Jeremy Geffen on a New York Andriessen Fest
Jeremy Geffen is director of artistic planning for Carnegie Hall in New York City. He’s also a great colleague, with whom I share many long and fun talks about music. When he asked me recently if I was planning on coming to any of Carnegie Hall’s upcoming Andriessen events, which begin on April 9, I was somewhat embarrassed. I have a huge and varied CD collection, with a few Andriessen titles that I’ve listened to but hadn’t ever connected with. So I had to admit to Jeremy that I really didn’t know Andriessen’s music at all. Then I realized that this might be an opportunity for a learning experience. So I invited Jeremy out for breakfast and asked him to tell me more about this compelling and controversial Dutch composer. Here’s a brief Q & A excerpt of our conversation:
AI For a long while I felt that I hadn’t had my breakthrough moment with Louis Andriessen. Music for 18 Musicians had done that for me with Steve Reich, and Powaqqatsi with Philip Glass. Knowing I was meeting with you this morning, I took a walk down the West Side last night and the gritty, eclectic sound of Andriessen’s De Staat, which I was listening to on my iPod, really hit me. So I have to thank you already for finally helping me have my first big Andriessen “Ah ha!” moment. What was yours?
JG Same piece, actually, which we’ll be doing at Carnegie Hall on May 10 with John Adams conducting Ensemble ACJW. Adams actually led the premiere of the work in the US in the 1980s, when Andriessen’s music was basically unknown in the America.
AI That’s interesting. One of the pieces that I thought of while listening to De Staat was Adams’s Grand Pianola Music.
JG Many people like to label Andriessen a “minimalist”, but, as it is with Adams, that term is important but no longer the only one that describes his music. Louis’ music always had a much harder edge, which is connected to its subject matter. One can’t underestimate the socio-political message that he’s trying to get across – and if he has to beat you over the head with it he will.
AI What, in general, are some of the key points you feel he is trying to make with his music?
JG Andriessen likes to tackle big subjects that aren’t necessarily musical. His major works have been about the nature of time, the composition and behavior of matter, and in the case of De Staat, the organization of a political state and whether music can be a subversive element in that state. For all its attractive sounds, Andriessen is basically contradicting Plato’s idea that certain musical modes are detrimental to a culture and to its organization – and at times pushes back with all the subtlety of a gesture an Italian motorist might make! Andriessen is an idealist. He believes that the music that people listen to should be a direct reflection of contemporary culture. At the time he wrote De Staat the piece was remarkable not just for the sounds and the language he used, but for its instrumentation and style. It was not written for symphony orchestra, the predominant “instrument of the time” – what a composer typically used to make a statement. It was written for an ensemble of acoustic and amplified instruments. And rather than include voices which sing in an operatic style, Andriessen asks for voices which sing with the purity with which we associate early music, but are amplified as in jazz.
AI Steve Reich and Philip Glass similarly wrote, and continue to write, for such ensembles.
JG Louis sprung out of and led the whole ensemble movement in the Netherlands, which is still unparalleled in terms of significance and breadth. It’s the same movement that brought us so many of the great early music ensembles – like the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and the Orchestra of the 18th-Century – and all the contemporary music ensembles, such as ASKO/Schoenberg, Orkest de Volharding, and Netherlands Wind Ensemble in Holland and, in other places, the Ensemble Intercontemporain and Ensemble Modern. Louis proved that classical music was not dependent on the orchestra. He also proved that music didn’t need to be performed in traditional space to make an impact. Basically, he was trying to bridge the high and the low in musical culture.
AI Tells us some details about the upcoming Andriessen events at Carnegie Hall.
JG The centerpiece is La Commedia, which is Andriessen’s most recent opera, which will be performed (unstaged) in concert. If you want Andriessen in a nutshell, all you have to do is look at the stage for this piece. There are three soloists, one of whom is a female jazz/cabaret vocalist singing the role of Dante. There’s also a high coloratura soprano who sings with the “white sound” we associate with the early music movement, as well as a vocally untrained actor singing the role of Lucifer. It’s an ensemble of about 40 players: strings, winds, brass, percussion including trapset, plus electric guitar and bass. And the incredible close harmony vocal octet Synergy Vocals. It’s a real amalgam of many different styles and periods.
AI Have you seen this work before?
JG Yes, in Amsterdam. It was a thrilling experience. From a musical point of view, his points of reference extend from folksongs to Bach, to Stravinsky, to hard rock, to cool jazz, to Gershwin and Bernstein and Steve Reich and Ravel and Messiaen. But it always retains the Andriessen stamp on it.
AI For a while my brain just wasn’t putting all these elements together, but listening to De Staat last night for the fifth time in three days seemed to be what I needed to get a handle on what my ears were taking in.
JG Like all great music you have to really give yourself over to a piece by Andriessen.
AI Do you want to say anything else about the upcoming events?
JG “Three Naughty Boys and Three Crazy Girls” is very important to Louis. It’s a series of three late night improvisation double-bills, recognizing that the most pure compositional expression is that which comes from improvisation. Other composers have remarked about the difficulty they have in getting what’s in their head onto paper. When you improvise you essentially eliminate the middleman!
AI I toyed with the idea of buying the recording of Writing to Vermeer. Now that I like Der Staat, am I ready for that one, or is there some other disc I should try first?
JG I love Writing to Vermeer. For sheer fun, I love M is for Man, Music, Mozart.
AI Funny you should mention that last one. When I worked for Deutsche Grammophon in the early 90s, a music critic told me that the Nonesuch recording you just mentioned was the wave of the future, the kind of composer that DG unfortunately wouldn’t embrace and promote. He showed me the artwork and said, “See, this looks like a pop album. People today might actually want to listen to it.” I bought that recording soon after, but I as I mentioned earlier, I just never connected with it. But now that I’ve had my “Andriessen moment” with De Staat, I’m really looking forward to giving it another spin.
For a list of events and additional information on the upcoming Andriessen events, visit the Carnegie Hall website