If you follow “new music” at all, Dutch composer Louis Andriessen is the one not to miss. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that if you follow it closely, he’s the composer in New York whom it is impossible to miss. Turning 70 might just be the best move he ever made viz. his American career, for it’s brought the spotlight decidedly—and deservingly—on him. But without the sin of hubris here, I dare say that the world (read: New York) is only now catching on to something I’ve known for some time: that this Dutchman is one of the smartest and fiercest musical minds on the “scene.”
He’s being feted by many concerts, pre-concert lectures, symposia, and the like (holding, as he does, the coveted Richard and Barbara Debs Composers’s Chair at Carnegie Hall) and you should literally go to all of them because it’s a fantastic tour through a wide swathe of his work. But for those who cannot—or, at this point, did not—get to the cream of these shows, here’s a little at-home Andriessening you can do if you want a taste.
Start with his operas—or, in some cases, “operas.” From the unabashed wildness of Rosa (with a libretto by Peter Greenaway of cinematic fame—The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, or The Pillow Book) to the tender beauties of Writing to Vermeer (another Greenaway collaboration), not to mention the abstract but no-less-brutal-and-no-less-tender Die Materie, I think Andriessen is at his best when he’s got the time and the space to make a wide profile, to make the drama musical or the music dramatic. The extracted Part III of Materie, which is a separate piece also known as De Stijl, is perhaps one of my favorite pieces of music written by anyone for anything. It’s just wild, unleashed, and funny—that particular Dutch funny I’ve never been able to articulate. There’s a gorgeous spoken part in the middle all about Piet Mondrian. (You can actually buy this on a separate disc with another piece called M is for Man, Music, Mozart, fantastic—Greenaway again.)
One of the seminal works of the 20th century—a kind of minimalist Rite of Spring, ranking in importance with Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, Terry Riley’s In C, Philip Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts and John Adams’ Nixon in China—is De Staat. This is a single wild wallop of a piece, about but never restricted to its own sheer velocity. The flip side of that is a floaty, ethereal timeless work called De Tijd. In both of these early-but-still-important pieces we can hear not only the composer evolving but also the orchestra: Andriessen, like Steve Reich, is a master of the microphone and it shows. Both of these pieces share an inherent creep to them: as pieces of art, they are dangerous—like Fluxus dangerous—because they challenge assumptions. Like Stravinsky at eleven, like Mahler stripped down and at a high volume, like Stan Kenton writ large.
Other fantastic things to mention: Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s new Andriessen disc which not only features his Dante adaptation La Passione, but also an absolute gem of a piece in the form of Letter from Cathy (in which he sets to music an actual letter he got from Cathy Berberian, composer, singer, artiste, and wife of composer Luciano Berio). I just love it—the piece is so fun, so colorful, so lovely to hear. Also brilliant on record is his I-don’t-know-what-you’d-label-it-but-I-like-it Trilogie van de Laaste Dag (Trilogy of the Last Day). Don’t expect me to describe it, just get it and hear for yourself.
If all this listening has wrecked your ears, go get a copy of his book called The Apollonian Clockwork (a copy of which I inadvertently stole from a famous music library—Shhhhh). Written with Elmer Schoenberger, It’s all about Stravinsky—in the oddest, most Andriessen-ish way. And if you desire to read about him, there’s a few excellent books, including the anthology The Music of Louis Andriessen (Maja Trochimczyk, ed.), another book by the same name by Yayoi Uno Everett, The Art of Stealing Time (a collection of articles Andriessen himself wrote, edited by Mirjam Zegers) or Louis Andriessen: De Staat by Robert Adlington. That ought to be enough to get you started!
Happy listening. And brace yourself…
Daniel Felsenfeld is a composer living in Brooklyn.