Audiences (And Sheep) Flock To Andriessen Work

Stage director Heiner Goebbels created the visuals – including a flock of sheep – for composer Louis Andreessen's' 'De Materie' in its North American premiere. Photos by Stephanie Berger
Stage director Heiner Goebbels created the visuals – including a flock of sheep – for composer Louis Andriessen’s’ ‘De Materie’ in its North American premiere. (Photos by Stephanie Berger)
By Susan Elliott

NEW YORK – In a pre-performance discussion about De Materie, moderator John Schaefer – a frequent host at these sorts of new-music explorations – said that “the piece is about nothing and the piece is about everything.”

Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s 1984-88 work, receiving its premiere North American staging March 22-30 at New York’s Park Avenue Armory (viewed March 24), is either awesome or ridiculous, depending on one’s point of view and disposition at the time. It does not go down easily, meaning this is not a work for what Charles Ives called “the lazy listener.” To get the full experience, or even a piece of it, you have to be willing to meet the composer half way, and that requires work.

New York's Park Avenue Armory was the venue for 'De Materie.'
New York’s Park Avenue Armory was the venue for ‘De Materie.’

In the program, director Heiner Goebbels, who originated this staging two years ago at Germany’s Ruhrtriennale, calls De Materie an opera. It certainly has all the ingredients: convoluted plot lines, voices singing often incomprehensible texts, an orchestra, and dramatic action. The composer, on the other hand, states unequivocally, in the very same program-note paragraph, “This piece really has nothing to do with an opera. There might be a soprano and a tenor, but the soprano is not in love with the tenor and there’s no baritone who finds that boring.”

De Materie is four 25-minute sections of music, each distinct from the other in subject matter yet each, as per Andriessen, about the way the spirit relates to “tangible surroundings” — i.e., to matter, de materie. There is much discussion in the program about man’s futile effort to impose order on chaos, and Andriessen’s anti-establishment bent is clear — in his written notes, in the angularity of his harmonies, and in the brutish volume of this music.

Pendulums alluding to a Mondrian painting swing above dancers.
Swinging pendulums above dancers refer to a Mondrian painting.

Staged in the cavernous Wade Thompson Drill Hall, with the audience on bleachers at one end and, just below it, a 50-piece orchestra favoring brasses, winds, and percussion, the work starts with one very, very loud chord. Call it an assault, repeated 144 times, that gradually accelerates; the precision of the collective attack by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) — as one instrument rather than 50-plus — was uncanny. The percussive thwacks grow increasingly intense, soon evolving into rhythmically spaced hammer blows, which, amplified and bouncing off the behemoth walls of the Drill Hall, sounded like gun shots.

Meanwhile, mounted high on a side wall of the vast, dark space, eight singers (the ChorWerk Ruhr), dressed in Rembrandt self-portrait garb, are spotlighted, blurting out their own declamatory blocks of sound, the texts of which are drawn from the Dutch declaration of independence of 1581 and, later, from 17th-century Dutch ship-building instructions. They are translated into English in titles reflected on several surfaces, including the dirigibles wafting about at (the audience’s elevated) eye level and on the array of white tents positioned on the floor. Meanwhile, a lone tenor (Pascal Charbonneau) sings something along the lines of “matter is not part of the universe,” and the percussive clanging returns.

For those seeking rationale, Andriessen identifies his choices of texts and musical structures carefully in the program notes. Without this information, the work would be indecipherable for anyone outside the composer’s inner circle.

Faceless, nun-like figures change shape in the mystical Part II.
Faceless, nun-like figures change shape in the mystical Part II.

At the end of Part I, a scrim abruptly drops from the ceiling, dividing the audience from the performance space. It is used, in Part II, as a surface on which to project English titles, which, in this case, reflect the erotic musings of a 13th-century female mystic, sung with stunning clarity and straight tone by soprano Evgeniya Sotnikova. But the scrim also entraps a huge cloud of (man-made) smog, out of which emerges, from the very back wall, a series of faceless, nun-like figures that change shape between “verses” of the text as they approach the front of the playing area. Each ultimately winds up at its own low bench. It’s an eerie effect. The music is kinder, gentler in delivery, though not in harmonic language. Rhythms are unpredictable, unlike in the following section, Part III, in which a boogie-woogie bass prevails under and around pungent brass and sax harmonies.

Visuals for Part III are a mixed bag: huge suspended pendulums swing wildly, changing colors — “a musical image,” we read, “of Piet Mondrian’s ‘Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue,’ from 1927.” Other elements: a small women’s chorus singing texts about mathematics, a boogie-woogie piano player (Conor Hanick) high on the (audience) right wall, two loose-limbed male dancers (Gauthier Dedieu and Niklas Taffner) on the floor making Charleston-era moves and dressed in balloon pants, and at least two chorus lines of dancers dressed in black, lining up intermittently against a silver curtain covering the back wall of the hall.

For the finale, Madame Curie recites lines from her Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
Madame Curie recites lines from her Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

In interviews, Goebbels makes clear that the visuals he has created for this piece “aren’t symbols for something that needs to be deciphered or understood. They all are what they are: tents [Part I], benches [II], pendulum [III], and sheep [IV].”

The four-legged stars of the show are, ironically, its most humanizing element; their moves are random and unpredictable but always as one, and somehow endearing. (They are animals, after all.) Goebbels chose sheep, he told me simply, “because I’ve always wanted to work with sheep.” There are about 100 of them, braying occasionally, staying in a pack, never quite approaching the front of the playing area, where the orchestra has eased into almost mellow, jazz-tinged strains. Those soon evolve into chordal blocks, now coming closer and closer together, moving up the scale and concurrently in volume and impact. After the sheeps’ exit, there’s a finale with Madame Curie reciting lines from her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, translated into English.

The Curie scenes were incorporated in the work’s initial staging in 1989 by Robert Wilson for the Netherlands Opera (now the Dutch National Opera). Until Goebbels picked it up in 2014, as artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale, De Materie hadn’t been staged since its premiere. Each of the elements in this iteration — lighting by Klaus Grünberg, sound design by Norbert Ommer, Peter Rundel’s conducting, and ICE’s exemplary playing — is impressive in its own right. That they don’t come together to form a cohesive whole is fine, since that was never the composer’s or the director’s intention anyway.

Susan Elliott, former classical music and dance critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, is the editor of