The revered Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, whose 75th birthday was celebrated this week with a weeklong festival in Washington, D.C., grew up in a bubble. His father and brother were composers, his mother was a pianist, and they played music more than they listened to it. “Our family didn’t even have a good record player in the house,” he remembers. “We all played in the house. We only listened to the radio when a piece of my father’s was being broadcast!”
As a result, Andriessen’s personal filter was highly unique, and selective. “My father was French-oriented and didn’t very much like German Romanticism,” he says. “So it has made my life very easy, because I still don’t like Wagner, and Mahler, and a lot of others. Even Brahms I have my questions about.”
Instead, Andriessen, who hovers like a patron saint over the current contemporary classical landscape, took a different path. “I know everything about Duparc, Chausson, Ravel, Debussy — I think I learned to write the melodies and harmonies I did especially from those composers,” he says. As our discussion traces the unlikely arc of his reference points — from Picasso to Gershwin to The Supremes — he admits, with an audible grin: “Now that I am 75, I am, for the very first time, trying to understand the 19th Century. It has taken me awhile.”
You’ve talked a lot about the influence that your brother’s trip to America had on you, when he brought a load of American records back. Do you remember how old you were when he returned? What did he bring?
I was around 11 years old. Flying to America was something only rich businessmen did, and we were artists, the whole family. But my elder brother Jurriaan, who was also a composer, went to Tanglewood on a Rockefeller scholarship in 1949 or ’50. He stayed two years, and he came back in ’51 with all these records and books.
The thing I remember most was that he was a fan of Nat King Cole, which was interesting, because my own god in jazz in the ’60s was Miles Davis, and I learned that Miles Davis was a big admirer of Nat King Cole, too. Jurriaan also brought back the first recordings of Stavinsky’s Orfeo, Bernstein and Gershwin things; he brought back a John Cage string quartet, which was unique and totally unknown to us at that time.
Can you pick a piece by one of these Austro-German composers that you disdained as a teenager that you have a different relationship to now?
Not really. My composers’ generation was closely related to Schoenberg and Anton Webern, who were at the time making what we considered to be the most modern and new and fantastic music you could imagine. Stockhausen was very important in Holland; Boulez, as well. For two years, I studied with Luciano Berio. Nowadays, of course, even in Webern, I hear traces of late Mahler. But I was never asked to dissect a Brahms symphony.
One of the concerts this week features your satirical setting of a few songs by the Beatles. What inspired you to do that?
When I worked with Berio, I also worked with his quite-interesting wife Cathy Berberian, an Armenian-American woman who studied in Italy. Her daughter, who actually lives in California, was a Beatles fan. Now, I didn’t like the Beatles at all; I found them to be very nice, English, kids of their mothers — too nice. But Cathy wanted to sing a few in a classical style. I did one in Bach style, one in Handel style, one in Ravel style, and so on.
This is my only relation with white pop music in general. I did the Supremes a lot, in the Beatles’ time. I’m interested in some no-harmony music — like rap music, which usually has no harmony. Their music was amazingly positivist and funny and very ironic. It’s, in the right way, danceable. They imitate singers, which I always like. I also liked early Janet Jackson. I don’t know what it is about it — it has to do with timing, and rhythm.
How familiar are you with the Bang On A Can composers whose music is also featured alongside yours this week—Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe?
I consider them real friends and, a little bit, like my children. I admire them a lot. They are the generation after me — I am very much of the generation of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Michael and Julia liked my music, and they made a point of organizing performances of large pieces of mine in the late ’80s in New York. They came in Amsterdam for a year to work and write and compose, and we had long conversations, the way you do in Amsterdam — at a café, sitting up until 1 a.m.
Is there a persistent misconception about your music that has irritated you?
What people think is that I always write in different styles. But that’s not the point, because I’m not trying to have a style. It’s very stupid to do that; when you have a style, and you are recognizable, that means you always write the same piece. I have a completely different attitude — I like to write pieces on subjects which I find interesting. That can be all kinds of different things.
I was the first composer in Holland who did really rigid serial music, for example, but after a while I had the feeling that I knew what I could do with it, so I moved onto other things. Graphic scores, electronics, so many other things I have dealt with. It’s the way I read books — unlike most people nowadays, I do read all the time, and I go to museums to see what painters do. I came to D.C. before the performance of La Commedia, and of the reasons to be here was to see the paintings of Vermeer — I did an opera on him called Writing on Vermeer, and I’ve never seen the collection here in my life. And it doesn’t look like I will find time to do it! So close and yet so far.
I like that kind of artistic life. I like Picasso for that reason; he was always doing something different and interesting.
Is there a book you read in the last year you found particularly stimulating?
Oh, there are several. There are some Americans I like, but the first book I think of is a discovery for me: The Red and the Black, by Stendhal. He’s amazing; he improvises all around, all the time. I found that book really very shocking and very good.
Is there a film you saw recently you were particularly inspired by?
I did work together for an opera house with two filmmakers, and that tells you something about my tastes, I suppose. I recognize the things I do — by which I mean, a funny combination of intellectualism and vulgarity — in the films of Peter Greenaway. And with Peter Greenaway, I made one film and two operas. And after that, I did another opera with another filmmaker that I admire very much for sort of the same reasons, and that was Hal Hartley. And he made a black and white film on top of my opera La Commedia, which was played in concert form in Washington.
Are you still a moviegoer?
I have all my bad-taste favorites. I think film in general is entertainment culture, and I have not a very high opinion of 90 percent of the entertainment culture. But if you find this interesting, I can tell you, with Monica, who I share my life with now, I watch the first three years of Desperate Housewives –the score is amazingly good — and I’m a big fan of early South Park.