Could we dream up a work of art for the finale to the Unie Hasselt-Genk that would make the two cities resound in harmony, with as many participants as possible from different sections of the population? Could we think of a way to create some kind of ‘sound wave’ between Hasselt and Genk, ideally along the Albert Canal and the oversized bridge to nowhere, the Tuikabelbrug? The curator of the Unie Hasselt-Genk, Tom Van Gestel, imagined something huge, inspired by a historical music spectacle from the Soviet era, featuring artillery, choirs, orchestras and a whole fleet of ships.
We immediately thought of other historical examples that embodied the idea of ‘two in one.’ Take Giovanni Gabrieli’s ‘cori spezatti’, for example, two choirs positioned far apart in Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice just under five hundred years ago, a set-up which created a stereo sound in the imposing space by means of alternating, antiphonal singing techniques. Or the father of American composer Charles Ives, who instructed two marching bands to march towards each other from opposite directions, each playing their own tune. The collisions of sounds in and out of tune were enough to give the young Charles Ives a lifetime’s worth inspiration for the disconcerting compositions that later made him famous.
Before long we came up with the idea of uniting the two poles of Hasselt and Genk with two walls of sound that would move from the two cities towards the Tuikabelbrug, where they would merge into a two-part whole. We realised the effect would be even greater if the sounds of Genk and Hasselt respectively led a life of their own beforehand: if the sounds could nestle inside the heads of the people of Genk and Hasselt at the start of the Unie and then unite resoundingly during the finale. A concept for The Sound of Hasselt and Genk was born.
It soon became clear that there were many obstacles along our path from dream to reality (including a canal and a bridge). How could we get local groups enthusiastic about such an ambitious, and above all highly adventurous, artistic project? How realistic was it to create two sound waves moving towards each other? How could something like this be done in the open air with musical instruments that needed to stay dry? And above all: who would be able to shape these ideas artistically?
We took our concept to Wim Henderickx, a composer with an international career but more than anything someone we trust, who has already proved his ability to spark enthusiasm in large groups of people, even with music that does not immediately appeal. Wim was persuaded and we took him to the place where everything was going to happen. We stood on the bridge and let our imaginations loose. The size of the bridge and the canal made an impression, but what struck us most was how the wind blew all the sounds away. A sobering sound test along the hunting path revealed that besides protection from the wind, amplification would be essential. The scale of the project gradually began to dawn on us. Working groups got down to the business of sorting out logistics, production and communications. Plans were drawn up, tested and fine-tuned.
After a general call for participants, representatives of no less than forty local musical groups and ensembles turned up to the first info session. They were often hesitant, and many had questions. Was it going to be difficult? Would they need a lot of rehearsals? Wim unveiled the plan with infectious enthusiasm. By now the concept had evolved into a ‘living sound sculpture’ that would be performed on three stages on the bridge: a symphony orchestra, a brass band and, in the middle, a large choir with two soloists and percussion. Antifoon was to become a composition with a clear structure, but also a lot of freedom for everyone, from beginners to advanced musicians, to do their thing. The premiere would be preceded by parades from Genk and Hasselt with mobile sound makers. Wim would also compose two city tunes for Genk and Hasselt that would be heard at the end of the composition and which would be played beforehand by the carilloners and street musicians all summer long.
Listen here to the city tune for Hasselt:
And here to the city tune for Genk:
Enthusiasm grew, and by a few months before the premiere we could count on participants from eight choirs, four brass bands, the Limburg symphony orchestra ‘Jeugd en Muziek’ and several percussion groups. When Hasselt conservatory and Genk music school jumped on the bandwagon a little later with large groups of young singers and percussionists, we realised we had an unexpected problem: we had more participants than anticipated, more than we could deal with, and many of them needed a place on the bridge that was protected from the rain. We puzzled over the figures, but it was becoming increasingly clear that the logistical and technical side of the project were becoming an enormous challenge. Yves Mergaerts from Kick came to the rescue. He came up with a transparent cover with space underneath for more than 200 singers, and also dealt with the sound amplification in a three-part system that did justice to the musical concept.
On 5th October, on the stroke of four, The Sound began with a cannon shot.
Immediately, sirens began to blare in the distance and fire engines began to drive slowly towards the bridge from opposite directions.
Behind them came platoons of singing bicycles and honking Vespas, as two fleets of pleasure boats sailed towards each other down the canal itself.
Under the Tuikabelbrug, two alpenhorns were waiting for them, one on each side of the canal.
They made the metal of the bridge sizzle with musical question-and-answers. Up on the bridge, a parade of children playing PVC instruments wound their way between the crowds of people.
Gradually the various orchestras began to join in with short bursts of sound.
In the distance, trucks carrying the percussion groups led by Luc Mishalle and Jo Zanders approached the bridge along the hunting paths, followed by two mobile carillons playing the Genk and Hasselt city tunes.
A final burst of cannon fire close to the bridge was the starting signal for Antifoon, Wim Henderickx’ brand new composition. Musical energies and colours came and went in quick succession: colourful orchestral sounds were interrupted by the percussion groups.
Pulsing passages were followed by long drawn-out, harmonious waves of sound.
The music flowed back and forth over the bridge, from one stage to another.
Around five hundred musicians gave of their best for more than half an hour, fired up by three conductors: Pieter Schuermans for the symphony orchestra, Diederik Glorieux for the choir and Kevin Houben for the brass band. In the middle of the bridge, Wim Henderickx oversaw the entire show from a kind of command centre. Towards the end of the performance, two soloists appeared on the central stage. Coloratura soprano Elise Caluwaerts and bass Werner Van Mechelen took the musical symbolism to its apex, bringing Antifoon to a long, lyrical close.
When the applause died down, the city tunes sounded out for one last time, now in a powerful up-tempo version. Then the musicians and audience made their way home, and quiet returned to the Tuikabelbrug.