Monday, May 03, 2004

Hello We Named Our Cat After Your Opera

When DK said there was a possibility we could meet the marvelous Dutch composer Louis Andriessen after the concert I had an immediate access of angst. After all, I'm just an old sawbones, a recovering poetaster, who may have committed some remote atrocities on the piano and clarinet, but who now finds the circle of fifths even more confusing than the Krebs cycle.

"What would I say to him," I complained," Hi I love your music, we named our cat Rosa after your opera" ?

I was intimidated enough by the thought of hanging out with DK's sophisticated musical buddies -- a couple of excellent and witty composers and professors -- never mind meeting the maestro himself.

We were waiting for an elevator in some part of Julliard, about to take in a pre-concert lecture by Andriessen, when DKs friends grew visibly excited. I looked around. It was the composer himself, heading for the elevator. A tall, white haired, red-cheeked man wearing a light blue nylon shirt with unbuttoned cuffs. I thought of the video of Glenn Gould playing the Goldbergs, cuffs unbuttoned, flapping at his wrists.

"Hi did you know Glenn Gould also wore unbuttoned shirt cuffs and we also named our cat after your opera ?"

I bit my tongue.

As the men made various admiringly acolytish comments to Andriessen, I merely looked. Stared, rather. He looked back for a few seconds. With a rather intense gaze.

The piece was De Materie -- "Of Matter." The American premier. It is remarkable. Andriessen is known for several collaborations (M is for Mozart, Writing to Vermeer, Death of a Composer: Rosa, a Horse Drama) with the film maker Peter Greenaway, whose works (Wife, Thief, Cook, Lover; Pillow Book; Tempest) often deal with text, books, words. De Materie is music and text, some sung some spoken. It has four movements, each 25 minutes long. The first movement juxtaposes three texts -- a declaration of Dutch independence from Spanish monarchy (Andriessen was a Marxist and anarchist in the 60s and 70s) an early treatise (1600s) on the particulate nature of matter, and a shipbuilding instruction manual from 1690. It begins with 144 crashing reiterations of a chord, emblematic of the hammering toil of the ship yard -- a percussive trope that permeates the whole movement. As a tenor sang -- melodically and gorgeously -- the philosophic text, the chorus (4 men, 4 women) sang a long chantlike, percussive list of the physical tools used to build boats. My clumsy description makes it seem like dorky program music. Far from it: it is intricate and profound. The movement's "matter" includes the toiling body, ships, tools, wood. That matter exists in a context of political relations, and philosophical concepts.

The second movement takes as its single text the seventh vision of a 13th Century Dutch mystic, Hadewijch -- a long, intense description of union with the Beloved that is at once spiritual and erotic. The music is spare, almost gauzy, but the violins are intermittantly punctuated by gong-based chords that (we learned in the lecture) are said to represent the pillars of the Reims Cathedral down which the mystic is progressing from vestibule to altar, and there is an intermittant undercurrant of contrabass clarinet -- is there any sound fleshier than it's reedy honking ? Eros and spirit both flow from the material of the body. The singer was spectacular -- emotive, dramatic, subtle, sublime.

The third movement -- Der Stijl, or "style" -- is where Mondrian comes in. We learned in the lecture that Mondrian was actually heavily influenced by some Madame Blavatsky Anthroposophist who had various crackpot theories about mysticism and numbers. The first text in the third movement appears to be a treatise about the mystical significance of circles, lines/rays and crosses, certainly relevant to the intense, meditative geometry of Mondrian's late paintings. Between two excerpts of this text sung by the chorus is a marvelously syncopated and rhythmic chant-like reading of someone's reminscence of Mondrian's peculiar dancing style. It's in English, and here's a bit of it --

After a while, without saying anything, he put out a small gramophone (which stood as a black spot on a small white table under a painting of which it seemed to be the extension) and began quietly and stiffly, with Madam Hoyack, to dance around the atelier.

I love how the gramophone seems an "extension" of the painting.

The music is jazzy, boogie-woogie, with imbedded allusions to rock and funk. Again there is a juxtaposition of the mystical/abstract notions of geometry (which Andriessen pooh-poohed in his lecture, even as he noted it as what gave Mondrian some sort of permission to extend his style) and the concrete primary-color visual realty of Mondrian's works. And what is a more bodily material manifestation of art than dancing ?

The last movement juxtaposes two texts -- parts of a mid 20th century Dutch sonnet about death and love and eternity sung by the chorus, and a beautiful, moving spoken excerpt from Madame Curie's diary in which she writes of her desolation at Pierre's death, the beautiful spring which he will not see, her work as the only thing she can almost but not quite endure since his death. The music was described as a stately "breathing" or bellows-like alteration between two groups of players. Again, matter and spirit. Body and breath. And radium is matter which has a spirit of sorts. Beautiful and deadly.

I am not doing this wonderful work -- or the amazing performance at Lincoln Center Saturday night -- any justice. I am notoriously inept at critical discourse. But I wanted to pay some homage, however inadequate, to the composer who reminded me that, in this dreadful ugly world, art still remains "a way of happening, a mouth" that is essential, and transfiguring.

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