Quickening the political pulse: Louis Andriessen has left the streets for the concert hall, but still mixes music with politics. Mark Pappenheim met him

Mark Pappenheim
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:33

IT HAS taken nine years for Louis Andriessen's De Snelheid to reach the UK - not exactly record-breaking progress for a work that deals with the concept of musical velocity. But then, the scandal surrounding the work's US premiere - complete with a threatened walk-out by members of the San Francisco Symphony - can't exactly have helped speed things up. Perhaps, too, the players had a point: the piece is, after all, something of an aural attack upon the standard symphony orchestra and its strings in particular, which here find themselves hemmed in by Hammond organ and bass guitar and squashed between two antiphonal ensembles of amplified saxophones, trumpets and pianos, spurred into an ever-accelerating pace by incessantly high-pitched drumming on a battery of woodblocks.

'During the first rehearsal all the players started complaining that the piece was too loud,' the composer recalls. 'The next day, this guy from the musicians' union turned up with a decibel counter. Apparently, if it went over 100 decibels, they could refuse to play.' In fact, although the meter did hit the limit a few times, the players agreed to go on. 'At the next rehearsal, though, they came in with this big basketful of earplugs, and for half the rehearsals most of the musicians played with earplugs in.' The experience served merely to confirm Andriessen's long-standing view of conventional symphony orchestras: 'They don't like my music, so why should I bother them with it? We're better off without each other.'

And, indeed, Andriessen has never needed to court concert orchestras, preferring instead to write for sympathetic friends and colleagues - the Schoenberg Ensemble, Reinbert de Leeuw, the London Sinfonietta and the Kronos Quartet, among others - or to found his own ensembles (De Volharding in 1972, Hoketus in 1977) with musicians more attuned to his distinctive scoring for massed saxophones, amplified winds, electric guitars and exotic percussion (from log drums, bongos and crotales to car bumpers and metal boxes). With its characteristic mix of the medieval and the minimal, of hockets and canons with 'process' and 'conceptual' methods, Andriessen's music effectively sidesteps the 19th century, and its symphony orchestras. 'I feel much closer to the Baroque,' he declares, 'than to German Romanticism.'

Currently rated Holland's leading living composer, Andriessen comes from a musical family: his father Hendrik and brother Jurriaan are both composers. From the first, he learnt his love of Bach; from the second, his love of jazz. He was, he remembers, in his early teens when his big brother came back from the States with a batch of early Fifties jazz LPs, leaving him with a lasting taste for early bop and cool, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. A decade later he was lucky enough to be in at the birth of authentic performance practice, too, when Amsterdam was home to the early experiments of Harnoncourt, Leonhardt and Bruggen. 'They brought a totally fresh, I would say revolutionary, approach. Before that, they played Bach like Brahms.'

Bach and boogie-woogie remain key influences, but Andriessen's 'big guru' is Stravinsky - 'not only because of the harmonies and things, but because of his whole approach to composing - how he deals with other music. The entrances into history change all the time in his life. He was not concerned about style, he just followed his ears in what he wanted to do. That's exactly the way I hope to live also.'

If Stravinsky is Andriessen's role model, he himself has outlined his own compositional credo in a series of large- scale 'concept pieces', composed over the past 20 years, dealing with the 'big issues' in music - the relationship between music and politics in De Staat (1972-76), music and time in De Tijd (1980-81), music and speed in De Snelheid (1982-84) and music and substance in De Materie (1985-88). The 'concept pieces' marked something of a turning-point in Andriessen's attitude to the role of the composer in society. Previously, in the Sixties and early Seventies, he had put himself at the service of radical politics, founding the wind band De Volharding ('Perseverance') specifically to take his musical message out onto the streets and into the demonstrations. Disillusion soon seems to have set in: despite its power-driving pulse, and rabble-rousing rhythms, De Staat offers a semi-satirical response to Plato's suggestion, in The Republic, that certain types of instruments and music should be banned because of their corrupting effect on society. If only, the anger in the score seems to suggest, music really did have such power for political change.

Now in his early fifties, Andriessen is an older, wiser man. 'When you are realistic - and you become realistic after a while - you see that dealing with politics as a composer means dealing with musicians, and dealing with the social environments in which your pieces will be performed - by whom and for whom. With De Volharding it was different, because the time was different. The political action was extremely strong.' Now De Volharding is more often to be found on the concert platform than on the barricades. 'But the group still deals with the same basic ideology: for instance, discussing together what we will play and what we will not, which composer we will ask to write and why. They decide it all together, which is, in a way, an ideal democracy.'

Andriessen has no difficulty reconciling such anarchistic attitudes with his necessarily domineering role as composer. 'It's very nave,' he says, 'to think that anarchism would mean only improvising together. It's too simple - simply because you couldn't control harmony that way. Even in anarchism, you have to build bridges, ja?'

The key to Andriessen's musical personality, though, is that he sees himself as much in a sociable as in a social role. A legendary bon viveur, he enjoys drinking and dining out in the company of his musical friends and pupils (who include Steve Martland, Graham Fitkin, James MacMillan and Michael Torke). Indeed the idea for De Snelheid came to him while driving back from a restaurant in Italy with friends. Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet came on the car radio - 'it was some very fast, ecstatic music and some guy asked: 'How fast do we have to go to drive as fast as the music?' It made me think about the question of speed in music. And I realised that speed has nothing to do with the pulse, as disc jockeys think, but is all to do with the harmonic rhythm.' Hence De Snelheid: a piece in which the pulse (drummed out by those persistent wood blocks) speeds up, but the music (or harmonic rate of change) actually slows down.

The slow melody with which the work begins was, he points out, intended as his own 'little hommage' to Hollywood film music, 'while the woodblocks have also something to do with western movie music' he adds, beating out a clippety-clop rhythm on the tabletop. The San Francisco Symphony obviously didn't appreciate being treated as cowboys.

Andriessen introduces the UK premiere of 'De Snelheid': Fri 5 Feb 7.30 RFH. All seats pounds 9 unreserved (071-928 8800)

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments