes from machine guns.
Whereas initially the acoustic instruments and the electronics are separate, during the course of the piece they become increasingly intermingled, for example in a fast electronic bleep that slithers like a snake through the cleaving chords of the group LOOS. And sometimes there are even humorous contrasts, as in the fragment where a run-of-the-mill house beat collides with a precise, modern idiom. Huib Emmer has successfully added a new dimension to the group in his use of electronics. At the same time, Memory Drums offers a window onto the world of Huib Emmer’s later work.