Daan Janssens (1983)
Daan Janssens (°Bruges) studied piano, violin, music theory and composition at the municipal conservatory of Bruges. From 2002 to 2007, he studied composition with Frank Nuyts at the conservatory in Ghent, where he also took lessons with Godfried-Willem Raes (improvisation) and Filip Rathé (analysis). Janssens participated in composition masterclasses with Peter Eötvös, Luca Francesconi, Bruno Mantovani, among others, and conducting masterclasses with Johannes Kalitzke (with Ensemble Modern), Marco Angius and Lucas Vis. In 2007, he began working as a research assistant at the Ghent Conservatory, where he obtained a PhD in 2016 on musical transformation from a historical perspective and applied to his own works. Janssens has since taught composition and orchestration at the Conservatory of Ghent and is also active as a composer and conductor.
In 2006, his string quartet …Passages… was awarded first prize during the week of contemporary music in Ghent, and in 2009, (…nuit cassée.) was selected for the ISCM World Music Days in Sweden. His chamber opera Les Aveugles (after Maurice Maeterlinck), which was realized in collaboration with the Ghent production house LOD and visual artist Patrick Corrilon, was performed at Ars Musica 2012 with Vocaallab and Musiques Nouvelles, conducted by Filip Rathé. This opera was also programmed at La Monnaie in Brussels in 2013. A second opera production followed in 2017 with Menuet, again commissioned by LOD. Janssens composed three works for symphony orchestra between 2012 and 2015, including (…dans son presque silence…) commissioned by SymfonieOrkest Vlaanderen. In addition, Janssens composes primarily for ensembles and (vocal) soloists, and he is increasingly exploring the use of electronics, such as in (Paysage en attente…) for two pianos and live electronics (2019).
For the performance of his compositions, Janssens has worked with internationally renowned ensembles such as Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain, Goeyvaerts String Trio, Spectra Ensemble, baritone Thomas Bauer and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. In 2006, he co-founded the Nadar Ensemble, with which he has performed at festivals such as Ars Musica (2008, 2009), Harvest Festival Denmark (2009), Festival Musica Strasbourg (2010), TRANSIT (2010) and the Darmstädter Ferienkurse (2010, 2012).
Daan Janssens’ earliest compositions are mainly for instrumental ensemble and chamber music with an evocative, organic and suspenseful style that nevertheless never seems to reach a climax. Rather than pitch or duration, it is timbre and dynamics that are central to his music. He treats these parameters in great detail and with considerable nuance; as a result, his music stands out for its sensual textures, surprising timbre combinations and rich acoustic palette. Janssens’ deep interest in timbre as well as the evocative French titles that he invariably assigns to his compositions (e.g. …en paysage de nuit…), expose the influence that twentieth-century French music, from Debussy over Boulez to spectral music, has had on his musical style. But Ligeti and Lachenmann are also important sources of inspiration for Janssens, a composer who attaches great importance to having a well-founded historical awareness and consciously builds on recent, Western European modernism. That Janssens is a great lover of romantic opera is not apparent from these earlier compositions, but will later be reflected in his larger-scale works.
Janssens’ chamber music tends to be soft and seems to constantly balance between silence and static passages on the one hand and short, indefinable eruptions on the other. It is minimal, but not repetitive. Janssens often makes use of nervous interjections, shuffling murmurs, sustained tones and isolated melodic intervals (especially tritones, fifths and major sevenths), which are passed from soloist to soloist in a layered Webernian web, rather than unambiguous thematic phrases. Janssens uses his musical material very sparingly, which ensures a strong structural coherence: he usually begins with a small collection of cells, gestures, or other short musical ideas, which he then endlessly manipulates. Transformation rather than contrast is the motor of development in Janssens’ oeuvre, as he also demonstrated in his doctoral thesis on musical transformation techniques. Even across different works, Janssens returns to and adapts previously used ideas. As a result, all compositions from a certain period are somewhat related to each other, in particular with his ‘series’, such as (…Passages…), (trois études scénographiques), (Paysages – études) and (face à moi).
Already with his first (recognized) composition, Gegeven /…(Beweging)… (2004-’05), Janssens was waving goodbye to the traditional dominance of pitch and duration. Although this two-movement string trio still employs a strictly thought-out organization of time and pitch, there is not much to be seen of the integral serialism with which he experimented during the first two years of his conservatory studies. That musical material from the first movement (Gegeven) is more compactly employed in the second movement (Beweging) alludes to the isorhythmic motets of Guillaume de Machaut.
After Gegeven /…(Beweging)… Janssens decided to abandon such formalistic processes; from then on he would only compose with more informal tonal centers, around which he could freely build harmonies and motivic cells. In the four-part (…Passages…) cycle (2005-2008), for various instrumentations, Janssens increasingly followed his own sense of form rather than relying on predefined constructions. This resulted in a more intuitive and organic way of writing, in which the structure automatically arises from the nature of the material itself and the instrumentation, which, according to Janssens, naturally leads to certain musical gestures and timbre combinations. The starting point for the cycle was the string quartet …Passages… (2005-rev. 2008). His inspiration for this work was a short film by M. Deren and A. Hammid from 1943 entitled Meshes of the Afternoon, from which he borrowed the five-part form (5 scenes – 5 movements). As in Janssens’ other series, the four compositions of the cycle share similar material. For example, bars 1-9 from the fourth movement of …Passages… form the basis for the opening bars of Tableau – Double – (Passages II) (2005-’06), a short piece for solo cello. The pitch organization of D’un automne étendu (2007-’08), the third movement in the series, is also entirely based on the first and fifth movements of …Passages…. In this string quartet, Janssen combines biting, chromatic outbursts and sharp bowings, reminiscent of Ligeti’s string quartets, with soft, immobile passages full of color and nuances. With the title of the last movement, (…nuit cassée.) (2006-’07), Janssens alludes to the Flemish visual artist Thierry De Cordier, whose desolate landscapes had a strong influence on him. This work for viola and four instruments not only returns to certain ideas from the previous three compositions, but also refers explicitly to Hommage à R. Sch., a piece for clarinet, viola and piano by Kurtag.
After the four-part cycle (… Passages…), Janssens wrote three other series, which, unlike the aforementioned group, were planned in advance. Thus the (trois études scénographiques) (2008-’10) not only form a more balanced and coherent whole than the four (…Passages…), but they also use the same ensemble instrumentation. In the first and third movements, respectively (étude scénographique) and (…), the ensemble is joined by a mezzo-soprano that sings poems by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. These are some of the first works in which Janssens writes for the voice. Nevertheless, the mezzo-soprano only sings a few passages, each time employing a fairly classical singing idiom. Janssens generally chooses to use experimental, ‘extended’ vocal or instrumental techniques in limited doses, in order to avoid becoming a Mannerist catalog of compositional techniques. The second étude scénographique is called (réduit au silence) and is purely instrumental, but shares similar chords and motives with the other two études.
With the series (Paysages – études) (2010-’11), Janssens wanted to experiment with a number of ideas on a small scale before using them in his musical theater work Les Aveugles; he considers the series a kind of sketchbook. Although Janssens initially planned for (Paysages – études) to have five parts, he has only completed three for the time being: I, IV and V. In these pieces for small ensemble, he explores a number of fragments, gestures, and motives, which he would develop further in his chamber opera. In Les Aveugles, he even literally took a part of the flute part from (Paysages – études) IV, for flute, cello and piano. This two-part work begins as a full trio in a scherzando texture, but then slowly transforms into an extremely fragile piece for solo cello, accompanied by flute and piano.
In January 2010, Janssens started writing what would become his largest-scale work to date: Les Aveugles, a chamber opera based on the one-act play by Maurice Maeterlinck from 1890. It is a symbolist parable about a group of twelve blind people waiting in vain in a dark forest for the return of a priest, unable to communicate clearly with one another. For this musical theater project, Janssens worked together with the director and visual artist Patrick Corillon, who accompanied Janssens’ cold harmonies with sober sets, strange projections and acting full of symbolism. The musical progression of Les Aveugles constantly fluctuates between static sounds and passages with a lot of musical activity. Compared to Janssens’ short, instrumental pieces, which only use a limited amount of musical material, Les Aveugles was much larger in design (approx. 1 hour) and therefore required other, larger-scale means to achieve musical coherence. For example, Janssens follows in the tradition of Wagner and nineteenth-century opera, which he greatly admires, by relying on a three-note leitmotif (rising whole tone – descending semitone). The presence of voice and text also ensures a less fragmentary structure, in particular through the use of spoken voice and a more refined lyricism. Formally, Les Aveugles follows a large ABA structure that recalls a classical sonata form. Maeterlinck’s text is divided among six singers, but often a single sentence is split between different singers. Especially at the beginning of the work, Janssens has the six soloists sing in the same register so that they become interchangeable and lose their individuality. The roles of the other six ‘blind people’ of the play are filled by the musicians.
By working on his first opera, Daan Janssens got a better grasp of large-form composition, which has since become an important part of his oeuvre. In 2012, Janssens wrote (…de l’Immense Infini.) for baritone and orchestra, commissioned by the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon. It was his first composition for such an extensive instrumentation, and was followed soon after in 2013 and 2014 by two other orchestral works: (…revenir dans l’oubil…) and (…dans son presque silence…). Although it is not possible to achieve the same degree of detail in an orchestral piece as in a string trio, these works stand out nevertheless for their refined use of colors. In these works, Janssens realizes with a sophisticated orchestration what he did in earlier works with extremely detailed playing techniques. On another scale (both in terms of ensemble size and composition length), he remains faithful to the ideas of coherence and transformation that characterize his earlier works. It is not uncommon for him to develop his musical ideas in an intuitive way, although this sentiment is always guided by the overarching subject or narrative of the composition.
His second opera, Menuet, premiered in 2017. Just like in Les Aveugles, the psychology of the characters forms an important foundation for the music and dramaturgy. In the libretto, based on Louis Paul Boon’s eponymous book, the same story is told three times, each time from the perspective of one of the three characters. The number three permeates the score and can be found at both the micro and macro level.
Chamber music has remained an important pillar in Daan Janssens’ recent oeuvre, more and more often in combination with (live) electronics. This is certainly the case in (Paysage en attente…) for two pianos and electronics, created in collaboration with the Centre Henri Pousseur. The subject of the composition is, as it were, the piano’s resonance and is developed by way of the electronics. The tape not only plays with the repetition or echo of the live-performed sounds, but also contains references to other music, without trying to be anecdotal. Here too we see an attention to coherence and transformation that was already present in his early works, but is now developed in a completely different way.
Musical theater, live electronics and chamber music come together in A page of madness, a score that Janssens composed for the Japanese silent film of the same name. He writes for an ensemble of flute, harp, viola, soprano and percussion and adds to this an electronics part that seamlessly integrates with the musicians. Although the film has no dialogue or libretto, Janssens still creates musical relationships and leitmotifs that support his interpretation of the story. The music is not a soundtrack to the film, but reflects the way in which one person (in this case, the composer) experiences the story.
List of Works
Chamber music: Gegeven /…(Beweging)… (2004-’05), for string trio; …Passages… (2005-rev. 2008), for string quartet; Tableau – Double – (Passages II) (2005-’06), for solo cello; …Hommage… – (en sourdine) (2006), for string trio; Recitativo Interrotto (2007), for solo cello; D’un automne étendu (Passages III) (2007-’08), for string quartet; (es) (2009), for four voices and percussion; (…sans titre.) (face à moi) II (2010), for solo violin; (Paysages – études) I (2010), for cello and piano; (face à moi) I (2010-’11), for solo piccolo; (Douze écrits) (2010-’11), for string quartet; (Paysages – études) V (2011), for flute, cello and piano; fernquintett (2011), for muted violin and 4 electric guitars; (face à moi) III (2012-’13), for solo piano; (…presque pas.) (2015), for harpsichord; (…nada.) (2015), for cello, piano and electronics; (face à moi) (2019), for solo flute; (Paysage en attente…) (2019), for two pianos and electronics; Titan (2019) for cello and electronics; Etudes/Miniatures (2019), for piano; Incipits (2013-’20) for seven instruments.
Ensemble: (… nuit cassée.) (2006-’07), for viola and 4 instruments; (étude scénographique) (2008), for mezzo-soprano and 6 instruments; (…réduit au silence.) (2. étude scénographique) (2009), for 8 instruments; (…) (3. étude scénographique) (2009-’10), for mezzo-soprano and 8 instruments; (…en paysage de nuit…) (2010), for amplified viola d’amore and ensemble; (Paysages – études) IV (2011), for 7 instruments; En dérive – (…paysage d’oubli…) (2013) for mezzo-soprano and 9 instruments; (l’espace d’une page) (2014), for cimbalom and 8 instruments; (furioso) (2015), for string quartet and saxophone quartet; (…à suivre…) (2017), for piano and 15 instruments; Eine schöne Müllerin (2018) for baritone and 9 instruments; (…sans rien dire…) (2018-’19), for cello, 5 instruments and electronics; A page of madness (2019-’20), for mezzo-soprano, five instruments and electronics
Vocal music: Di me… (2005), for mixed choir; (es) (2009), for 4 voices and percussion
Musical theater: Les Aveugles / De Blinden (2010-’11), after Maurice Maeterlinck; Menuet (2016-’17), after Louis Paul Boon
Orchestral music: (…de l’Immense Infini.) (2012), for baritone and orchestra; (…revenir dans l’oubli…) (2013), for orchestra; (…dans son presque silence…) (2014), for orchestra; (…en attendant personne…) (2019-’20), for orchestra
– BEIRENS, Maarten, art. ‘Maeterlinck op muziek’, in Staalkaart, no. 14, March-April 2012, pp. 12-16.
– JOCQUE, Alexander, Daans Janssens, een muzikaal portret, in Exit Magazine (https://exit.be/2017/07/14/daan-janssens-een-muzikaal-portret/)
– CHRISTENHUSZ, Joep, Componisten van babel. Veelstemmigheid in de gecomponeerde muziek van nu in Nederland en Vlaanderen, Arnhem, 2016.
Texts by Gilles Helsen & Klaas Coulembier
Last updated: 2020