Holland’s musical mischief maker may have mellowed slightly with age. But, at 70, he remains a rebel with a very large cause and this season brings his stinging dissonances to a Carnegie Hall festival of his works.
After the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Louis Andriessen is currently Holland’s greatest musical claim to fame. Leave it to the Dutch that their country’s most influential and revered composer also happens to be well known for his subversive sentiments. He has wanted little to do with conventional orchestras in general and Amsterdam’s famed Royal Concertgebouw in particular. He has been mentor to revolutionary young composers (including the Bang on a Can collective). His music is in demand by boisterous alternative new-music groups everywhere.
But now he is Musical America’s Composer of the Year, and that is not all. This season, Andriessen occupies the Composer Chair at Carnegie Hall, the fabled symbol for America’s music establishment. Last year, he even wrote a Lisztian, if feistily unconventional, two-piano concerto, The Hague Hacking, for the Labèque sisters and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The premiere was in January, in honor of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s last season as music director.
Andriessen has been the subject of festivals at Lincoln Center and the Southbank Centre. He has taught at Princeton. Netherlands Opera has commissioned him four times, most recently in 2008, where his phantasmagorical and deeply moving La Commedia was the centerpiece—and masterpiece—of the Holland Festival. On June 6, Andriessen turned 70, and his birthday was celebrated in Amsterdam with concerts at the Concertgebouw and at the hip, new Muziekgebouw.
Does this mean that Andriessen’s days of mischief making are over? Andriessen may have mellowed slightly with age. But he remains a rebel with a very large cause. His rhythms are as hard-driving as ever. The dissonances still sting. He has neither lost his taste for producing pin pricks of jazz-tinged brass and wind, nor has he stopped asking singers to brightly and brilliantly bark out declamatory text without vibrato. It is simply that his time has come.
In 1982, for instance, the San Francisco Symphony commissioned De Snelheid (Velocity), one of Andriessen’s rare orchestra forays and one that he and the ensemble came initially to regret. The musicians protested that the volume sometimes exceeded 110 decibels. A staid audience stormed out of the premiere in outrage. During a Tanglewood student performance a decade later, notable musicians in the audience listened with fingers in their ears and ostentatiously painful expressions. Yet now the piece has become a new-music legend, and performances are anticipated as remarkably energizing events.
As a member of Dutch musical royalty, Andriessen comes by his rebellion honestly. Musicians with his family name can be found as far back as the Baroque era. His father (Hendrik) was a noted composer and organist and director of the conservatory in Utrecht, where Louis was born. Uncle Willem was a composer and pianist. Older brother Juuriaan was also a composer.
The family musical party line was always pro-French. And that was not a difficult one for Louis to follow, having lived under Nazi occupation as a young boy. Stravinsky, not Schoenberg, was a seminal influence. Andriessen studied with Berio in Berlin in the mid 1960s and hated the city but loved the Italian composer. The Brucknerian sound of the Concertgebouw became the symbol of everything he didn’t want his music to be.
Andriessen’s idealistic early music proved a brazen blend of Early Music (Amsterdam being a capital of the nescient period-practice movement) and European avantgarde experimentalism. Like John Cage, another influence, Andriessen chose Satie over Beethoven when he spectacularly burned his traditional orchestra bridges with The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven for orchestra and ice-cream vendor’s bell.
In 1972, Andriessen and jazz saxophonist Willem Breuker formed an un-orchestra. De Volharding (the Perseverance Orchestra) was, and still is, comprised of trumpets, trombones, saxophones (other winds were added later), and keyboard, meant to promote an egalitarian attitude between the creation, production, and consumption of music. Andriessen served as pianist, and his first Volharding piece was minimalist in the manner of Terry Riley’s In C. Working with the ensemble, Andriessen found his sound—the powerful pulse, mass chords, piquant dissonances, startling uses of unison pitches and unique forms.
Between 1976 and 1982, Andriessen wrote three epic large-ensemble pieces that took on political and philosophical themes and confirmed his position as a major composer. In Die Staat, a text from Plato’s Republic is sung in classical Greek by a chorus pounding out each word. Mausoleum was inspired by the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin. De Tijd (Time) is a ringing, mesmeric (and anything but quiet) meditation on St. Augustine.
Andriessen’s opera career began, typically, outside of opera, even if Netherlands Opera did the commissioning. Die Materie (Matter) contains independent scenes of Dutch life, some that were assembled from earlier works, for the opening of Amsterdam’s new opera house, Het Musiektheater, in 1989. Rosa (1994), in collaboration with British film maker Peter Greenway, is raunchy, paranoid, crazed, and, in its scenes of bestiality, shocking. Writing to Vermeer (1998), also made with Greenaway, is a warm, lyrical look at an artist’s domestic bliss, set against a backdrop of political upheaval.
While a deep thinker about art and society, Andriessen has always been easily susceptible to muses. His wife and companion for 40 years, Jeanette Yanikian, died after a long and debilitating illness just as Andriessen was reaching the final measures of La Commedia, a summing up of his lifelong ruminations on Dante. The opera ushers Andriessen’s wife out of one world and into another. This is Dante at his disturbingly darkest and at his most ethereally heavenly. Commedia reaches America this season in concert form at Walt Disney Concert Hall and Carnegie.
Two words come up again and again in descriptions of Andriessen’s music—irony and eroticism. These are certainly distinctive qualities, whether explicit or not, ever present in his works. But they belong at the end of the discussion lest they become a distraction from Andriessen’s innovative musical technique and profound ideas. Rather they are Andriessen’s secret weapons. The erotic drive relates to the rebel in Andriessen, the danceable rhythms and the jalapeño harmonies. The irony is what helps him get away with it.
Mark Swed is music critic of the Los Angeles Times.