Louis Andriessen: De Staat

Nederlands Blazers Ensemble/Lucas Vis (NBECD022)

29 September 2008 3 stars

De StaatCan music be a politically subversive force? This is the question addressed by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen in the work presented here, on a new release by the Netherlands Blazers Ensemble issued on the ensemble's own label. De Staat was composed in 1976 and is generally recognized as the composer's breakthrough piece, inasmuch as it defined his style and exercised a considerable influence on contemporary Dutch music in the period following its first performance.

The work combines American minimalism, a more dissonant European edge and Andriessen's formative influence of Stravinsky, to produce a strong and visceral synthesis that is relentless for its half-hour duration. Characteristic of the composer's work in general, De Staat has an explicitly political theme, setting garbled snippets of Plato's Republic in Ancient Greek for a group of female vocalists singing alongside an ensemble heavy on brass and winds, low on strings (only violas), and featuring bass guitars and pianos. Andriessen favoured this grouping over any orthodox one of the western tradition, considering the latter to be hegemonic and staid as far as musical innovation might go, incapable of expressing the effect sought by the composer in this composition.

A few years prior to the composition of De Staat, the composer had taken part in the disruption of a high-profile concert by one of the Netherlands' most prominent orchestras. That protest against conformism raised the larger questions that are addressed in this work.

In the Republic, Plato famously bans art from his ideal state because of its encouragement of those irrational instincts potentially damaging to civic stability and the minds of the populace. Andriessen is concerned with whether Plato was right or not about music's potentially disruptive power. In the sleeve notes, ruminating from a current perspective back on the programmatic impulse that gave rise to the work, Andriessen judges that the philosopher was in fact wrong, and the situation is even bleaker now than it was then. One can't help wonder though whether this view is informed by the composer's co-option in the interim into a prominent status in the contemporary music establishment – rupture to the state of that establishment would not likely be in his own interest.

The music achieves its disruptive effect through an onslaught of different devices driving a punishing dynamic: homophonic woodwind lines intertwined and in canon; brash and insistent brass treading the length of extended melodies that go nowhere; occasional ethereal, consonant vocals uttering gibberish; cell-like repetitions looping in process; breakneck piano polyrhythms. All this makes for an interesting work, though one perhaps suffering from the over-familiarity that has been bread by the heavy use of such devices over the past thirty years by different composers. What marks Andriessen out from other minimalist composers is his not being averse to making dissonant music and to get his hands dirty – something refreshing in a minimalist idiom the aspect of which has come to feel hackneyed and lazy.

This element invokes the memory of Stravinsky, in his flair for the dramatic and the clamorous; and also brought to mind here quite distinctly is the contemporary Irish composer Gerald Barry. Certain compositional aspects are very similar to Barry's orchestral style, with long, winding and virtuosic passages at breakneck speed in winds or brass that suddenly stop, and the juxtaposition of diverse materials without any attendant development – not to mention the harsh sounds forthcoming. De Staat is reminiscent sometimes of Barry's Chevaux-de-frise, a work premiered at the Proms at the Albert Hall in 1988, to the disdain of some of its audience – who received it with booing and jeers, a reaction otherwise unheard-of at the Proms. It is just that reaction perhaps herein sought by Andriessen.

The packaging and sleeve notes are both of a high quality (the speculative musings of Adorno are amusingly referred to in the latter by Elmer Scönberger as 'advanced musical palm reading'). One element that stands against the release is that it only features one, relatively short, piece of music. This seems a bit unjust to the consumer, especially when there are other releases out there which would provide better value for money. It also seems somewhat against the spirit of that very left-wing ethos being encouraged on the release. To expend one's hard-earned capital in this way – only to hear about the 'terrorism of entertainment' and to be encouraged towards reactionism – may strike the poor consumer as confusing, or even hypocritical. (But at least you're free to make up your own mind in this regard.) In any case, the value for money here is not as good as with other Andriessen releases that are available, so listener wishing to find out more about the composer should perhaps seek out one of the other releases on the market. Otherwise it is a good release for what's on it and the only version of the piece currently available to my knowledge, featuring an excellent performance by the Blazers Ensemble conducted by Lucas Vis.

By Liam Cagney