Doesburghuis #3

by stevenkamperman on 06/12/2022

I have a pretty strict working routine here at the Van Doesburghuis. I get up at 7.00, exercise, take a cold shower, and go for a small walk around the park near the house. Then when I am almost home, I buy a croissant and a baguette at the bakery just around the corner (hey, I am not always staying in France!) I eat my croissant at home with an espresso, and then usually around 8.15, I am ready to start composing. I do so until 12.00, then have lunch, and in the afternoon I do some other work, or I have a meeting with someone. And occasionally followed by a concert at night. These meetings mostly take place in Paris, and I very much enjoy the walks to and from the subway, but frankly, I hadn’t seen that much of Paris yet, apart from these walks.

Centre Pompidou

So when, after two weeks, my wife is visiting me, it is the perfect occasion to change that! Especially in the afternoons, we take walks, visit museums and drink lots of coffee. Our first visit is to the Centre Georges Pompidou. And there we see the whole floor devoted to the modern art of the 20th century, from 1910 to 1965. From the cubism of Georges Braque and Picasso to the objets trouvés of Marcel Duchamp, from the expressionistic paintings of Franz Marc to the completely blue works of Yves Klein. And then no less than two paintings of the man who designed the house I am currently residing in, Theo van Doesburg. For a moment, I am surprised, because I see only one painting of his much more well-known friend Piet Mondriaan, but when I turn the corner I see another very big painting by Piet, considered one of the chef’s oeuvres in the museum. Sorry, Theo. Anyway, the ego does not help you anywhere…

Van Doesburg at Centre Pompidou, Composition X (1918)

Of the paintings in this exposition, arguably the paintings of De Stijl are the most radical of all. There is a funny anecdote about when Mondriaan came back to Paris after the Great War, in 1918, he found that Picasso and his cubist friends had weakened considerably. They had been painting in a much more traditionalist way again, because everybody in France had experienced harsh times, and they needed to sell. Mondriaan and his visiting friend Van Doesburg were upset. (But of course, they had been living in the neutral Netherlands all the time…)

Maison moderne

In the early mornings, while my wife is taking walks in the beautiful forests of Meudon, I am continuing my work on my suite ‘Maison Moderne’ (for Oene van Geel, Albert van Veenendaal, Paul Jarret, and myself, to be recorded in the Van Doesburg-house itself). In my piece, I let myself be inspired by the different spaces of the house, and I am wondering whether my music, in order to really honor the work of Van Doesburg, should reflect its radicality.

The name of his movement De Stijl must be taken quite literally by the way, as ‘the one and only style’. He was looking for a universal art, devoid of any specific stylistic elements, and devoid of individual expression as well. The final form of art, so to speak; one that ends all other forms of art. Hundred years later that really sounds a bit ridiculous, I must say.

Van Doesburghuis in Meudon

Jacob van Domselaer

Listening back to what I composed up till now, I am satisfied with most pieces, but I still struggle with the first piece, devoted to the front side of the house. It doesn’t seem to reflect its modern design yet.

There was one composer, Jacob van Domselaer, who around 1920 devoted some works to the principles of De Stijl, entitled ‘Proeven van Stijlkunst’. His pieces are an attempt to come to a direct musical translation of elements of De Stijl, with harmony as its vertical elements, and time as the horizontal parts. I find the results rather cerebral and scholarly, and it is certainly not what I am looking for.

Though in the later parts there are some interesting harmonic colors, ‘the piece does sound more like a scholarly declaration than an artistic composition,’ as one comment on this clip cleverly states.

Constructive principles

But I suddenly realize that, whereas in the pieces about the other rooms I did take some constructive features of the space as a point of departure, like the geometrical relations of the stained glass in the library, for the façade however, I have tried to capture its essence in a more intuitive way. Maybe that’s the reason why it does not yet reflect its modernity.

Actually, it is not that easy to pinpoint one defining character of the façade, which might be the reason that I tried a purely intuitive attempt. There is some pure symmetry because the door is in the exact center (though at first glance, you wouldn’t say so). For the rest, like an authentic De Stijl painting, there definitely is a balance between uneven parts. However, when I count, I see a lot of divisions in three and in four, on top of the three floors and the three primary colors. So I decide to do something with an 11/8 rhythm (a combination of 4-3-4, and uneven with an exact symmetry) and a specially constructed mode that consists of three separate tone centers.


And then I just proceed a very long time with these elements until they finally seem to work! Of course not in the way that you see the façade right in front of you, but there is definitely an exciting piece of modern music, that contains somewhat of the excitement that the front of the house still creates in me every time I approach it. I keep working with the elements in an intuitive way until they finally stir my musical inner self. When you compose in this border area between construction and intuition, you sometimes just have to be very patient… And when I finally change something, going against the original structural principles, I think of one of the two paintings by Theo van Doesburg at the Centre Pompidou, where one corner is painted as if it is torn apart from the underground, completely against the strict structure of the rest of the painting. That is a constructivist looseness I can work with.

Van Doesburg at Centre Pompidou, Peinture pure (1920)

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