dutch version

This article was published in
Key Notes XXXI, 4, december 1997
and in a shorter Dutch version in
De Volkskrant on 6 June 1997.

A skull, a spider and a scherzo

Louis Andriessen's most recent work, De Trilogie van de Laatste Dag [The Trilogy of the Last Day] is not about death, but rather about the way in which artists from various periods dealt with death. Andriessen draws on innumerable sources, including the Tao Te Ching, Saint-Saëns and the encyclopedia: ‘I took what they had in there about death and translated it into schoolboy-ese’, he says. ‘Of course it doesn't say that you don't pee and poo anymore.’

‘The trick,’ says Louis Andriessen, ‘is to do something you've never done before. That becomes more difficult as you get older, simply because the older you get the more you've done. But still, if you are a bit open to what's going on around you, new surprises keep popping up, and then there is often mountains of work to be done.’
In addition to his larger works, with which Andriessen has become the most influential Dutch composer since Jan Pietersz Sweelinck, a steady stream of ‘lesser’ works continually flows from his pen. And ‘lesser’ does not necessarily mean ‘shorter’: in his music for Odyssee, a Beppie Blankert dance performance, Andriessen employs the modest means of a quartet of women's voices, but with it spans the duration of a full hour.
It was a memorable experience, that chilly evening in the summer of '96: on an open-air dock in the Amsterdam harbour, against the backdrop of the setting sun, singers and dancers wove solemnly amongst one another in an impressive musical ritual. ‘I have the feeling I'm moving towards singing, for the past twenty years actually,’ says Andriessen now. ‘To comprehend what goes through those people's heads it's very good to observe the entire process of studying a piece from close up.’
In that sense Andriessen has an impressive track record. In the seventies he formed several ensembles, in which he himself often played. His primary aim was not to get his own music performed, but mostly to bring about a change in the way composers, musicians and audiences dealt with music.
‘In that respect I can rest on my laurels a bit. But these days there are an awful lot of amazing young musicians who can play my music really well, which affords me the room to focus on abstract things like form, parameters, musical material.’
But Andriessen would not be Andriessen if he didn't go further than that. His music is always ‘about’ something - for example, about time (De Tijd), about velocity (De Snelheid, about matter (De Materie). The subject of his latest large-scale piece, De Trilogie van De Laatste Dag, is death. But what can music possibly say about Death?
‘It can't say anything, really,’ Andriessen concedes. ‘Of course there are all sorts of traditions in music history which have given certain connotations to certain things. Imagine a really noisy piece where all of a sudden you have a measure of silence, with the exception of tubular bells and bell plates that play a descending minor third as loud as possible. People will automatically think of church bells, and more as a warning sign, something from a Requiem, than from a nice happy wedding or something - even though they ring exactly the same bells for the wedding. Thus there's always an ambiguity, but that is in fact an advantage for the artist. Art - this holds true for visual arts and literature, but particularly for music - has no intrinsic meaning. I am becoming more and more convinced that life itself doesn't have any meaning either. Which gives you the freedom to give it meaning. Curious pursuit.’

Let us forthwith dispel any suspicions of autobiographical composition: Andriessen penned the first notes of De Laatste Dag in 1993, so the choice of this subject thus has nothing to do with ‘that little heart attack’ he suffered two years later. ‘That could have happened to me twenty years later or ten years earlier. I think it was the result of the three hundred thousand cigarettes I rolled in my lifetime. It could have perhaps been precipitated by the effort that went into the opera Rosa, but I think that's a lot of bullshit. All those doctors you see suddenly in the space of a couple of weeks, and not one of them mentioned the word "stress". The heart is simply a pump, and sometimes it doesn't do what it's supposed to do, that's the way they talk about it and that's the way I see it too. All that mystical nonsense surrounding the heart business doesn't do anything for me.’
In fact, he states, De Trilogie van De Laatste Dag is not even about death itself, but about the way in which artists from various periods and cultures dealt with death. In the first movement, De Laatste Dag [The Last Day], a poem by Lucebert is joined by a nineteenth-century horror-novel folk song. The second movement, Tao (De Weg) [Tao (The Way)] combines a text from the Tao Te Ching with a poem by the Japanese poet Koutaro Takamura. And the third movement, dancing on the bones, is based on the Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns.
The trilogy is scored for a typical Andriessen ensemble of a small string group, lots of winds, electric guitars, synthesizers, pianos and percussion. The first movement was performed during the 1996 Holland Festival, the second movement during the 1996 Donaueschinger Musiktage: the complete trilogy was performed last year by the Ensemble Modern during the Cologne Triennale and received its Netherlands premiere on 31 January in the 1000th Matinee op de Vrije Zaterdag (Saturday matinee), with Reinbert de Leeuw conducting the combined forces of the Schoenberg and Asko Ensembles.
‘That's simply overindulgence, to hear the entire trilogy in one performance,’ said the composer. ‘I've always kept in mind that they were to be three independent pieces that could also be performed separately.’

Just as De Materie, the large-scale four-movement theatre piece from the 1980s, the Trilogy is a work of ideas, and just as De Materie, it began as a vision: ‘It had to be something different from De Materie, of course,’ says Andriessen, ‘even if that "something different" is very limited. I believe personality shows itself more in the things you cannot do than in the things you can do. What I did know from the very beginning was that it should be of a self-consuming length. Each movement had to be shorter than the preceding one. ‘After lots of fussing and sketching I came up with a progressive ratio of 3:2, from movement to movement. Anyone with a knack for maths can see that that gives a proportion of 9:6:4. And I also knew that the first part had to be a men's piece, the second a women's, and the third a sort of scherzo, a children's piece. I've wanted to do that for a long time, a piece for children's choir.’
But the vision expanded: ‘My idea is that these three pieces together form the first movement of a really expansive diptych. The second part would also last about an hour and would utilize all the personnel from the preceding three movements.
‘That is a vision that I will probably never realize. It would have to be a piece about he voyages of St. Brendan, where various sea stories come together on a variety of levels. A sort of Ulysses, but based on the sea. With the Ship of Fools, the Sirens and the Flying Dutchman. And of course the captain falls in love with a sailor, who in the end turns out to be a girl anyway. The possibilities are endless. Whether that should be an opera remains to be seen. But at the moment I don't have time for it since I have first have to write another opera.’

Andriessen decided very early on that he wanted to use the poem Het laatste avondmaal [The Last Supper] by the poet/painter Lucebert (1924-1994). ‘I started reading Lucebert when I was a lad of 19, and when the latest collection came out I knew immediately that this was it. I thought, "This is absolutely right, such a perfectly beautiful text, I'm going to set this to music." Those later poems are also less manneristic. I don't want to say easier, but they are much more direct.’
Andriessen put Lucebert's text into the mouths of a four-voice men's choir, surrounded by an ensemble that hammers away in a variety of tempi. In a few places the music falls silent and in the void comes the voice of a boy soprano, singing the bizarre text Een juffrouw met haar meid (het ellendig doodshoofd) [A woman and her lass (the wretched skull)]. Andriessen explains: ‘The boy represents Life, a very simple metaphor. That only came later into the picture. The first six minutes of De Laatste Dag, by the way the most angular of the entire piece, were already finished before I began work on Rosa. Greenaway was much too late with the Rosa script, so I thought I'd just start on that trilogy. When I returned to the piece once Rosa was finished, the idea of the gaps came up. The image of a sort of coffin made of planks, but with gaps in between, so you'd fall through them. It's a feeling that I got, incidentally, in the sixties, when I smoked weed once in a while. I only did it once or twice, it was not at all a pleasurable experience. One of the times I did it I remember that I was lying on my bed and that I myself was a sort of ... coffin - I was a coffin which in construction was a sort of lattice of planks. Not a really pleasant sensation. That is just the piece I have made, actually.
‘But when I was composing those black holes where nothing happens, to my surprise there appeared a young boy. He sang a little song. That song had to have words, of course. My assistant Francine Kersten found a text in the Meertens Institute about a woman who looks for her mother's skull in the church graveyard in order to ask her what it was like in the hereafter.
‘That is a story in itself. Later the orchestra cautiously joins the boy soprano, and there are also gaps without the boy. The point is that this should be a slightly unpredictable element - even if you know the piece well.’
The army of four ensembles that performed De Laatste Dag in 1996 are not required this time around: Andriessen has considerably pared down the score. ‘Due to the heavy orchestration the piece suffered a curious lack of incisiveness. So I cleaned house a bit.’
The music of De Laatste Dag is based on a collection of 22 chords and a melody Andriessen borrowed from his own composition Zilver. ‘I learned that from Stravinsky, that you have to make do with a minimum of material. It's a sort of recycling. But the trick is to do something really new with it. The music is actually about the principle of "development". That's a weighty word, but it means simply that you confront, preferably, two contrasting elements with each other. In my music the contrast lies rather in the characteristic of the tempo, the movement, than in the material itself.’
As opposed to the classical sonata form, there is no exposition of the themes: ‘That's something you can skip,’ Andriessen asserts. ‘When I was studying I found out pretty quickly that in sonata form the exposition as well as the recapitulation are boring and annoying. With Haydn and Mozart - actually with all the classical composers - you find yourself waiting for those few bars of development. That is why I find J.S. Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel so good. With him you don't get any real expositions, nor any real recaps. That was also a result of the typical improvisatory nature of that time. You could easily introduce new themes, that was considered hip, modern. So there goes Carl Philipp Emanuel, for example, switching to the minor only two measures into the recapitulation of the main theme. Something you find later in Beethoven, and even then it was considered very daring. But Carl Philipp Emanuel had long been doing it. And I like that better.’

Of the 22 chords in De Laatste Dag, thirteen make it into the second movement, Tao (De Weg). ‘When one is out of life, one is in Death / The companions of life are thirteen; / the companions of Death are thirteen,’ begins the sung text, borrowed from the Tao Te Ching.
‘The fact that I make use of Chinese and Japanese literature and philosophy is not the result of a desire for oriental trinkets, but because the piece is written as a sort of solo concerto for the pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama, and also because I've always wanted to do something with the Tao Te Ching. What appeals to me about that book is that it can be interpreted in literally a multitude of ways, and in actual fact belongs to the world of poetry, much more than the world of philosophy.
‘The meaning of the number 13 has a 2000-year history of all manner of interpretations. To my mind it resembles the twelve apostles plus Christ, but that is of course a typical Western viewpoint.’
The composer produces a sketch on which descending lines intersect a horizontal beam. ‘My metaphor for Tomoko is - I can't explain it, but it's certainly a strong image - a very large spider that slowly descends along a fine thread. That's how she plays the piano. First she is silent for a long time, until about halfway, and then suddenly she attacks - clang! clang! clang! - extremely high on the piano. That is the first time you hear those thirteen chords as such.
‘When by the end she is low enough to match the register of the orchestra, the orchestra assumes her task, which brings her literally to her knees as she takes up the koto which is lying on the floor. In the meantime the chorus is busy with the Tao Te Ching text, and that leads to a climax with a motive I called the "death motive". This motive, strangely enough, had already reared its head in the first movement without me knowing it. That's how it should be, of course: if you're so intensely involved with something, you are apt to unconsciously make connections and references.
‘The text Tomoko sings, recites and whispers at the end was chosen from an anthology of Japanese poetry. It is a short poem about a man who sits sharpening his knife. Only when I began rehearsing with Tomoko did I realize that that verse has thirteen lines. Right on, I thought.’

The third part of the trilogy, dancing on the bones, has the character of a diabolical scherzo, in which Andriessen guardedly ‘dips one toe into the scalding water of Romanticism,’ as he himself puts it. ‘Beginning with that idea, I came upon an old friend from my youth, Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre. I only could remember that it had a mistuned violin and that you could hear the rattling of the bones via the xylophone. I found that so funny that I thought: I've got to do this. I'm going to rewrite that piece, but then as a blow-up.
‘Then I analyzed and sketched the entire piece, and with the duration I had in mind it came out that I had to multiply the Danse Macabre by seven. Naturally I kept to the plan of a fast scherzo, with a continuous 3/4 time signature and two contrasting themes. Saint-Saëns' entire piece is also a sort of development, whose climax is that the two themes appear simultaneously in the main key. So then I made a list of the things I liked and wanted to use and multiplied the number of measures by seven. The job was then as good as finished, so to speak.’
Anyone familiar with Andriessen's work - for instance, with the vastly expanded proportions of the Bach prelude in De Materie - knows that Saint-Saëns would never recognize his own baby. Nevertheless Andriessen religiously follows the structure and characteristics of the original.
‘Then I faced the quandary,’ he continues, ‘of where the boys' choir comes in, and what they are supposed to sing. Yeah, they were supposed to explain what happens to you when you die. In the end I decided that I could just as well write the text myself. So I grabbed an encyclopedia and translated what it said about death into naughty schoolboy language. Because the encyclopedia definitely does not say that death means you no longer pee and poo.’ His eyes sparkle. ‘By the way, I believe that's why, if what they say is true, ten different boys choirs in Frankfurt refused to do the piece. Not the kids, of course, but their conductors. "It is such a difficult subject," they protested, "and we have to think of the boys." Bullshit. They were just hung up on that "pee and poo". The Ensemble Modern succeeded, not without difficulty, in engaging the choir from the Cologne cathedral.
‘That chorus comes in only later, and at that point the music, just as in Saint-Saëns, becomes less development and more accessible, with repetition and sequences and such. That has a finale-like character. Finales are musically always simpler than the first movements, which is itself a pretty strange tradition. But also in that sense, the piece is about the 19th-century orchestra culture, and about pieces like Cappriccio espagnol or Feu d'artifice. And in doing so you make the whole subject into a sort of Punch-and-Judy show. The grotesque, the Ensoresque, that's what interests me. It shouldn't be all that well-behaved, better to be a bit unpleasant, so that the question arises: Can you really do this?’

A new phenomenon in Andriessen's idiom is the use of what he calls ‘overtones’. In Tao (De Weg), an oboe melody appears twice, with the addition of extremely high notes on the piccolo, flute and violin, leading to strange, surrealistic sound colours.
‘I want to take this further,’ says Andriessen, openly confessing to ‘have stolen the idea’ from the Canadian composer Claude Vivier (1948-1983). ‘These aren't literally overtones, which are very boring things, a set series that soon enough ends up in all sorts of microtones. I don't need that kind of thing. I just write notes, in the tempered system. But because the arrangement of those overtones is in itself often consonant, they resemble harmonics. They are in, for example, the proportion of 4:5:6 - but the fundamental they suggest is different from the one that actually sounds.’
Andriessen plans to study this technique further in the work presently in progress, an opera about Johannes Vermeer (written and directed by Peter Greenaway, who did Rosa). He is playing with the idea of generating the ‘overtones’ live via a computer, ‘but I have to talk to someone with know-how to see if what I want is possible.’
Writing to Vermeer (the piece's working title) will be premiered in November 1999. It will certainly be a very different opera from Rosa, which was considered by many as offensive. Andriessen's synopsis follows: ‘The text consists of a number of letters to Vermeer, written by three women: his wife, his mother-in-law and a model. These letters are fictitious, but are based entirely on historical facts. That idea refers, of course, to Vermeer's paintings that show a girl writing or reading a letter.
‘Greenaway wants to show these paintings in the process of being created, and will be using computers. The idea is: at first there is nothing, then only the black line, and then, at last, the colour. But of course with Greenaway everything develops in layers. Since it's about writing there will be a lot of calligraphy, like in many of his films. Additionally there are sporadic film inserts, representing events of the time: the burning of Delft, for example, and the enormous riots between Protestants and Catholics, who were killing each other on the streets.
‘But the main thrust is that the letters are domestic and very serene - those are Greenaway's key words - and that almost nothing happens, so that the emphasis falls on the calligraphy and the structure of the paintings.
‘I decided to make a piece that is the same length as Rosa, as a sort of counterpart, like De Staat and De Tijd are to each other. Basing it on the six scenes he envisions - all precisely the same, in fact - I can now say that it will be a blow-up of John Cage's Six Melodies for violin and piano. Because that is also six times the same thing. They are, moreover, really wonderful notes.’ And fortune smiled upon Andriessen: ‘I began quoting Cage, but then four times too slow, and then after that something came out, completely intuitively, that I didn't understand. That very day I had phoned Broekmans music shop, because in the sixth scene Greenaway mentions Sweelinck's Mein junges Leben hat ein End. I ordered it, never having heard it before.
‘Yesterday morning it came with the post. I open it up, and what do you know? It's about a descending tetrachord. Precisely what I had written to get out of Cage. Manna from Heaven.’

Translated by Jonathan Reeder

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