Louis Andriessen is one of my musical heroes. Starting out as a dabbler in all kinds of post-WWII styles, he developed, in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, into a real rabble-rouser in the then-staid Dutch art-music establishment. Along the way, he worked with free-improv/free-jazz players; set up the electronic-music think-tank STEIM; picked up influences from rock and American minimalism; and started writing voracious, ferocious, incomparably challenging and rewarding music that sounds like no one else. Total force of nature; may he live to be 200.
My favorite piece by Andriessen is De Staat, based on Plato’s The Republic — but my copy is a FLAC, so doesn’t fit into the scope of this project. Fortunately, De Materie (“Matter”) is a close second. Scored for voices (solo and choral) and an eclectic large instrumental force, and a rumination on the relationship between the material and spiritual worlds, it’s in 4 parts, running almost 2 hours in total. (This recording, the only complete one, is conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw and features Asko | Schönberg and members of the Netherlands Chamber Choir.) I only had time for one of the parts today, so I chose Part 4, with which I’m least familiar. (Parts 2 (Hadewijch) and 3 (De Stijl) were favorites of my teacher Steve Jaffe, and I studied ‘em earnestly in his composition seminar.)
It begins with a slow, patient alternation between two high-register chords — scored for metals, keyboards and plucked strings, and ringing sonorously in the silence between them — with occasional punctuations by quick figuration in the low winds. After several minutes of this, the music gradually settles into a pavane-like slow dance, with the harmony and orchestration evolving so subtly you don’t really realize it’s happening. (This patient rigor in timing and instrumental shading, and the way it suspends my expectations, is what really makes Andriessen’s work so powerful for me.) By the time the voices enter — intoning passages from sonnets by Willem Kloos, around the nature of death and desire — we’re over halfway through the 28-minute running time, and the tempo, harmony and texture have intensified dramatically AND imperceptibly. The climax brings Andriessen’s Stravinsky-love right to the fore, with wailing brass and thick choral scoring… before collapsing into near silence. The ending is an almost-solo reading of excerpts from Marie Curie’s diary and Nobel Prize acceptance speech — alternating back and forth between her singular triumph and her tragic loss (i.e., the death of husband Pierre), and accompanied by a return to the opening sonarties.
THOUGHTS FOR LATER:
- As big a fan of Andriessen’s as I am, I’m woefully incomplete in my knowledge of his VAST catalogue. I’m especially out of touch on his early work (pre-1970) — so I’m gonna put it to myself as an additional challenge to try listening to at least one piece of his, per week, that I don’t already know.
- Speaking of incomplete knowledge, this Wikipedia project on “music students by teacher” is pretty imposing.
- Would be an interesting thing to study who cites Andriessen as an influence, and why. The obvious folks (Bang on a Can collective, Icebreaker, etc.) aside, there is really so much going on in his work that I feel certain other composers have absorbed important lessons that aren’t so explicitly heard (i.e., things other than the rhythmic rigor and instrumental surface).
- Go back and re-read The Apollonian Clockwork, Andriessen’s rumination (with Elmer Schonberger) on his understanding of Stravinsky. I remember it being curious and thought-provoking, but other than that I’m blank on specifics.
No complete version of the recording online, but here’s a live performance of the entire thing!!! <3