Louis Andriessen, De Staat, released 1991 by Elektra Nonesuch
De Staat (1973-1976), performed by The Schoenberg Ensemble; Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor
Though Louis Andriessen is Dutch, his music is closely aligned with American minimalism with its focus on pulse, rhythmic energy, repetition, and pandiatonic harmony, and its use of highly idiosyncratic instrumental forces, including electric instruments. His favorite techniques are the use of hocket, and multiple voices in very close canon, creating what amounts to a “smeared” melody.
De Staat is a setting of sections of Plato’s Republic for chamber orchestra, based on the idea of four: it is written for four women’s voices, four oboes, four trumpets, four horns, four trombones, two harps and two electric guitars, and four violas; and one electric bass. I hear pianos as well, but they’re not listed in the CD booklet – my guess is they’re substituting for the harps.
Each section focuses on a single tetrachord, a set of four pitches, and usually features the instruments as groups rather than as individuals; for example, the opening features the four oboes, the next section the four trombones, etc., which gives each section a monolithic feel. My guess is that Andriessen was strongly influenced by gamelan music, in nearly every aspect of its construction.
One of the things that distinguishes Andriessen from his American colleagues is a more directed sense of form; rather than focusing on gradual process to determine both the development of musical material and the structure of a piece, in De Staat he will meditate on a very static set of ideas with little variation, then suddenly switch to another, towards an intentioned dramatic goal.
It’s an epic piece, about 35 minutes long, so I won’t go into a blow-by-blow account. Its basic structure consists of three distinct vocal sections bridged by long sequences of instrumental interludes which range from the serene to the poundingly energetic. My favorites are the sung parts, in particular the women’s first entrance: a heavy, pounding quartet of trombones is suddenly replaced by singers, electric guitars (without distortion), and “harps”, all in the middle-high register, and it’s a magical and surprising revelation, like the moment the airplane leaves the ground.
De Staat is a great and groundbreaking piece; its premiere signaled the presence one of Europe’s first great minimalists, with his own unique voice within the genre. It’s not perfect; the static nature of each individual section starts to feel a bit cumbersome, and the frequent use of brass in close harmony starts to feel like ponderous bleating after a while. But at its best, it’s luminous and exciting, like nothing else in the world.
(1) The two guitars and two harps are generally used as a grouping of four.
(2) Who make up nearly half the ensemble, and are often being pushed to (and past) the limit of their agility.