A Great Noise Indeed

File this under “W” for “What Took You So Long?”

Last Monday, the Great Noise Ensemble presented the first professional (as in non-collegiate) performance in the U.S. of Louis Andriessen’s De Materie. Completed in 1988, this huge work is clearly one of the great masterpieces of the latter half of the 20th century. From the opening chord, through the additional 139 iterations of that same chord, until the final unadorned beauty over two hours later, the music is constantly powerful, yet subtle.

While the concert embodied great noise in every sense of the phrase, the atrium of the National Gallery of Art created an unfortunate echo chamber that nearly defeated the best efforts of composer and performers alike. With each sound resounding for a full seven seconds, musical surfaces kept blending together, never realizing the stark spaciousness intended at many points in the score.

Despite the issues with the hall, the Great Noise Ensemble created a musical EVENT that was glorious and ultimately satisfying. De Materie needs to be heard live. Therefore, this rare opportunity needed to be seized, which the community of Washington understood. The hall was packed to the gills for the opening chords, with an anticipatory excitement rarely felt at musical events in our nation’s capital.

It fairly boggles the mind that this work isn’t performed on a yearly basis. The required ensemble is of a relatively manageable size, smaller than the average orchestra. And if sold correctly, the music would attract a young and excited audience to the concerts. Anyone who grew up listening to heavy metal, industrial rock, or punk music would find the common ground between the hammering of Part One or the syncopations of Part Three and the music they adore. The same audience that sold out all the performances of Ligeti’s Grand Macabre last year in New York would surely flock to hear this work live as well.

A few weeks back, over at Sequenza21, Christian Carey on his File Under? blog asked (as part of a discussion of the New York Philharmonic performance of Magnus Lindberg’s Kraft): “Should composers strive to think big, even if it means that they’ll get less performances as a result? Or is a more portable and utilitarian view preferable?” It would seem that De Materie again raises this issue. For in creating a statement large enough to be life changing (and, yes, for at least one audience member it was life changing), Andriessen also appears to have greatly limited his opportunities to have that piece presented live in its entirety.

Do you believe that this trade-off is worth it?

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