Christopher Morley talks to composer Louis Andriessen about his love of vocal harmonies and his forthcoming city residency.
The leading Dutch composer Louis Andriessen is in residence next week at Birmingham Conservatoire, and there is an exciting programme of events planned around his work for what is this year’s Frontiers+ festival at the Birmingham City University Music Faculty.
Performances of student compositions will run alongside concerts featuring works by Andriessen himself, and the programmes will also include hearings of works by such composers as Stravinsky, Steve Reich, Steve Martland and the Conservatoire’s head of composition, Joe Cutler.
Among the various workshops scattered among the programme of events is one where Birmingham Contemporary Music Group will rehearse works by Conservatoire student composers, with subsequent discussion with Andriessen.
Louis Andriessen has a particularly eclectic listening background, especially in the areas of vocal music.
“I love the choral writing of Johann Sebastian Bach,” he says. “As well as close harmony jazz groups and pop groups like the Supremes.
“A very important stimulus was the appearance of vocal arrangements of Quincy Jones’ big band music, done by a group which, in the 60s, was still called Les Doubles Six – now the Swingle Singers.
“It was me who introduced those records to Luciano Berio in the early 60s.”
It was from those introductions that Berio was inspired to compose his Sinfonia for singers/speakers and orchestra, a work which still whirls around the world even today.
Andriessen is a deeply thoughtful, politically committed composer. Nevertheless I began my interview with him by reminding him of a blogspot I had seen in which he was harangued by interminable questions from a self-regarding interviewer, to which Andriessen responded courteously.
“Media are like all other products of mankind,” he tells me. “In all situations we have to deal with good people and bad people: intelligent and ironic, or stupid and right wing.
“But I must confess that television specifically suffers from the bad disease of imposing self-censorship. All my artist colleagues can tell you about the remarks of TV people while they are preparing a programme: ‘No no, that is too difficult for the people’.
“I think it’s criminal to underestimate people.”
Some of Andriessen’s compositions, string quartets for example, use existing formats in novel ways, exploiting timbres and textures which are not part of the traditional layout of these works.
I asked if this aspect of Andriessen’s work output is part of a developing attitude towards music’s tradition in general, or a one-off byway?
“It’s true that recently I did write some string quartets, but most of my life as a composer I have avoided writing for standard ensembles like string quartets and symphony orchestras.
“In composing I like to come into confrontation with musical history!”
Louis Andriessen is well known for his political engagement, as well as for his abiding interests in the arts in general.
But he is self-deprecating and understated about his political interests. “You don’t need to be running on the streets in demonstrations to understand Marxism-Leninism,” he declares.
In contrast he is strikingly outspoken about his immersion in the other arts.
“In more recent years other elements have got a lot of my attention, like philosophy, architecture, literature, and visual arts, as sources of inspiration.
“My latest theatre work is the story of the writer Anaïs Nin describing her falling in love with and then seducing her father, the composer Joaquin Nin.”
Anaïs Nin was famous as the author of erotic novels, apparently as pot-boilers to keep her Parisian lifestyle going, and a colleague of other controversial writers, including Henry Miller and William Burroughs.
We then go on to consider Louis Andriessen’s residency in Birmingham, how the Birmingham cultural scene is viewed in Europe, and what he hopes will be the outcomes of his time in our city?
“I have been in Birmingham several times. I like the city and the school of music very much,” he answers.
“I have always tried to learn from teaching, and I do think that having students perform and listen to my larger compositions could give them ideas. Perhaps more than me talking!”
* Birmingham Conservatoire hosts a multitude of events based around the residency of Louis Andriessen, from March 15-19. All details on 0121 303 2323