Classical Music: The word on the street: Bayan Northcott profiles the composer Louis Andriessen, artistic director of this year's Meltdown festival

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The Independent Culture
MELTDOWN: Music, Opera, Dance, Performance, Film: Beyond the Cutting Edge. So proclaims the South Bank publicity for the second of its annual contemporary arts festivals - whether with the intention of reducing us all to radioactive gunge or driving us mad with mixed metaphors remains unclear. In any case, there will be precious little to melt the ear over the next few days, unless one counts the purgatorial permutations of Philip Glass. This is the year of militant minimalism and Bang on a Can; of amplified Icebreaker, Steve Martland's muscular midriff and 'film / art terrorists' Housewatch: the year of the hard men. And all of it at the behest, or at least in the image, of Louis Andriessen.

Whether that image is entirely deserved may be doubted. Those who know the 55-year-old composer, pianist, teacher and animateur personally tend equally to praise his courtesy and thoughtfulness. And while much of his music since the late-1960s has indeed been politically inspired, made use of minimalist processes and come out deafeningly loud, such characteristics seem to have emerged rather specifically from his native context. In a tight-packed urban bourgeoisie such as the Dutch - the Protestant respectability of which is so oddly shot through with streaks of liberality towards such minorities as immigrants and homosexuals - much cultural activity, whether convivial or confrontational, has of necessity to take public form - metaphorically or literally in the streets.

Yet most important to Andriessen's ultimate development was evidently whom he was born to - and when. Not only was his father, Hendrik, a respected composer and performer, but so were his uncle and elder brother, too: a composing dynasty it is difficult to parallel since such Baroque successions as the Couperins and the Bachs - and which, perhaps, was due for its black sheep.

But his birth in 1939 also meant that the terror of the Nazi occupation of Holland seeped into his earliest consciousness. The result - doubtless fanned by his father's Francophile teaching - was to be a lifelong antipathy to Austro-German culture, and in particular to what he heard as the Wagner-Mahler-Schoenberg line of rampant subjectivity. It was almost inevitable that, in search of an answering objectivity, he should have turned to the first and greatest of the anti-Romantics - Stravinsky.

Not that the influence was immediately obvious. Such early pieces as Nocturnen (1959) for soprano and chamber orchestra apparently still reflected a French quasi-serialism, while Anachronie I (1966-7) for orchestra, written after Andriessen's studies with Berio, was 'a collage of style quotations . . . dedicated to Charles Ives, one of the few composers who found music more interesting than himself'. And in 1968-9 he was to put his rejection of music as an art of self-expression to the ultimate test by joining a collective of composers in the creation of an ambitious operatic protest at American imperialism.

Entitled Reconstruction, this culminated in the erection of a vast, threatening effigy of Che Guevara over a single endlessly swelling note: a gesture which at least one of the other composers involved - Andriessen's older contemporary, Peter Schat - was subsequently to argue merely substituted self-righteousness instead, and a creeping left-wing conformity in Dutch musical life.

Be that as it may, Andriessen's works of the next 10 years were to prove his most overtly political - at least in their refusal to conform to the routines of traditional concert life - and the most nearly minimalistic. The rejection of the symphony orchestra became axiomatic: each piece was conceived for its own line- up of 'free' musicians, and in two instances - the abrasive, modern jazz piece De Volharding (Perseverance, 1972), and the medievally inspired Hoketus (1977) - this actually resulted in the founding of eponymous ensembles.

Of all Andriessen's scores, Hoketus - which opens tomorrow afternoon's Meltdown Marathon - is the most fiercely reductive: an apparently mechanical bouncing of one-, two-, or three- note figures scrunchingly harmonised back and forth between two groups of players for upwards of 50 minutes. Yet one hesitates to call even this stark altercation minimalist in the sense of Reich's or Glass's pure process pieces - pieces which, once set trundling, seem to run through their permutatory cycles without further intervention - for Andriessen reserves the right quite unpredictably to jerk his process into different rhythmic or harmonic perspectives. In fact, none of the large, frieze-like conceptions of his last two decades is constructed identically and each alludes quite widely and distinctively to sources outside itself.

The earliest of them, and perhaps the most notorious (dozens fled the Aldeburgh performance in 1992), is De Staat (The Republic) for double reeds, brass, keyboards, plucked and bowed strings (composed between 1972 and 1976), in which ironic chantings of Plato's totalitarian tirades against the power of music ride upon clangorous gamelan patterns - the Dutch, after all, have a four-century connection with Indonesia - Stravinskian ripplings and gratings (as out of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring), and wildly flailing unison passages, all amplified to rock-concert volume.

This vehemence recurs in De Snelheid (Velocity) for large ensemble (1982-4), a more abstract study in time-relationships, in which massive sonorities lumber, Birtwistle-like, after ever-accelerating woodblock pulsations, and in De Stijl (1984-5), the frantic boogie-woogie tirades of which are organised after the proportions of an abstract painting by Mondriaan.

Yet the change-ringing patterns, slowly grinding chorales and Slavonic- style declamations for high baritones of Mausoleum (1979), a setting of Bakunin with an ensemble dominated by the noble sound of eight horns, makes an altogether more monumental effect. And two other large works have actually proved predominantly hushed: De Tijd (Time), a meditation on St Augustine for female chorus and ensemble including eight flutes (from 1980-1), comprises a 40- minute drift of slow chantings and chimings, while Hadewijch (1988) laps a solo setting of the 13th-century mystic of the title in evolving lines and harmonies of an almost monastic austerity. Hadewijch and De Stijl in fact comprise the second and third parts of a two-hour stage tetralogy first mounted by Robert Wilson in 1989 and entitled De Materie: a kind of vast musico-philosophical investigation of the relation between matter and the spirit, the first British concert performance of which, on Sunday 3 July, will doubtless prove the climax of Meltdown.

Since the completion of De Materie, Andriessen's progress has seemed less certain if the curiously effete Dances (1991) for soprano and chamber orchestra and a dubious disco-cabaret accompaniment to Peter Greenaway's pointless video M is for Man, Music, Mozart (1991) are anything to go by - though his forthcoming Greenaway opera may offer a new synthesis. But it has long been clear he is less a minimalist than a Stravinskian constructivist, inheriting something of the master's acute ear for the spacing and balancing of sonorities, and vastly expanding upon his ritualistic procedures and (apparently) impersonal manner. At the same time, more than one commentator has likened De Materie to a four-movement symphony and discerned behind Andriessen's often quite complex cross-cutting of procedures, a yearning to re-engage with the great 19th-century forms - if only this could be done without re-admitting their whole expressive world of organic thematicism.

Of course, Stravinsky also offered his own concise and intensive way with the invention of primary material, to say nothing of his exemplary demonstration of the ways a modern composer may relate to the past. But it is these, arguably the most important of his legacies that least seem to have touched the music of Andriessen - or indeed of such other, vastly different but analogous post-Stravinskian monumentalisers as Messiaen and Birtwistle. In the long run, this may limit the durability of their music. But that is another article.

Imaginary Opera: 10.30pm tonight RFH, free; Marathon, from 2pm tomorrow QEH. South Bank box-office: 071-928-8800

(Photograph omitted)

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