Guy De Bièvre (°Brussels) is a self-taught composer, sound artist and musician. Although he never attended a conservatory, he pursued research in music theory at various academic institutions. In 2003-2004, he conducted research on stationary sounds in urban sound environments at the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, and in 2012, he earned a Ph.D from Brunel University London, where his dissertation focused on open form. De Bièvre has published a number of articles in academic journals and is regularly asked to give lectures in Belgium and abroad about sound art and American experimental music. He previously was affiliated with the Logos Foundation in Ghent.
De Bièvre’s compositions have been performed by internationally recognized musicians such as Guy Klucevsek, Seth Josel and Anne La Berge, and ensembles like the Zivatar Trio, Trio Scordatura and ZWERM. De Bièvre himself has performed on the electric guitar, lap steel guitar and/or computer with Peter Zummo, Anne La Berge, Tom Hamilton and Phill Niblock, among others. Several CDs of his compositions have also been released, such as Bending The Tonic (Twice) (2005) and Very Slow Disco Suite (2007). De Bièvre’s artistic pursuits are not limited to composing and performing; he is also active as an organizer and curator in the field of sound art. From 2002 to 2007, for example, he was the curator of the Earwitness series at the CCNOA in Brussels, and in 2012, he worked with media artist Sofia Bustorff on an audiovisual documentary about the sound art pioneer Leif Brush. De Bièvre is currently a guest lecturer at RITS in Brussels and at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent.
Guy De Bièvre writes vocal, instrumental and electro-acoustic music typically for solo or chamber settings. His experiences as a self-taught composer, his broad artistic interests (from sound art to pop music) and his desire to experiment have led him to produce a very diverse oeuvre that is characterized by stylistic heterogeneity and innovative, ad hoc techniques rather than a coherent, formalistic language. De Bièvre’s works can roughly be divided into two periods. The compositions he wrote before the year 2000 are largely for standard acoustic instruments, usually contain a fully written-out score and display a postmodern approach to composition. After the turn of the century, beginning with Standard Indeterminacy (1997), De Bièvre aimed to create a deeper interaction between composer and performer, not only by giving the musicians more freedom and responsibility in the score, but also by performing along with them. Influenced by sound art and electronic music, his more recent compositions are also characterized by the use of electro-acoustic techniques, computer-controlled processes and tape.
Despite these differences, his works also share some similarities. First, De Bièvre is always looking for ways to make his compositions sound as spontaneous and organic as possible. After all, a performance must be more than a mere reproduction of the score; it should be a genuine, energetic and, above all, unique interpretation that demands a certain creative input from the musicians. Second, De Bièvre’s works often explicitly reference other musical traditions, such as jazz (e.g. Standard Indeterminacy) and blues (e.g. Bending the Tonic), which he unabashedly interweaves with influences from composers such as Charles Ives or David Tudor. He often uses blues scales, colorful seventh chords and electric guitar techniques that allude to pop culture (e.g. bending, sliding or distortion). Third, De Bièvre’s works are performance-oriented, focused primarily on the direct auditory experience rather than on predefined constructions and conceptual processes. Not only do recurring motivic cells and formulas offer the listener something to latch onto, but the pure acoustic character of the sound also plays an important role in the listener’s experience (e.g. feedback in Crossroads / Invocation).
De Bièvre’s interest in spontaneity and vitality goes back to his experiences in free improvisation. Because he quickly grew bored of having complete freedom, he decided to rework his improvisations through composing. Based on compositional study, De Bièvre employed only the compositional techniques that were necessary for solving the problems he was confronted with; he would take this approach throughout his career. De Bièvre’s earliest composition, Rêve d’amour ré-organisé (1986), for example, is an analytical reorganization of Liszt’s well-known Liebesträume. Specifically, he retained the piece’s original rhythmic structure, but constructed a new melodic structure according to the statistical presence of the pitches in the original piece; the most used note in Liebesträume became the first note of Rêve d’amour ré-organisé, followed by the second most used note, the third, and so on. Rêve d’amour ré-organisé would become De Bièvre’s first and only published score (published by CeBeDeM). In addition to a (selective) literature study, De Bièvre also became affiliated with the Logos Foundation in Ghent, which would eventually become his employer for fifteen years. Here, he got to know a wide range of composers and musicians. In fact, some of his earliest works were created as demos for composers who were passing through Logos. This is how he came to write Polka Dots and Laser Beams (1987), which was commissioned by the accordionist Guy Klucevsek.
In the late 1980s, De Bièvre began to experiment with open form. In Who Framed Milton Babbitt? (1988) for free instrumentation (initially performed on harmonica), and Playing Solitaire (1988) for solo piano, he gave the performers the responsibility to decide the eventual structure of a certain number of precisely notated musical celles. In the first case, they were asked to choose the order of the cells; in the second case, the order of the cells was fixed, but each cell except for the first and the last could be skipped or repeated (consequently, the shortest possible version would contain only the first and the last cell). After these two experiments, De Bièvre decided to temporarily leave the principle of open form behind him, because it didn’t produce the spontaneity he had hoped it would. He then started again to write out his scores completely, although he continued to apply some aleatoric techniques in the compositional process.
In the years following, De Bièvre developed an accessible and associative style that brought together various musical influences. For this reason, Boudewijn Buckinx considered De Bièvre to be a part of the Flemish postmodernism. De Bièvre however preferred to call it a contemporary form of “program music,” in which he almost subconsciously reflected the heterogeneity of today’s society in his work. Nearly all his works from the 1990s contain implicit or explicit allusions to external styles and techniques, without integrating any literal quotations. For example, The Many Gypsies in Me (1989) sounds like an astonishing mix of bossanova, rock and Schoenberg, while a soprano voice repeats the same phrases over and over again, as if it were a pop song. Biedermeyer Hillbillies (1991) for two voices and two pianos seems to balance between jazz, country and Schubert, whose archetypal Lied constructions lurk beneath the surface. Just as much a patchwork is his composition for ensemble De olifant steken wilde je niet (1992), which De Bièvre wrote for the Ghent collective LOD as part of a project on Roelandslied, a medieval epic from the time of Charlemagne. Specifically, he tries to aurally depict the chaotic nature of the epic’s battle scene.
By the late 1990s, De Bièvre found himself in a period of artistic crisis. He became increasingly frustrated with the way in which ensembles and musicians interpreted his compositions. The performances were often uninspired, sounded rehearsed and lacked spontaneity. According to him, this was due to the almost mechanical way that ensembles studied commissioned works, which the musicians were often required to play and as a result performed only once in a concert. The key to a good performance would perhaps come from a deeper collaboration between the composer and performer. De Bièvre realized this by leaving certain compositional choices to the performers, without the performers rehearsing these choices beforehand. De Bièvre also decided from then on to play with the musicians as much as possible and to collaborate primarily with performers who were also composers or improvisers. Standard Indeterminacy (1997) became a transitional work to his second period. This piece, which initially was performed by a typical jazz combo (with De Bièvre on the guitar), instructs the five musicians to play excerpts from a number of jazz standards (e.g. Charles Mingus and Hoagy Carmichael), which we’re split among the musicians. The musicians had the freedom to choose which excerpts they played, and at the same time, the group continued to play material from one jazz standard.
Around the turn of the century, De Bièvre experimented frequently with electro-acoustic techniques. He also began to give solo performances for the first time. One of his solo works is Crossroads/Invocation (2001), a composition in which the shrill sound of feedback is manipulated by live electronics and then put through a frequency filter. Through this process, De Bièvre was able to construct melodic lines that recall the blues music of Robert Johnson. In the years that followed, De Bièvre completed a number of larger-scale works in which he supplemented acoustic instruments with a computer or microcontroller. These compositions were often built around short, improvisational motives above a static,foundational harmony. An example of this is Bending the Tonic (2004), a work for ensemble that November Music commissioned him to compose. In this work, a computer records all the audio signals of the musicians (except for those of the contrabass and percussion) and plays these signals back according to a fixed temporal system. The harmonic basis is formed by a stereotypical blues progression, that De Bièvre stretches over 144 measures. The title refers to the importance of the tonic in blues music. A similar process can be found in Very Slow Disco Suite (2006), in which De Bièvre slows down a disco song from 120 bpm to 20 bpm. Against this languid harmonic background, three musicians play material that is dictated at random by a microcontroller. In this way, De Bièvre tried to guarantee the spontaneity of the performance. Both Bending the Tonic and Very Slow Disco Suite were released on CD. Other compositions in which De Bièvre uses a microcontroller to create unpredictable processes include Blue Light/Red Light (2007) and And Above All (2007), both of which are for unspecified melodic instruments.
In his more recent work, De Bièvre has returned to composing for classical and often acoustic settings, without the inclusion of a microcontroller or computer. He also eagerly uses open form, but in different ways than he did previously. De Bièvre’s recent scores present themselves as catalogs of related motives, chords, melodies and scales that the musicians can choose from and adapt at sight, thus giving a concert the allure of an organized jam session. De Bièvre uses this form of notation in works such as The Relative Probability of Forming a Knot (2009), for which he worked out two versions: a largely written-out version for voice, viola and keyboard, and a less written-out version for three or more melodic instruments. Other recent compositions that employ a similar kind of notation are Poker Test (2011) for guitar quartet and Schillinger 91 (2012) for flute, bass viol and piano.
List of works
Solo: Rêve d’amour ré-organisé (1986-rev. 1994), for piano; Polka Dots and Laser Beams (1987), for accordion – commissioned by Guy Klucevsek; Playing Solitaire (1988), for piano; Anomalies (1991), for guitar – commissioned by Seth Josel; Arapaima [etymology] (1994), for cello; We Bombed the Bridge, We Did not Bomb the Bus (1998/99), for guitar – commissioned by Jan Huib Nas/Ictus
Chamber music: The Many Gypsies in Me (1989), for voice, flute, cimbalom en accordion – commissioned by Trio Zivatar; Biedermeyer Hillbillies (1991), for 2 voices en 2 pianos – commissioned by Annette Sachs & Françoise Vanhecke; Equatorial Soundings (1991), for 2 cellos; De olifant steken wilde je niet (1992), for voice, harmonium, cello, oboe and guitar – commissioned by Het Muziek Lod; Music, Things, Mountain Roads & Interludes (1993), for voice, oboe, cello and piano – commissioned by Het Muziek Lod; Bbellezza Care (Makam Abruzzeso) (1993), for 2 flutes, 2 violins and piano – commissioned by Ensemble Kamerton; Station Positions and Profile Numbers (Strange and Sweet) (1994), for flute and keyboards – commissioned by Anne La Berge & Gene Carl; The Hopley Suite (1996), for voice, flute and piano – commissioned by the Bozza Mansion Project; Standard Indeterminacy (1997), free instrumentation – commissioned by Jens Brand & the Open Systems Festival; We bombed the bridge, we did not bomb the bus II – Libanon (2006), for 3 pianos, flute, trumpet, contrabass – commissioned by WDR Keulen; The Relative Probability of Forming a Knot I (2009), for voice, viola and keyboard – commissioned by Trio Scordatura; The Relative Probability of Forming a Knot II (2009), for three or more melodic instruments; Poker Test (2011), for guitar quartet – commissioned by Zwerm; Schillinger 91 (2012), for flute, bass violin and piano – commissioned by Hans Roels
Electro-acoustic: Crossroads/Invocation (2001), for feedback and live electronics; Bending the Tonic (2004), for voice, flute, trombone, contrabass, percussion, microcontroller and computer; Very Slow Disco Suite (2006), for 3 instruments, microcontroller and computer; And Above All (2007), for melodic instrument, microcontroller and computer; Blue Light/Red Light (2007), for two or more melodic instruments, microcontroller and computer; Stare Into the Light (2008), for piano and (optional) tape – commissioned by Heleen Van Haegenborgh; 3 Pack (2008), for violin, saxophone, contrabass, microcontroller and computer – commissioned by Ensemble Intégrales
– Polka Dots and Laser Beams (CD), Eva, 1994.
– Tones for Guy (CD), Ringtones CD (Touch), 2002.
– Manhattan [linear, circular, lateral] (CD), eigen beheer, Pogus Records, 2004.
– Bending the Tonic (Twice) (CD), Canal Street Records, CSR 001, 2005.
– Very Slow Disco Suite (CD), Canal Street Records, CSR 002, 2007.
– Harbouring Sound (CD), ltd. ed., CCNOA, 2006.
Texts by Gilles Helsen
Last update: 2019