Essential Music: Canto Ostinato by Simeon ten Holt

I’ve long been a fan of minimalist music, and I’ve written a fair amount about that sub-genre here. There are some key works in minimalism: Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Terry Riley’s In C (, Amazon UK) and many others. But there’s one that remains a cult work, which, while widely recorded, isn’t very well known outside of Europe.

Simeon ten Holt was a Dutch composer who died in 2012, and who composed works in “cells,” little bits that could be played freely, offering performers a great deal of latitude in the way they played his compositions.

His best known work is the 1973-1979 composition Canto Ostinato. It can be played by one or more keyboard instruments, and the composer described it as follows:

The work originates from a traditional source, it is tonal and uses functional harmonies. Although all the subdivisions have a fixed place in the course of the work and are not interchangeable, the beginning and ending do not have an absolute form-bordering significance. Cause and result, tension and relaxation – inseparable pairs of functions are used as independent entities, and as they proceed they are brought to a standstill through the repetitions. Chords or chord groups, comprised in bars or sections, disengage themselves from the melodic ties and start to lead a life of their own. Time plays an important role. The bars or sections have been given repetition signs; the number of times they are repeated is to be decided by the performers. The repetition procedure aims at creating a situation in which the musical object confirms its independence and can search for the most favourable position with respect to the light. Time becomes the space in which the musical object is going to float.

I admit that the above text is a bit wooly. ten Holt essentially used a procedure similar to that which Terry Riley used for In C. Here’s the score for In C, which was reproduced on the first recording that Riley made on Columbia records back in 1968:

Terry Riley In C full score.jpg

Performers play each section as many times as they want, as long as they stay within two or three phrases of the other musicians. So every performance is different. In C could be played in 15 minutes or it could take a couple of hours; any group of instruments and/or voices could perform it.

For Canto Ostinato, the approach is similar. Here’s a page of its score:


The performer(s) plays each cell as many times as he, she or they want, then moves on. It can take less than an hour, or it can take several hours.

All of the above is a bit technical, and gets away from the music itself. What Canto Ostinato offers is a sound world that is fascinating, entrancing, yet constantly changing.

One Dutch pianist, Jeroen van Veen, seems to be obsessed with this work. He performs it constantly, alone or with others, and has just released a box set of his recordings, Canto Ostinato XL. (, Amazon UK, iTunes Store; note that the download price is much lower than the price of the set on CD.) This set contains 12 (!!!) recordings of the work, for one piano, two, four, and a variety of other keyboard instruments. To be frank, you don’t need twelve recordings, but given that you can buy this set (by download) for roughly the price of one or two versions, it’s a bargain. The set contains mostly one-disc versions of the work – less than 80 minutes – but the version for four pianos is nearly two and a half hours. I’d say the essential versions on this set are the first three: for one piano, for two pianos, and for four pianos. The music is very different with different numbers of instruments.

But perhaps the best way to discover this work is to listen to it. Here’s a video of Canto Ostinato for four pianos, lasting a bit more than an hour and a half. Sit back and enjoy it.