This article was
Key Notes XXXI, 4, december 1997
in a shorter Dutch version in
De Volkskrant on 6 June
A skull, a spider and a scherzo
Louis Andriessen's most recent work, De Trilogie van de
[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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
© Frits van der Waa 2006