One of the most important pieces of advice Louis Andriessen got about being a composer came from his father, Hendrik, also a composer. “You should realize that we are not important,” Andriessen remembers his father saying. “The music is important. So we should serve the music.”
This attitude, he continues during a phone conversation from his home in Amsterdam, “is the opposite of the idea that the composer should be completely, 100 percent busy trying to express himself. I think this is not the thing you should be doing. You simply have to write as good as you can. This is the point.”
There is something blunt and objective about these words, an outlook that’s reflected in Andriessen’s music. Out of a cauldron of unlikely influences that include early minimalism, European modernism, Stravinsky, and jazz, he has forged a musical syntax of tensile lyricism and aggressive rhythmic intensity.
The dispassion of Andriessen’s composing stance should not obscure his influence, which is significant and cuts across a wide spectrum of younger composers. “It was completely life-changing, and I’m not exaggerating,” the composer Missy Mazzoli said in a 2010 interview of her encounter with Andriessen as an undergraduate. “He taught me the difference between making a life in music and making a career in music.”
Andriessen turns 75 this year, and among the institutions observing the occasion is Boston Conservatory. The composer’s residency there began on Tuesday and concludes with three well-stocked concerts this weekend, in addition to a Saturday afternoon discussion between Andriessen and Gunther Schuller on the creative process.
The broad, catholic influences that went into Andriessen’s music are in part a reflection of the cultural milieu of Amsterdam, where he lived after attending the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and studying with Luciano Berio in Milan. The Netherlands’ capital was a more forward-thinking city than tradition-bound European music centers such as Vienna.
“There was a large group of musicians who together felt [they could do] things which could be different from the standard music, like classical symphonies and string quartets,” says Andriessen. That went not only for the avant-garde but also for the early music scene, which in the 1960s was far more advanced in Amsterdam than elsewhere. “But also jazz musicians and improvisational music and electronic music — all those things together were one large movement in Holland at that time.”
For all its adventurousness, though, Dutch musical culture could also be quite staid, something Andriessen took an active role in combatting. In a famous incident known as the “Nutcracker Action,” he and four like-minded composers disrupted a 1969 Concertgebouw Orchestra concert just as conductor Bernard Haitink — who, in an interesting coincidence, is conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra this week — was about to begin a piece. “The Five,” as they were labeled, were protesting the conservatism of the Netherlands’ flagship orchestra, and handed out leaflets demanding that it play more contemporary music.
“It was kind of in the zeitgeist to be active and polemic,” Andriessen says. What they really wanted had less to do with the orchestra itself than with making musical culture more democratic. “We wanted to organize a situation in the music world where musicians had more chances, so that you don’t have to either play in the orchestra or teach; you could also form ensembles, you have more freedom in the choice of repertoire you want to play.”
And, he adds, it succeeded. In the 1970s and ’80s, “the development of smaller ensembles for all kinds of new music, Baroque music, improvisation, grew immensely. It was really a very rich life until, I would say, the ’90s,” which is when, in his view, an increasingly free-market economy began to erode government support for the arts.
Politics worked its way into some of his music, particularly “De Staat” (1976), a setting of a portion of the “Republic” in which Plato denounces music as dangerous to society. At Boston Conservatory, that piece, one of Andriessen’s best known, will be paired with the more recent “La Girò,” a concerto completed in 2011 for the violinist Monica Germino, whom the composer married last year. (His first wife, Jeanette Yanikian, died in 2008.) The piece is titled after Anna Girò, the stage name of a singer who worked closely with Vivaldi, a composer Andriessen admires greatly. It’s a theatrical work in which Germino not only plays but sings, whispers, and talks.
The concert that may give the widest view of the composer’s development is Sunday night’s, which features a nearly complete performance of “The Memory of Roses,” an assortment of short works collected by a student of Andriessen’s and published in 1999. The pieces, for a variety of ensembles, cover four decades of his musical evolution.
“Most of them are very short, little piano pieces for nice girlfriends, things like that,” he says. “All kinds of stuff in all kinds of different styles – some kind of [early minimalist] La Monte Young, others more like Fauré.”
Asked what it’s like to be presented which such an extensive cross-section of his work, he hesitates a moment before answering.
“I think I should be positive about it,” he answers. “They are all kind of your children. And some children are better than others. It’s always details — I hear one note which is actually not the right note. Or, you like pieces which are very good, but they took you so much time to make.”
It’s imperative, though, to resist the temptation to pick over these works too carefully. “That is a form of vanity, I think,” says Andriessen, ever the hard-nosed objectivist. “And I’m not afraid to fail.”David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com.