Born into a musical family, Louis Andriessen received the early influences of Stravinsky and jazz from his older brother Jurriaan. He studied with Luciano Berio in the mid-’60s and wrote pieces that drew on the styles and techniques of European modernism, before he began responding to American minimalism in the 1970s. He creates music of great energy and unusual color from spare materials, often exploring political and social issues, as well as aspects of physics, such as time and velocity. He began to teach composition at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague (his alma mater) in 1973, and also has lectured widely in the U.S.
De Stijl was composed in 1985 as Part III of the four-part music theater work De Materie. (The complete work had its premiere in Amsterdam in 1989, in a staging by Robert Wilson. The USC Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble gave the West Coast premiere of De Stijl on a Green Umbrella program in 2001.) Also known as neoplasticism, “De Stijl” (The Style) was a Dutch artistic movement that flourished between World Wars I and II; it was also the title of a journal devoted to the movement. Primary colors or monochrome black and white, straight lines and rectangular planes and areas, avoidance of symmetry, and balance and rhythm enhanced by relationships of proportion and location were important elements of “The Style.” Andriessen wrote the following note in July 1985:
“De Stijl is a musical image of Piet Mondrian’s ‘Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue’ from 1927, but exclusively on a conceptual basis. Just like in a painting, five colors are confronted with each other in this work: the four sopranos and the trumpets, the five saxes, the trombones and guitars, the piano solo, and the lower instruments. The low instruments play a disco-like theme of 24 measures, structurally related to the boogie-woogie that Mondrian loved so much. Mondrian himself plays the piano solo, escorted by a dancer. After all, Mondrian still took dancing lessons when he was 70 years old. He danced erect, with his head slanted upwards taking ‘stylized’ steps. In the work there are many references to dance music, and not only from Mondrian’s time. Although the style is adapted to the musicians of Kaalslag, it definitely does not intend to fall for a ‘lighter’ way of composing music. Much as Mondrian recognized the progressive quality of the American jazz bands (he used to express this in French ‘chasse-bande’), he also wrote an extensive letter about Neo-Plasticism to Nelly van Desburg (July 17, 1921): ‘I don’t think dance music may yet be counted as serious music.’ The text sung in the work is a fragment from Schoenmaeker’s Beginselen der Beeldende Wiskunde (Principles of Visual Mathematics). This chapter about absoluteness of the first order has in my opinion been of a decisive influence on Mondrian’s development towards abstract painting. In any case, Schoenmaeker’s way of thinking and writing has directly influenced Mondrian’s articles for De Stijl.”