Singing the tenor solo of ‘De Materie’ by Louis Andriessen

5.4. The outcome


The three concerts


Concert 1 - premiere, nervous, too-calm

The calming exercises were working so excellently, that, when my teacher visited me in my dressing room 15’ before the first show and made me do running scales, I was way too calm, and under-energetic (she admitted after the concert). Reinbert told me that in 30 years no one sang this part without falsetto, so when I am getting tired, I can just break into falsetto. At a certain point I did feel in the concert that I needed rest, and I did sing 2 bars in my head voice, with a less than elegant return to my chest voice. After the concert I got good compliments, except one important person, whose only comment was: ‘Well done, but pity about that falsetto part. I heard the tempo was slower today, than usually, so may be because of that.’ I felt proud that I could sing the piece in one go, yet I was disappointed about this feedback.


Concert 2- annoyance, anger, extra energy

My disappointment from last night grew into anger. And that anger helped me to find enough energy to ‘push through’ the moments of tiredness, and reach the end of my solo - without any usage of head voice. A historical moment!


Concert 3 - after a day off, with self-confidence, and joy

The pride of putting in so much effort did give an extra boost to my performance that day, so did of course a day of rest in between. I got many compliments for achieving such a seemingly impossible goal. The manager of the Asko told me: "The first time Reinbert heard you, he said: well, maybe this guy has the voice to really sing this part!"

5.1. The piece

A few quotes about the work and its reception:


"There's no doubt that De Materie is Andriessen's finest work to date, and one of the most significant scores produced by a European composer in the last 20 years."[1]


Louis Andriessen is “the epitome of the Hague School, he is regarded as the most influential Dutch composer of his generation.” [2]


"The four-part music-theatre work De Materie (‘Matter’), given its première in Amsterdam in 1989 with Robert Wilson as director, may be regarded as a synthesis of Andriessen’s intellectual and stylistic preoccupations, while integrating the speculative constructivism of the polemicist with the instinctive spontaneity of the theatre composer. As diverse as the historical figures who people the work – among them the 13th-century mystic Hadewijch, the early 17th-century physicist Gorlaeus, Piet Mondriaan and Marie Curie – is the arsenal of references to (and formal and structural models drawn from) music history, from the quotation of the medieval melody L’homme armé and a Bach prelude, to the use of toccata, passacaglia and boogie-woogie, which, in more-or-less abstract guise, are subsumed into the general architecture. “[3]


[1] The Guardian date, title, author, url?

[2]  Schönberger, Elmer. “Louis Andriessen” The Oxford Companion to Music


[3]  Schönberger, Elmer. “Louis Andriessen” The Oxford Companion to Music



5.2. The role – a vocal challenge


            When the opportunity came, and I was asked a year in advance to perform this piece, it was like a dream: a masterpiece by the most respected composer of Holland, with the most celebrated conductor for modern music (Reinbert de Leeuw), and with one of the most prominent modern music ensembles (Asko|Schönberg).

Before I said yes (which was immediately on the tip of my tongue) I of course needed to see the score. Because with modern music I don’t feel compared to recordings of a million singers doing their Schubert album for example, I always feel much more at ease (as Noa also mentioned in her interview in chapter 3.2.3.). I knew that this ‘out of the box’ feeling, my skills in solfege and deeper understanding of music (as a composer) and my extensive experience in different modern pieces and genres makes me ‘too brave’ – as my teacher, Sasja Hunnego says (meaning that I take many projects that are not necessarily helping my vocal development at that point) so I decided that I definitely needed to also consult her. At the time she said: ‘Well, with your development, maybe in a year, you can sing every bar. But I can’t guarantee that you will be able to sing it in one go… You make the decision.’ I did. It was a ‘yes’. So what makes this part so difficult, that even just running it through with your eyes makes you think, how can someone sing this?


See attached:

Small vocal analysis of the Tenor solo part in Louis Andriessen: De Materie

5.5. Conclusions


            Although I benefited a lot from this experience, and even though my classical technique developed a bit, the amount of energy I put in and the outcome wasn’t balanced. I did the best I could. And it brought the best out of me – at that time. The composer, the conductor and many other participants were very happy with my performance. Yet, I sung it in a non-classical way, as a classical singer. It didn’t show the full potential of my voice. If I would use the recording for audition material, I would have to think twice of the ‘open-mindedness’ of the committee.


            Indeed, if I would have sung Andriessen in the way I sung the Puccini aria I was also working on at the time, it might have been more impressive, yet it would have needed small adjustments in the composition itself – and the sound ideal would have been further from what the composer intended. On the other hand, if I would be asked to do it again, I would say: YES. It would be great to revisit this piece after almost a year, with all the development in my classical singing technique. It also prepared me for similar work coming up.

And the next similar challenge is knocking on my door: I will be singing ‘Michael’ in the whole cycle of ‘Licht’ in the production of Holland Festival, Dutch National Opera and Royal Conservatory in 2018/19. When preparing ‘Invasion Explosion – mit Abschied’ with my teacher, I was surprised that with much less preparation I could sing the part in the lesson, which was quite an achievement (although less demanding in stamina, still quite high tessitura, not vocal marcato character and much more difficult solfege-wise etc.). Sasja liked it, and was happy that ‘if I don’t shout it, I can sing it’ – and that I’m finally singing it (which was due to finding a way to keep my throat opened, as recently I’m discovering how much it helps my singing to put the main focus on this technical aspect).

Mainly, thinking in parameters: all the problematic elements (as mentioned in the small vocal analysis attached) could be somehow solved: on their own. But in this combination, the singer is deprived of using his whole instrument, while having to maintain the highest range with the loudest sound, and input. Personally, the biggest challenge seemed to be learning to use enough energy to ‘leave earth’ but not so much that ‘it makes the rocket explode.'

5.3. Preparing – solving the problems


            I learned the musical material in 2016 December, and started with the active singing practicing in January 2017. It took me three months to get it in my system, and to teach my body to work under such ‘astronaut’ circumstances. Some of the techniques and preparations used to solve the above mentioned problems are found in the attached 'List of methods and solutions'.


Physical and mental preparation, life style change


As a sight-reading champion I never put three full months into studying a piece. To make sure I was in the best shape, I didn’t sing anything else but this in the final month (which meant also rejecting lots of other singing opportunities, as the project was exactly in Passion season). I also had a system of rotating tasks each day: one day only scales and relaxing exercises, one day practicing the piece, one day vocal rest. For keeping fit and strengthening my physical condition I went regularly to the gym and to swim, and took care to eat healthier and sleep enough, which I cannot stress enough how important that is for the voice. Yet, while also suffering from slight insomnia, I had to prepare for the mental challenge and the stress that the rehearsals and the concerts would put me in.


My mental preparation therefore included visualisation exercises (imagining I'm already there, how I feel), meditation, and connecting other situations of stress mentally with this concert in order to ‘train’ stage fright. I also took sessions with a famous osteopath, Ami Shamir, who is specialised in working with singers. We worked on my pelvic floor, and grounding – literally. I got homework to stand barefoot on soil at least three times for 10 minutes each time, before the day of the concert. I also had extra coaching with Marcel Beekman in February. As at that moment I was in the middle of my preparation process, and I told him and the participants/audience of his ‘Tenor Day’ workshop that I couldn't sing the whole piece yet in one go. He said – ‘Of course! That’s why I always refused this piece, whenever they asked me to do it: because with stamina it’s so difficult. I told Louis here and here and here the voice cannot do it.’ I surprised him with my approach, and that I had much more ‘scuro’ in my voice than ‘chiaro’, thus I sang darker then he imagined. As Marcel has an excellent way of managing high tessituras (he also can sing hautre-contre parts), with my ‘balkan baritone’ I was quite scared about how I will manage.

Recording of Georgi's tenor solo

in De Materie by 

Louis Andriessen

( case study)

One week before the first rehearsal, I tried to run through my whole solo on a group lesson, using my peers as audience. I still didn’t manage to do it fully in one go, but it was promising. The night before the first rehearsal was the most stressful, as I knew that the next day I have to face this challenge – with Reinbert de Leeuw conducting!

(My friends from the vocal ensemble in this piece said that he is shouting at them about keeping the lines non vibrato – I was scared to death, couldn’t sleep much.)

When we arrived at my solo in the rehearsal, luckily we stopped in the middle of it – thus no one realized yet that I still cannot sing it continuously. Reinbert asked me my name and remembered that I’m also ‘something else’, like a pianist? No, I replied, a composer. After the break he announced to the orchestra: ‘this is Georgi – and he is doing great.’ I got a clap from all performers, and it felt very good. This positive feedback and the fact that the conductor (who is a specialist on this music) liked what I am doing gave me a much greater confidence and trust. I began to enjoy it. Feeding my mind with that enthusiasm helped me find the right intention, thus many technical issues solved themselves.

- Range, tessitura

Most of the part is written above a G4, with quite some peak notes on Bb4 and B4,

the range requires excellent technique.

As most of the role sits around F#4, that note can be dangerous, when sung ‘from below’, still too chesty, as it is most likely to be a passagio that opens the highest register of a tenor.


- Language, prosody

Dutch with its gutteral G (which is made in the back of the throat, thus it brings the sound production too deep in the back of the pharynx) and its uncomfortable diphthongs on long vowels, it is very far from being helpful for singing. The monosyllabic prosody, the monotone quarter after quarter, and the lack of long and short vowels makes it also very difficult to pronounce it in a speech rhythm, although it does need to be enunciated clearly.


- Phrasing

There are seldom places in the score to rest, or prepare the phrases, as there are no real gaps between, to restore the support and remind one’s self about ‘breathing in the phrase’.


- Dynamic

There is one dynamic in the beginning of the part: Fortissimo.

To maintain that loudness (or pretend at least throughout in some passages), is very hard and needs great condition, even with being amplified.


- Character

The marcatos, the harsh and precise rhythms and big jumps are not helping the breathing apparatus in the body to keep its calm basic function to breathe out.


- Stamina

The continuous usage of the extreme of the voice is the biggest issue. Once the tenor soloist starts to sing, it is 7 minutes of almost non-stop high tessitura.

This parameter was the biggest concern for most of the teachers, coaches and fellow singers I consulted about the score.

List of methods and solutions (scrolling)

Small vocal analysis of the Tenor solo part in Louis Andriessen: De Materie (scrolling)

Range and tessitura – sound production


The problem resembles a bit what singers with bigger voices often encounter in singing early music, or in ensembles: ‘First you have to sing it, then you will make it in style’. By conditioning the body so that it ‘can do it’ we get the raw material, on top of which we can start controlling many other parameters and mix our best nuances to achieve the required stylistic approach.In real bel canto tenors use an element in their technique called urlare. This is a sort of ‘roar’ – it is a voice production in which the voice is already in its ‘upper position,' being already ‘above’ the passagio, and keeping the throat opened enough to not close it under the big pressure of the threatening feeling that the continuous high tessitura would cause. At this time, in addition to this piece I studied Puccini's Madama Butterfly, an aria and scene of Pinkerton. This music and the technique suitable to sing in this style helped me to discover a flexible movement of the diaphragm while keeping the chest opened by a holding of the intercostal muscles, with the correct positioning and usage of articulation and resonators in the head.


Pronunciation, text/subtext – speech


With my pianist coach we worked a lot on still connecting to the text, and making longer syllables where the word emphasis is. Finding the right character, not just musically, but in the sense of a ‘persona,' and looking to the text through its relation to the music gave me a more secure idea of who I am on stage, and made me have an inner intention of delivering this subtext. This clear intention gave my body genuine motivation to generate enough energy needed for the part, while keeping my instrument as open and free as possible (under such extreme circumstances). 


Phrasing, character - Keeping the instrument calm 


With my teacher, Sasja Hunnego, we worked a lot on letting the energy through but not going with it (not collapsing). F-ing – In this exercise you imagine a phrase, but instead of signing it, you just breath out on ‘f’ continuously. With that you teach the body calmly stay just breathing out, despite the harsh character of the music, with its square rhythms, marcati, often glottal onsets and harsh consonants. It works as a psychological conditioning as well, in time the breathing starts to become automatic for each phrase, and it provides a constant airflow till the end of the phrase. In this case it was difficult to use this feeling - and still have enough energy for maintaining the high tessitura.


Stamina, condition


We worked with building exercises to train the smaller muscles of the ribcage and open the chest. Most of the work was studying the piece mentally, practicing a lot ‘silently’ – as otherwise it is too tiring for the voice. Physical and mental exercising was also needed for this most difficult task in my singing career so far.

Surprisingly however, it did land me a small romantic opera role in Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet with the company Opera2day. After an audition during which I was sick, I made a good impression with my aria from Massenet's Werther, but to have a clearer idea how my voice sounds when healthy, they asked me to send additional recordings of a more full-voice piece – as they found more recordings of me singing even more modern pieces, with many extended techniques and mainly in my falsetto.Thus, I sent them De Materie – as a piece that shows my full sound as a classical singer – yet the first motive already ends on a high B flat that I could sing much more convincingly and with the true colour of my voice if I was able to sing it with vibrato and with Romantic operatic aesthetics.

The first rehearsal

A photo of the score I used in our production

of Andriessen: De Materie, in 2017 April

A part of the Tenor solo that resembles funnily

how the singer feels while studying the part:

"Dit is geheel onredelijk..." or in english:

"This is very unfair" 

Sasja Hunnego and me - after a lesson

of studying 'De Materie' tenor solo