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Louis ANDRIESSEN: De Staat

Robert Adlington

2004 159 pp. CD recording included


ISBN 0 7546 0925 1


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On a train, a woman saw me reading this book and exclaimed, joyously, "Louis Andriessen!" By an even greater coincidence, she was a professional musician of some standing and had worked with Andriessen himself. The statistical probability of meeting someone like this on a commuter train must be mind-boggling. Andriessen provokes strong feelings and she was most certainly pro, describing the exhilarating experience of participating in creating the music. A musician's opinions mean a lot to me, so I took heed.

Andriessen trained with Luciano Berio, but it was the turbulent years of the 1960s that shaped him further. Robert Adlington traces the cross-currents of the Dutch social and artistic revolution. Andiressen sought to change music to reflect new social values. He embraced jazz to broaden the appeal of music and open it to other forces. New music meant new types of performance, too. He sought to end the hierarchical structure of music-making. The Orkest de Volharding worked on lines of strict equality and its brash, raw sound seemed to overturn all that was recherché in "serious" music. Like many radical musicians of the time Andriessen became immersed in the political music of Hanns Eisler, whose communist beliefs made him use music as dialectic.

Adlington then traces how Andriessen adapted these forces into his music. He embraced the music of the people, yet despised pop. He respected jazz but not the idea of free-improvising soloists, because it contradicted the idea of solidarity. Thus his music captured the energy of jazz through loud playing, but in ensemble with virtuosi subsumed in ensemble, which also suited the march quality that underpins his work. Andriessen was drawn to the classicism of Stravinsky, and despised the "autobiographical" style of romanticism, especially Mahler. Yet he feels it frees the musicians to express themselves more freely as a result. Andriessen uses repetition and minimalism, but his reiterations change metre and pattern, forcing the listener to keep on his toes. Essentially his music is earthy, reflecting his concept of the Dutch character as hard working and communal.

A detailed examination of De Staat follows showing how these ideas shape the music. Adlington traces its composition through the original sketches and notes. Despite the sense of free-flowing vigour, the composition was meticulously planned stage by stage. Adlington demonstrates how the work came to be written, and analyses the intricate form that underlines the piece. He charts changes in tonality, modality and metre to illustrate how form is built up and adapts. Yet this is by no means "pure" music. Andriessen's commitment to communicating ideas is too great.

Adlington's understanding of the music shines brightest when he writes about possible interpretations of De Staat. The text comes from Plato's The Republic and deals with the role of music in society. Yet Andriessen buries the text, first by using Greek, unintelligible to the masses, and then behind a wall of sound. Only about one quarter of the music is verbal and, as Adlington notes, the settings for voice are very restrictive melodically and rhythmically. This, he suggests, grows from minimalism but also from Brecht and Eisler where unsentimental, agitatory expression was crucial. Adlington impressively makes a case for the theatrical nature of the piece as a clue to its interpretation. The tension between voices and text create ambiguity: but even more dramatic are the ways in which the instruments themselves interact, sometimes in unison, sometimes in opposition. Symbolically they enact the ideas of control and divisiveness inherent in Plato's text while simultaneously undermining its dogmatism. Furthermore, because De Staat is a large, long piece it engages with the idea of conventional orchestral practice while concurrently deconstructing it. Thirty-one musicians are needed, each with the technical expertise to play its difficult passages, yet its stridency argues against the refinement of "bourgeois" listening. Its essence is the act of performance itself. The very hierarchy of performance, where musicians play for the delectation of audience, is overturned: listeners have to work as hard as those on stage.

There follows an interview between Andriessen and Adlington. The accompanying CD is a treasure. This contains a 1978 live performance of De Staat by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, never before issued on compact disc. Also on the recording is Il Principe, slightly earlier than De Staat, but not previously available. Lastly, the recording includes the first performance of Volharding, from 1972, which launched the Orkest de Volharding. It is a piece of music history, capturing the exciting mood of the time.

Adlington is a clear-sighted analyst, who writes with uncommon lucidity and perception. This Ashgate series on modern music is in itself revelatory, because by concentrating in depth on single, seminal works, its authors can go into much greater depth than usual. It's an innovative approach which treats its readers and listeners with respect, giving them the basic tools with which they can take what they have learned from each volume, and apply it towards a wider understanding of the composers and issues they face.

Anne Ozorio



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