De Staat: partymusic?
On 28 November 1976, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw hosted the premiere of a work that would change the course of music, at least in the Netherlands. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that De Staat (The Republic) marked the birth of the ‘real’ Louis Andriessen. That typical, exuberant mix of piano, brass, bass guitar and close-harmony vocals. Of strict formality and boyish braggadocio. Of lighthearted irony and monumental seriousness. Of American minimalism and
Dutch down-to-earthness. Of many things in fact. However, the most important of these – at least, the one the composer considered so at the time – is increasingly at risk of being forgotten as the years go
by. This is not our fault, it is simply a consequence of times changing and of music’s ability to outgrow its roots. What I am referring to is, of course, the outspoken political engagement without which
Andriessen would never have become the Andriessen he became (rather than, let us say, a composer of epic symphonies and virtuoso piano concertos) and without which there would have been no De Staat, let alone the spate of musical essays that followed, with their unabashedly grand titles such as De Tijd (Time), De Snelheid (Speed) and DeMaterie (Matter).Whatever the nature of the political engagement in question – left-wing as it happens, was there ever any other kind? – nobody can deny that it underlies many of Andriessen’s musical choices. The choice not to use a symphony orchestra for instance, and to bypass the symphonic tradition in favour of the idosyncratic sounds of his own
ensemble. A choice as well against the 19th-century vocal tradition, and in favour of vocal techniques rooted in jazz and early music. And a choice against the highly specialised complexity of NeueMusik, and in favour of returning to elementary principles such as unison and hoketus. Andriessen made no bones about the fact that he saw De Staat as essentially a Lehrstück. In the best tradition of the Brechtian ‘antisocial’ model, Plato is represented by women singing in incomprehensible Greek, an example of how not to do things.
Of course Plato’s Republic (Politeia) warns against musical innovation as a force that could undermine society. At the core of Andriessen’s work is the anger of a disappointed composer who is forced to admit that Plato was wrong. That the social conditioning inherent in music goes beyond what the listener in his value-free pluche seat at the concert hall might be willing to admit, but that – as Andriessen himself put it – “the abstract materials of music – pitch, duration, rhythm – are ‘suprasocial’.”
In other words, there is no such thing as a ‘fascist’ seventh chord. On this point, Andriessen reluctantly agrees with what he has called the liberal idealists, which is already more than the advanced musical
palm-reading advocated by the likes of Adorno would allow.
So does that make De Staat a party-political manifesto? Political it no doubt is, but one would be hard put to find a Plato capable of distilling from it an unambiguous point of view. And equally hard put to find a listener who hears the work for the first time in 2008 and draws any conclusions from it other
than musical ones, at least without a thorough knowledge of Andriessen’s sources of inspiration, the words that are sung and of Brechtian method. That does not take away from the fact that it is still a
compelling and alarming work, just like Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique of Stravinsky’s Sacre – albeit for different reasons.Works that have not lost any of their polemic force, and that continue to stand as frank testaments to a particular outlook on life.
translation Perro de Jong