Review Essay | The Music of Louis Andriessen, edited by Maja Trochimczyk and Louis Andriessen: De Staat by Robert Adlington

The Problem With Andriessen

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I was first introduced to the music of Louis Andriessen in perhaps the best way possible: during a game of “drop the needle.” I was played an excerpt from the middle of De Staat and asked to guess what it was. The music was like nothing I’d ever heard, or perhaps, it was like too many other things—too dissonant and aggressive to be Steve Reich, too consonant and repetitive to be György Ligeti. It was as if the Stravinsky of Symphony of Psalms had been given electric guitars and an even greater propensity for repetition and violent contrast. The music sounded fresh and exhilarating, both because of and in spite of my inability to place the sounds into a comfortable category. Other works of Andriessen’s have not, I feel, aged so well, but Andriessen remains a major figure, and one deserving of much study, precisely because his career and musical thought are so disruptive to certain comfortable categories, as I found the sounds of De Staat to be. Andriessen appears as a marginal figure in certain histories of institutionalized European avant-garde, by virtue of his engagement with popular music and rejection of any number of modernist orthodoxies. But at the same time, Andriessen is relegated to a footnote in histories of minimalism, where he might be expected to fit better, thanks to his unabashed engagement with that same high-art tradition. He wears his debt to Stravinsky on his sleeve, delights in arcane, inaudible intellectual schemes in his pieces, and (unlike all the “canonic” minimalists) he occupies a prestigious and powerful academic position. 

Adlington Cover

New critical work on Andriessen promises to lead to alternative narratives of what happened to music after 1950, narratives in which Andriessen might be a central figure. Such work might be organized around many different issues: the collapse of the avant-garde after the 1960s and the shift in status of classical music institutions; the refiguring of high-culture and low-culture spheres generally; the means by which outsiders become insiders; or the strategies with which composers negotiate local and international scenes. Neither of the two works under review attempt these larger tasks, but both suggest promising directions for such work. The lengthy volume The Music of Louis Andriessen, edited by Maja Trochimczyk, and Robert Adlington’s much shorter monograph Louis Andriessen: De Staat are the first two serious studies of Andriessen in English, and both raise more questions than they answer. But this is entirely appropriate for a composer whose trajectory seems to move in so many different directions at once and, moreover, one whose story is far from finished.1

Trochimczyk’s volume is not the edited collection of essays that one might expect from the title page. Of its thirteen chapters, six are interviews, five are essays by Trochimczyk herself, one is a speech given by Andriessen, and one is an essay by another musicologist (Frits van der Waa), resulting in a book that reads like a hybrid of a monograph and an oral history. It treats some works in great depth, such as Hadewijch and Writing to Vermeer (both of which are given chapters of their own) while largely passing over other works, such as De Snelheid or Rosa, A Horse Drama. Adlington’s title page is similarly misleading, providing far more than commentary on the single work of the book’s title. After a cogent account of Andriessen’s development as a composer and thinker leading up to De Staat’s premier in 1976, he addresses in detail important stylistic influences on De Staat(discussed below). He then turns to the musical structures of the work, offering analytic insights that vary in their plausibility. He himself warns against an analysis which would “smooth over” the audible disjunctions and “rudeness” of the work (58), but to my taste he comes close to falling into the old music theorist’s prejudice in favor of “coherence,” to the detriment of his own arguments. However, in the same chapter, he powerfully and elegantly describes the different types of music found in this fundamentally disjunct piece. After reading the fifth and final chapter, this aspect of Chapter 4 seems even better in retrospect, since it lays the groundwork for a convincing (if admittedly not exhaustive) exploration of the vexed question of the meaning of De Staat, its political content, and the “argument,” if any, that the audience is to take from it. Since essentially all of Andriessen’s works are, in one way or another, intentionally political, Adlington’s readings in this chapter suggest strategies for understanding Andriessen’s oeuvre as a whole.2

In the end, Adlington has crafted a more satisfying and coherent book, one that probably provides a better introduction to Andriessen generally. However, if I have a complaint, it is my impression that Adlington tries too hard to tie up the loose ends and intractable contradictions of his subject. By contrast, the rich collection of facts and observations in Trochimczyk’s volume, despite its disunity (and some rather annoying editorial infelicities), raises many more issues and suggests many more directions for future research. (Indeed, it appears to have so stimulated Adlington, who cites it frequently.) The unanswered questions themselves most convincingly argue for Andriessen’s importance.

Born into a musical family in 1939, Andriessen followed a path familiar from other mid-century composer biographies: early experiments with serialism, a visit to Darmstadt, and personal study with an avant-garde master (in his case Luciano Berio). In addition to his serial experiments, Andriessen participated in the other compositional fads of the 50s and 60s, from “collage” piecesto graphical scores, to experiments with tape music. Andriessen’s story takes a crucial turn however, when he attempts to apply his leftist political convictions to his musical activities. He became convinced that it was not merely bourgeois music that was somehow corrupt and retrogressive, but the institutions and rituals of classical music themselves, particularly those associated with the symphony orchestra.

This led to a pivotal event in Andriessen’s development as a composer, the story of which is told several times in different chapters of Trochimczyk. He participated in a series of demonstrations agitating for change in


in prestigious Dutch cultural institutions, demonstrations that culminated in the still-notorious Notenkraker (“Nutcracker”) action of November, 17 1969, when a group of musicians and students disrupted an orchestral concert in the Concertgebouw. In his retelling of this event, Adlington quotes a Dutch critic who recently called it “the constituting myth of Dutch musical life” (16). At the time, no one would have suspected that, almost exactly seven years later, Andriessen’s De Staat would receive its Amsterdam premiere in the very same hall.

While demonstrating against Dutch bourgeois concert culture, Andriessen was also engaged in building up a new, potentially more progressive space for music-making, which would combine the didacticism and sense of play of political street theater, the participatory dynamics of a rock concert, and the seriousness of purpose of the classical concert hall. The music that would create and fill this space would likewise be a hybrid: avoiding the pitfalls of the romantic orchestral tradition and the equally poisonous (for Andriessen) shortcomings of commercialized popular music. I found Adlington particularly incisive when presenting these elements of Andriessen’s intellectual development. The three major models (though far from the only influences) for music that could serve these purposes are identified in the title of Adlington’s second chapter: “Jazz, Minimalism, Stravinsky.” As Adlington explains, Andriessen had a conflicted relationship with all three. For example, his love of jazz is as great as his hatred of what he calls “popular music,” but the line separating these concepts has never been bright, and he is thus forced into awkward rhetorical positions, to the extent that it sometimes becomes unclear what music he is talking about in a given quotation. With respect to Stravinsky, it is not obvious why a communist would draw so heavily on a deeply religious composer who chose a dollar sign as his monogram. I will limit myself here to surveying in more detail Andriessen’s relationship with American minimalism.

The relationship between American minimalism and Andriessen’s own work functions on many levels, from conventionally musical to conceptual and ideological, but, at least as he tells the story now, his reaction to Terry Riley’s In Cwas visceral, instantaneous, and pivotal. In Adlington’s words, “minimalism offered an immediacy and physicality that connected it to pop, yet retained a conceptualist element that helped distinguish it from the world of commercial music—a crucial distinction for a leftist composer hostile to the corporate world” (24). But, if we are to believe the composer’s statements (many made two decades or so after the fact), he had misgivings about the work of Riley, Reich, and Glass from very early on. These misgivings took place on both the familiar grounds of “mindlessness,” “glossiness,” and “voluptuousness,” but also on the less commonplace ground that the American minimalists’ art-gallery milieu “signified merely a pandering to the art-consuming bourgeoisie” (45). The first works that resulted from this ambivalence, such as De Volharding (1972) or Workers Union (1975), were uniquely suited to their hybrid concert spaces—music that was loud, aggressive, and dissonant, but formally clear, rigorous, and direct. The live recording included with Adlington’s book, during which the audience periodically erupts into applause and appreciative whooping and whistling, suggests this interdependence of sound and space. [Listen] Even works in a gentler vein, like the interminable unison piano and recorder duet Melodie(1972–74), make demands on the listener more confrontational than those of American works of the same period.

Example 3.2 from 
Louis Andriessen: De Staat

But De Staat, for a larger ensemble and with a sung text taken from Plato’s Republic, is a slightly different and more complicated case. In the fourth and best chapter of Adlington’s book, he suggests why, reading the musical content of De Staat as an argument about the relative merits of different musical styles. This argument rests on the excellent technical analysis of the preceding chapter, which sorts the discontinuous sections of De Staat into passages of aggressive chromatic dissonance and passages of more gentle, “white-note” dissonance. He calls these modes “material A” and “material D,” but we might, with tongue in cheek, simply refer to “the pretty music” and “the ugly music,” as in this example where these tropes butt heads for the first time, as trombone clusters give way to the diaphanous first chorus. And then there are striking passages that seem to fit in neither category, including sections of unison writing and the concluding passage, a breathtaking two-voice canon at the second for the entire ensemble divided down the middle, which then breaks down and resolves into a unison. [Listen] Adlington’s interpretation takes off from the suggestive observation that it is the “pretty” music, so starkly contrasted with its other, which bears the audible influences of American minimalism—indeed the first choral section, which appears like an oasis after the desert of squawking trombones, uses the basic harmony of Reich’s Four Organs, at the same pitch and registral level. 

De Staat, then, functions as an exercise in critique-through-juxtaposition, holding up the “luxurious” minimalist style for scrutiny. Adlington’s reading is, to this point, sensitive and insightful, causing me to reconsider why I was so attracted to De Staat on first hearing. However, I cannot quite follow Adlington all the way to the end of his argument, when he suggests that De Staat’s extreme contrasts render only the “pretty” sections permanently unstable:

Andriessen juxtaposes [the minimalist passages] with music designed to establish the most tense of oppositions, oppositions that recognize the freedoms and harmony of a relaxed minimalist style to be illusory in present conditions. (118)

What does it mean to say that music we just heard is rendered “illusory”? Would it not be equally valid to argue that the passages of sheer aural pleasure consign the harsher passages to irrelevance? The mere ordering of the sections might make a difference, if the ugliness seemed to supercede or drown out the prettiness. But as Adlington carefully explains, this does not happen De Staat. The work’s ending is neither dissonant nor consonant, but in unison—a unison, moreover, which feels worked-for, achieved after the two-part canon at break-neck speed.

Adlington seems absolutely right to read the work as “music about music” (and also as music about politics and performance and other issues; I’ve focused on only one aspect of his multifaceted interpretation here). But in my opinion De Staat leaves its final conclusion decidedly ambiguous. To put it in stark terms, Adlington is exactly half right: my sense that the pretty sections make the ugly ones seem cruel and self-indulgent is precisely as strong as my sense that the ugly sections make the pretty ones seem facile and pandering. And, of course, the sections that seem unclassifiable in this scheme serve to throw the entire interpretive strategy into doubt. This uneasy coexistence, an unresolved tension rather than a clean synthesis or an obvious critique, seems to characterize not only Andriessen’s best music, but also his entire career, from his institutional position to his musical philosophy.

Although Adlington’s book more or less ends in 1976, the most stimulating essay in Trochimczyk’s book—the brief chapter “Unisons and the Republic” (Chapter 5)—makes it clear that the relationship between American minimalists and Andriessen was not a one-way street, particularly after the international dissemination and success of De Staat. In the short final section of this chapter, Trochimczyk suggests that Andriessen’s work from the 70s and early 80s exerted a clear and hitherto unacknowledged influence on American composers. The most startling example is John Adams, whose Short Ride in a Fast Machine owes an audible debt to De Snelheid (that is, Velocityor Speed). De Snelheid was commissioned and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony in 1984 while Adams was composer-in-residence there. Short Ride was premiered by the same orchestra two years later. Trochimczyk seems to refer only to the general similarities—the titles, the incessant woodblock pulse, the exploration of slow-moving lines against frenetic rhythmic activity—without isolating the startling moment toward the end of Short Ride where Adams comes very close to quoting a passage from De Snelheid, with the same timbre and at the same pitch level.3 [Listen] In light of this connection, I begin to hear Andriessenesque elements in compositions by Adams (beyond those mentioned by Trochimczyk), with aesthetic aims very distant from anything Andriessen ever attempted, such as Tromba Lontana (1985) or Grand Pianola Music (1982). Also not discussed by Trochimczyk in this context is Steve Reich’s Tehillim (1981); its form, scoring, rhythms, and use of amplified female voices all find obvious precedents in De Staat. [Listen]

It is possible that Reich and Adams would have looked to Andriessen for more than purely aesthetic reasons. While both Adlington and Trochimczyk comment on the apparent irony of the uncompromisingly antiauthoritarian Andriessen being performed in the Concertgebouw, neither explicitly asks howhe crafted the music that gained him access to this and other high art institutions. This is both a social and a stylistic question. Only in the years following De Staat were American minimalists granted similar access.4 The quasi-improvisatory free-for-all of Frederick Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge(1969) or Terry Riley’s In C (1964) initially inspired Glass and Reich to compose works which retain the “experimentalist” loose control of performers and spirit of play—Glass’s 1+1(1967), or Reich’s Pendulum Music (1968). Only later did they compose rigorous, disciplined feats of endurance like Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts (1971-74) for example, or Reich’s Four Organs (1970). But when Andriessen heard In C, he heard the potential for rigor immediately, and, even while rejecting the orchestra, seemed to find a more direct path back to the concert hall. Even works employing a loose and rough performance style, such as De Volharding (1972), still involve stunning, almost inhuman feats of stamina and virtuosity. For all the discourse surrounding Andriessen’s confrontational and aggressive dissonance, this aspect of his style might have paradoxically made him more fit for entrance into the Concertgebouw, at least for some audiences.

Both Trochimczyk and Adlington are intrigued by the potential political interpretation of the harsh rigor of Andriessen’s work from the 1970s. Is Worker’s Union (1975), or De Staat itself, a sonic representation of powerful collective action, or of enforced consensus and repression of dissent? I admit that I find this question less interesting than that of the role of ideas of control and freedom within concert music culture specifically. The rigid restraint of the performer has been a part of concert music at least since the nineteenth century; challenging the subjugation of performance to work (and performer to composer) is what made much American experimental music of the 1960s so radical in the first place. At the risk of overstating the case, if Andriessen’s rigor saved minimalism from its experimental roots, his dissonance pulled minimalism back from the threat of popular accessibility. To explain this statement, I’d like to take issue with an offhand remark of Trochimczyk’s from Chapter 3:

Thus, the new musical style [of the pieces written for the Orkest De Volharding] “alienated” Andriessen’s music from the traditional world of “classical concert performances” that he was brought up with. Simultaneously, though, the continuing formal complexity and harmonic density of his music (saturated chords, with frequent use of major and minor seconds) has not created easy listening experiences for conservatively-minded traditionalists who, perhaps, would prefer the euphonious repeated triads of Philip Glass or John Adams. (60)

On the contrary, the phenomenal popularity achieved by Philip Glass rested first and foremost on young audiences whose most familiar musical reference points were pop and rock, audiences that hardly deserve the label “conservatively-minded traditionalists.” That phrase more readily calls to mind an audience devoted to the canonized classical orchestral repertoire, among whom Glass tends to be, at best, the butt of jokes.5 As outdated as it might seem, in the realm of the classical concert hall the “traditionalists” are still the first to condemn “easy listening experiences”—there are different  kinds of conservatism among audiences (and musicologists, too, for that matter). While Andriessen’s dissonance might lose him an “easy listening” audience, it gains him a high-art cachet according to a value system hardly less puritanical.

Trochimczyk and Andriessen

Among all the different types of writing in Trochimczyk’s book, the wide-ranging interviews between Trochimczyk and Andriessen are by far the most fun to read. The reader comes away from the interviews with a sense of who Andriessen is—articulate, engaged with the issues that his own music and career raise, and occasionally more than a bit pompous. This glimpse into Andriessen’s character would be valuable on its own, but the interviews are also filled with intriguing observations and critical aperçus. I suggested above that the most valuable aspect of Trochimczyk’s book is the questions it leaves unanswered, and so to conclude I’d like to follow one of many possible threads in which the tidbits in the interviews gradually seem to cohere into a larger picture, thereby adding another facet to the contradictory picture of Andriessen sketched above.

In several passages, Andriessen becomes perceptibly uncomfortable when the subject of women is raised. This discomfort is easy to understand when Trochimczyk asks him about the misogyny and sadism on display in Rosa, A Horse Drama (71-72). It is more difficult to understand his defensiveness when asked about his tendency to end works with single female speaking voices. (His unenlightening response: “it could be a male voice, too, of course” [79].) And when he refuses to explain why he himself had characterized Writing to Vermeer (1997-98) and TAO (1996) as “feminine”—except to say that “there are women singing and women playing the harpsichord, that is what it is” (248)—his evasiveness becomes almost comical. Elsewhere he is not so tight-lipped: in describing his early collaborators, he distinguishes them from those he disdainfully calls “the pretty girls who play Mozart” (15). Later he refers to “susceptible ladies” who are too easily seduced by spurious tonal analyses (118).

That Andriessen comes off as a bit of an old-fashioned sexist is fairly trivial, but begins to seem more significant when it plays out in his compositions. One could begin with Trochimczyk’s observation in one of her essays that all Andriessen’s female characters in his more recent dramatic works are defined exclusively in relation to their men (274), but such moments of gender anxiety also, more obliquely, offer a new perspective on one of the most frequently employed (and frequently discussed) elements of Andriessen’s musical language as a whole: his preference for anti-operatic, “flat,” vibrato-free voices. Describing what he values in a performer, Andriessen says

The problem is that in a bad performance, what you hear all the time is not the music but the singer’s voice. You hear, “this is me. I am singing,” instead of the music. This means there is a wall between me, the listener, and the music that I am trying to listen to, because there is this woman (sic) screaming continuously. It is a very big problem. It seems to me that good performers become invisible or inaudible during the performance; they virtually disappear in the music. (168)

Thus the straight-toned female chorus which forms such a recognizable aspect of Andriessen’s mature sound is revealed to be absolutely of a piece with the problem of the performer and the work raised above. Rather than the more abstract notions of freedom and control, however, here the anxiety is focused on conspicuously female bodily expression.6

This line of reasoning differs drastically from the story that Andriessen and others tell about his attraction to these untrained voices, again and again attributed to his exposure to jazz, non-Western, and popular music. Of course, at least with reference to jazz, this has never exactly made sense; when Andriessen unequivocally declares that vibrato “is not done by jazz singers,” one wonders which singers has been listening to.7, where such a vibrato exists. I am very specifically a sworn enemy of vibrato. It is not necessary anymore: it is not done by Baroque singers, it is not done by jazz singers, it is not done by folk singers, it is not done by pop singers, and it is not done by mothers when they sing to their children. Such a vibrato is not done by anybody else and it is a very unnatural, ‘manneristic’ way of making a sound” (Trochimczyk 169; also quoted by Adlington 38). Clearly, there are many problems with this quotation, beyond the fact that it is simply false.] Regardless, the hard-edged, vibrato-free voice that Andriessen loves has been presented as just another aspect of Andriessen’s revolt against ideologies of classical music and orthodoxies of Modernism, which is true as far as it goes. However, the story becomes more complicated and interesting when these same voices are seen, simultaneously, as an emblem of precisely the Romantic work-concept and performer denigration upon which those ideologies were built. Andriessen, as ever, tries to break down hierarchies and orthodoxies, while simultaneously taking advantage of the same systems.8

The conventional apology of the reviewer, that he has not done justice to the complexity of the books under review, is particularly necessary here, since any attempt to neatly summarize Andriessen’s life and works seems to have the potential to be blown apart by another work, another quotation, another anecdote. In a footnote, Adlington suggests that a fascinating study would be to compare Andriessen with another deeply political composer, whose politics play out not only in his works but also in his approach to performers and institutions: Cornelius Cardew (115n21). The comparison is particularly instructive here, since much of Cardew’s music (like Andriessen’s worst music) is characterized precisely by a lack of ambivalence, a univocality that is, in the end, both an aesthetic and political failing.Like Andriessen’s best music, both Adlington and Trochimczyk’s books are strongest when their proposed syntheses remain provisional, and the many voices in Andriessen’s thought and music remain dissonant.

Gregory W. Bloch
University of California, Berkeley

Works Cited

Books and Articles

Andriessen, Louis. The Art of Stealing Time. Ed. Mirjam Zeegers. Translated by Clare Yates. Todmorden, UK: Arc, 2002.

Everett, Yayoi Uno. The Music of Louis Andriessen: Politics, Parody, and Crossing Boundaries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

Griffiths, Paul. Liner notes. CD accompanying BBC Music Magazine11. BBC MM222, 2002.

Sound Recordings

CD accompanying BBC Music Magazine 11. BBC MM222, 2002.

Reich, Steve. “Tehillim.” Perf. Schoenberg Ensemble with Percussion Group The Hague. Cond. Reinbert de Leeuw. Works 1965-1995. Vol. 5. Nonesuch 79451-1, 1997.

  1. Besides various journalistic sources and few articles, serious work on Andriessen has been in Dutch. All these sources, through 2002, are listed in the Trochimczyk’s excellent bibliography. Her appendices also contain a wonderful discography, and a better works list than the New Grove’s. English-speaking scholars should also be aware of a large collection of Andriessen’s own writings in translation, from 1966 to 2000, published as The Art of Stealing Time. A major study in English is forthcoming from Yayoi Uno Everett.
  2. I mean in no way to slight Adlington’s book when I say that its most exciting content may be the CD which is included with the book (from which most of the sound examples for this essay are drawn). It includes a live recording of De Staat from 1978, which differs in fascinating ways from the more commonly available 1990 recording conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, along with an enthralling live recording of De Volharding, and the first available recording of the choral setting of Il Principe (text by Niccolò Machiavelli). None of these performances have ever been available on CD before now.
  3. Paul Griffiths notes the general similarities, though again not the specific intertextual relation, in his listening guide to the CD accompanying the October 2002 issue of BBC Music Magazine, which juxtaposes the two pieces.
  4. Two pivotal pieces are Reich’s Octet (1979) and Glass’s Satyagraha (1979), the first mature works by both composers not written for their own ensembles. Significantly, both were partly commissioned by Dutch cultural institutions.
  5. John Adams has fared marginally better on this account. I do not mean to suggest here that much of the criticism directed at Glass isn’t valid, on a variety of grounds.
  6. This contrasts with his feelings about instrumentalists. Speaking of his raucous ensemble Orkest De Volharding, he has put forward almost the exact opposite opinion. “Classical musicians are really a medium. They say, ‘You write a B flat, I give you a B flat.’ But a colleague, a classically-trained composer, wrote for De Volharding, and after a rehearsal came to me: ‘It’s completely different to all my former experiences, because when I write a B flat, I don’t get back my B flat, I get De Volharding back.’ You see the difference?” (Adlington 39). So, are we to conclude that if performers play loud squawky saxophones they are permitted to drown out the composer’s voice, but if they have warm, enveloping, conventionally expressive feminine voices, they must be made “invisible or inaudible”?
  7. The complete quotation is as follows: “There is no other culture in the world, nowhere whatsoever in human history [besides opera
  8. For one who happens to enjoy the screaming women, it is satisfying to read, in Trochimczyk’s interview with Andriessen’s longtime collaborator, the conductor Reinbert de Leeuw (Chapter 10), that such voices simply do not work on the operatic stage, and that “I think Louis is now in the process of reconciling that aspect of performance and that he feels he should not be too rigid with them, but work with people who can really sing” (216). We are informed in an endnote that Andriessen expressed his disagreement with this remark when given the interview to read before publication (217n11).