VAN SAN Herman (1929-1975)

Herman Van San was born on 19 March 1929 in Mechelen and died in the same city on 26 October 1975. He broke off his studies in musicology in order to study music theory and piano with G. Minet at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. At the end of the 1940s he wrote an essay entitled De Nieuwe Muziek for the avant-garde magazine Tijd en Mens. Several years later (1951), Van San and R.C. Van de Kerckhove set up De Derde Ruiter which, as its subtitle indicated, was a Neo-Expressionist magazine. In various essays, mostly in foreign publications (including the Gravesaner Blätter, Ordini, and Interface), Van San set out his points of view, which were based on a Neo-Positivist position. In 1953 he undertook studies in philosophy and mathematics at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. A year later the sequel to his essay De Nieuwe Muziek appeared in Tijd en Mens, dealing with the state of serial composition at that time. After completing his philosophy degree, he studied physics, chemistry, biology and finally zoology and psychology, with the aim of positioning music – in a Neo-Positive sense – on a more formal foundation as a branch of the sciences. Van San worked out his theories implied by his notions of “mathematical electronic music” in the Cologne studios (the 1956/57 Opus Electronicum Mathematicum Geometrical patterns was realised in 1958 with Gottfried Michael Koenig in the WDR studio), in Gravesano (with Hermann Scherchen and Iannis Xenakis), in Brussels (studio Apelac) and ultimately in Ghent (at the Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music (IPEM), with Herman Sabbe). In many cases, however, Van San’s ideas often proved too much for the analogue techniques of music production then avaibable in the studio. Besides a performance of his opus 5 (1953/1954) Sectionen/Sneden at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, conducted by Bruno Maderna, Van San never found an opportunity to garner public attention, as his instrumental compositions often proved too difficult to perform and his electronic-mathematical designs impossible to realise with the existing equipment. It was only after his death in 1975, with the complete digitalisation of the electronic production process, that many of his ideas from the 1950s would be realised. Many of his compositions have been lost or destroyed.



Striking in Herman Van San’s early work is the use of a mixture of different techniques such as Klangfarbenmelodie and the complex layering of different simultaneous time-structures. His scores from 1951 and 1952 are among the few examples of dodecaphony in which formalisation was pushed further than in Schönberg’s or Webern’s music. In the Sextet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano (1951), all the parameters are organised serially, although in contrast with Goeyvaerts’ total serial work Nummer 2 for 13 instruments (1951), there is no question of a basic principle on which the whole organisation is based. The multi-layered nature of the work and the complex density of the simultaneous time-structures directly seize the attention, as different subdivisions of the bar are combined through superimposition. This leads to a polymetrical succession of colour-segments. The various possible combinations of instruments form the basis of the work’s structure. The instruments are treated completely equally while at the same time interacting with one another through the imitation of intervals and rhythms, thus creating new segments. The work is subdivided into seven segments. Microstructuren for three pianos (20 May 1952) many be seen as Van San’s departure from the traditional dodecaphoic compositional technique. Central to this composition is the exploration of a composing style employing mathematically functionalised serial techniques. This results in a limited palette of sound colours and in extreme conciseness (only 20 seconds). Webern’s influence is indeed undeniable. The length of the notes is organised on a polymetrical-structural basis and the composer aims for an total coherence of the different parameters. An exception to this is the organisation of the pitches, which is simply a succession of a number of forms of the same series and is thus disconnected from the segmentation process.

The degree to which Van San was a pioneer is evident in his opus 4 for 12 string instruments, loud-speakers and echo-chamber (1951-53), a work which has survived but was never completed. The spatial arrangement (groupings of violin and cello in alternation with a loud-speaker, distributed throughout the audience), the live electronics, which differentiate the parameter of timbre, and the total mathematical functionalisation of the differnt parameters all combine to produce a work that was highly innovative at the time of its creation. This was very likely the first example of such a use of space as an extension of serial structuring, an approach that Van San realised in full in Sectionen/Sneden (1953/54).

Van San set out to realise the idea of a mathematical electronic music starting in 1953. The mathematical method altered the notion of a compositional system by making possible an infinite number of different compositional systems with the help of axioms, while at the same time taking the thought-process of composing out of the intuitive sphere (i.e., “let’s see if this works”). The latter approach was now replaced by “purposeful dissection and derivation”. A completely new compositional system, related to a wide spectrum of research in the areas of acoustics, mathematics, psychology and aesthetics now became central. Through the complete mathematical control of all parameters, the composer was able to explore a totally new sonorous field and create brand new forms. A composition was no longer the expression of the composer’s personality (intuitive method) but the result of a mathematical structure. Sectionen/Sneden (1953-54) is a first example of the new compositional approach. The premiere of this work by the Dresdener Kammerorchester, conducted by Bruno Maderna at the Darmstadt Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in 1957 met with a mixed reception (read: “scandal concert”). This composition forms a unique example on the levels of both form and sound-idiom. The string instruments are in effect a reservoir of 30,000 different timbres. In order to distinguish between the nuances of all these timbres, a difference in sound-direction is required. For this reason, the sectet is “sectioned” into three violin-cello duos, arranged left, right and centre on the stage (cf. opus 4). In this composition for three violins and three cellos, Van San would extend his usual combination-calculation to more advanced mathematical methods such as sections and determinants. As noted, Van San no longer aimed for a seralisation of each of the musical parameters individually, but attempted for the first time to permeate all the parameters with one single mathematical structure. The notion of the series was thus replaced by a mathematical function that arithmetically determined the structure of the sound over time. In this way, Van San was able to deal with the problems of form encountered by many other composers (Stockhausen, Boulez…). The periods of music and rests equally divided into pre-ordained sections are accounted for by neurophysiology (specifically, psychological shock-effect), and by emphasising successive polyrhythmic and polymetrical variations. From this perspective, Van San can be seen as a representative of logical empiricism. All of this results in a very idiosyncratic sound, mainly characterised by the development of unusual overtone spectra and intensity-relations.

In 1953 Van San once again confirmed his pioneering role with his Primum Opus Electronicum Mathematicum, which was in effect an answer in the form of a mathematical formula to the question “to what degree can the laser-principle be extended to audio frequencies”. His article, Electronische muziek met klare begrippen (Electronic music in clear notions, published in De Vlaamse Gids, 1955) indicates the extent to which he considered “‘musique concrète’ a step backwards in relation to Maser”, since it “deals with non-controlled or non-controllable sounds”. “The broadening of the real possibilities of the composer to the whole acoustical range: the intensity from 0 to n dB, the chroma from 0 to 16.384 Hz, all rational and irrational time-relations” – this was for Van San the most important consequence of electronics as a means of producing music. From 1956, with his opera electronica mathematica (O.E.M.), Van San envisioned a conceptual union of a formalised structural concept with an experimental approach to sound-creation. “Thus the 10 segments of Geometrische Patterns (O.E.M., 1956-57) are made up of 24 quadrophonically compiled sounds: 12 originals and their retrogrades. These are transposed and/or modulated by the composer. The systematic rotation of all the combination possibilities results in an extended composition, which incorporates the serial technique in an exemplary way.” (from P. SWINNEN, Herman Van San, Opus Electronicum: Geometrische Patterns, in TRANSIT. Leuven New Music Festival (programme book), 2000.

The next step is automatisation, as the technician’s arduous job is replaced by a machine. Each manipulation of the sound material is registered in the memory of a machine, retrievable by a code number inserted in the program. This leads in turn to cybernetics, with the work of the composer now to a large extent reduced to writing programs. The composer’s input would thus be limited to providing new ideas to be both worked out and actualised by machines. In a sense, Van San can be seen as the first logarithmic composer.


List of works

(Variable) instrumental ensemble: Quintet (1948); Quintet (1949); Sextet (1950); Concerto (1950); Bagatellen (1950); Sextet (1951); Mikrostructuur (1952); Vijf Structuren for chamber orchestra(1952)

Opus instrumentalis mathematicum: Sneden (O.I.M., 1953-54); Lattices (O. I. M., 1953-54)

Instrumental musical theatre: De Schim van Memling (1952); Trivium Quadrivium (1954)

Opus electronicum: Lasciata ogne speranza, voi ch’entrata (O.E., 1953); – (O.E., 1954); – (O.E., 1955)

Opus electronicum mathematicum: Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (O.E.M., 1956); Geometrische Patterns (O.E.M, 1957); Axiomata (O.E.M., 1957); – (O.E.M.,1960); – (O.E.M., 1962); – (O.E.M., 1964); – (O.E.M., 1967); – (O.E.M., 1968); – (O.E.M., 1970); – (O.E.M., 1972, not finished)



– Herman Van San Archives, Universiteit Gent, Departement musicologie
– H. SABBE, Electronische muziek, in M. DELAERE, Y. KNOCKAERT, H. SABBE, Nieuwe Muziek in Vlaanderen, Brugge, 1998, p. 76-85
– Programmaboek TRANSIT. Leuven New Music Festival, 2000
– Y. KNOCKAERT, art. Van San, Herman, in S. SADIE (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2de uitg., 2001



– Sextet, Microstructure, Sectionen, Timescraper Music Publishing EWR 9902, 1999
– Opus electronicum: geometrische patterns (gerealiseerd door Peter Swinnen), MATRIX, 2000



Texts by Jan De Moor
Last update: 2018