Finding one’s way through an immense building of music

By Reinier van Houdt and René van Peer

“It is midday in a grove of tropical India. The sun does not succeed in piercing the thick roof of leaves overhead, its rays being transformed into a green mysterious twilight. The whole life in the grove seems suspended in the tense quivering heat: not a sound to be heard but the hum of countless insects… The air is heavy with the narcotic perfume of rare exotics and the languid voluptuous extasy of tropical heat that pervades all things.”

This is how Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892–1988) once described his music. Only a few of his works were performed during his lifetime. His monumental, four and a half hour long, Symphony No. 4 for piano alone was premiered by the Dutch pianist Reinier van Houdt last March, almost forty years after its completion. This first performance took place at Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht (NL) as the culmination of a festival around Sorabji. Preparing for this performance entailed more than just rehearsing. The only existing copy of the piece is a manuscript of 250 double-size pages, apparently written in great haste, which Van Houdt had to decipher before starting to practice. He worked on it for four years, and corresponded about the process with René van Peer, who shaped his words into the following article. Coming September Van Houdt will play the American premiere of this piece in Toronto’s Music Gallery, who present the concert in conjunction with Array Music and New Music Concerts.

The composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, born in India from a Parsi father and a Spanish-Sicilian mother, owes his modest fame mainly to one piece: the Opus Clavicembalisticum, a four hour ode to the history of music and the piano, written around 1930. It is only a fraction, however, of a titanic output of over a hundred compositions, mainly for piano, written between 1915 and 1984. A performance of one of his major works is a very rare event. So far there have only been a few performances of Opus Clavicembalisticum, and it is only in the last ten years that other works have come to be played, albeit sporadically.

I was 15 when I first heard about him, in the early 1980s. I was not an obedient student — I never concentrated on the music I was supposed to learn. Instead I spent much time browsing through the library, always played everything that was new to me. Devouring books about music I found myself intrigued by obscure composers and works that were only mentioned in a footnote — as was the case with Sorabji. When I had almost given up searching for his music, I was amazed to find out that a composition of his was to be broadcast live on radio. Geoffrey Madge (who was to become my teacher at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague) played Opus Clavicembalisticum integrally at Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, as part of the Holland Festival. It really bowled me over. I started to play whole passages, tried to write them out — the music had not been reprinted and was unavailable.

During my studies with Madge at the conservatory, he always tried to dissuade me from exploring in that direction as it would take up too much of my time. Now that I am master of my own time, and with the search and communication possibilities of the internet, I decided to take it on. Choosing for this Symphony was purely a matter of instinct. I visited the Sorabji archives in Bath, took several scores to the piano and tried to get an idea of Sorabji’s vast compositional output, trying out some pieces on the instrument. I also looked at page layouts, the total image of notes on pages, the overall texture, if these seemed interesting. In the end it was a difficult and more or less arbitrary choice. Many other pieces, such as the Tantrik Symphony, were quite as intriguing as this composition.

In the music that I choose to play I am not attracted primarily by the challenge posed by its scale and complexity, but the feeling to get absorbed into a personal universe of sound. In my development as a pianist I have always been drawn to music that combines a feeling for timbre and harmony paired with timing — in some way or other related to improvisation. This was as much true for performing Scelsi’s piano suites as it has now been for practicing and playing Sorabji.