A blast of channeled energy with ‘Workers Union’

Dutch composer Louis Andriessen.
Francesca Patella
Dutch composer Louis Andriessen.

Sunday night, a Tanglewood Music Center chamber concert mounts one of the repertoire’s most ingenious examples of collective musical action: Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s 1975 ensemble piece “Workers Union.” Few works so well incarnate the balance point between the heterogeneity of free society and the formidable power of purposeful political cooperation — and to such viscerally entertaining effect.

The piece breathes the air of radical movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Throughout that era, the Netherlands experienced what was called “ontzuiling”: literally, “de-pillarization.” For nearly a century, Dutch society had been organized around pillars of religious or political identity — Protestant, Catholic, Liberal, Socialist — each group hewing to their own, vertically-integrated set of institutions: schools, parties, newspapers, labor unions, and so forth. Post-World War II generations were less inclined to maintain such self-segregation. Amidst the era’s general turbulence, the old lines of demarcation began to blur.

Andriessen’s style might be considered as a musical form of ontzuiling. Dissatisfied with the pillarized state of modern music, Andriessen boldly mixed and remixed. He repackaged the fierce dissonance and density of European atonal modernism with the bright rhythmic drive of American minimalism; he brought the forceful timbres of rock and pop — electrified instruments, amplification, heavy percussion — into the rituals and discourse of concert music.


“Workers Union” triangulates modernist precision, pop groove, and improvised autonomy with crafty efficiency. The rhythms — burly syncopations outlining triplet or sixteenth-note grids — are set down exactly; the melodies are only approximately notated; the instrumentation is wide open: “any loud sounding of instruments.” The aim is a blast of channeled energy, sweeping away old limitations. (One instruction is slyly pointed: “Do not play any scales or conventional figures.”)

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Rather than announce or explain its political point, “Workers Union” uses the necessary virtues of musical performance — individual commitment, ability, and expression on the one hand, empathy, cooperation, and shared goals on the other — to model the process by which such politics might be realized. Raucous but concerted, assertive but magnanimous, “Workers Union” is practice. To perform it, to hear it, is to exercise the skills needed for positive political change: stamina, discipline, open-mindedness, enthusiasm. And empowered hope: “Only in the case of every player playing with such an intention that their part is an essential one, the work will succeed,” the composer notes, adding, “just as in the political work.” Andriessen’s union is on the march, roisterous and ready.

The Tanglewood Music Center presents music of Frederic Rzewski, Christian Wolff, Rand Steiger, and Louis Andriessen, Aug. 13, 8 p.m., at Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood. Tickets $12. 617-266-1492,

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at