Apr/May 2000

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

Dancing on 'dem Bones

Andriessen, Louis. Trilogie van De Laatste Dag. (Trilogy of the Last Day):
De Laatste Dag (The Last Day) for child's voice, four men's voices and large ensemble composed for the Holland Festival 1996.
TAO (De Weg) (TAO: The Way) for piano, koto, four women's voices and large ensemble, commissioned for the 75th anniversary of the Danaueschinger Musiktage 1996.
Dancing on the Bones for children's voices and large ensemble, 1997.
Asko Ensemble; Sch÷nberg Ensemble; Tomoko Mukaiyam, piano, koto and voice; Ferco Kol, boy soprano; children's choir De Kickers; Reinber de Leeuw, conductor. Donemus Jubilee Series Composers' Voice CV 79. 1999.


Louis Andriessen is the most exciting Dutch composer since Sweelinck in the 17th century, and he may turn out to be equally as influential. His musical procedures mark him as one of the most distinct and immediately recognizable late 20th stylists while firmly planting him the minimalist field. But unlike Glass, Adams, Bryers, Taverner, Part, et.al., Andriessen strives for neither loveliness, near motionless, not spiritual contemplation. Of his large aural canvases, that one should be entitled De Materie (Matter) is thoroughly consistent with his passionate interrogation of the materiality of sound, and a Marxist-emphatically non-socialist realist-intellectual analysis of musical materials in a fraework of large metaphysical concepts: time, velocity, matter, the state.

Andriessen's musical monoliths are not only monumental, they are aurally assaulting. His aural language eschews anything soft, particularly strings, and asserts the reediness of winds and the metallic and percussiveness of pianos and large batteries of percussion. Listeners are riveted to sound itself, without escape. They cannot drift into moodiness and impression, into idealization, nor into transcendent mystical contemplation. The now, for Andriessen, is always now, and the aurality of sound is always fully present. but in its battering repetitiveness, one discoveries an endless variety upon which attention is compelled to ride.

Andriessen's powerful monumental pieces (De Tijd (Time), 1981; De Snelheid (Velocity), 1983; De Materie (Matter), 1989; and De Staat (The Republic)) are similar to each other in the respect that each grabs onto a powerful idea, musically realizes it, and relentlessly drives it to its fullest conclusion. These works of an hour's duration or more each demand the fullest cooperation for listeners. To that daunting list of concept-works, the composer now adds "death."

Trilogie van De Laatste Dag opens new possibilities within an Andriessen sound universe while in no way compromising his rigorous materialist aesthetic. Unlike the great works of the 1980s, this is a trilogy of slightly shorter sections, each using human voices and texts along with the astringent percussion and wind sounds, the hoketus note breaks, the asymmetrical driving rhythms, and the forte settings. Furthermore, each of the separate movements is itself broken into sections of varying tempi, textures and timbres. Listening is allowed to be less monomaniacal. But lest one think, the composer has become sentimental or soft as he grows older, distinct features work to reinforce the anti-transcendent thrust of Andriessen's ideas and are as assaulting as any of the earlier works, if not more so.

First, the choices of texts include a bleak modernist Wasteland-like poem by Lucebert, a folk poem, a stark Dutch translation of a passage from Lao Tse, and a poem by Andriessen himself; the anti-transcendent language of these texts make no compromises. A view of death as factual, non-transcendable, final, and absurd links them. Second is the way these texts are set to voice. Enunciating them in a na´ve anti-lyrical vocal style with every word given declamatory and etched distinctness forces listener attention onto the words, translation in hand, and the materials of vowels and consonants. Hearing Dutch articulated with this material force creates an indelible impact. And using children's voices creates a defamiliarizing strangeness. Children's voices can signal various moods and listener positions; Berg at the end of Wozzeck, for instance, creates chilling pathos, where Britten often creates a pre-pupescent angle-like innocence. Andriessen's children are neither pathos-filled nor innocence-drenched; they are materially and simply children. Uncomprehending of what their words say, they "dance on the bones" with the doggerel glee of a repetitious, catchy and transitory game.

Trilogie van De Laatste Dag is Andriessen's statement about death. Where many composers of recent years, in a millennial and nostalgia-infused zeitgeist, have embraced mystical and visionary longings that death is transcendable, Andriessen gives us death's equally incommensurable material facticity. My mind and musical stomach find Andriessen's death far more nourishing and sustaining.


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