Louis Andriessen’s The Only One is out today on Nonesuch Records, available to hear on the platform of your choice. Here’s the liner note I wrote about the piece.
A composer who’s always delighted in thumbing his nose at the establishment, audiences’ expectations, and cultural, political, and aesthetic conventions, Louis Andriessen embodies the urbane, eclectic postmodernist. “Highbrow” and “lowbrow” gleefully collide in his music, sending fragments flying in all directions. He’s lived to see the old cultural divisions break down, his polyglot revolution reassemble the lingua franca.
Despite a riotous mix of influences, Andriessen’s style is often seen as the heir to Stravinsky’s cool, formal detachment. Even at its most intense, his music retains a certain emotional distance. “I need to have emotional experiences to become a better person,” Andriessen has said, “but I never like to express myself when I write music.” That’s not to say his music isn’t personal. In a certain way, Andriessen has always been a character in the background of his own music, both because of its urgent political agenda, and because it so frequently examines the nature of art itself and the people who make it. De Staat (1988) satirizes, or maybe idealizes, Plato’s assertion that the power of certain sounds can disrupt political order; the opera Rosa (1994) kills off its main character, who happens to be a composer; De Stijl (1985) sets manifesto-like mathematics texts against a musical depiction of Piet Mondrian’s bright, rhythmic paintings. All these pieces maintain a brutal objectivity towards their subjects.
In this context, The Only One seems like a curious outlier. These six songs feel jarringly personal, as though Andriessen is subjecting his music to Freudian analysis. Cryptically confessional poems by Delphine Lecompte trap us in the claustrophobic interior world of their narrator’s head. Here is an artist confronting the various indignities and vagaries of her profession: “I dig up my talents/they are yellowed and rendered obsolete,” she repeats in the opening song, helpless in the face of unhappy parents and dysfunctional relationships. Later, she compares her aimless daily routines to those of people with ordinary jobs, “who whistling, cycle to a future that is bright and voluptuous and also merciful, healthy and hospitable.” She’s trying to come to terms with that common dilemma: the artist’s becoming interchangeable with—and mistaken for—her own work, and coming up disappointingly short. Compounding these feelings of alienation is a kind of dysmorphia; she appears to others as an adult, yet does not feel like one. Many of the poems find their narrator caught between a desire for perceived safety—of home, parents, her own bed—and, simultaneously, overwhelming claustrophobia at feeling trapped by these things.
But the tone of Andriessen’s music is hardly self-pitying. More often, his melodies sound like fragments of children’s songs, making light of their singer’s anguish. Bathos and dark humor are familiar Andriessen tropes, that underscore a confrontational, even contradictory, relationship between music and text. The Only One’s orchestra, though tame by Andriessen standards, serves as both co-conspirator and antagonist, sometimes aping the text so closely it feels mocking rather than sympathetic. The singer’s valiant attempt at self-confidence are accompanied by brief bursts of brassy fanfare that dissolve just as quickly into diffident ostinati. At one particularly low point, the trombones indulge in a cartoonish Dies irae. In ‘Broken Morning,’ the intrusion of something halfway between mariachi band and ländler sets the scene of a tavern filled with grotesque characters who welcome the narrator as one of their own. Yet these and other referential moments are mirages, evaporating in seconds, products of a febrile mind examining itself too closely.
The combination of vulnerability and mutability suits The Only One’s soloist and inspiration, the protean young vocalist Nora Fischer. Hers is a performance practice that didn’t exist at the beginning of Andriessen’s career, when boundaries between singing styles were more rigidly enforced. Fischer’s voice has little in common with the bel canto operatic sound typically found in an orchestral context, yet it’s equally far from the studiously affectless “straight tone” voices employed by so much contemporary music. Fischer fuses the hyper-expressivity of a pop singer like Björk with the cabaret tradition of Kurt Weill, unafraid to push her voice into situations that sound awkward, even ugly; it’s easy to see why a composer like Andriessen found it compelling. He responded by writing her songs that sit at the intersection of jazz standard and lied, but weirder and more fragmentary than either. In The Only One’s title song, the score instructs the voice to progress from “elegant” to “scream” over the course of a minute and a half. During concert performances of the work, Fischer wanders through the orchestra, microphone in hand, gently ribbing the musicians and changing costumes during the two instrumental interludes.
In fact, it’s during these two interludes that the orchestral music sounds freer to express genuine emotion. In place of the raw power of Andriessen’s usual “terrifying 21st-century orchestra” are more subtle gradations of light and shade. The instrumentation still skews to his preferences, with the inclusion of saxophones and guitars and a reliance on the clean attacks of piano, harp and percussion, but the sound is far from the hard-edged snarl so characteristic of his style. Here, harmonies are softer and simpler, the usual triads refracted through hazy mid-afternoon light. This is Andriessen stripped down to his essence, all the component parts of his language laid bare. There’s much in this music that brings to mind the idea of “late style,” that mysterious sense of maturity shared by many otherwise dissimilar artists. There is undoubtedly an autumnal quality from the very outset of The Only One, a sense of its composer having come to terms with the past, present, and future. The willful stubbornness that gives Andriessen’s earlier works their single-minded power is no longer the governing force. The Only One is not a manifesto; there’s nothing left to prove. Instead, Andriessen seems freed to express the most concentrated form of an idea, then move on to the next one.
But The Only One still brings tremendous focus to its brief forms. The piece enjoys the same obsession with its own materials as a late Beethoven quartet; simple, familiar-sounding scraps of music are constantly being transformed and scattered across the score. The main musical motto of the piece is a dotted rhythm, a musical iamb (short-long, short-long) which grows out of a brittle marimba and piano toccata at the beginning of the piece. This rhythm reappears in different guises throughout, ranging from elegant baroque overture to sing-song playground chant to sickly limp. In ‘The Early Bird’ the iambs straighten themselves out for a moment, taking on the rhythmic stolidity of a hymn or anthem, as the narrator idealizes the simple lives and optimistic outlook of the “strange workers” around her. But the music turns uneven again as her own efforts at optimism are rudely rebuffed (“grains of sand and used condoms are spat in my face”).
Later, ‘Twist and Shame’ opens with a jagged, dissonant fanfare, a nearly-complete 12-tone row. (It’s missing one note.) If this is a coincidence, it’s a striking one. Andriessen composed using the 12-tone method for a brief period in his early 20s, and never looked back. Are these bars a reminiscence of youthful folly? Another nose-thumbing reference? The narrator, at any rate, seems unable to overcome her regrets. “Shame is a wasted emotion,” she repeats to herself, to no avail. She takes a train (through time, it seems) to sit with her ancestors, but finds nothing in common with these people, who absorb themselves in pedestrian concerns: work, sex, minor aches and pains.
In fact, the narrator finds no comfort in the corporeal. Her sexuality is instead just another chance for humiliation. In the final song, ‘Grown Up,’ a symbolically coded encounter on a nudist beach quickly leads to loss of innocence—puberty, pregnancy, “outrageous waltzes with masked men” (accompanied by cartoonishly Viennese music, of course). Though she longs for the safety of her house, her bed, her own thoughts, the womb—by the end of the piece, she seems to have reconciled herself to becoming “the grown-up that betrayed my inner child.” That this betrayal isn’t accompanied by musical histrionics makes it all the more shattering. Andriessen ends the piece with a Stravinskian shrug, a gently clashing chord repeated eight times at medium volume, as if to say: “that’s life.”
–Timo Andres, November 2020