In October, 2010 Great Noise Ensemble and I will be presenting the first performance by a professional American Ensemble of Louis Andriessen’s seminal work of music theater, De Materie. In the coming weeks and months until then, I hope to update you on the progress of this complex endeavor in these pages. Today, a bit of an introduction into my obsession with this piece.
I. Confessions of an Obsessive
Louis Andriessen changed my life.
Not him, personally. I’ve had very little personal contact with him, and that mostly at formal talks and the like until very recently. No, it is his work which has had a long and lasting effect on my own work as a composer. I am neither unique nor premature in this.
Still, Louis Andriessen’s music changed my life. Specifically one piece of his changed my musical outlook: De Materie (“Matter,” 1984-88).
De Materie is a two hour long work in four parts structured loosely as a choral symphony but often staged as an opera. It is very tightly constructed, with a number of pre-compositional formal/acoustic decisions informing its organization. These are numerous, and vary between each of its four parts, but there are two, basic organizational principles that bring unity to the whole: tempo is used as a structural procedure (at a ratio of 8:6:5:4) and the so-called “1-2-3-4” chord (F-B flat-C-E), which informs the harmony throughout each of De Materie’s four parts. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course (the elements of popular music included in the third part, “De Stijl,” are a big one with composers of my generation in particular), but these organizational principles showed me a way to organize large scale pieces in a logical way while still utilizing both tonal and post-tonal procedures.
I did not compose the same way after that first encounter as a graduate student. It was, in short, a revelation. I have been obsessed with this piece since then.
Now, I am not only a composer but a conductor, albeit one whose performing activities are often tied to his compositional interests. These activities, coupled with my obsession with De Materie instilled in me the desire to bring about a performance of this piece for some time. Because of its gargantuan size and the enormous forces required to perform it, De Materie is not performed very often in its totality. The first American performance of the piece did not take place until 2004 (almost 20 years after its completion) and that by the same Dutch ensemble, Schoenberg/ASKO, that premiered it in 1988. As soon as I’d started my own ensemble, Great Noise, I had wanted to plan a performance of De Materie and be the part of the first performance by a group of American musicians. I was beaten to this by the ensembles of Williams College, who performed the piece in 2008. In October, however, I will lead the first performance of De Materie by a group of professional American musicians at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. with Great Noise Ensemble and the Vocal Arts Ensemble of the National Gallery. This is an event that, for me, has been almost four years in the making. In the coming weeks I hope to document as best as I can the preparations towards this momentous occasion.