Classical: Emotion, passion and distance

The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen has influenced a generation, but his muscular music has never been heard at the Proms before. That's about to change.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THAT'S SIMPLY indulgence, to hear the entire trilogy in one performance." It's a typically wry remark from the gentle-natured but fiercely perceptive Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. Although it has taken Andriessen, who turned 60 in June, a long time to be fully recognised in the UK, he is the grand old man of Dutch music and, for train-spotters, may yet turn out to be the most significant European composer of our times.

The UK premiere of Andriessen's latest work, Trilogy of the Last Day, takes place on 26 August at the Royal Albert Hall. Astonishingly, this will be the first time Andriessen's music has been heard at the Proms. It's apt, perhaps, that this performance connects with a Proms theme, "The Ascent of Man": it has taken years for BBC Radio to wake up.

Many believe Andriessen to be "Holland's most influential composer since Jan Pietersz Sweelinck", which might not say much if you're not Dutch. More importantly, Andriessen is one of a tiny number of composers this century - Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Steve Reich and Arvo Part - to have changed the face of contemporary music, and not just through the individuality of his muscularly minimal music. He has taught and influenced a generation of composers including the American Pulitzer prize winner Aaron Jay Kernis, Michael Torke, and our own Steve Martland, who has had a hard time throwing off the Andriessen influence. (If you think Martland is interesting, come and hear the real thing!)

Andriessen comes from one of Holland's most prodigiously musical and artistic families. Early influences from his father Hendrik, himself a distinguished composer, organist and pianist, included a loathing of German Romantic music which was as pronounced as a love for the music of Chausson, Poulenc, Ravel, Duparc, Debussy, Roussell and Faure. Thanks also to his elder brother Jurrian (also a composer) who returned from an American trip in 1952 loaded with early jazz records, a heady brew of French music, Bach, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Nat King Cole and Stan Kenton rubbed off on the young Andriessen.

In the early Sixties, Andriessen studied with Luciano Berio, preferring him to Boulez and Stockhausen ("I wasn't attracted to Germany"). "Berio didn't have very much experience with teaching, but I learnt from him to think about philosophy, politics and language." Early work shows the influence of Berio but also Webern, Stravinsky, Stockhausen and, in particular, Ravel. "He's the best composer of the 20th century. No one says that, but everybody knows it. Stravinsky was an imitator of Ravel - at least that's the way he starts."

Revolution was in the air of late Sixties Amsterdam: "serialism" was too restricted, orchestras too bourgeois. An attempt to get the progressive Bruno Maderna appointed as chief conductor of the Concertgebouw failed, but an overtly anti-American opera, Reconstructie, with Che Guevara as hero, was blamed for President Nixon's decision to bypass Holland on a European tour. Yankee imperialism in Latin America was its subject - "less of a trendy subject nowadays", Andriessen admits, although at the time every performance was sold out. His decision in 1970 never to write for symphony orchestra was political and musical - he didn't like the sound - and he wanted to bring music to a wider public by dealing with "vulgar" material jazz, pop and folk music. He has been labelled a "political" composer, a term he would accept if understood as "radical", but as he says "there is no such thing as a fascist dominant seventh". More crucially, in the early Seventies, when Andriessen was writing such pieces as De Staat, II Duce, II Principe, Workers' Union and Mausoleum, was the social aspect of music - where it was performed, who performed it and who consumed it. These works, all written for unorthodox groups of instruments, favour electric guitars, saxophones, winds/brass and percussion, and harness the energy of pop music through loud amplification. "Amplification is an essential part of my language. I can make my own balance and produce new sounds. Without it, you remain too much in the 19th century."

Like Stravinsky, Andriessen holds passionately that music can say nothing, but after the arid world of Modernism, his views are refreshingly positive: "What I like in all good music is the combination of emotion, passion and distance. Music is better than feelings. Don't try to express your jealousy in music. Use your emotions and passions as a motor to write passionate music."

But if Andriessen believes music says nothing, it is certainly not abstract. Since the 1980s, critical works have explored "concepts': De Tijd ("Time"); De Snelheid ("Velocity"); De Matiere ("matter") - a large-scale music- theatre work that was commissioned to open Amsterdam's new opera house in 1989. Trilogy of the Last Day is the latest "concept" work. "The subject is death, although it's not about death," says Andriessen. "There are all sorts of traditions in music history which have given certain connotations to certain things. Imagine a really noisy piece where suddenly you have a bar of silence with the exception of tubular bells and bell plates that play a descending minor third as loud as possible. People will automatically think of church bells, and more as a warning sign, something from a Requiem, than from a nice happy wedding... even though they ring exactly the same bells for the wedding. There's always an ambiguity, but that is an advantage for the artist. Art, particularly music, has no intrinsic meaning. I am becoming more and more convinced that life doesn't have any meaning either. Which gives you the freedom to give it meaning."

Trilogy of the Last Day is a substantial work lasting about an hour. The three movements are exact proportions of each other and each involves a text. In the first movement, the words of "The Last Day" are by the Dutch experimental poet Lucebert. "The texts are very angry and very passionate. Blood, sweat - you hear it in the music." The delicate second movement, "Tao", combines a text from the Tao Te Ching with a poem by the Japanese poet Koutaro Takamura. The third movement, a diabolical scherzo after Saint-Saens's Danse Macabre, is called "Dancing on the Bones" and uses a text by Andriessen himself. "I grabbed an encyclopaedia and translated what it said about death into naughty schoolboy language." How fortunate we are to be indulged.

`Trilogy of the Last Day', Prom 51, Royal Albert Hall, London (0171- 589 8212), 26 August

Comments