dutch version

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 De Stijl.

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, a craftsman.

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 the work.

Andriessen is a pragmatic composer, but that does not mean that he sails with any wind. 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 Séries for two pianos (serial music was both unheard and unheard of in the Netherlands of 1958). In 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 orchestra.

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 founded 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 Greenaway.

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 partial aspects.

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