Octaaf Van Geert was born in Aalst on 4 February 1949. He studied at the Royal Conservatories of Ghent and Brussels, earning first prizes in solfège, harmony, counterpoint, fugue and composition. His most influential teachers were O. Van Puyvelde, J. Mestdagh, V. Legley and R. Coryn. His compositions have won numerous prizes: in 1977 he was awarded the Provincial Prize for Vocal Music (Province of East Flanders), in 1984 he received the Belgian Artistic Promotion Prize in the Peter Benoit Composition Competition (Harelbeke) as well as the Jef Denijn Prize at the International Composition Competition for Carillon in Mechelen, and in 1986 he won the National Prize of the Muzikon Royal Conservatory Ghent and the Muizelhuis Prize at the National Composition Competition for Chamber Music.
Octaaf Van Geert has been chiefly active in the area of education: he taught solfège at the music academy in Aalst and music education at the Hogeschool Gent K. Ledeganck from 1971 to 1980. Since 1979 he has taught harmony at the conservatory in Bruges, and harmony, counterpoint and fugue at the Royal Conservatory in Ghent, where he has also taught orchestration, organology and composition since 1992. Together with Lucien Posman and Daniel Gistelinck, he forms part of the so-called “New Ghent School”, a group of composers who all studied with Roland Coryn. His works have been premiered by, among others, the Hans Memling Trio, the New Flemish Symphony Orchestra conducted by P. Peire, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Flanders conducted by M. Tang, the Ensor String Quartet, the Kolacny Piano Duo and the VRT (Flemish Radio) Orchestra, conducted by H. Rotman. Recent commissions and projects (since 2001) have included the String Quartet no. 2, participation in the Van Composers’ Festival at de Rode Pomp in Ghent and the CD recording of his piano trio by the Rachmaninoff Trio.
Octaaf Van Geert’s work is diverse in terms of scoring, concept and manner of working. The foundation of his works can nonetheless be found in a fascination for nature and especially all manner of stone. As a metaphor for his work, Van Geert cites how his father, a sculptor, taught him how hard material could be moulded to produce varied, contrapuntal lines that could and must collide with one another. In practical terms, he often took as his starting point a physical reality – such as for instance the process of mediation in Meditari (1985), the big bang in Processus geologici (1988), chemical processes in Sedimentaria (1994), the periodic table in his String Quartet no. 2 (2002) – which is then translated into music through numerical structures, layered instrumentation, cluster figures, or other compositional methods that attempt to make the basic idea of scientific reality tangible. A clear example of this is H_O: musica per uno vivente for carillon (1984), which consists of 3 movements: hydrogenium (with turbulent sounds in the high ranges, representing the upper layers of the atmosphere where this substance is present in free form), oxygenium (with Lydian sections that create a calming mood) and finally H_O, in which the atoms bind together into molecules. Although the scoring of his works often remain relatively ‘classic’ (with forms such as piano trio, string quartet and lied), the style is often very expressionistic.
Characteristic is his preference for distinctly lengthy works, which often reflect a finely balanced conflict situation. In this connection, musicologist S. Beelaert has written over his oeuvre: “It is as if Van Geert aims to combine the transparent structures of Webern with the tension of Alban Berg.” Van Geert’s expressionism is of a piece with the experimental pre-war atonality of Schönberg and Berg. Nonetheless, is should be said that a great many of his works are serial in conception, or at least make use of elements from serialism. The dynamic Processus geologici (1988) for 2 pianos is a typical example of his work. The piano is “geologically” treated by dividing it into 4 layers (tessituras). The work begins with a “big bang”, resounding as a cluster. This is followed by a presentation of 4 playing styles (tremolando, quick impulsive lines, chord progressions with dynamic accents, melodic legato), each of which is applied in 1 layer. This disposition is termed “processus zero”. Processus 1 consists of the different styles in different layers, processus 2 is a combination of different layers for 1 style. Processus 3 is a rondo in which the melodic legato is given free rein, processus 4 reduces the piano to 1 layer, in which all the styles are combined. The circle is completed with the return of processus zero, the ultimate destruction of the constructed material.
The composer’s fascination with the way materials are handled in the plastic arts is also evident in Compositie in Brons (Composition in bronze) for orchestra (1987). The classical orchestra is extended, particularly in the percussion section: no fewer than 4 percussionists are required in order to play the arsenal of instruments (4 tympani, 5 tom-toms, 2 xylophones). The fact that this work was conceived for youth orchestra in no way takes away from the complexity of the score: just as bronze is unpredictable with its irregular surface depth, this work is also a whirling whole of very diverse musical effects, particularly in terms of timbre. The relatively transparent wind parts often alternate with the rapid motion of the percussion. Both in terms of the dynamics and the instrumentation, as well as the rhythm, it is clear that Van Geert’s work is highly unpredictable and extremely variable: no single point is allowed to become a line, making of this composition an ungraspable amalgam of very quick and short turns, where timbre is the controlling parameter. The conflict situations which result on a micro-musical level (e.g., fortissimo and pianissimo in rapid succession in the brass instruments) do not prevent Van Geert from ending the work in a rhythmically thinning-out fortissimo which, after a conflict-filled succession of hard blows and soft rounding off, seems to capture the essence of finished bronze.
Another typical work is Sedimentaria for large orchestra (1994). Once again, Van Geert’s fascination for the pliability and transformability of material takes a central place. In this work the earth is, as it were, born again in three unbroken phases (fast – slow – fast). At first the strata of string glissandi and meticulously worked out clusters slide over one another, in a continuous struggle to reach the surface. After this, through the thinning out of the clusters to the single note of e (the central note of the work), they reach a static position, which is, however, broken open by the third movement with its powerful percussion and driving layer-combinations. This culminates inevitably in an attraction by the high pole of e, which is affirmed at the end by the strings and the piccolo, and finally sounds “objectively” on the vibraphone, creating a clear point of conclusion.
List of works
Chamber music: Balade for piano solo (1980); Sonata for viola and piano (1980); Sigisfaal for percussion and piano (1981); Andantino for flute and piano (1981); Meditari-interruptus-iratideM for woodwind quartet (1985); Trit for piano trio (1986); Punt andere lijn for clarinet and xylophone (1988); Memo’s for flute, oboe, piano en doublebass (1988); Processus geologici for 2 pianos (1988); Molto, molto, molto for piano solo (1990); Illusion for trumpet and piano (1992); Scène’s for flauto dolce and marimba (1995); Epitaphios logos for 4 flauti dolci (1997); String Quartet no. 1 (1997); States for 2 violins (1998); Ggrrr-ssst for piano quartet (1999); Naakten for piano and violoncello (2000); The table of Dmitri Ivanovich Mendelyev for string quartet (2002)
Vocal: Melopee/Vlerken/Zelfmoord des Zeemans/Berceuse nr.2 for SATB chorus a cappella (text: P. Van Ostaijen) (1977); Krabbels for SATB chorus on his own text (1990); Twee Mensen for baritone and piano on a text of A.R. Holst (1976); Eens (song cycle) on a text of L.P. Boon for high voice, clarinet and piano (1984); A mia mogli for mezzo, baritone, bassclarinet, horn and piano on a text of U. Saba (1995)
Opera: De jongen met het hocus-pocus woord for orchestra, little and big chorus
Orchestral music: Ode XXXII for chamberorchestra, chorus and soprano on a text of Horace (1985); Compositie in Brons for orchestra (1987); Sedimentaria for orchestra (1994); Klazz for chamber orchestra (2001)
Other: H_O : musica per uno Vivente for carillon (1984)
– L. POSMAN, Focus: Octaaf Van Geert, in De Nieuwe Vlaamse Muziekrevue, 5, 1998
– J. BAERT, Componistencollectief bespeelt acht snaren, in De Nieuwe Vlaamse Muziekrevue, 2000
– S. BEELAERT, Musicus Octaaf Van Geert, in Vlaanderen, 36, 1987
– Processus geologico, MUIZELHUIS CONCERTEN. PRIZE WINNERS OF THE BIENNAL COMPOSITION CONTEST FOR CHAMBER MUSIC (IN FLANDERS FIELDS), mupro WW-IG-0
– Klazz, ROUND ABOUT
– Clips. S.l., s.l., s.d. (Aanwezig in MATRIX)
[For non-commercial sound recordings, please contact the composer]
CeBeDeM (from 1951 to 2015)
Texts by Thomas Blondelle and Katherina Lindekens
Last update: 2007