Last night, I attended a New York performance of De Materie, Louis Andriessen’s 90 minute colossal, inspired, stage work (somewhat like an Oratorio) from 1985. It takes place in 4 distinct episodes, unrelated except for a through line of philosophical musings, including dated metaphysics from I’m guessing the 16th century (?) , ship-building, and geometry. Dramatically, we have source material from the Renaissance: A diplomatic treatise ceding a part of Spain, and a long reflection (surely intended for a wider audience) from a woman who had a sexually charged vision of Christ after morning prayer. Then, at the end, there is what sounds like the diary of a 19th century female Scientist, lamenting the death of her “partner in life”, Pierre. The music starts with a single huge chord, articulated tersely over and over at lessening intervals. Gradually, the short chord is mixed with a sustained, different one. Soon horns jump in with an agitated rhythmic cell. Fast forward 2 or so minutes, and we’re in a motoric, syncopated texture—a distinct Andriessen version of the procedural, colossal minimalist sound. Over this, a row of singers in pantaloons booms out the diplomatic treatise in dense yet harmonically focused chords, in mercurial rhythmic figurations. The proportions of the music are massive and declamatory, and the whole 20 minutes is a feat of perfectly sustained energy. Visually, there were these huge tents set up on the stage, it was reminiscent of looking down on a row of farm houses from a great height. Suddenly, this Zeppelin starts floating around slowly, then another, then another. The tents are illuminated, revealing the shadows of burdened figures inside the tents. At this point, a “preacher” appears and starts talking about the metaphysics, standing in a rustic pulpit. Simultaneously, the singers in pantaloons (on the left) start singing about ship-building. It worked brilliantly together, on an abstract level.
The material of the second section is centered around a shimmering procession of clustered chords, infused with a burning pathos and cascading like upward reaching waves. The music for this whole 20-30 minute section constitutes a masterpiece, I think. The woman, describing her vision, sings in plaintive yearning as the chords climb on top of one another–she sings in strongly direct melodic motion. I found the music deeply reflective of the human spirit and the drama of mystic inspiration. Visually, the transferring into this section was, well, mind blowing. The large farm-like structures are replaces with brittle, thin benches, and slowly, hunched, oversized, black rectangles start slowly shuffling out. It looks like liquid shadow spreading, from the vantage point of the audience. These are the other church goers. One rectangle goes to the front of the others, and we realize it is the woman, praying–her face is revealed, and a white habit underneath. It was tremendously effective, in part because Andriessen never lets you forget the mood of the original chords, yet arrives at what feel like new places all the time. And in part, the direction was absolutely captivating.
After this intensely internal episode, the next is equally captivating in a different way. For a long time, there are these 3 hovering circles on the stage, which float before your eyes in circular patterns. The text starts playing on the wall, some stuff about circles and perfection and what not…I quickly ceased to find that very interesting, but the music, which had moved from the shimmering stasis of the previous episode to an intensely syncopated, machine-like, and fun texture reminiscent of big band sounds. Now would be a good time to tell you that Andriessen derives a lot of the melodies and parts from this cluster —Bb-C-E-F, and permutations of it that pivot on a common tone. For instance, Bb-C-E-F-Gb-Ab-C-D. So this whole portion of the piece turns into this eclectic, groove-based mishmash. We’ve got 2 and 4 heavy pseudo-jazz beats (although butchered with a heavy snare hit on beat 2 and 4; sounding somewhat like rock-drummers who have never played jazz), then rock-fusion stuff; the choir sings long held chords while the orchestra (which, by the way, has now wheeled out on a platform into the center of the stage) jams, including a section where a lone pianist churns a ceaseless honky-tonk pattern. Visually, it’s absolutely incredible, with dancers, an orchestra, and floating circles evoking a live version of Fantasia! The music almost manages to hang together, but in my humble opinion, it becomes disjointed and doesn’t gain anything from it: portions with different beats are juxtaposed, but neither of them give a distinguishable feeling–it’s all this big hard-rock power, energy vibe. There’s a ton of different material here, and not all of it is up to the extremely selectively chosen and deep material of earlier in the work. Just my opinion.
And from here on out, the problems started. Okay, let me get this out of the way: the 4th section of the piece features, visually, a live flock of sheep circling in the center of the stage while a zeppelin floats above them. Musically, it starts from a softly articulated chord played at long intervals—in other words just a glimmer of music. Gasps were heard in the audience. And for a while, it was indeed captivating, this flock of sheep with this seemingly all-powerful zeppelin floating above them, impervious. The music migrates, very slowly, and with great focus, into one thing: an oscillation between a chord played in a lower register, and that in a higher–usually derived from the upper intervals of a “harmony”. low…high. Low……..high. low…….high. Low…….high. The problem isn’t the simplicity, it’s 2 things: a) it goes on for a long time, b) we are so saturated by homophonic chords that we begin to lose interest in this simple texture of a homophonic harmony, even if it all sounds cool enough. Nothing really made me gasp and say, “wow”–it just was cool sounding chords, with a mood of volatile, repressed energy while sheep stood around. People started to leave the auditorium. The people behind me, loudly talking and laughing before the show, had one among them who whispered, “stay or go?”…the answer came…”let’s go”. And out they went. And the sheep stood there. What happened for me is that neither the visuals or the music could support the weight of the other. It was boring, and drained a lot of the concentration and sense of wonder that had built up. It was a brilliant idea, but the execution revealed that it needed something else to make it work.
Then, there was an extremely sparse, mostly written episode with the scientist. Talking about death. Questions of posterity, love, history. Unfortunately it was exactly the wrong time for these questions–and the music concluded with a whimper, as it were. Not necessarily a bad thing, but none of the material at that point–whether it was my concentration or the music itself–seemed very special.
The first 3 episodes go among the greatest musical things I’ve ever heard and the greatest things I’ve ever seen. The last 2….meh.
Andriessen displayed a master’s touch in judging proportion in this piece. My ear would have liked sections of different textures–it was either homophony with solo voice on top, or motoric rhythm, or both. Nowhere was there instrumental solos or amazing orchestrational ideas. The work is, as I said, massive, but the trade for that massive, monumental quality is that opportunities for delicacy, variation, and shading are few . The 2nd section ranks among the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.