On her 387th birthday, the University of Amsterdam will award two people with an honorary doctorate. One of them is the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, because of his essential role in the music world. Folia spoke with him. ‘In general, there is lack of focus on the stream of thought and contexts of music.’
‘Yes, composers do exist,’ Louis Andriessen says after we glanced in the attic of the apartment of the composer at the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam, which you can enter through a hatch and a small, steep white-painted stepladder. It really is the office of a practicing composer: there are two grand pianos, one next to a little desk, in the midst of music books and scores.
Why do you think you are receiving the honorary doctorate?
‘You’d better ask the people who awarded me with it. I never think about such things. But it could be a motivation for people to listen to my music and get to know it. In general, there is a lack of focus on the stream of thought and contexts of music. That’s why such an honorary doctorate is very nice.’
The scientific community has regularly analyzed your compositions. How is it to read or hear what other people think about your music and your intentions as a composer?
‘You have overestimated those intentions, because they are totally nugatory. The only thing that matters, for I think all composers, is to make sure the music is good. That’s essential. It comes before all interpretations of scientists. You don’t care about who is going to listen to it, you need to think about which harmonies and which instruments to use. Everything outside of the organization of the musical piece is nonsense.’
What do you mean by nonsense?
‘What I said. When you meet a carpenter it also makes more sense to talk about the wood he uses, to talk about his work, right? Not about the things with a scientific background that do not have anything to do with music.’
As a composer you do not feel any bonding with musicology, then.
‘There are nice books about the life of composers of course, but that’s journalism. And there are books about the political aspect of music, why music is left or right. But those are full of nagging. I’ll tell you what all composers will tell you. The level of compository thinking in mostly the Western part of the world is incredibly low. Because it’s not about music anymore, but about money. If you hear what those guys make a year, it’s horrible. Not that I’m jealous, because money doesn’t matter to me.’
If I listen to your music, it sounds different from the harmonies I am used to from, for instance, popular music or music from composers as Mozart or Beethoven.
What do I hear?
‘Other chords. And you can either like them or dislike them. But the chords you hear in popular music, are always the same. And they are also always never really right, I think. And then the bass follows the melody… ugh, it’s a mess.’
You protested in the sixties against the ‘establishment’ in classical music programming.
‘Yes. We disliked symphony orchestras. Me and other young composers at that time, we didn’t want to compose for those people, they also read the wrong papers, for instance. We wanted to write for different instruments and ensembles. It went well, until we began protesting louder, which resulted in less money for the symphony orchestras and no money at all for other orchestras.’
How do you think about this establishment now?
‘I don’t think about it. I’m busy doing other stuff.’
‘The chief of an orchestra in Los Angeles, Chad Smith, called me to say he wanted me to compose a piece. I said: “you know I am not very fond of symphony orchestras”. But he said: “Louis, you have to write what you want to write.” That was a very clever remark. I had two things I found suitable for this work: one was a Flemish female poet who has written small, peculiar poems. Those are translated in English and it has become a sort of song cycle with a few instrumental things for a small orchestra, not that noisy symphony orchestra. Secondly, a very talented singer Nora Fischer is going to perform it. I just finished it and it will premiere somewhere in May, which means that I am travelling to LA.’
What is your main guideline while composing?
‘There is none. Oftentimes there are a lot of guidelines. But the fact that the chief of the orchestra says that I can write what I want, is essential for the development of the piece. That is not the case with a lot of other composers.’
To finish up: the honorary doctorate is about successes. Is there something in your life that you would have done differently?
‘If something is about to fail, you notice it at the right time. I had friends, colleagues and fellow students to help me with this: “What are you doing now, you’re crazy!” So I’m not too worried about failure. My father always said that the mistake is always somewhere in your earlier work. That was almost always the case. It’s mostly tricks, but in the end everything is a trick. Especially getting rich is a trick. You don’t need to be able to do anything for that.’