Stefan Van Eycken studied musicology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and also took summer courses in English literature at the University of Edinburgh and composition in Avignon (with Marco Stroppa). In 1997 he returned to the Musicology Department in Edinburgh to begin on a doctorate on the work of Brian Ferneyhough. There he also taught analysis and aesthetics of contemporary music. In October 2000 he moved to Tokyo for a year on a Japan Foundation Fellowship in order to work as a researcher at the Kunitachi College of Music on a book devoted to the music of Yuji Takahashi. He continues to live and work in Tokyo, where he has also built close contacts with practitioners of improvised and traditional music (such as gagaku). He regularly spends time in Belgium, where he has a Fellowship with the Ictus ensemble (the first of its kind).
The music of Stefan Van Eycken has been written only after reflection on the fundamentals of music: what music is in concrete terms and why we choose to speak of music. He takes a carefully considered point of view in music aesthetics by starting not from the score, nor the pitches and the “classically” quantified relations that lead to composition, but rather from that which is experienced, namely, the sound and what it produces: movement.
In Western music, a canon has formed over the centuries, defined by those sounds considered usable, uniform and controllable, and those sounds considered “marginal”. The evolution of instrumental playing technique has played a major role in this process, an evolution geared to producing more “usable” sounds or more technical possibilities – as in the addition of a key on the oboe – which has also had the effect of increasing the realm of non-privileged sounds. In new music, almost all composers are looking for new sound spectra. What then has Stefan Van Eycken to add to this project? Contemporary music very often seems orientated towards exploring the extremes of what has gone before. This certainly applies to sound production, where the motto is “given: x; assume x+1”, as Richard Toop formulates it. Here, given x is musical tradition, which is still considered by many as the basis, but which is then pushed to extremes. Van Eycken is not interested in a musical aesthetic of constantly pushing further, for in the establishment of the canon of sounds, a great many “waste products” have been tossed aside. Very often this has gone hand in hand with the possibilities for control; i.e., the so-called limitations in the area of the uncontrollable aspects of an instrument. This does not, however, mean that he deliberately goes in search of marginal – or better, marginalised – sounds, for sound is what “is”, each sound “is”; it is history that determines what is “good”, what is “useful”, what is “beautiful”.
In the work Twilight Enclosures for oboe and piano, Van Eycken takes the approach that the oboe as “instrument” can, as it were, no longer be automatically associated with its customary sound. With a different, unusual operation of the keys (indicated in detail in the score), the timbre is deconstructed in such a way that a totally new side of the instrument is heard: often very diffuse tones that have been rejected by the canon of “beautiful”, controllable, stable sounds. The composer attempts to accord to the resulting new sound a sufficient independence as sound-quality, somewhere between “homogenisation” and “marginalisation”. The gradation of the deviation from what would be considered the standard oboe sound is indicated in the score (along with the fingerings) by the numbers 0-5, in ascending order of deviation. Such indications are often found in Van Eycken’s scores, but never with the intention of tying the performer down; on the contrary: since these sounds are often very difficult to control, in contrast to the quantifiable (c is c), the performer must maintain very good contact between his ears, mouth and fingers. For the piano, the limits of the sound are explored, as the relation between sound and technique is once again central. Besides the great demands made on the use of the pedal, the typically pianistic technique of “doppio scappamento”, where the hammer hits the string and in a second phase remains hanging above the string (or below it on grand pianos), is avoided in Twilight Enclosures by depressing the key very softly, until a certain resistance is felt, after which it is pushed down delicately, so that the hammer does not hit the string but merely touches it. The intention is to broaden the traditional piano sound of attack followed by immediate decay into silence, by focussing on the decay of the sound. As Morton Feldman put it, in most piano music we hear only the attack, but when this attack is avoided, the sound becomes “sourceless”.
This manner of dealing with sound also forms the basis for Supplement, a work for piano and 5 e-bows. Two other central aspects of Stefan Van Eycken’s music are also in evidence in this work: his search for ways of developing his own approach to electronics and technique, and his interest in improvisation. “Technique” should be understood in the broad sense of the word here, in fact connoting everything that makes music possible, from the technique of making paper, to instrumental playing techniques, to the technical aspect of electronics. Likewise with “electronics”: Van Eycken explores the intimate relationship between electronics and the skeletal-motorial, in contrast to what happens in “karaoke” electronics, digestive electronics (where musical input undergoes electronic manipulation) or cosmetic electronics. The 5 e-bows are an excellent example in this connection: a second “player” places the e-bows on the strings of the piano, and also re-places them. The bows rest on two strings while a third, middle string is made to sound electromagnetically when not damped. The directness and duration of the resulting sound can then be manipulated according to the variable proximity of the e-bow to the string (pushing harder produces sound more quickly than simply laying the bow on the string). In this way, the electronic elements come into direct contact with the performer, who actually “operates” them. The pianist too, operating the keys and the pedal, is kept in direct contact with the e-bows since the strings on which they rest cannot be used (an object, the e-bow, is lying on them). The direct contact between performers and electronics also finds its expression in improvisation, an area in which Stefan Van Eycken takes great interest, together with a number of others (including Jpop, film music and Japanese pop music). In the middle of Supplement there is a sort of scherzo in which, incidentally, traditional notation is abandoned. Here the 5 e-bows are placed on piano strings which the pianist must discover while playing: if a string on which an e-bow rests is struck, it gives off a muffled, metallic sound (indicating that a wrong note has been played but also giving a hint as to which string could be “e-bowed”, i.e., the note a semi-tone above or below). The final result of this Scherzo should thus be a flawless collaboration between piano and e-bows. Supplement is also based on a multi-media concept, considering the place of film music, which all too often is seen as the accompaniment to a film. Although the film Trains de plaisier by Henry Storck was made before the music (1930), it is the composer’s intention to make the film accompany the music, with the help of a third artist for fade-in and fade-out effects, without however creating a cartoon effect of images that literally go with the music – or was it the music with the images? What is the Supplement to what?
The above-mentioned but not further detailed question of the interaction between the skeletal-motorial (that which precedes the music and brings it into being) and hearing (or the musical reality that is produced) is the point of departure for the composition White River Dream Song for bass flute, contrabass clarinet, electric guitar, cello, piano, percussion and electronics (2001). The impulse for this composition was the performance of Luminous by choreographer Saburo Teshigawara, which is based on the relation between movement and light, and how bodies take shape within light. This interaction of bodies within a space, gaining form through light, is closely related to that intimate relationship between movement and sound which so captivates Van Eycken. In this process, the tangible, the quantifiable and the controllable are replaced by the dreamlike, the unstable and the metaphorical, with their effects on our cognitive perception (see theories by Lackoff, Johnson and Derrida).
List of works
Orchestra: Architectures of Reassurance (pan shot) (2003)
Ensemble: Blinded Alleys for clarinet, trombone, electric guitar and live-electronics (1997-98); As if you ever knew what it was, taking you down the line for 9 instruments (1999); Memory Theatre (1999-2000); Drie stukken for ensemble (1: flute, cello, double bass and live-electronics; 2: bass tuba or bassoon, viola, percussion and electronics; 3: voice, alto saxophone, clarinet, trombone); Light Rhythms for 10 instruments (2000); Muziek voor de stomme film van Francis Bruguiere (1928); Twilight Enclosures for oboe and piano (2000-01) [also exists for oboe and 5 instruments]; White River Dream Song for 6 instruments with electronics (2001); cover for 5 instruments (2002); if you face it for 8 instruments (2002); solo-Igor for electric guitar with fernandes sustainer and 2 bass clarinetten (2003); Republics of Reality for 12 instruments (2003)
Solo: Campo minato for piano solo (1997); Leaving for guitar (1998-99); cover for electric flugel horn and 3 cd-players (2001); Supplement (…tinfoil tiaras…) for piano with 5 e-bows (can be executed with de movie Trains de plaisir van Henri Storck) (2002)
– S. VAN EYCKEN, Il fiume del tempo passava…: een traject doorheen het oeuvre van Luc Brewaeys, Vlaanderen 47 (4), 1998, p. 193-202
– K. VAN DEN BUYS, Muziek zonder grenzen, in Muziek en Woord 27 (326), 2001, p.12-13
– M. DELAERE, De structuur van het muziekleven in België, in Een muziekgeschiedenis der Nederlanden, uitg. door L. GRIJP, Amsterdam, 2001
– Tom Pauwels en Arditti Quartet creëren nieuw elektrisch gitaarkwintet van Stefan Van Eycken, in Oorgetuige, 2008.
– As if you ever knew what it was, taking you down the line (Serenata Forlana), Edition Compusic
– Scrapes Series, EDCO
– Campo Minato (Jan Michiels), Festival van Vlaanderen Vlaams-Brabant 2000 en Radio 3
– Archive Series n° 02 – Techno Park. Champ d’Action, 2004, CA 02
– White River Dream Song (op cd Vlaamse Hedendaagse Muziek, Muziekcentrum Vlaanderen)
– If you face it (op cd Transit Festival – World Premieres 2000-2003)
Texts by Bob Dubois and Katherina Lindekens
Last update: 2008