Andriessen At 80, Celebrated From Many Perspectives

Louis Andriessen, center, in his loft in 1985 with, from left to right, Jeffrey Brooks, Steve Martland, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon (From the private collection of Julia Wolfe)

Writing to Louis Andriessen: Commentaries on Life in Music. Edited by Rose Dodd. Lecturis, 2019.

BOOK REVIEW – In 2019, as musical institutions around the world celebrated the 80th birthday of Louis Andriessen, the British composer and writer Rose Dodd launched her compilation Writing to Andriessen: Commentaries on Life in Music. Published by Lecturis, this diverse collection of multi-authored conversations, musicological inquiries, and personal essays is one of a few publications dedicated to the iconoclast, who is considered the first modern Dutch composer to gain notoriety outside his home country. It follows fine works such as The Art of Stealing Time by Mirjam Zegers.

As last season’s New York Philharmonic mini-festival, The Art of Andriessen, also made clear, Andriessen’s reputation is based not only on his considerable oeuvre but on the sum of his many parts: as a mentor of composers, a steward of composer-led collectives, and a political activist who challenged the classical-music status quo.

With a background in jazz and the avant-garde, Andriessen’s music is not rooted in a particular stylistic school. Neither purely minimalist, serialist, nor impressionistic, his music captures the attention of the world’s orchestras, ensembles, and opera companies through a disciplined, classical approach to form influenced by Stravinsky, a signature rhythmic verve, and a chordal approach to harmony. Orchestras such as the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; contemporary ensembles like the Kronos Quartet, London Sinfonietta, and Bang on a Can; and leading Dutch groups – including Orkest de Volharding and Hoketus, which were named after his works – have all championed his music.

Andriessen’s legacy is amplified by the composers he has guided, including the marquee names of Michel van der Aa, Graham Fitkin, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and Missy Mazzoli. Andriessen is lauded as much for his altruism as he is for his work.

In her 240-page volume, Dodd builds a portrait of the composer through multiple perspectives. Her curated approach gives the impression that you might be stepping into a gallery of a museum to view sketches of the same man by different artists. Each artist answers one quintessential question: Why is Louis Andriessen so admired? This celebratory tribute closes the case.

Dodd contributes two of the 19 chapters: an inviting introduction and a fascinating sidebar on the mezzo-soprano and composer Cathy Berberian. The remaining  chapters comprise specifically commissioned contributions from composers Julia Wolfe and Donacha Dennehy, California E.A.R Unit, and violinist Monica Germino; a series of articles (some, if not most, already published) such as John O’Mahony’s excellent 2002 Guardian article, reprinted here as the forward; and conversations transcribed from media and film documentaries. There are also musicological treatises providing contextual background. Ian Pace’s mini-history of minimalism is one example.

The young Andriessen as cowboy (Andriessen private archive)

The book is most alive in the conversations. It is here where you experience Andriessen’s energy and conviction through his perspicacious thoughts. It’s very clear that he is as eloquent articulating his ideas about music as he is composing it. The conversation with the Dutch music critic Elmer Schönberger, reproduced as a transcription from the television film Composing: A Lesson by Hans Hulscher, is particularly insightful. Andriessen’s philosophical musings constitute valuable advice to young composers. In Ron Ford’s chapter “Conversations with Louis, about Singing,” we learn how Andriessen’s vocal writing is influenced by jazz singers such as Sarah Vaughan. We learn of his strong, almost vehement, distaste for operatic vibrato and his unequivocal objections to the kind of bel canto throatiness that obfuscates diction.

It is at these and other select moments of elucidation that you find yourself dropping the book and running to hunt for the score that is being scrutinized, or perhaps listening to a recording that you may have missed. In this sense, the book achieves a sense of history as a palpable experience. It is also a provocation on many levels.

Dodd’s colorful depiction of Andriessen’s relationship with the great Berberian offers a glimpse of his warm personality. This agreeably indulgent chapter includes some facsimiles of delightful correspondences between the two musicians. Andriessen went to Italy as a 23-year-old to study with Luciano Berio, Berberian’s husband at the time.

In a letter announcing her visit to Amsterdam, Berberian says: “Please get me a ticket for the opening night of Reconstructie [Andriessen’s collectively written opera with Reinbert de Leeuw, among others]…as close to Stravinsky and as far from Stockhausen as possible.” It’s an indelible moment. Dodd is connecting history’s dots.

First page of a letter from Cathy Berberian to Andriessen

Still, as with any biographical portrait that cannot hope to cover the gamut of a person’s life, we yearn for the missing moments. It would have been fascinating to cast an eye on Andriessen as political activist with his Notenkrakers group in the 1960s. I wondered what it might have been like to be in the audience at a Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra concert when his group interrupted a performance with clickers as a protest against conservative programming.

My other small, irksome hesitation lies in the approach to the editorial layout of photographs and illustrations. The photo board is an attention-seeking assortment bearing witness to seminal historical markers. At times, the photos don’t line up with the chapter at hand.

There are missed opportunities and oddities. The book opens with a provocative photograph of Andriessen as young boy. He is dressed in a cowboy suit and pointing a gun. Andriessen’s childhood was close to the most idyllic musical childhood a composer could ask for. His father was one of the most respected composers of his time, and his mother was a singer. Yet the context of this intriguing photo is missing in the milieu of the text or as a caption. Was it a fancy dress party?

Writing to Andriessen: Commentaries of Life in Music deserves, and will attract, a wide readership, from armchair listeners to people with deep professional commitments. At the end, Andriessen emerges as the hero you would very much like to meet.

Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based writer, festival director, and scholar whose writing has appeared in London’s Financial Times, Music and Literature, National Sawdust’s Log Journal, and the New York Times. She is an advocate for contemporary music and cultural diplomacy.