Why Louis is Different

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Louis Andriessen
Photo © by Jeffrey Herman, used with permission

Last week I was thrilled to read that Louis Andriessen had been awarded the 2011 Grawemeyer Award for his opera La Commedia. My thoughts turned to the hundreds of young composers from all over the world who have studied with Louis over the past thirty years. This year’s award carries special meaning in America, since Louis—apart from being one of our era’s great composers in his own right—has become one of the most important mentors for two generations of American composers, a modern Nadia Boulanger or Darius Milhaud with a Dutch accent.

The Grawemeyer citation recognized that Andriessen “uses Dante’s epic poem as a springboard for subtle and ironic commentary on modern life.” La Commedia is a tour-de-force, a work that simultaneously evokes mankind’s fragility and awesome powers of destruction. A stunning, evening-length opera, it is monumental in its depth and daring, a fitting sequel to the impertinent and relentless Rosa, the alternately dark and light Trilogy of The Last Day, and the passionately austere Writing to Vermeer. Louis does not shy away from profound and complex subjects, be they Plato’s laws or Dante’s ruminations about heaven and hell. Listening to the American premieres, both at Disney Hall in Los Angeles and at Carnegie Hall in New York, I was reminded of his global sensibility, one of the reasons why I wrote to him back in 1993, requesting a place in his studio.

From an early age I had dreamed of studying composition abroad. The stories of young Americans heading to Paris (Copland, Thomson, Carter, Piston, and a later generation—Quincy Jones, Bill Bolcom, Philip Glass, etc.) seemed an inspiring rite of passage. I was also aware that many of our greatest jazz musicians—like Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor—had also found tolerance and a sympathetic audience for their work in Europe. I hoped to explore new aesthetic pathways and to immerse myself in a European contemporary sensibility. But I also wished to work with a mentor who had a familiarity with and an appreciation for American (especially African-American) vernacular music. As I scanned the horizon of possibilities, the most logical one seemed to be traveling to Amsterdam to work with Andriessen.

At the time, I already knew several of his larger pieces, having been especially struck by the dark grandeur of his opera De Materie. Listening with rapt fascination to the pulsing, shifting De Staat, the Ivesian Anachronie I, the jocular whirlwind of De Stijl, the relentless Hoketus, the hypnotic Hout, and the biting wit of M is for Man, Music, and Mozart, I recognized that Louis’s music, while bearing hallmarks of the European avant-garde, clearly embraced American sounds and rhythms. Like Stravinsky and Ravel, Louis was omnivorous, filtering art, political theory, philosophy, and scientific texts from all over the world in a manner uniquely his own. And like his American contemporary Steve Reich, Louis formed his own ensembles when existing forces didn’t suit his artistic tastes and composerly needs.

I can’t claim that seeking out Louis was an original idea; he had been a frequent guest at Yale University and at Tanglewood, and a steady stream of Americans had already trekked to Amsterdam to study with him. Some of them have remained in Holland—David Dramm, Ron Ford, and Jeff Hamburg—while others returned to the States—Julia Wolfe, Michael Fiday, Jack Vees, and Jay Alan Yim. My decision was nonetheless quite personal; it was an appealing idea to study with a composer who found as much inspiration in Jimmy Yancey, Charlie Parker, and Steve Reich as he did in Bach, Ravel, and Berio.

Louis continually acknowledged his debt to American music and culture, even as he was quick to rail against unbridled American capitalism and the materialistic culture that often accompanied it. Yet one cannot possibly mistake his music for that of an American. Like Mondriaan’s paintings, Louis’s music is jazzy, but filtered through a harmonic, rhythmic, and philosophical prism that is unmistakably European, unmistakably Dutch in fact.

He welcomed and encouraged international students to revel in Amsterdam’s cosmopolitan and open-minded scene. A city that rose to prominence in the Renaissance, Amsterdam experienced a second renaissance in the late 20th century, and Louis was a key player in its re-emergence as a center for the contemporary arts.

The first night that I arrived in town, Louis invited me to a show, and naturally I accepted, though I was heavily jetlagged. “This is very important work, very important,” he insisted, as a gaggle of his students crammed into a tiny artsy cinema. We watched several avant-garde films, culminating in the hypnotic AAA – AAA by Marina Abramovic and Ulay, who—seated and facing each other—first sighed, then moaned, then screamed at the top of their lungs for what seemed like an interminable period of time (but which was in fact only about ten minutes). “Bravo!” Louis clapped vivaciously, and immediately we made plans to convene for “late drinks,” a ritual for conviviality and “all sorts of profound discussions,” as Louis would remark jocosely.

An important component of studying with Louis was hanging out, attending various artistic events, and meeting other composers and musicians in Amsterdam. Then of course, there were the lessons, which were intense and occasionally combative. In my case, Louis stressed the economy of material and the complete exploration of an idea. (A few years ago, I wrote a blog post which goes into greater detail about studying with Louis, which can be found here .)

Louis is a singular figure in the musical world, which may be why he has garnered such admiration and emulation among a younger generation of North American students—from John Korsrud, Rodney Sharman, and Paul Steenhuisen, to a still younger generation—Emily Doolittle, Nathan Michel, Ryan Carter, and Missy Mazzoli. Earlier this year, the American Composers Orchestra presented a full program (“Louis and the Young Americans“) to honor his contribution to young American composers.

It would be hard to imagine another living European teacher who has had as profound an influence on successive generations of American composers. Many Americans would love to claim Louis as ours simply because we recognize so much of us in him and of him in us. However, we will have to come to terms with the fact that he’s pretty damn Dutch, and perhaps we can be content to remember there is always a piece of America in Louis’s heart. And vice-versa.

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Derek Bermel

American composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel creates and performs in a wide range of musical styles. Bermel has received commissions from major orchestras and chamber ensembles throughout the U.S. and overseas, collaborating with as diverse an array of artists as Wynton Marsalis, Midori, John Adams, Paquito D’Rivera, Philip Glass, Gustavo Dudamel, and Stephen Sondheim. After having served as 2006-09 Music Alive composer-in-residence with the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Bermel has become creative advisor for the orchestra. He also serves on the board of directors of the American Music Center.