There are two things to say about Bang on a Can’s Louis Andriessen ties. The first is that no one has done more than the Gordon-Lang-Wolfe troika to further the Dutchman’s reputation stateside. The Bang on a Can All-Stars’ account of the insanely difficult Hout finds them at their very best, providing world class advocacy on behalf of world class repertoire. Anytime they do Andriessen, their interpretation shoots straight to the head of the class. Yet their boosterism has also been highly selective, as the programming on this dazzlingly executed presentation of BoaC greatest hits for the Andriessen 75 festival at Atlas Performing Arts Center on April 11, 2014, made clear. As a representative sample of the softer-edged idiom Andriessen has favored since the mid-nineties, the mellow, harmonically supple Life (the first and to date only work the composer has written on commission for the ensemble) made very strange bedfellows with the acid trip of Michael Gordon’s I Buried Paul. Meanwhile, the youngish Workers Union, that punk reductio ad absurdum of Fred Rzewski-style minimalism, linked up far better with the rest of the program.
Not that there’s anything wrong with BoaC favoring some aspects of the Andriessen ethos over others. Perhaps, you might say, that as the nation’s foremost Andriessen exponents, they have a certain responsibility to make it known that their “Louis A.” is but one of countless conceivable “Louis A.’s.” On the other hand, as guitarist Mark Stewart proudly noted Gordon, Lang, Martland, and Wolfe are all “Louis’ children.” As with any child, some genes get shared with the parents, others skip a generation. But those genes they did inherit, they sure do rock them.
The late Steve Martland was always one of Andriessen’s proudest sons. This was a man that knew his Contra tempus, Il Principe, Symfonieën der Nederlanden, Nietzsche redet – etcetera and so on – inside out. But he also forged his own highly politicized vocabulary, never ceasing to question the assumptions on which his compositional discourse relied. Very much a product of its time, the late Thatcher and John Major years (and no coincidence that Martland’s productivity took a nosedive post-2000). For Andriessen, Martland’s was “a ‘dialectical’ approach to composing, the best attitude towards creating something that could be understood as beautiful.” Horses of Instruction, one of Martland’s most popular works, represents the idea in a nutshell: everything here is funkified kinetic energy, relentless, dancing, pounding, thumping. Yet in Martland’s hands, these vital qualities, the life-force at work, become profoundly poignant, “energy as eternal delight,” to borrow the Blakean title of Horses’ companion piece. Though commissioned by the All-Stars, Martland later adapted Horses for his own band (replete with five-piece sax-and-brass choir), and it’s in that guise that the music reached its classic incarnation. Even so, the BoaC sextet summoned up all the joyous drive long featured in Martland’s performances – David Cossin’s spark plug drumming very nearly raised the roof – in a moving tribute to a dearly missed colleague.
As for the rest of the Andriessen offspring, it was plus royaliste que le roi territory. To this reviewer’s ears, David Lang’s seminal, roguish Cheating, Lying, Stealing has always worked much better on records – the very reverse of Gordon’s Paul and Julia Wolfe’s Believing – with its antiphonal brake drums like the hip ‘90s boho-chic echo of Workers Union’s engaged praxis, or the Pieter Boevé to Andriessen’s Marinus van der Lubbe. As for the Gordon and Wolfe contributions, one couldn’t help but chuckle at the strong Lennon-McCartney influence (see the April 8 review for a note on Andriessen’s Beatles apathy). Two slabs of druggy rhythm and psychedelic texture, they proved compelling All-Stars vehicles. As did, in a more soft-spoken manner, the recent Life, whose watercolor-like brushstrokes complemented Marijke van Warmerdam’s filmic accompaniment to a T.
David Lang: Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993, rev. 1995)
Michael Gordon: I Buried Paul (1996)
Steve Martland: Horses of Instruction (1995)
Julia Wolfe: Believing (1997)
Louis Andriessen: Life (2009), Workers Union (1975)
Bang on a Can All-Stars
[Ed. Matt Mendez is covering the Andreissen 75 festival, a week-long celebration of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s 75th birthday, presented by The Atlas Performing Arts Center, Great Noise Ensemble, National Gallery of Art, Strathmore, and Shenandoah Conservatory, April 6-13, 2014.]