Louis Andriessen: polity, time, speed, substance

Wright, D. C. H. (1993) Louis Andriessen: polity, time, speed, substance. Tempo (187) pp. 7-14. ISSN 0040-2982 (print) 1478-2286 (online)


Timeo danaos et dona ferentes is usually construed as the old tag that warns against Greeks who came bearing gifts. But shouldn't we be just as suspicious of contemporary music bearing classical texts, whether they be Greek and authoritarian in tone, or the Latin speculations of a Philosopher Saint? Particularly when the composer in question, Louis Andriessen, is a radical who espouses Anarchist politics but also writes works which feature extensive stylistic reference to Boogie-Woogie. Clearly this combination represents a curiously individual – even bizarre – viewpoint, but does it need to be taken very seriously? After all, it's open to any composer to incorporate chunks of Plato and St Augustine as an intellectual gloss or as a form of recondite titivation – added flavours in the musical recipe, expressly designed to convey gravitas. So do Andriessen's own raids on classical philosophy (among others) amount to more than a questionable sort of opportunism? And if the purpose is demonstrably serious, is the musical result able to bear the weight of the issues it seeks to deal with? In this article I shall focus on three ‘concept’ pieces by Andriessen (De Staat, 1972–76; De Tijd, 1980–81, De Snelheid, 1982–83, rev. 1984) which, together with De Materie (Parts I–IV, 1985/8) occupy a central place in his oeuvre. I shall attempt to outline the nature of the relationship in these works between the background philosophical issues and the musical result, while discussing how their musical idiom responds to the compositional challenges posed by their subject matter.

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