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Perspectives

Leo Chadburn, musician, on Louis Andriessen

As a teenager, I found a copy of Louis Andriessen's De Staat in the music library in Leicester. I had no preconceptions about the music, but I was immediately intrigued by the cover, a severe grey square with the title in black, the text dissolving ominously into the background.

The opening of the piece is as austere as that image: an isolated quartet of oboes plays a strangely formal, mechanical canon, giving way to trombones and horns that grind away like some sluggish machine starting up. Then, suddenly, there is a magical moment as the ensemble enters with startling force and conviction. Pianos pound, harps and electric guitars trace out a shimmering pattern, and four vocalists intone a soaring, eerie melody.

That piece is the Dutch composer Andriessen's setting of Plato's Republic. It has inspired two generations of musicians - myself included - and will, I suspect, shortly inspire a new one. It receives a rare live performance in London on 28 August.

Although it was first performed in 1976, De Staat still sounds thrilling and extraordinarily fresh. To my ears, it sounds simultaneously like music from the future, with its pulsating rhythms, music from the recent past, with its snarling, jazzy big-band scoring, and music from the rather more extreme past, with its icy, folkish settings of the text, redolent of plainchant.

Andriessen is routinely described as a minimalist composer, which seems a little wide of the mark for someone whose scores are so often loud, dissonant and theatrically extravagant. Andriessen's trademarks include his beloved "hocket" effect: splitting an ensemble down the middle to enable energetic stereo duelling. His scores always have the power to surprise, even shock, which the glittering loops of Steve Reich and Philip Glass rarely do.

It is hard to imagine those composers, brilliant as they are, inventing something as bizarrely imaginative as the racing woodblocks in De Snelheid ("Velocity", 1982-83) or the explosive, accelerating hammer blows of the amplified ensemble that open De Materie ("Matter", 1984-88). Would anyone else be cheeky enough to close an opera with a recap of the libretto over a hip-hop backing? This is the final scene of Rosa (1993-94), a subversive touch at the end of a work of Gothic intensity.

Andriessen's innovations stem from his unsnobbish appreciation of music, which puts Count Basie and Stravinsky on an equal footing, but also from his interrogation of music as a revolutionary force. This is the explicit theme of De Staat, which uses those parts of Plato's text that discuss outlawing the musical instruments and modes not useful to the utopian state.

For much of his career, Andriessen has turned down commissions from "undemocratic" orchestras in favour of young ensembles dedicated to new music, or those that he founded himself. He has also been teacher to an international roster of younger composers, including Steve Martland, Graham Fitkin, Yannis Kyriakides and Michel van der Aa, to name a handful of the more prestigious. Meanwhile, in the United States,
a whole movement has emerged in the form of the Bang on a Can festival, which has a strong flavour of Andriessen's punky approach to classical music.

I must admit to being puzzled that Andriessen has not proved more of an inspiration to musicians outside the classical sphere, in the way that Reich, Glass and Terry Riley have proved springboards for some of the more progressive rock and electronic music. Perhaps Andriessen's fiery scores have a little more propensity to burn the fingers of those expecting minimalism's usual outward attractiveness, but I assure you that it is a taste which, once acquired, will leave you hungry for more.

Leo Chadburn is a composer and singer who also performs as Simon Bookish. For more information: www.simonbookish.com
Louis Andriessen's "De Staat" is performed by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble at this year's Proms on 28 August, and will be broadcast live on Radio 3 from 10.15pm

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years