Louis Andriessen is Holland's hottest musical export. At first hearing, you might think him a young turk gone beserkãwhat with the unrelenting rhythmic drive, the jazzy vitality, and the in-your-face potency of his music. But the 64-year-old Andriessen was, in fact, one of Holland's first serial composers back in the days when Schoenberg's rows were the sullen rage. By the time the Beatles were breaking records, however, Andriessen was breaking free of complexity for complexity's sake and forging a bold new galaxy of sound.
So now Lincoln Center's Great Performers presents Sonic Evolutions (May 1-15), the first festival in New York to celebrate Andriessen's astonishing oeuvre. There's a chance to sample everything from his late-night cabaret act to the U.S. premiere of his major opus, De Materie ("Matter"). There are also his collaborations with filmmaker Peter Greenaway, not to mention his most recent groundbreaking pieces.
"I really love Andriessen," says composer David Lang, one of the founders of Bang on a Can All-Stars, who have recorded his music and will give a concert on May 8. "Andriessen represents the resolution of the battle between the modernists and the minimalists. He took something of the energy, restraint, and lack of ornamentation of minimalism and applied it to European modernism. His solution is unique, and there's pride in his invention." Andriessen himself describes his music as "a combination of complexity and American Sunday afternoonishness." This fusion dates back to his first encounter in Darmstadt, Germany, with Terry Riley, who will be on hand at the Bang on a Can concert to perform his own seminal work, In C.
"In 1962, Darmstadt was where you were supposed to write heavy 12-tone music," remembers Andriessen. "But Terry and I had different ideas of how the future of music should be." Indeed, Andriessen turned his back on the symphony orchestra, which, as a noted Marxist, he felt was a sonically oppressive, capitalist institution. Eventually, he created his own jazz-and-rock-like Orkest de Volharding (keyboards, brass, saxophones, electric guitars, and percussion) and was soon penning his first large-scale works, De Staat ("Politics") and De Tijd ("Time"). Minimalism with attitude, one could say. Steve Reich made a big impression on Andriessen, of course, but his other hero is Stravinsky. "Almost all the music Stravinsky composed deals with other music, and he uses different kinds of musical languages for that," says Andriessen. "That is much more my credo than anything else."
Perhaps the most remarkable embodiment of this credo is his 1989 masterpiece De Materie, which receives its U.S. concert premiere on May 1. The piece actually began as a funky little work called De Stijl, which explores the relationship between matter and spirit in the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, and is built upon a boogie-woogie bass line, obsessively repeated. This high-powered piece eventually became the third section of the four-movement philosophic-dramatic masterwork De Materie.
"All the parts are about how spirit deals with matter," explains Andriessen, "how painters do it, how philosophers do it, how technicians do it, how revolutionary people do it, how astrophysicists do it." True to his heritage, the composer draws his texts from Dutch historical figures, from atomist philosopher Gorlaeus to shipbuilder Nicolaas Witsen, filling the gamut from the esoteric to the erotic. The most ravishing section is Part Two, in which a soprano sings the Seventh Vision of 13th-century poet Hadewijch, where religious and sexual ecstasy are indistinguishableãnot to mention inextinguishable.
There will also be the U.S. premiere of Andriessen's collaboration with filmmaker Peter Greenaway, Rosa, a Horse Drama, on May 3. Andriessen first met Greenaway when his fellow minimalist and friend Michael Nyman invited him to the premiere of The Draughtsman's Contract (for which Nyman provided the score), and he was blown away by the movie. Greenaway and Andriessen hit it off, and soon began collaborating on projects such as M Is for Man, Music, Mozartãwhich will be projected to live music on May 12ãas well as the opera Writing to Vermeer. Greenaway had been fascinated with the idea of a series of murdered composers, from Webern to John Lennon. He finally wrote a libretto about a fictional Uruguayan composer, Juan Manuel de Rosa. Andriessen explains that the opera is about "a failed avant-garde composer who becomes famous as a cowboy film composer in the 1950s. He has a passionate relationship with his black mare to the irritation of his girlfriend." To say the least, this gets Rosa into fatal trouble in this galloping Gesamtkunstwerk. Bestiality with a beat.
Andriessen continues to break new ground by aggressively flouting the conventions, categories, and imperatives of classical music performance. On May 15, his 2002 La Passione, based on the Orphic Songs of Dino Campana, a futurist poet who ended up in an asylum, will draw on the unorthodox vocal finesse of Cristina Zavalloni.
"Singing styles are completely isolated in their own worlds whether it be opera, jazz, rock, or pop," Andriessen observes. "I'm hoping to cross these borders finally. And the best way to do this is to work with singers like Cristina, who's a miraculous successor to Cathy Berberian, able to sing in these opposing styles. We work together to develop the way I think singing should sound, at least for my music, but I think for a lot of other composers, too. La Passione has to do with not doing things instead of extending techniques already in place."
Another festival highlight will be a late-night cabaret on May 14 with the composer on the piano and vocalist Greetje Bijma. Andriessen describes what you'll hear: "Bijma doesn't read music at all. But she is able to sound like anything: a bird, a Russian peasant, an Indian snake charmerãyou cannot imagine. She has an enormous vocabulary with her voice. And that is why I like to improvise with her because you have no idea what she will sound like from second to second."
In a way, you can't predict what Andriessen will sound like from piece to piece, as he is always trying to find another solution and doesn't get stuck in any one formula. When asked to sum up his artistic mission, the composer replies: "My father, who was a composer also, would say our only goal is to write as good as we can and write as beautiful as we can. I suppose that's what it finally comes down to. You can have all kinds of great ideas about this, that, and so on. But the driving force is the duty to create beauty. And beauty is a tricky thing, because we all have different ideas of what is beautiful."
Robert Hilferty's articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal Europe, the New York Times, Opera News, Opernwelt, and New York Magazine.