field report no.032216

LOCATION: Park Avenue Armory NY.NY
SUBJECT: Louis Andriessen's De Materie

Quite unprepared at the age of 19, I went out in search of what modern composition might be—winding up with a collection Andriessen's work, titled De Stijl. The centerpiece of that compilation was the third movement of his modernist opera, De Materie. It's easy to tell, in retrospect why that portion was highlighted: with it's spoken word libretto and dynamic, bouncy melodic lines, it stands in stark contrast to the brutal modernism of the rest of the work. So I arrived at Andriessen before the usual, more listener-friendly gateways to 20th century composition like Reich and Glass (or even Cage). It took me years to come to terms with De Materie—but to my surprise, I eventually did.

The Park Avenue Armory is not a venue to hedge its bets. They exclusively stage huge events and complex happenings (and are surprisingly risky in their curation). This performance involved an entire orchestra on a moving platform, an 8 member chorus + soloists, 2 whole troupes of dancers, huge lighted pendulums, illuminated indoor zeppelins and an entire flock of real, live sheep. If this sounds audacious, ambitious and a tad disjointed, it was all that—probably by design. This non-narrative work aims to try grapple with mans' relation to matter itself across centuries.

The first part was probably the weakest. The score is bombastic but stripped bare. The chorus came off muddy—I don't know if they needed more practice or if the vast drill hall just echoed too much. Their voices tended to blend into mere human noises. The texts, thankfully were presented to us on screen (when a dirigible wasn't in the way). A soloist, portraying the 17th century-era, Dutch scientist Gorleaus, closed the first portion, and faired far better sonically.

The second movement for solo soprano and orchestra moved me more live, than it has on record. Perhaps it was the text (which I could finally read): the account of a 13th century nun's vision of christ, which she puts in terms dangerously near erotic science fiction. It was also the most concise and consistent portion of the work, both musically and visually: straight-forward and simple but evocative.

The staging for the third movement included 2 dancers running through charleston moves with robotic detachment while gargantuan, lit pendulums swung and bounced above. It worked for a good while but the presentation seemed too sparse and unchanging. More-so than the music, even, which was by far the most jovial and dynamic of the evening.

The last movement approached stasis. Single complex chords were struck, measuring abstract amounts of time, while a herd of sheep milled in mesmerizing patterns, bleating under a spotlight. The notes of Marie Curie—both from her nobel prize speech and her diary—are read at the very end. While the staging for this coda was strangely representative, comparatively, the text was poignant. After all the abstract and metaphorical discussion of matter over the course of the night, the scientist who's discoveries led to our splitting the atom speaks of how all these bits and pieces can add up to a particular human whole that can touch us deeply. 

NOTES: Louis Andriessen, composer; Heiner Gobbels, director; Peter Rundel, Conductor; International Contemporary Ensemble, orchestra; Chorwerk Ruhr, chorus; Pascal Charbonneau, tenor; Evgeniya Sotnikova, soprano
PRESENT: AMS, Daniel D., sadly, Kelli A. arrived late and was denied entry, but luckily was able to redeem her ticket for another night.