Louis Andriessen: Workers Union

Instrumentation: any large ensemble, free instrumentation

Contact: Thomas Moore

During a reading session with amateur musicians, I had the pleasure of introducing Louis Andriessen’s amazing open-scored piece, Workers Union. This piece is astonishingly difficult. Even for professional musicians that are accustomed to reading alternative notation and playing minimal music, the tempo, dynamics, and intensity with which one must play is extremely demanding. The composer sets the bar high, writing in the introduction a strict requirement: “Only in the case of every player playing with such an intention that their part is an essential one, the work will succeed; just as in the political work.”

While researching the piece and preparing for the session, I came across this great recording by 8th Blackbird. I love their introduction. There is something really nice about the ensemble’s egalitarian approach to the instruments and the piece. 

So, why this piece? First of all, I think it is a great piece. It should be played and heard by as many people as possible. And secondly, I think in these times of attention and political exhaustion, this piece is suddenly relevant.  I think it also works well with amateurs because, with a little bit of fine tuning, one can play most of this piece. The choice of notes, after all, is entirely up to the performer. 

Now on to the playing part and how we approached it. Before I started on the reading session, I selected three sections of the piece to work on: the beginning, a section that included rapid switches in the registers, and a 2-part section. As a group, we read through the introduction line by line and paused at the end of each instruction to figure it out together in the concert of the piece. 

For example, the first line of text is: “The line represents the middle register of a player’s instrument. Notes above this line are upper register, those below are lower register.” 

If we look at the first line of the music, we see in measure 5 the first note of the piece that is on the above mentioned (horizontal) line. I instructed each musician to choose a comfortable note, and for now, use this as their central note. (There are no rules against shifting the central note up or down a little depending on where you are in the piece.)  We then rehearsed this bar until everyone seemed to understand this first line of instruction. After finishing the introductory text, we then started at bar 1 and worked our way through to bar 20. This went surprisingly well, though at times, I had to remind them to keep their energy up and articulation sharp.

The beginning of the piece is relatively narrow as far as registers go. The next section I chose to work on included more notes in the upper register and larger intervals (see measures 22-27 and 45-48)  Again, I helped the musicians in their choices of their own highest and lowest notes. Each needed to be comfortably in their range.

We then tackled the duelling band section, for example measures 105-113. The musicians really seemed to like this part. I don’t know whether that was because they could hear their fellows better, or perhaps it was because they had more rests. Either way, this section went really well. I think it was important to introduce this part of the piece and Andriessen’s simple though effective polyphonic writing in this piece. 

We of course did everything at a slower tempo than indicated, and were not able to read the entire piece, but I think as a way to introduce the work of Louis Andriessen and European minimalism in general, this piece and approach serves well.  It was also obvious that these musicians enjoyed the challenge of working on such a demanding piece and in a new (to them) genre.