Composer Louis Andriessen was born in Utrecht into a musical family headed by his father Hendrik Andriessen, one of the recognized pioneers of modern Dutch music. Louis Andriessen began his musical studies with his father, and then studied in The Hague with Kees van Baaren, and later in Milan with Luciano Berio. Early Andriessen works are serial, but by 1963 he was working with graphic notation, as in the piano piece Registers, using a combination of fixed and non-fixed elements to facilitate improvisation. In 1969, Andriessen participated in his first large-scale theatrical "happening," Reconstructie, at the Holland Festival in collaboration with Ton de Leeuw, Misha Mengelberg, Peter Schat, and Jan van Vlijmen. In 1970, Andriessen swore off writing music for standard symphonic ensembles for good, a decision that was to profoundly impact his development. For a time, he worked in electronic music; his first venture into theater on his own with Il Principe. Andriessen experienced a creative breakthrough in 1976, with De Staat, a large choral work based on Plato's Republic sung in the original Greek, combining ancient Greek scales, Stravinskyian rhythms, repetition, and hocket. De Staat earned Andriessen the coveted Kees van Baaren Prize, and since then he has garnered numerous awards, citations, and commissions. The unusual instrumentation of De Staat deserves mention: four women's voices, four oboes, four horns, four trumpets, four trombones, two electric guitars, bass guitar, two pianos, two harps, and four violas.
"All that whining about textural sonorous fields and special instrumental effects bores me," Andriessen has said. "Instrumentation must correspond to the structure of the music." Andriessen often uses rock instruments, such as electric guitar, bass, and synthesizer to augment his ensembles. Andriessen also composes music designed to challenge the talents of specific performers; Forget-Me-Not requires an oboist to also play piano, and in TAO there is a part for a pianist who speaks and also plays the koto. Andriessen is regarded to some extent as an ensemble builder; Orkest de Volharding is a group he formed to play the same-named Andriessen work, and the ensemble came together afterward to program and commission other repertoire. In the United States, performing groups such as the California Ear Unit and Bang On A Can have eagerly programmed and recorded Andriessen works such as Workers Union and Hoketus. Younger composers view the work of Andriessen as an alternative to academic serialism and American minimalism, and aspiring composers from many nations have come to Holland to study with him at the Royal Conservatory at The Hague. After De Staat, Andriessen's major works have included De Tijd, Facing Death for the Kronos Quartet, and Trilogy of the Last Day. He collaborated with stage director Robert Wilson on the four-part De Materie in 1989. In the 1990s, a fruitful collaboration with film director Peter Greenaway led to several works, including the films M is for Man, Music, Mozart; Rosa: The Death of a Composer; and the opera Writing to Vermeer, which premiered in 1999. Sometimes didactic in his defense of his progressive political views, Andriessen is nevertheless far from humorless. His penetrating insight as an essayist on topics such as Stravinsky may be read in his book The Apollonian Clockwork, published in 1989. Andriessen has said "I don't feel comfortable with composers like Schoenberg who always push ahead in one direction. I prefer the jacks-of-all-trades: the Purcells and Stravinskys, who are at home anywhere, borrowing here, and stealing there." His popularity with young listeners and presence on the scene has provided an unprecedented boost to the prominence of contemporary Dutch music throughout the world.