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In contrast to what are at most oblique references to the 18th-century Venice of Vivaldi and his muse, Andriessen makes a point of evoking the sound world of 1930s Paris in Anaïs Nin. This recent music theater work centers on another prominent muse, one who famously publicized her erotic entanglements in the form of her multivolume diaries. What made this topic especially appealing, the composer remarks, is not “the psychological or the literary aspects of Nin” but rather “the way she flirts with history and fiction as Nabokov does. It is not important whether her narrative is true – the reality of it is not relevant. Her power is that she creates a life through writing.” Andriessen goes on to compare Nin’s method to “the composers I love who make allusions to history and work with pre-existing music” – including, of course, Stravinsky, a major influence. “This creative dialogue with the past, which I share, is not a plea for conservatism – it is quite the opposite.”

From Nin’s diaries, Andriessen chose passages from the volume titled Incest that cover the years 1932-1934. This particular diary recounts Anaïs Nin’s love affair with her father, the Cuban-born composer and pianist Joaquín Nin, who had left her family 20 years before. But Andriessen decided to weave in encounters with three other lovers from the same period. They include the revolutionary playwright and actor Antonin Artaud, psychiatrist René Allendy (to whom Artaud had referred Nin), and, as Andriessen wryly describes Henry Miller, “the American alcoholic turned into a writer by Anaïs Nin.” Their relationships frame the incestuous love story: “The truth is,” Nin confesses, “I only face human beings in fragments.”

Despite the multiple characters, Andriessen styles Anaïs Nin as a “monodrama,” in which the focus remains fixed on Nin herself. She is the only character to appear onstage as she sings the diary excerpts that have been fashioned into a libretto. But Andriessen incorporates film fragments to give us impressions of Nin onscreen as well and uses recorded narration by an actor to represent the voices of the men (including excerpts from one of Artaud’s letters). In this sense Anaïs Nin might be considered a “chamber” version of the hybrids of film and live stage that Andriessen has been evolving into unique forms of music theater.

Portraying the protagonist is Cristina Zavalloni – another long-term collaborator with the composer and a key inspiration for La Commedia as well. Andriessen, who candidly admits his distaste for the conventionally trained operatic voice, has said that when he writes for Zavalloni, “I don’t think of [her voice] in lyrical terms: It is more like an expressive medium, a theatrical presence, a narrative force, a volatile personality.” All of these qualities are factored into his musical conception of the varied ways in which Nin relates to her lovers and how she is mirrored by their personalities. “The music closely tracks the irony, despair, and passion of this many-sided and brilliant woman,” writes Andriessen.

Following the opening film clip from a TV interview, we even see Nin conduct a few bars of the introductory music, an acerbic march with echoes of Kurt Weill. Andriessen compares the sound world he wanted to elicit to “a little circus band,” noting that he was intrigued by the prospect of writing for Nieuw Amsterdams Peil, a new-music ensemble that performs without a conductor. Calling for amplified voice and violin, he manages to conjure all the desired timbres from his chamber ensemble, specifically referencing the 1930s jazz combo sound of artists like Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins. Intimations of Nin’s underlying restlessness churn through the musical subtext, gathering tension through the sequence of scenes. A serene respite arrives in “The Seventh Day,” as she imagines blissful fulfillment. It makes the dramatic contrast that follows, when she attempts to describe her loneliness to an unresponsive Henry Miller, all the more devastating. As an ironic postlude, Andriessen incorporates one of Joaquín Nin’s arrangements of a Basque carol for voice and piano.

- Thomas May is a contributor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.