Text for a Donemus brochure, March 1993
Louis Andriessen: renewal is concealed in the old
As easy as it may be to describe isolated compositions by Louis Andriessen, it is
very difficult to characterize his entire oeuvre.
His pieces are commentaries, essays in notes, meta-music; to use a favorite
expression of the composer, it is music that 'is about' something. For instance, it is
about De Tijd [Time], De Snelheid [Velocity], or De Materie [Matter]; but also about
Bach or boogie-woogie. In
each of his pieces, Andriessen fastens on to a new subject and casts aside any
extraneous matter. He finds the premises and techniques that complement his subject in
this way and he adheres to them unswervingly. This manner of composing is greatly
dependent on the art of exclusion.
In order to give a profile of Andriessen's music we must resort to the same method:
crossing out all foreign matter and thus delineating its characteristics.
Andriessen's music is emphatically anti-romantic. It is not capricious, compulsive or
acrobatic. It is not baroque, at least in the usual sense of 'richly ornamented', although
it does have much in common with baroque music in its rectilinearity and
straightforwardness. Andriessen's compositions are hierarchically structured, hewn as
it were from blocks of stone, and the prima materia of these blocks is the tone. It is
measured music. The rhythmical structures are plotted along the musical millimetre
markings of a basic pulse. Vibrato is a deadly sin. He demands that the tones played by
the musicians should be as straight as a ruler. The players must attain the utmost
concentration, endurance and precision. In this sense, it is virtuoso music.
It speaks for itself that Andriessen is far removed from musical academicism (the
'festival culture'). After all, the main serial and post-serial techniques of that type of
music are descended via Schönberg from romantic music.
Andriessen follows no recipes. He is by nature an experimenter, but of the type that
is deeply concerned with the conditions under which the experiment is carried out.
While this evidently demarcates the boundaries of Andriessen's musical territory, it
is nonetheless exceptionally broad. At one extreme side we find insistent dissonants in
Nietzsche redet (1989) supporting the reciter, and at the other extreme there is the
melodious, strongly tonally conceived music of Dances (1991). Contrasting to Ende
(1981), a piece for recorder of less than two minutes and having scarcely more pitches,
is the two-hour long, and in every other aspect equally monumental piece for music
theatre, De Materie, completed in 1988.
Further searching for the greatest common denominator yields mainly isolated, but
far from meaningless factors. Andriessen once stated that 'unison textures' have been
the sole musical material of his work since 1970. This is clearly apparent with a piece
like Melodie (1974),
but as far as other works are concerned, the term 'unanimity' would be more accurate.
Although it has an inherent multiplicity, a canon is by nature in unison. This also
applies to the homophonic chords and hocket techniques that occupy the foreground of
many of Andriessen's compositions: 'My music is by nature a-contrapuntal; only one
thing is happening at a given moment.'
That may be true, but still the pile up of instrumental layers in for example the first
movement of De Materie, fans out in an amazingly pluralistic realization of the
seemingly simple, singular point of departure. Not to speak of the less obvious layers:
the hidden cantus firmus, proportions derived from a Bach prelude, as well as the
extra-musical dimensions inherent in the old Dutch texts: shipbuilding, the struggle for
independence and early atomic theory all brought together in a single musical context.
De Materie is a key work in Andriessen's oeuvre because we find combined in it
nearly everything that has held his interest; from the rhythmic force of the first
movement to the procession of towering chordal monoliths in the fourth movement,
and in between the transcendental melody and harmony of Hadewych and the use of
'preformed material' in
As one-dimensional, businesslike and structured as Andriessen's music may seem at
first sight, there is always much more hidden under the surface. Even an unassuming
work like Volkslied [National Anthem], written in 1971, is tantamount to a manifesto:
the notes of the Wilhelmus, the Dutch national anthem, are one by one replaced by
those of the International.
Although he is renowned for creating large-scale musical monuments, Andriessen
does not eschew composing film scores, music for the ballet or a simple song. This is
yet another reflection of his likeness to the baroque composer. He is a man of the trade,
Andriessen's work is distinguished from most contemporary music-making not only
by its versatility, but also by its accessibility. Like Mozart, he composes works for both
the expert and the enthusiast, satisfying the brain and the belly so to speak.
A concept like 'style' is of less importance. Andriessen has no single style: what he
does have is a purely individual and recognizable manner of styling. Like Stravinsky,
he always pops up donning another hat, but his fingerprints are scattered throughout
Andriessen is a pragmatic composer, but that does not mean that he sails with any
Quite the contrary. His early work shows an increasingly clear penchant for taking the
opposition, which was already apparent when at the age of nineteen he composed
two pianos (serial music was both unheard and unheard of in the Netherlands of 1958).
the course of the sixties, Andriessen's political and musical radicalization grew in step
with each other. This led in 1970 to his decision never again to compose for symphony
He has remained true to this pledge and since then he has transformed musical
practice to suit his own needs.
For the compositions De Volharding [Perseverance] (1972) and Hoketus (1977), he
and collaborated with new ensembles, both of which were named for the respective
works and, incidentally, were vital enough to survive under their own steam. The
electrically amplified, (post)minimal Hoketus disbanded after ten years. The wind
orchestra De Volharding is still active; as recently as 1991, Andriessen composed M is
for Man, Music and Mozart especially
for this group, which also resulted in his collaboration with film maker Peter
Following upon his at times extremely radical compositions of the seventies,
Andriessen's music has become more complex: or, more precisely, his choice of
subjects has transferred to increasingly higher levels. After exploring minimal music
and the principle of unison texture in De Staat, composed in 1976, fifteen years later,
in the string quartet Facing Death, he transformed the recklessly fast and death-fleeing
music of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker to an individual, hermetic idiom but with
the same impact.
Tone and sound are closely related in Andriessen's music. Characteristic is his
predilection for combinations of bass guitar notes, wind parts that are at times
under-current or elsewhere spattering in the heavens, ethereal strings and either
synthetic or acoustic metal sounds. These all reinforce the penetrating substance of
his pillar-like chords in which diatonic colours are mixed with chromatic pigments in
such a way that they become alienated from their origins. Balancing on this remarkable
tightrope the triumph over the gravitational forces of tonality he proves himself
again a true heir of Stravinsky.
In 1983 Andriessen wrote, together with Elmer Schönberger, a book about
Stravinsky, Het Apollinisch Uurwerk [The Apollonian Clockwork] (transl. Jeff
Hamburg). It is a unique and revealing study, not least of all because here as well the
subject is illuminated by a series of pruning motions and microscopic examinations of
A quote (p. 101): '...renewal is concealed in the old. It hides itself. Only a sharp
sleuth will discover it and thereby change history. The true influence of Stravinsky
keeps beginning all over again.'
There can be no doubt that this 'sharp sleuth' is no one other than Louis Andriessen.
(Translation: John Lydon)
See also my Louis Andriessen cartoon
© Frits van der Waa 2007