Jos Kunst
'Making sense in music'

by Antoine Beuger (2001)

In slightly abridged form published in 2003 as the liner notes to the Composer's Voice Classics CV 124 CD with works of Jos Kunst by The Barton Workshop.

Jos Kunst was not very fond of program notes. Being convinced, that listening to music is a genuine form of thinking, of testing and creating (non-verbal) concepts in order to cope with a musical situation, he denied authority to any (verbal) claim about what is going on in a work of music. In a general comment, written as early as 1970 and used on many occasions afterward, he stated:

"The composer refrains from commenting on his individual pieces. Describing the production process is, in as far as it at all possible, probably quite irrelevant. Music is almost exclusively built on non-verbal (e.g. motor) concepts, and nobody today is really well-equipped to handle those without grossly falsifying them, But I also do not think we need such equipment in the usual music listening situation. Let each listener just open his ears and think of anything. If everything goes well, the music will then capture his thinking, and at least give form, even if not substance, to it. And it might very well be that producing frames of thought within which important ideas may take root, flourish and breed is, in the long run, even more effective than just putting forward important ideas. Maybe music is good for something, after all."

The composer may have designed the musical situation by creating a score, much like an architect designed a house. On what it means, though, to experience the piece, he is no more an authority than the architect is on what it means to live in the house. Even in relation to the performance of the piece, the composer's opinion is worth no less, but also no more than the judgement of the players. Two of Kunst's latest scores contain the same note:

"The composer has, in the same way as all the others, a right to his opinions on the present piece, but he cannot claim to be the final judge of what it means, or needs from its players. Players will (it is hoped) choose to do it for a reason, and this reason should be none other than their musical idea of it. Therefore, they should always answer all and any questions arising about it by reference to that idea."

On the other hand, Jos Kunst had a lot to say about how, in general terms, meaning is created in music, about "Making sense in music" (the title of his 1978 dissertation). As he puts forward, listening to music is based on our ability to understand "audible attitudes": non-verbal sound producing activities, through which people make themselves known to others, showing what kind of people they are, what mood they are in, how they relate to each other etc. I always remembered his claim, that the objects of aural perception are events, not things: we hear "someone close a door", "a car pass by", "someone hammering a nail into the wall". Music draws on this ability: we hear someone play the clarinet, we hear how he does it, what physical force he has to mobilize. We hear, it costs him a lot of energy. We hear him trying to play higher and higher tones. We hear he waits a bit, then tries again. Doesn't really succeed, has to focus even more, starts on a very low tone, collects more energy by playing an accelerating trill, then lifts off, very quickly reaching a much higher pitch, softens, settles, doesn't fall down again.
These are the things we hear, when someone is playing music. But that is only the beginning. Really interesting musical situations are less easy to grasp, or to conceptualize. They confront us with ambivalences, undecidabilities, indeterminacies: what is going on? It could be 'this', but as well 'that'. We have to listen closer, to find out more, revisit our first thought. Again, this is all taking place on an non-verbal level. As in most real-life situations we have 'no time' to verbalize, 'no time' to reason about our decision. When I want to go into my studio, I don't make a plan, how to get there, I just go, without running into closed doors, not studying the number of steps I have to take. I 'know' how to get there. 'Knowing' means: non-verbal perceptual and motor concepts are in place, which I can rely upon.
Music, then, brings us into situations, we don't really 'know' how to deal with. Partly, yes: we have some experience, we might have been in similar situations before. We can mobilize some concepts, but without being completely sure about them. We have to question them, try them out, consider revisions, new combinations, or come up with a new solution. Short: we are learning. Learning by doing.

By not providing authoritative program notes or performance directions, Jos Kunst showed he was serious about the non-verbal power of (his) music. By giving the listener real work to do, the composer may give him an opportunity to intensify his perception, to have experiences he didn't have before, to see the world a bit differently, to change his frame of mind.

Now here am I, trying to write liner notes to Jos Kunst's CD. So far, I have summarized some of Jos Kunst's general ideas on music and musical perception, ideas that underpin his rejection of composer's program notes. I would now like to say something about the individual pieces, or better: about my experience with them. Does my experience matter? No, in terms of any authority claim. Yes, as a description of one listener's experience, which may be compared to other experiences, and may give rise to rejection, consent or something in between. No more, no less.

Hearing back Solo Identity I and No Time after about 25 years (I heard these pieces two or three times in concert performances somewhere between 1974 and 1977) I was completely surprised, how much of the music I immediately recognized: sounds, gestures, chords, structures, sudden changes, typical moments; details, I wouldn't have been able to recall from memory, but about which I knew at once: this is exactly, what I heard 25 years ago. Much like coming back in a town after many years, immediately recognizing streets, houses, 'knowing' more or less exactly its layout, how to get where etc.
This sensation of 'having been here before' made me wonder even more about the remarkable concurrence of clarity and precision on the one hand, ambivalence and changeability on the other, which characterizes the world created in these pieces. Even if nothing is vague, you never know for sure what is going on. Things turn out to be a bit different all the time. So you better keep your mind open, letting new ideas "take root, flourish and breed".
Solo Identity I has a very positive, optimistic quality. The player is trying to get something done. It is hard to say exactly what he is working on, since his overall activity consists of so many different components. There is no single direction or goal to be identified. Not really going somewhere, he is unswervingly going on, apparently 'knowing' how to get, where he wants to be. Not unlike the activity of certain birds, at the same time frantic and accurate. Without being able to tell, what exactly he is accomplishing or achieving, one gets the impression the player is successful, he is getting things done. One thing I didn't remember about the piece was, that after about 4 minutes it gets very quiet, focussed, but also floating, and remains so nearly until the end. Then, there is a little more work to do, but it is done so much more easily, almost casually, letting the piece end on a fully relaxed, single, simple, full tone: "well done".
Not so Solo Identity II. Here, too, the general impression is, that someone is working very hard to get something off the ground, but somehow it doesn't seem to function all that well. Again, hard to say, what exactly he is working on. But, in contrast to Solo Identity I , the player seems to be engaged in trying just one thing. He seems to start over and over again, giving up too quickly maybe, trying it differently, only to get frustrated again. No patience, as in the long quiet section of the bass clarinet piece. No confidence. Stubbornness. Faltering. Too much energy invested. Pression. Violent temper.
Bring these two together and you get a very strange, though, it seems, quite efficient team. Combined with the bass clarinet, many of the piano activities all of a sudden sound 'understandable', the bass clarinet activities loose some of their heat. Both of the players, or better: both of the musics, are now meeting resistance from outside. Like a boxer confronting a real opponent, instead of punching in the air. It is not just simultaneity, it is confrontation, relation. Frictional energy is released. Now, the players are not just solipsistically 'working', they are working together: cooperating, but also fighting, competing, observing, following, influencing each other, changing each other's appearance, at times trying to get out ouf each other's ways, or to edge out the other. In this environment, you must be very quick, as a player, but also as a listener: No time at all for verbal reasoning, everything depends on being flexible, intuitively mobilizing non-verbal perceptual and social concepts, open to let them be affected by what is taking place.
In No time, the bass clarinet-piano-duo is embedded in a larger group of instruments: 3 clarinets on the one hand, 2 percussionists on the other. In many instances, the clarinets are heard as an extension of the bass clarinet, blowing up some of its activities, expanding, reinforcing them; masking others, by integrating them in a more complex texture; qualifying others, by giving them a different perspective. The long homophonic section for clarinets at the beginning of the piece introduces a lot of new backgrounds for things to come later in the piece. The first and foremost of its effects is, that the bass clarinet and the piano have to free themselves from the environment thus created in order to get going. They never really succeed in doing so, as the clarinets and the percussion seem to keep them under control most of the time, slowing down their impetus, producing a nervous kind of viscosity. Also, at times, the clarinets pull the bass clarinet in one direction, the percussionists the piano in another.

How different the tone of Any two, how enigmatic. Nothing left of the hands-on working climate of the No time-cycle. No trying to get something done, no confrontation of activities, no tearing apart of positions. Instead: "gropingly; almost asleep" . Tempo: 24 or less, which means: almost no movement. No goals. A touching, tender clumsiness. Two persons in the dim, dependent on each other, doing everything together, as if holding hands. There is this sense of going on without budging, reminding of Samuel Beckett. No arrival, just carrying on. Very quiet, but not relaxed. Sometimes almost indifferent. Sometimes almost loving. Underneath, sometimes, silent enmity, sometimes emerging as "smothered, choked off violence". Experiencing Any two, we learn about being together, not about working together.

After finishing this piece, Jos Kunst decided to stop composing, having

"lost all confidence in the existence of any culture-group that shows, if only to the slightest degree, some vitality and a commitment to make the so called "new" classical music viable, and with which he could, if only from a distance, feel some form of association. Wants to keep involved with music however and chooses therefore the long detour of a scholarly, in this case musicological, existence."

Thirteen years later, 1988, he ends this long journey and starts composing again, directing "his musical activity only at his own goals. Thus, he withdraws from most social rituals that, er, "liven up" musical life."

In my view, like Any two, Jos Kunst's later works cannot be dealt with purely in terms of ambivalence or ambiguity. Ambivalence requires clear options: it could be both "this" or "that". Listening to Concertino I don't feel like being in a situation of undecidability between options which in themselves are sufficiently clear. Rather, I can't really tell, what is going on. It is an extremely interesting situation of conceptlessness, of float. I keep wondering: "what is this?", enjoying the lack of a concrete answer. It is as if the concepts I mobilize to get a grip on the situation start melting, loose substance or cohesion. Things sound familiar and completely strange at the same time. In the two very long "cadenzas", for example, it is very easy to describe, what happens: very slow-moving strings of fifths, fourths and tritoni (in Jos Kunst's words: thirdless triads) are articulated freely. But the description doesn't seem to have anything to do with what I really hear: a world, where nothing remains as it is and everything is in constant flux, while at the same time being perfectly quiet and complete. I don't have a word for such a world.
Concertino is Jos Kunst's longest piece. It is more than twice as long as his longest piece before. Here, one has time. A lot of time. Time to wonder. Here too, the mind is working very hard and has a lot to do. But it is less a question of problem solving. It is about embracing indeterminacy.