Thursday, January 30, 2014

Daniel Ruyneman's Hieroglyphic Daydreams

Sheesh!  Lowlands Month is almost over and I've got a scant handful of hours left with only two articles up!  To ratchet things up, let's talk about the two guys I really wanted to get in this blog, starting with Debussy's Dutch worshiper, Daniel Ruyneman (1886-1963).  He was a founding member (along with Sem Dresden, Bernard van den Sigtenhorst Meyer, and the subject of this month's last article) of the Dutch Society for the Development of Modern Creative Music in the 1920's, the real birth of modern Dutch music and a treasure trove of adventurousness.  While Ruyneman had one of the most varied oeuvres of this crew his music has eluded wide exposure, and considering people were willing to go out of their way to play a piece with as wacky of an instrumentation as Hieroglyphs, that's an odd fact indeed.

Arguably Ruyneman's most well-known piece, Hieroglyphs (1918) is a richly atmospheric piece that elicits the same question from anybody who hears it - what the heck are cupbells?  Cupbells (or cup-bells) are a mallet percussion instrument Ruyneman invented consisting of 25 copper bells that span two octaves.  The only recording I've heard uses a vibraphone, and I'm not sure any cup-bells survive today, but that doesn't take away from Hieroglyphs's kaleidoscopic majesty.  Unfolding quite slowly, Ruyneman uses the glacial tempo to slice the beats into wildly varied rhythmic subtleties, creating sparkling aquatic textures like these:

(Click for larger view)

The instrumentation is quite unique, favoring decaying, undulating metal over girthy strings 'n' winds.  Ancient Egypt has been a fascination of Europe's for a long time, but this is one of the only ones that entirely sidesteps cultural ignorance, largely by not referencing "Egyptian" music at all.  Hieroglyphs is a study of exoticism itself, as Egyptian hieroglyphs were untranslatable for centuries before the Rosetta stone was discovered, and staring at an indecipherable text does elicit at wonderful aesthetic experience, a sensation captured here exquisitely.  And if you can't read music, the piece looks pretty dang cool - look at all the dots and lines!  Here's the recording to help unravel the mystery.

The most adventurous pieces of his I've seen are unfortunately not available on YouTube, such as the crazy Kleine Sonate for piano (published by Universal-Edition in their usual excellent engraving) and the Sonata for Chamber Choir (a quirky, lyric-less exercise in choral coloration).  However, I can at least use this blog once again to republish pieces that need the help.  Another early work of Ruynemans is the Pathematologien for piano, a unique work in its time for its focus on psychological states - only Lord Berners's Fragments Psychologiques comes to mind as a contemporary.  The three pathematologies (pathology, specifically psycho-pathology) are "Hallucination", "The Voice of the Past" and "Impression", not the most scientific of terms but evocative nonetheless.  As YouTube has only offered me the first one in recording let's throw that one up on the board.

These lush miniatures show the influence of Debussy more than anything else I've seen of Ruyneman's, with plenty of whole-tone and modal stuff floating around.  For a hallucination it's a pretty languorous one, like falling asleep in a sweltering greenhouse, and the other movements are similarly calm.  Pathematologien is a piece that baffles me as to its absence from Public Domain sheet music sites like IMSLP, as it was most certainly published before 1923 (though it oddly lacks a copyright date).  Ruyneman's piano writing is deft enough to be able to balance all those open octaves, often a bad sign in piano music but well-handled here (and the other movements are more sparing in their textures).  That calm doesn't forbid the occasional fortissimo, of course.  This recording, while not labeled, is most likely by Pietro Van Doesburg from his Repertoire De Stijl CD, a collection of piano works from the Dada era, and he captures the hallucination's arc with passion and patience (though those first chords are the theme song for the "Componist van de Week" show).

Like many composers who came of age in Impressionism and Expressionism (that Kleine Sonate I mentioned earlier), Ruyneman eventually settled into Neo-Classicism.  This period bore his other most well-known work, the Sonatina for piano.  The ornate experimentation of his earlier work has given way to the sparest of textures.  There are no more than two pitches being heard at any given time for the majority of the piece, using piano-lesson-friendly leaps and implied pedaling to eke out harmonies.  There were an awful lot of adventurous sonatinas in the 20th century, so many I may devote an article to that genre's evolution through modernism, but Ruyneman's Sonatina sticks to simplicity and relative ease of performance.  That isn't to say it's the easiest piece in the world, but Ronald Brautigam makes it sound like a piece of cake in his recording.

Perhaps Ruyneman's biggest downfall was his lack of a consistent identity.  I don't mean that composers should only write in the way that makes them easiest to recognize, and I find it delightful when people write outside their box.  However, the general public is drawn back to an artist with the guarantee that what they liked in piece A will be present in piece B.  Ruyneman cut such a wide swath in terms of technique and mood that one is never sure what to hear in his next piece, which can both discourage and reward exploration.  I prefer to pitch these cases as being easy to approach from all angles - if you don't like one piece, the next one will be quite different.  Whatever the style, Ruyneman's works were all inventive and of high quality, and the kinds of pieces he attempted alone should be enough for you to take a sip.  Next time, the grand finale to Lowlands Month - Willem Pijper.


1 comment:

  1. Hello Peter, I re-uploaded Hieroglyphs by Daniel Ruyneman. You can find it here:

    Jean-Marie van Bronkhorst.
    Bartje Bartmans channel.