Dirk De Nef was born in 1957 in Ghent. As a boy he sang in a choir and played guitar. It was only at the age of fifteen that he took an adult course in solfège at the Municipal Conservatory in Mechelen. He earned first prizes in solfège, harmony, choral conducting and music history at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp. At the Royal Conservatory in Brussels he received first prizes in counterpoint and fugue with Rafaël D’Haene, composition with André Laporte and advanced music analysis with Frans Geysen. De Nef began composing only in 1990 – relatively late – but soon won a considerable number of composition prizes. In 1992 he won second prize in Harmonia-Nederland with Geef mij maar de brede, trage rivieren (Give me the broad, slow rivers). In 1993 his composition Lucubrantiunculae was awarded third prize in the Muizelhuis Competition for chamber music. A year later, De Nef won the same competition with Circumsonus for violin and piano. In 1995 his composition Rond’eau was the compulsory work for the semi-finals of the Queen Elisabeth Competition for piano. In 1996 he won a prize from the Royal Academy for Sciences, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium. Dirk De Nef has to date composed two works for large forces: Stained Glass (1999) for concert band and the oratorio Rodian (2001) for symphony orchestra, mixed choir and soloists. He teaches composition at the music academies of Bornem and Heist op den Berg and harmony at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven. De Nef is also active in the choral world, conducting the University Choir UKA at the University of Antwerp, the Royal Choral Society Arti Vocali in Antwerp. He himself sings in the vocal quartet Kompact.
From 1990 to 1995, Dirk De Nef studied composition together with Jan Van Landeghem, Peter Swinnen and Luc Brewaeys in the class of André Laporte at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. In Laporte’s composition class, the emphasis was on the students’ own work. Although these compositions were examined and discussed at the piano, they were never subjected to changes according to a particular direction suggested by Laporte. It was thus almost impossible for any student to imitate their teacher’s specific style. Dirk De Nef, too, was forced to find his own way when confronted with atonality for the first time. In his very first (unfinished) compositions for a homogeneous ensemble of strings, woodwinds, brass or percussion, he explored the separate groups of the orchestra. These first sketches allowed the beginning composer to make the acquaintance of the orchestral apparatus, but at the same time served as a finger exercise in serialism. De Nef abandoned serialism fairly soon thereafter, although serial thought would leave its mark on his later work.
The great majority of De Nef’s works are characterised by a relatively atonal musical language. This does not, however, preclude the use of a twelve-tone row as the basis for a work, as for instance in Circumsonus. De Nef is essentially not interested in tonality or atonality. His most recent work, the oratorio Rodian is, for example, strikingly tonal in conception. On the other hand, the composer has a concern for the accessibility of his music and attempts to build an element of recognisability into every composition. In Rond’eau, for example, he works in a rondo form, although it is not interpreted too literally. For the composer, the term rondo in the first place implies a contrast between the different sections. The free character of the introduction returns from time to time like a refrain that offers alternation between the many more strict, etude-like passages. In Cirucumsonus, too, De Nef provides several clear points of reference. The slow, quasi-improvisational opening bars are literally reprised at the end of the work. Circumsonus is built around several basic intervals: the minor and major second, and (in inversion) the major and minor seventh. These dissonant intervals form the core of the main theme that returns repeatedly in various guises.
Essential to De Nef’s compositional style are the many metrical changes and the complexity of time signatures. In Rond’eau, the choice of time signature is one of the most important points of departure. The complex metre of 20/16 has the effect of constantly shifting the central motif of four tones. In Circumsonus, the alternation between hard dissonant sounds and somewhat milder dissonances is reflected in the metrical structure. The bars with hard dissonances are always in 4/4. The bars with less sharp dissonances are in 9/16 and after two bars are extended to 12/16, 9/16 + 6/16 and 9/16 + 9/16. These alternating metres break the symmetry of 4/4 (four semiquavers per beat) with asymmetry (three semiquavers per beat in 9/16, 12/16 or 6/16).
The oratorio Rodian shows how De Nef’s concern for accessibility continues to increase with the years. The work is a cycle consisting of an overture, a prologue, three movements and an epilogue. The text was written by Roland Van Bocxtaele. Twelve text fragments deal with the threatened planet in general and with the animal problem in particular. The text has a strong musical pictorialism. In his eclecticism and diversity of styles, Rodian here shows a tendency towards postmodernism. The writing style varies from modal to atonal and from Classical to the musical. The melodic element dominates. As in De Nef’s earlier work, the metrical changes are complex, especially in the prominent parts for the percussion and the brass.
Although Dirk De Nef’s oeuvre includes a great many instrumental compositions, the composer is most at home with vocal music, a fact that is perhaps not surprising, considering his activities as a choral conductor and a singer. De Nef’s extensive experience with amateur choirs is evident in his many choral compositions and songs. Despite the dissonant musical language and the complexity of some works, De Nef’s music is pleasing in its rich expression, original text settings and fine feeling for humour (e.g., Ein G’mischte Salat). In his choral compositions, Dirk De Nef shows himself to be a worthy inheritor of the movement for renewal in Flemish choral music, of which Vic Nees (°1936) is the best-known exponent.
List of works
Piano: Rond’Eau (1995); Actus Purus (2000)
Chamber music : Lucubrantiunculae for string quintet and marimba (1992); Circumsonus for violin and piano (1994); Stringtime for string quartet (1997); Mixed Grill for piano quartet (2000); Mouvement for violin and piano (2001)
Harmonic orchestra : Stained Glass (1997)
Oratorio: Rodian for solists, chorus and orchestra on text by Roland Van Bocxtaele (2001)
Songs: What I write with this hand (1995); Ik ben beperkt (1998)
Chorus: Geef mij maar de brede, trage rivieren (1992); Scène (1995); Ein G’mischte Salat (1999)
– Y. KNOCKAERT, Dirk De Nef, Circumsonus, cd-boekje, WW-IG-09, 1997
– E. RUTTEN, Rond’eau in de prijzen, in Muziek en Woord, 1995/5, p. 5-6
– R. WEYTJENS, Een nieuw evenwicht, in Muziek en Woord, 2002/2, p. 19
– Circumsonus (viool: Nico Balthussen, piano: Stijn Kolacny), LAUREATEN VAN DE TWEEJAARLIJKSE COMPOSITIEWEDSTRIJD VOOR KAMERMUZIEK MUIZELHUIS (IN FLANDERS’ FIELDS), WW-IG-09
– Mixed Grill (Piano Quartet Marcato), PIANO QUARTET MARCATO, René Gailly CD87 177
Texts by Stijn Kolacny and Rebecca Diependaele
Last update: 2006