Notes on Andriessen, Wolfe, Ziporyn (November, 2005)
I wrote program notes for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project‘s concert featuring Andriessen’s Trilogy of the Last Day, as well as works by Julia Wolfe and Evan Ziporyn.
Although Louis Andriessen has been lumped together with American minimal composers Reich and Glass, he is a much more aggressive and uncompromising musician. In the 60’s and 70’s, when the American minimalists were focusing on extending small repeating patterns over a long period of time like a large communal tapestry, Andriessen was writing aggressive, almost impossibly loud essays in repetition. In 1975, for instance, Andriessen finished Workers’ Union, a pounding, relentless work for unspecified (but loud) ensemble. This is a piece at whose performances woodwind players have been known to bleed from the gums ““ a near-hysterical, blue-collar rant.
Two years later, Andriessen wrote Hoketus ““ a slightly more tame but steel-built construction in which an ensemble of pairs of unspecified instruments is split in two sections across the stage ““ the classic recording features electric guitars and bass, wood flutes, pianos and other amplified instruments. The canons played by these two ensembles create a spatial effect referencing renaissance music, but here recast as an athletic feat of aggression and mental gymnastics. Compared to this, Terry Riley’s music from the same period of time ““ consisting of looping organs and chilled-out patterns ““ evokes a sort of hippie utopia ““ paisley skirts swirling and the smell of organic weed wafting to the top of the yurt.
Andriessen, like the American minimalists, has a signature sound that comprises his music for ensemble: saxophones, pianos, percussion, electric guitars and bass. Built into the idea of creating one’s own ensemble sound is a rejection of the notion of the orchestra, which is why the pieces tonight are billed as being scored for “large ensemble.” This rejection is more than just nominal; it enables Andriessen to manipulate the way material is distributed throughout the ensemble. The normal hierarchies of the relationship between the orchestra are equalized here ““ the percussionists and pianos play very important roles, the strings (who normally aristocratically dominate the front of the stage) are reduced in number, and Andriessen invites amplified instruments to share the stage.
The influence of Andriessen is as pervasive as it is hard to trace. Andriessen is an incredibly active teacher, and many young composers from many countries have taken years off from their own conservatories to study with him in Holland. However, his influence spreads far beyond his students. While the influence of the American minimalists seems to be measurable by gestures ““ a Reichean rhythmic canon, a blissed-out Riley-esque drone, an eager Glassian arpeggio ““ one speaks about the “spirit” of Andriessen being found in the music of the younger generations. While it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly comprises this spirit, some key Andriessen emotional tricks include the strategic (as opposed to textural) use of repeated notes, a strong sense of community from within the orchestra (expressed by certain pairings of instruments always playing in unison), and an uncompromising rhythmic agenda.
These three tactics are clearly visible in Julia Wolfe’s 1989 The Vermeer Room. Like Trilogy of the Last Day, The Vermeer Room begins with a series of strong doublings in the orchestra ““ strings in groups, oboe and trumpet paired, piano and harp doubled with metallic percussion. Throughout this entire work, in fact, instruments very rarely play anything on their own ““ there is always somebody doubling them. However, the make-up of these couplings changes every few bars or so, which creates an unexpected soap opera of shifting alliances and strange allegiances within the orchestra. The way that Wolfe uses space and light in this work is directly influenced by Vermeer, specifically the painting “A Girl Asleep”, in which a young girl sits, dozing at a table with an open, well-lit doorway behind her. Apparently, an X-ray of the painting revealed that Vermeer originally had a man standing in the doorway, but that he had erased it at a certain point. This absence ““ creating a hole, a tear ““ is a springboard for the way Wolfe manipulates the density of her own composition.
About two and a half minutes in, all the instruments play together for the first time, on a downbeat. From this moment, Wolfe slows down the aggressive movement of the opening into a much more stylized, procession of chords throughout the available registers of the orchestra. Next, a slow, wandering and mysterious section of block chords that explodes outwards in a giant tremolo to a series of repeated brass chords ““ a cycle which itself is repeated and then slowed. This is a key Andriessen-like formulation: the non-developmental and yet clearly directional use of repetition is one of the ways in which this music keeps its energy going and still resists traditional forms of musical narrative (the sonata allegro form, the scherzo, the rondo). This is not to say that the piece does not “build;” rather, the piece of music is constructed out of giant LEGO pieces, built, torn down, and reconfigured into large towers of different sizes. Certainly, some combinations work better than others, but the composer is more interested in showing us what blocks she has access to and then stacking them together such that we can always see what blocks she’s used. This is like old fashioned Legos when they were just primary colors, or even Montessori school Cuisenaire Rods. This is music that feels not only beautiful and sensitive to color, but also, in a sense, beneficial to society ““ picture a modern color-coded apartment block in Amsterdam, creating a society out ten families, each enclosed in their own box. Living in New York also works in this way. A neighborhood is composed vertically, with people’s lives stacked on top of each other yet always fiercely separate and distinct, unlike the lazy horizontal homogeny of the suburbs.
The final four minutes of Julia Wolfe’s piece give the impression of a vast landscape of light and color, circled by a helicopter. This is not a Wagnerian landscape rife with meaning and symbolism ““ a rune carved into a rock, a Rhinemaiden’s suggestive form coquettishly diving into a pond ““but instead, a slow trip around a complex natural formation. She allows us to dwell in the complexity of the combined chords she has used to build up the texture, and the piece just cuts off at the end. The ending of the piece seems deliberately jarring; the intensity of the motion of the piece has changed from short rhythmic dislocations into full-on tremors from all the instruments ““ a landscape turned volcanic.
Evan Ziporyn’s The Ornate Zither & The Nomad Flute deals with an imagined Asian landscape. The piece is a setting of two texts: first, “The Ornate Zither”, a poem by Li Shangyin (813-858), and the second, W.S. Merwin’s “The Nomad Flute”. The first song is sung in Chinese, and the second in English, but Ziporyn overlaps the two texts, alternating them freely. In the first page of the score, Ziporyn clearly outlines the way he wants the stage to be set up ““ pairs of instruments divided into left and right “channels.” Ziporyn highlights this division at the onset of the piece ““ one saxophone plays a melody based on four pitches, while the pair of bowed vibraphones creates a halo around certain notes. After a breath, the second saxophone plays a nearly identical melody, and the vibraphones shimmer around it. Brass instruments outline a melody in open fifths, taking turns playing and resting across the stage. After the soprano sings a melody in Chinese reminiscent of the saxophone’s introduction to the piece, the bass begins to outline a gamelan-type scale, and is joined by bassoons, bass clarinets, clarinets, oboes, flutes, and finally piccolo.
This gives way to the soprano’s first line of the poem in English: “you that sang to me once sing to me now / let me hear your long lifted note” decorated by stereo bells and triangles. After this, another delicate gamelan flurry (this time, headlined by the alto flute) leads the way to another vocal exposition in Chinese. Ziporyn continues this trade off, with each section and interlude expanding in depth, adding pulsed percussion to the mix ““ cowbells on opposite sides of the stage, hi-hats, struck vibraphones, bowed cymbals.
The voice’s melodies are deceptively simple. Usually, they outline a major chord, or a major 7 chord, whose notes are reinforced by the ensemble. This gives the voice the sense of existing on top of the music sonically, but in the middle of it harmonically. This creates a supple tension between ensemble and voice, in which all of the dissonances are smoothly resolved by a reassuring pulse or a generous stroke on the vibraphone. This is music that, while clearly influenced by Andriessen, has, at its heart a lyrical decadence. Unlike the uncompromising, difficult way in which the voice is used in Andriessen’s large staged and concert works, Ziporyn has the ensemble support the ensemble gently.
Like his other large ensemble works De Tijd and De Materie (Time, and Matter, respectively), Andriessen treats a large-scale subject in Triolgy of the Last Day: Mortality. Andriessen, however, can be very multi-layered in discussing his pieces (his detractors would say deliberately dense). This collection of 3 pieces is a trilogy that, in its full incarnation (played all at once,) the composer has called “overindulgence,” although all three pieces seem to make the most sense when paired up. The piece is not about death, or mortality, specifically, but rather, the way in which artists from 3 different time periods have interpreted death. The second movement is entitled “Tao”, has texts from Lao Tzu and Kotaro Takamura, requires the use of a pianist who also plays the koto and recites in Japanese, but Andriessen writes in his own program notes, “I have made no attempt to relate to what is known as “˜music from the Far East,’ or even worse, “˜world music.'” The third movement contains an almost scientific text by the composer defining death, but the music itself is superimposed on one of the most romantic, decadent pieces about death: Saint-SaÃ«ns’ “Danse Macabre”. These frustrations and complications make Andriessen’s music incredibly exciting to listen to and fruitful to think about.
The first movement begins with a choir of men chanting ““ almost shouting, one syllable at a time ““ the text by the poet-and-painter Lucebert (1924-1994). The men, accompanied by celli, a pair of guitars and a synthesizer are the only instruments to play directly on the beat. The high winds, vibraphone, and synthesizer (marked to play a patch entitled “˜terrible bells’) play notes lasting seven 16th notes while the oboes, horns, and piano outline chords five 16th notes apart. Andriessen uses a pattern of twenty-two chords ““ an irregular number which, by its nature, will prevent the music from aligning in easy, straightforward ways.
This pattern continues overlapping relentlessly, until the men stop, and the orchestra divides into two sections again, declaring two aggressively different, non-aligning rhythmic patterns. This music works itself into a frenzy, until a bass drum and anvil cut everything off, leaving only a drone in the bass instruments. A solo child then sings a macabre folksong, almost unaccompanied.
An instrumental interlude follows, again with the orchestra exploring two or three simultaneous tempi. After the music reaches a certain complexity, it suddenly cuts off, and we are left with a bar of silence. The composer describes these gaps as, “the image of a sort of coffin made of planks, but with gaps in between, so you’d fall through them”¦the point is that this should be a slightly unpredictable element ““ even if you know the piece well.”
Andriessen makes full use of the awkward and deceptive nature of these silences and alternation ““ the piece proceeds between sections with the boy soloist, silences, quiet murmurings, and loud, angry interludes.
After a brief recapitulation of the beginning, Andriessen breaks out with a classic, frenzied tutti in the low stings and clarinets reminiscent of his early works ““ Worker’s Union in particular ““ in which guitars, electric bass, pianos, winds, woodblocks, all slam against one another. This is not easy music to listen to, nor is it designed to be so. There is something brutal and psychedelic about having identical loud musics thrown at you at two different speeds; appropriately, this section is titled in the score “The Triumph”. Another tutti for the entire orchestra with shrill piccolos and claw-like piano clusters heralds the way for a more generously accompanied solo from the boy soprano.
The piece proceeds from this point in a series of false endings ““ huge crescendi and scales leading upwards followed by awkwardly long cliff-hanging rests. The piece ends with a loud chord, and the intoning of a single note (F), played by a flute, a horn, a synthesizer, and a harp. This ending is one of the elements that links the three movements of the trilogy together.
The second movement ““ “Tao” ““ begins gently, with another two-tempo intonation of a series of chords, but this time, the pitches are refracted, extended, and played very quietly by muted strings, harp, and piano. After a slight quickening of the heartbeat of the piece, high winds and high strings begin to imply a more aggressive melody all in unison. This, like the material in the first movement, is cut off at the height of its excitement and replaced by a recapitulation of the opening material at a lower transposition ““ which feels strange, slower, drugged. A choir of women joins the orchestra, mysteriously (but not “world-musicky” ““imagine Andriessen’s horror at the Music from the Tea Lands CD’s on the Putomayo label sold near the check-out of Whole Foods and you can understand his aversion to the term). The solo pianist begins banging away on a cycle of thirteen chords at the very top of the keyboard ““ this is an incredibly dramatic exposition of material. Andriessen writes, “My metaphor for Tomoko is ““ I can’t explain it, but it’s certainly a strong image ““ a very large spider that slowly descends along a fine thread.” This descent is a process that continues throughout this entire movement, but that is the most exposed at the beginning of the solo piano’s entrance.
After the spider-pianist descends far enough, the strings pick up where she left off, playing the cycle of thirteen chords. The women continue their solemn recitation, and at a certain point, the piece climaxes with clanging bells, intoning a descending minor third. Suddenly, the focus changes, and Tomoko, the pianist, has assumed her position at the koto, from which she ends the piece on the same F that ends the first movement.
Andriessen points out that the number thirteen is especially prominent in this piece ““ the poem that Tomoko recites has thirteen lines, there are thirteen chords in the cycle at the beginning, Lao Tzu references thirteen companions in the selected text. These are on top of the already rich history of interpretations that this number brings with it.
Here, it is useful to point out the importance of proportions in Andriessen’s work. Each movement in this trilogy is 2/3 the length of the one before it, giving an overall ratio of 9:6:4. The third movement is precisely seven times the length of Saint-SaÃ«ns’ “Danse macabre”. Many of Andriessen’s pieces bear evidence of this sort of pre-compositional planning; what makes Andriessen’s music unique is that he puts his money where his mouth is, and makes these structures audible. You can feel the difference in length between the three movements of the Trilogy; if you know the “Danse macabre”, all you can do is wait for the entrance of the xylophones, seven times longer than in the original.
The third movement is a dangerously gaudy trip into high romanticism ““ a set of references that does not normally figure in contemporary minimal and post-minimal thought. Entitled “Dancing on the Bones”, Andriessen depicts a cartoon nightmare landscape, fully using the coloristic resources of the orchestra. Contrabass clarinet and contrabassoon weave pornographically slimy lines over synthesizer and piano bass lines. Sudden roars and outbursts from the entire ensemble violent interrupt the music, as do occasional silent bars. The Saint-SaÃ«ns piece famously features the xylophone to represent bones (a musical cliché best explored in Disney’s “Silly Symphony” cartoon featuring a graveyard dance number set to Grieg), and accordingly, Andriessen features the xylophone playing similar gestures here.
A horrifying pause is punctuated by two sets of bells playing another descending third, the orchestra plays a sinister six bar phrase, and the choir of children comes in, singing Andriessen’s naughty, atheistic schoolboy take on what death is: “Death is when your circulation stops, your breathing stops, your liver, your kidneys, your stomach, your lungs; you do not crap, you do not piss.” The vulgarity of the text is key to the success of this piece ““ it allows Andriessen to write an ending that is completely over-the-top, absurd, dramatic, and romantic. The trilogy ends with the inevitable F, played here by two horns and two pianos.
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