Andriessen - Facing Death

Year of Composition: 1990

Length: 20 minutes

World premiere of string quartet version:


Pabst Theatre, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Kronos Quartet

World premiere of saxophone version:



Aurelia Saxophone Quartet

Instrumentation: SATB

Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes

This is a particular special piece for Syzygy, it was the first ever work we performed together in the (now demolished) Adrian Boult Hall. Below are Andriessen's own notes for the piece, which are fairly self-explanatory. I should only like to make the obvious point that string quartets, even when amplified, sound very different to saxophone quartets. Weak crossover pieces plague classical saxophone repertoire and this piece could so easily have been yet another example, but Andriessen is a more persistent composer and does not fall into this trap. As the opening licks give way to more contemporary harmony there is a sense in which we see the tragic and inevitable trajectory of Charlie Parker's life unfold. When Bird died, the autopsy found his 34 year old body to be as that of a 50-60 year old, such had been his drug abuse. The tragedy of his untimely demise as told in this piece could and perhaps ought to serve as a warning to others.

Click here to listen to an extract of Syzygy performing this piece

In the composer's own words:

"In 1989 when I was teaching in Buffalo, Miles Davis’ Autobiography was published. While reading it, I suddenly knew what the subject should be of my piece for the Kronos Quartet – early be-bop licks and especially the work of Charlie Parker. I wanted to do the impossible – be-bop is not at all idiomatic for string instruments. But be-bop had been an important influence on my musical development when I was young, and I decided to do something with this music from my youth.

Basically the essence of Charlie Parker’s playing is the extremely high tempo. This high tempo is really high, because the playing is based upon the chord structure of existing melodies, which sometimes are played two or three times as fast as normal. Parker needed speed to express what he musically felt: little time was left for him. This is the main explanation of the title of the work.In the beginning of Facing Death, I literally quote fragments of Charlie Parker improvisations. I quote one original melody: Orinthology (which is based on How High the Moon). The 7th and 8th bar of Orinthology became an important motif in the piece. The whole composition is one long development in Parker’s fast tempo."

Louis Andriessen