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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 2

Time, Matter and the State: McGill's Louis Andriessen Festival

by Philip Ehrensaft / October 1, 1999

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Both conventional and modernist musical establishments have resisted the new way of constructing music that emerged in Louis Andriessen's De Staat (The State), a 1976 instrumental-choral setting of Plato's Republic. The ambition of the iconoclastic Dutch comper's approach is apparent in the titles of his major works. How many composers progress from tackling relations between music and the state to nothing less than time (De Tidj, 1981), velocity (De Snelheid, 1983) and matter (De Materie, 1988)? It has taken a full decade to hear the North American premiere of Andriessen's De Materie (Matter, 1988), a work that will likely stand the test of time as a landmark of contemporary composition.

McGill's New Music Festival (October 12-15), focuses on Andriessen's work. The program will include North American premieres of De Materie and M is for Man, Music, Mozart in the presence of the composer, who will also participate in a series of lectures and panel discussions that include festival organizer Denys Bouliane and Walter Boudreau, director of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec.

"Hear three notes of Andriessen's music," Boudreau observes, "and you know it can only be him." Unique timbres blend brass and wind ensembles, characteristic of his native Holland, with electric guitars, harps, synthesizers, saxophones and female choruses redolent of both baroque voicing and rock backup singing. Strong, repeated pulses, inspired by Indonesian music, stand in contrast to the quietism of American minimalism.

Andriessen's first composition professor was his father Henrik, an established composer oriented towards French impressionism. Although Louis subsequently trained in the Darmstadt model, he lost interest in serialism. Bouliane notes that Andriessen's use of extended tonality juxtaposes modal notes in close harmony, rejecting conventional hierarchies in favour of multiple poles of attraction, so to speak.

An enlarged time scale is central to his music. "Andriessen is not a master of the short form. He needs time to make statements," Bouliane says. But there is a prominent economy of notes along the way. His unique soundscapes are highlighted by dramatic punctuations and Stravinskian block structures.

This music is definitely not designed for standard orchestras. In fact, Andriessen was expelled from Holland's Concertgebouw concert hall in 1969 during a demonstration by Nutcracker, a young composers' collective, against the great orchestra's resistance to new music. Andriessen has vowed not to write for symphonic ensembles, and his operas are not for the Met. His target audience is ordinary people hearing his music in affordable halls or even in the streets.

Andriessen has pioneered the use of so-called vulgar instruments and elements from the jazz he adores, an innovation that has caused frowns in serious musical circles. Popular culture, he feels, provides compelling sonorities that must be incorporated into contemporary art music, and he also believes that this kind of instrumentation will draw popular audiences to disciplined, composed music.

Andriessen is about as far as you can get from Milton Babbit's famous "Who Cares If You Listen?" No matter how complex, his structures are meant to be heard up-front by audiences, not in some esoteric context. His soundscape is inseparable from his militant left-wing politics. He fully intends to communicate with common folk while making them question dominant values. His ensembles create democratic relationships between conductors and musicians, and encourage musicians to become composers.

A fierce anti-romanticism that embraces the very old and very new runs through the composer's work. There's no room for nineteenth century pathos, but Bach is an honored guest, for like most revolutionaries Andriessen has a profound sense of history.

Challenging both conservative and modernist establishments hasn't produced kindly responses. There is no stream of younger "Andriessenist" disciples. His idiosyncratic, complex composing is difficult to emulate. Actually, he encourages students at the Conservatory of The Hague to find their own voices, not imitate his. Nevertheless, his compositions have attracted leading exponents of contemporary music, both in Europe and the U.S., and the evident power and depth of his music are slowly but surely establishing Andriessen as a major voice of late twentieth-century composition.

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