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Andriessen is known for his avoidance of classical performance conventions, typically favoring flexible, often amplified ensembles over the seamlessly blended full sound of the traditional orchestra. Some of the performing ensembles he himself founded in years past later inspired groups such as the California E.A.R. Unit and Bang on a Can. Life in turn originated from the composer’s desire to write a piece tailored for the instrumentation of the boundary-crossing Bang on a Can All-Stars, a group that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Curiously, although the ensemble had played other Andriessen pieces written for different contexts, he had a hard time finding his way into a score that would specifically exploit their unusual instrumentation. Its combination of “19th-century strings with contemporary instruments like guitar and percussion,” writes Andriessen, posed a challenge whose solution finally became apparent when he teamed up with video artist Marijke van Warmerdam (b. 1959) to create “a kind of contemporary Pictures of an Exhibition.” Their idea was to write a suite comprising musical pieces that would be scored to short, purely visual films newly made by Warmerdam. Andriessen realized he could turn the contrasting aspects of the Bang on a Can All-Stars instrumentation into a musical (and visual) metaphor, pitting echoes of French late-Romanticism against “hip” American Minimalism.
Instead of clashing or canceling each other out, in Life these distinctive aesthetics make for a strangely touching interface. Andriessen emphatically conceives of his score as part of a larger whole, forbidding performances without the projected films. Formally, each of the films is independent, yet each is linked to the others by recurrent images or implied metaphorical connections. The first (longest of the four) contrasts solid architectural structures with the capricious movement of wind. After this lonely industrial setting, the second film shows an elderly couple sitting on a bench amid a calm nature idyll. The abstraction of the opening film returns in the very brief third one, which features the movement of Venetian blinds. They open completely, light fills the screen, and a windowpane in a country house appears in the final film. Heat trapped in the house has caused the window to steam. (Andriessen originally proposed Steam rather than Life as the title.) A hand wipes away the moisture, and through the glass the elderly couple slowly comes into focus.
Beginning with a poignant motif on soprano saxophone, Andriessen’s music for the first film plays with the visual images of stasis and motion. Notice the contrast of sustained harmonies that slowly move stepwise against pulsing rhythmic patterns from guitar, percussion, and piano. As humans enter the picture in the second film, he writes a kind of folk melody voiced by harmonics from cello and double bass. Set to enchanting new timbres, the stasis-motion metaphor reappears. Andriessen’s music for the third film stands apart: a kind of scherzo of rhythmic and coloristic motifs that wittily complements the strumming of the Venetian blinds. When musical ideas we’ve encountered earlier return in the final film, Warmerdam’s imagery suggests a filmic equivalent for the process of composition: like the images that recur throughout the films, musical patterns shift in character and nuance when presented and juxtaposed in new contexts. Composition itself seems to unfold like Life.
- Thomas May is a contributor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.