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Peter Schat

Composer who devised the 'tone-clock'

Friday 21 February 2003 01:00 GMT

Peter Ane Schat, composer: born Utrecht, The Netherlands 5 June 1935; (one son with Marina Schapers); died Amsterdam 3 February 2003.

Among the divergent -isms of contemporary classical music – serialism, neo-Romanticism, minimalism and more – the Dutch composer Peter Schat described himself simply as a "neo-optimist". He learned from the prevailing orthodoxies but insisted on remaining free to make his own compositional choices.

The son of a piano-playing baker, Schat studied at Utrecht Conservatory from 1952 to 1958, taking composition lessons with Kees van Baaren (the first man to bang the drum for 12-tone music in the Netherlands) and studying piano with Jaap Callenbach. He came to London in 1959 to study privately with Mátyás Seiber, thence travelling to Basel to sit at the feet of Pierre Boulez in the Musikhochschule.

Schat's début as a composer had come while he was still a student, aged 18, when in 1954 his Passacaglia and Fugue for organ was premiered in Utrecht Cathedral. A string quartet soon followed – his first 12-tone work. Strict serialism came with Entelechie I, written in 1961 under Boulez's supervisory glare. Schat dipped his fingers in many other fashionable pies, too – procedures involving chance, unusual spatial arrangements, electronics; he later commented laconically, "I have lived in the belly of the beast."

As all these influences were feeding into his music, Schat was selecting what he needed for his own purposes and brought them together in Labyrinth: a sort of opera (1966), a multi-media piece using dance, mime, painting, film and drama alongside its variously treated musical elements.

Schat was also a child of the political times. He was prominent in Provo, the youth protest movement in the Netherlands of the 1960s, and his anti-capitalism coloured the music he was then writing. In On Escalation of 1968, for instance, scored for six percussionists and orchestra, and written in homage to Che Guevara, what he called "organised rebellion" gradually undermines the authority of the conductor.

But Schat looked at life with a quizzical eye and a grin, and he found he couldn't take left-wing extremism any more seriously than dogmatic theoretical positions in music. Instead, his music took on a more broadly humanist, though still politicised, dimension: Canto General (1974), for mezzo soprano, violin and piano, lamented the assassinated Chilean Communist leader Salvatore Allende; the piano Polonaise (1981) marked the protests in the shipyard in Gdansk; and in 1989-90 the orchestral De Hemel ("The Heavens", described as "twelve symphonic variations") protested against the suppression of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

And the third of his four operas, Aap verslaat de knekelgeest ("Monkey Subdues the White-Bone Demon"; 1980), was inspired by a book which "contained one of the many Monkey-stories from the 17th century that are still very popular in China and elsewhere"; Schat said he "identified with Monkey in his relentless fight against the Grand Illusion, i.e. the one-party Utopia that held the countries of the East in a lethal grip".

Another leitmotif in Schat's career was his experimentation with unlikely combinations of instruments. Thema (1970) features solo oboe, 18 other wind instruments, four electric guitars and electric organ (it was, Schat confessed, one of his "most extreme, repetitive and loudest compositions"). To You (1972) is written for mezzo, six electric guitars, three bass guitars, four electric pianos, two electric organs and six huge electric humming tops.

In his 1977 opera Houdini (the theme of which, the composer said, is "man liberating himself from self-imposed confinement") the orchestral percussion is augmented by six steel drums. For all his use of electric instruments, though, and for all that he had been involved in the setting-up of the Amsterdam Studio for Electro-Instrumental in 1967, electronic sound played little part in his armoury of colours.

From 1974 until 1983 Schat taught composition at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague; thereafter he supported himself as a full-time composer. He also wrote regularly for the newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

Schat's fascination with – and distrust of – absolutist systems led him to formulate a system of his own, but one which attempted to reconcile tonality and atonality. Arnold Schoenberg's articulation of dodecaphony, in 1924, proposed a "method of composition with 12 different notes related entirely to one another" – that is, where no single tone would be dominant (pun intended), as in the tonal system he was rejecting. Writing 60 years later, Schat disagreed:

A tone's expressive power . . . is derived solely from its surroundings, not from itself. Because of this, Schoenberg's administrative individualisation is the demise of his method.

I propose that we replace Schoenberg's method of 12 individual tones with a model of "12 tonalities related only to one another".

Schat's proposition took the form of a "tone-clock", elaborated in 1982, which reinstated the triad – a three-note chord consisting of two stacked thirds – over the modernists' focus on the interval, the gap between two notes. His "tone-clock" was built on the 12 major and minor triads and identified a series of natural harmonic relationships even in the chromatic scale. Olivier Messiaen's theory of "limited transposition" had reasoned along the beginnings of these lines; Schat's insight now found limitless harmonic potential in an all- embracing compositional principle.

Schat published his discovery as De Toonklok in 1984 (an English translation, The Tone-Clock, appeared in 1993). Predictably, his radical erstwhile fellow travellers denounced what they saw as a sell-out to the past. Schat, though, was happy: he made no outlandish claims for his method ("it is not a recipe for composing. Perhaps it is of no use to anyone else; I myself am surprised by the possibilities it opens with each composition"), but its "chromatic tonality", as he styled it, both focused and released his creative enthusiasms. As well as De Hemel, which bubbles with good-natured energy, the second of his two completed symphonies was written along tone-clock precepts, and when he died, he was working on the second movement of a third, the Gamelan Symphony.

Another unfinished project was his intention to present Aap verslaat de knekelgeest as "the first cartoon-opera on the Internet" on his idiosyncratic website,

Martin Anderson

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