Louis Andriessen is back in Holland, presumably, after a concentrated exploration of his work and legacy, under the auspices of Carnegie Hall where he was this year’s Richard and Barbara Debs composer in residence (a substantial epilogue later this month, when John Adams leads the Ensemble ACJW at Zankel in music by himself, Stravinsky and Andriessen’s most famous work, De Staat). The de facto festival presented him as composer, teacher and even curator of the music of others. It was also one of the musical events that suffered due to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, with an entire program, featuring a premiere, cancelled.
His work as a composer is something I struggle with. He is not only well regarded among composers of mine and following generations, but has been a benevolent influence as well as a teacher clearly beloved by his students. The festival treated audiences to this both indirectly, in a fine concert by the American Composers Orchestra that featured a work of his and three of his former students, and indirectly, in a charming and amiably uninformative conversation with Nonesuch Records president Bob Hurwitz that preceding the final program of the series of concerts. As a composer, though, I find his work generally limited both in methods and aesthetics. Hearing his music so frequently over the course of several days demonstrated strengths I had not heard before, but also familiar weaknesses.
The big event of the week was the New York debut of his opera after Dante, La Commedia, in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall. But first, I must return to De Staat and the idea of limitations. Andriessen’s stated purpose for the piece is to engage with political ideas musically, the two ideas being that composers are bound, whether they admit it or not, to political and social order via the circumstances they work with in their lives, and that Plato’s call to ban the mixolydian mode was absurd. I agree with Andriessen in every way, but I also think that these notions are so obvious and so deserving nothing more than implicit mention, that I cannot apprehend in each and every listen I’ve had of the piece just how this long, energetic, hectoring music can possibly be conveying the arguments. The music demolishes these straw men in the first moments, and then goes on. The point is barely relevant, and so is not made.
There are musical problems as well. Andriessen is a Minimalist, stringing together series of repetitive phrases and working with audible pulse and beat. His Minimalism is not much like Reich, Glass or early Adams though, the flavor is more European, along the lines of Michael Nyman, and I feel that there are problems with the technique. Reich and Glass use repetitive phrases with a strong, often swinging pulse, their scores may show up and down movement of arpeggios or syncopated, additive phrases, but their music works those elements into forceful horizontal movement through time. De Staat has a determined horizontal shape to it, and generally confines its pitch material to a tight range, but the effect is strangely stiff and vertical. I think the problem is, to use a cliché, too many notes. Andriessen writes syncopated rhythms, but these are buried under a constant flurry of eighth note that end up homogenizing everything into an unpleasantly flat, brittle surface. There is so little breath in the music, so little variation or space between the notes that there’s nothing to kick it constructively awry, not even a bit of silence. There’s no funk, not effective beat, and for a composer who professes a love of Count Basie, there’s no swing. It’s like a toccata for a loud, brassy ensemble; it shows off the ability of the group to play together fast and exhausts the ear long before it ends.
He also loves Stan Kenton and Bob Graettinger too, and that may be the cause. Their work together was pioneering, important and occasionally successful in melding jazz with techniques and concepts of Modernism in classical music, but one of the results was that the music was no longer jazz. It could often be beautiful and evocative, but it was frequently stiff, opaque, limited in form and, with Kenton, overly brassy. It makes sense that this is Andriessen’s idea of jazz, because I hear him returning it to us in his music, but the problem is that that music was never jazz, it was Americans returning Modernism to Europe in shark skin suits. And it’s with jazz that La Commedia falls apart.
I can’t judge the work as an opera without seeing it staged, but the drama seems obscure, if not missing. It’s a generalized journey through the afterlife, but it’s not clear by whom; the protagonist goes missing about halfway through and we end up being treated to a long discourse from Lucifer, then Cacciaguida. Perhaps the audience is the protagonist, and we are being given a tour. The music stays in hell for a good long while, and gets relentless, but it’s also very fine; expressive, varied, fluid, full of power and also real invention, with Andriessen working with his materials in organic and interesting ways. The quote from De Staat comes off as witty in this context. He works very well with the text and vocal lines, with harmonies moving underneath the singers and effective melodies and cadences. The music clearly tells us what the composer thinks of the words. And although the ear does eventually want a respite, and a few dozen people fled the hall, the real problems arise when La Commedia arrives at ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights,” where the piece goes off the rails, falls over a cliff and implodes.
The problem is that the music gets ‘jazzy.’ Andriessen tries to write jazz here, and frankly it’s something he cannot do competently. Jazz, in spite of what I myself used to think, can be written, can be written well, and can be written well by European composers; Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto proves this, although that composer at first thought he had learned jazz from sheet music only to really learn it from records. But La Commedia does not have such music. If the model for the music in hell is, wonderfully, Berlioz, then the model for the music in paradise seems to be Bernstein but ends up being John Barry. The music is awkward, fussy, there’s a bass line that seems intended to be funky but is weak and embarrassing. There’s not only no swing, there’s no pulse, the old stiff Andriessen is back again. After the organic and satisfying development in the first thee parts of the piece, the choices in the last two parts seems arbitrary. There’s still a lot of fine vocal writing, but I no longer believe what the composer thinks of the words because the music has lost me. Cacciaguida’s long, seemingly drunken rant about the families of Florence comes off as some weird, quasi-beatnik parody of the work. A dreary end to an initially exciting, promising work.
Andriessen opened the entire series with another New York premiere, as his Symphony for Open Strings was the first piece of a program from the American Composers Orchestra, “Louis & the Young Americans,” a concert organized around the composer as teacher. The technique behind the symphony is as the title describes; the string players, with the instruments tuned to different pitches, play only the open strings. Without any use of the left hand to change pitch, which also slightly dampens the string, the instrumental sound can be as open and full-bodied as possible. This also means that to play changing chords or notes, Andriessen has to chop up the horizontal and vertical lines and hand them out to different players, and so his already stiff style incurs an enhanced starchiness. Imagine a hand bell choir, except the instruments are violins, cellos, etc., and the players do not have the same kind of idiomatic experience in the style.
The piece does have an intriguing sound, a combination of the dryness of Early Music practice with an organ-like resonance, especially when the ensemble plays dominant seventh chords. But the music played is displeasing. Andriessen develops his idea so little that it’s hard to discern just what is there, other than the expected repetition repetition repetition repetition. It’s as if he can’t decide whether to choose stasis, which is a worthy goal, or direction. In the middle there is a bass solo that amounts to nothing but a short line played over and over again. An extended quote from “Blue Moon” is puzzling; is it purposeful, accidental, is it just to demonstrate what can be done with this experimental technique? As the latter, the piece is an interesting exploration but, with its stiffness, dullness and lack of musical content, it should probably have been left in the rehearsal studio.
The “Young Americans” of the title are former students of the composer, John Korsrud, Missy Mazzoli and Michael Fiday, and their varied voices demonstrated that Andriessen has the fundamentally important quality as a teacher of helping students find their own ways, their own strengths. Korsrud has written a nice, compact trumpet concerto for himself in Come To The Dark Side. It very effectively combines a nervous pulse, tapped out like Morse code in the winds and strings, with an ominous pedal tone and a lyrical solo trumpet line. Given good material, slow melody over propulsive beat is a winner every time. Korsrud has a rich, tough, dark trumpet sound and clearly does a lot of improvising in the piece. His playing is an interesting comment on and expansion of Miles Davis’ internalized ideas in “Sketches of Spain,” and he develops a lot of focused intensity. At times, the atmospheric sound is reminiscent of the wonderful theme from “Chinatown,” which is a complement to the craft of this music. In concert, the balances were a little bass-heavy, the music has a big bottom, but there’s plenty of life and force, and it’s a pleasure to hear. It seems a bit naked on its own, coming to an end while leaving some open possibilities, and might be even more worthwhile as one movement in a larger concerto.
Fiday’s Gonzo Variations is interesting and odd. He takes on the seemingly impossible task of offering a musical homage to the late and extraordinarily great Hunter S. Thompson. He does so by writing a set of variations based on a combination of Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” and the bass line from “White Rabbit.” This seemingly impossible contrivance actually works while Fiday treats it musically, the combination of the homespun and the dissonant sounds good and is perhaps a fitting way to respond to Thompson’s work. The piece goes through destructive and constructive variations, taking away, augmenting and transforming the material. The technical variations lessen and the stylistically ones increase, which makes the results a little more mundane but energetic; at one point a big rock band breaks out and the music sounds like the theme from “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” At this point, though, the music stops, replaced by a recording of Thompson speaking in his unique lightening fast mumble. It’s a huge mistake. The audio, as unintelligible as much of it is, is riveting in a way the music is not, and the contrast eviscerates what had come before.
The finest piece on the program was Missy Mazzoli’s These Worlds In Us, a dedication to her father and his memories of the Vietnam War. There are two things that make this work so fine, one is that Mazzoli, unlike Fiday, eschews any representation of concrete ideas and events, the other is that she uses such skill in working with her materials. These Worlds is a kind of ballad, it features a lovely, simple tune that is treated without fuss, clear and colorful orchestration and an excellent sense of how long the music should go on. Mazzoli repeats her tune and gives us a few variations, like slowing it down and incorporating small shifts of direction, but she recognizes that the melody is so good it does most of her work for her – her taste is strong. There’s more than just repetition, though; there’s a good countermelody in the trumpet, notes on the vibraphone serve to sow a frisson of emotional doubt, and the development of a march section produces not kitsch but power. It’s elegiac without being sentimental, sympathetic without being pitying and is fully satisfying.
For me, the final Andriessen event was his conversation at Le Poisson Rouge, and the smaller ensemble pieces that ensued. After he and Hurwitz left the stage, Eric Huebner appeared to play three piano pieces by the composer, Image de Moreau – Toccata, Trepidus and the early Trois pieces. They all suffered from the same problem, overly vertical organization that cripples the possibility of horizontal pulse. Image is not unpleasant, with its use of a particular run from De Staat and a romantic, cinematic theme. Toccatas are the thing Andriessen does best and a focus on that is to his advantage. The other two pieces are curious in that they use the left hand essentially exclusively. Trois pieces has some unfamiliar elements, like dissonance and some dramatic use of diminished seventh chords that the composer later eschewed. Of the three sections, “Promenade” is slow and delicate, “Fracas” is a toccata and “Hymne (promenade II)” is song like, the overall results are unformed, like a student piece. Trepidus has good material in it, a series of chords that mix the romantic and the jazzy, and builds a rare successful pulse. Andriessen repeats some of the material as his structure, but it seems that he chooses the weakest material to repeat, which may say more about how his and my taste are mismatched than anything else.
The big piece on the program was M is for Man, Music and Mozart, which was the best work of Andriessen’s I heard across the concerts and enjoyable in its own right. La Commedia demonstrated the he can write good tunes for the voice, and this piece has more good vocal material in it, heard in fine voice from Mary Elizabeth Mackenzie, accompanied by the excellent ACME and Jeffrey Milarsky. The work is a soundtrack for a short companion movie from Peter Greenaway, and the only flaw in the performance is how much the movie, which is awful, distracts from the music, which is good. Greenaway makes movies that mostly display his own intellect, and since that is dull, smug, narrow and shallow, the films are mainly boring and irritating. This one is no exception. What is has to do with Mozart, other than using the name, is incomprehensible; it’s a ballet actually, with fussy, monochromatic production and immediately forgettable choreography. As usual, the only point of interest is the naked bodies. Occasionally there is a woman’s face on-screen, attempting to lip-synch with the live music, and it is meaningless and doesn’t work.
The music is bright, lively and punchy. It actually moves and swings a bit. Perhaps because he’s free to not worry about expressing a restrictive concept, Andriessen has here written music that sounds free and expressive. There is such energy and cheeky, simple pleasure in the sound that it leaves the question of where this part of his musical personality is kept hidden. As the film runs out and the credits roll, the music continues for a couple more minutes and is a pure pleasure to hear by itself. In a tribute to a composer’s work that was mainly full of fuss and distractions, M was finally for the music this man can make.