Canto Ostinato is the new volume of classical minimalism from musician and producer Erik Hall. Written for four pianos from 1976 to 1979 by the late Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt, the piece is freshly framed as an intimate, hour-long solo performance consisting of multitracked grand pianos, electric piano, and organ. The second album in a trilogy of reinterpretations, Hall’s Canto Ostinato is modern yet warm, ethereal yet tangible, and it expertly bridges a revered piece of meditative concert repertoire with a tactile and highly personal studio setting.
Chicago-born and Michigan-based, Erik Hall is known as a multi-instrumental pillar for the groups NOMO, Wild Belle, and his own songwriting moniker In Tall Buildings. He has composed music for feature films, and as a producer/engineer he has shaped records for Natalie Bergman and Western Vinyl labelmates Lean Year. In a 2020 creative pivot, he chose to reinvent composer Steve Reich’s monumental contemporary classical masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians as a solo undertaking, applying the piece’s score to the familiar keyboards, guitars, and synthesizers in his studio. “At the time I think I was working through my identity as a musician and an artist,” Hall explains, “and on a level there was some sort of exorcism of a long held pop spirit.” The album was celebrated for being “freshly thrilling” and “legible in history but assertive of the moment” (Pitchfork) and “beguiling, meditational, and magical” (Electronic Sound). It won the 2021 Libera Award for Best Classical Record, and it quickly joined the canon of the piece’s quintessential recordings.
“There is a pseudo-meditational benefit to working on a longform piece that’s built on repetition,” Hall says. “Every stage— from internalizing the music, to executing the performance, to editing and mixing the record— requires deep and sustained presence of mind. I’ve always been drawn to a hallucinatory combination of harmony and repetition, and I found the entire process addictive.”
An apt second chapter, Canto Ostinato is Simeon ten Holt’s blissfully adventurous magnum opus. As a solitary Dutch composer of the mid-20th century avant-garde, ten Holt dared to abandon the fashionable twelve-tone language of his schooling for a return to tonality, the simple triad, and shifting rhythmic patterns. Rather than revert to the old laws of harmony, he employed overlapping, freely repeating shapes with a highly distinctive tonal center to manifest an independent ‘musical object,’ liberating the piece’s overall structure from the written page and defining a new Dutch minimal music.
As such, Canto Ostinato is inherently vast, and its score gives great creative license to the performers. Comprising 106 sections, complete freedom is given to repeat each one as many or as few times as desired. Additional leeway is given with regard to dynamics, articulation, and even instrumentation. On the heels of his previous, rather maximal arrangement, Hall chose to limit this album’s palette to three foundational keyboards of his studio: a 1962 Hammond M-101 organ, a 1978 Rhodes Mark I electric piano, and his family-heirloom 1910 Steinway grand piano. “This particular piece brought the added challenge of rekindling my dexterity as a pianist, something I haven’t maintained in earnest since I was a teenager,” he admits. The ensuing five-note rhythmic motif— the piece’s primary building block— is steady and workmanlike, forgoing virtuosic flare for depth, texture, and resonance, and eventually giving way to the stunning gratification of a gorgeously lyrical left turn.
As with Music for 18 Musicians, Hall employed no loops nor quantization nor any programmed or sequenced instruments of any kind. Every part was performed live in a room and captured with microphones, one at a time, each informed by, and reacting to the last. In this way the record breathes with interplay and an organic humanity, complete with flaws, noise, and the faint sound of turning pages. As the piece’s first edition to comfortably fit on a single vinyl LP, the recording quality is nonetheless toneful and saturated, characteristic of Hall’s production style and straying from the usual transparency of classical albums by using gear with tubes, transformers, and various stages of compression in the signal path. Always there is unmistakable realism and the feeling of being present in the room, sitting among the white and black keys, hammers, and tines.
Simeon ten Holt died in 2012 as celebrated in his country as he was singular. “A great deal of time, patience and discipline are the prerequisites for making a genetic code productive, that eventually determines form, structure, length, instrumentation, etc.,” he said. “Such a process is laborious, as it is constantly being troubled by human short-comings and one’s own will, and it is dependent on moments of clarity and vitality. And then, the sea washes and polishes, time crystallizes.”
Ten Holt’s landmark composition provides Erik Hall once again with a wondrous and expansive space in which to reverently embody this sentiment and deftly convey the elegant beauty of this music.