Michel van der Aa (1970) is a composer to whom music is more than just organized sound or a structure of notes. He himself says that his work is primarily about ‘time and space’. Whereas the former can be said to be fairly obvious, the latter seems less so. Van der Aa’s conception of space is, moreover, more encompassing than that of classical twentieth century composers such as Mahler and Stockhausen, who had their music sound from different points in the concert hall. Space in Van der Aa’s music is rather a conceptual thing. It is a thing occurring inside the head of the listener, a sensation created largely by illusion. Van der Aa plays with this conceptual space. As M.C Escher, the graphic artist, made perspectival illusion clash with the flat surface of the paper, so Van der Aa makes his sounds echo around an illusory cathedral, only to cut to a bone-dry room and back again at a snap of his scissors. Such acoustic switches make for polyphony, an interaction between several layers. Conversely, he may cause the real world to blend into the artificial one, by making his musicians mime to the electronic sound. Although Van der Aa uses a tape part, or rather sound track, in many of his compositions, he does not consider himself to be a composer of electronic music. Rather, he likes to think of the sound track as an additional instrument.
Another important feature in Van der Aa’s work is the visual element. In Auburn the hammered guitar chords are composed to make the guitarist move his left hand in ever greater leaps. And in fact, the contrast between the live, visible players and the ‘invisible’ sound track is a strongly visual one. Such visual effects are of course lost in a sound recording. Yet in by far the greater part of Van der Aa’s music, and certainly in the six works presented on this CD, the real action is firmly in the music itself.
After training as a music recording engineer at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Michel van der Aa studied composition with Diderik Wagenaar, Gilius van Bergeijk and Louis Andriessen. Despite the fact that his teachers were all prominent representatives of the ‘Hague School’, which did not fail to leave some imprint on his style – notably a constructivist approach and the use of rhythm and chords as structural element – his music is never ‘Hague’ in spirit. Rather than angular and monolithic, it is strikingly subtle, playful, transparent. Yet it is not expressive or melodious in the traditional sense. Van der Aa is a child of his time. Where his teachers used to struggle with the doctrines of serial music, he uses the atonal idiom freely. And the computer for him is a natural tool — not for composing, but for producing his sound tracks. His skills as a sound engineer have become an integral part of his composing technique.
The two CDs in this box set represent, in the composer’s own words, two different sides of his work. The trilogy Above, Between, Attach is more stricter and more formal than the chamber music works on CD 2, which are freer and more narrative in character. All the pieces, moreover, were influenced by the characters of the musicians and ensembles for whom they were written.
Between, for instance, was written in 1997, when Van der Aa was composer in residence with the Percussion Group The Hague. He calls it his ‘most complicated piece’, which it undoubtedly is, even though the musical building blocks are scant. The whole work employs no more than five pitches.
Van der Aa later decided to add two more pieces to Between: Above for the Ives Ensemble and Attach for the Schönberg Ensemble. In 1999, just before completing the trilogy, he was awarded the prestigious Gaudeamus Prize for Between.
Ives Ensemble rehearsing ‘Above’
Above and Attach are both built from a freely composed series of ten five-tone chords (including the one chord used in Between). Each part of the trilogy is characterized by its relation between the electronic and instrumental layers, which is also expressed in the title. All the electronic sounds, incidentally, are derived from prerecorded instrumental sounds produced by the ensembles themselves – except for the sound of snapping branches, which Van der Aa uses as a hallmark in most of his pieces.
The opening of Above exemplifies the extreme economy of Van der Aa’s approach. The first four minutes are based on just one motif: a long crescendo note followed by two demisemiquavers. From this motif, combined with the ten chords, Van der Aa builds a stretto-like structure in which the short notes draw closer and closer together, until they start to form little melodies. This structure recurs twice in the course of the piece, each time with a different electronic layer ‘above’ it.
The structure is punctuated by rapid repetitive notes and static, close chords, which during the first repetition come to interrupt the flowing development ever more frequently, until they seize power in a passage full of staccato chords in which the ensemble engages in a duel with the sound track. At last the music returns to where it started from, only slightly changed.
The model Van der Aa had in mind when composing Between was that of a Chinese ivory ball containing several smaller spheres carved out with great artistry to move freely inside one another. The work is comparable to a journey across those concentric spheres. It is a multilayered piece, symmetrical in structure. The basic idea is set out clearly in the opening section: percussion and electronic sound taking over from each other at regular intervals, the one being, as it were, ‘between’ the other. But soon the percussion quartet falls apart, becoming first a duo, then four individual players, each interacting with his own ‘between’ part on the tape. The whole of the first segment (A) is taken up by metal instruments all playing at a single pitch.
After a climax comes section B, with drums, i.e. without pitch, in which live sounds and sound track continually disperse and coincide.
Metal takes over again in section C, this time joined by the wooden instruments and adding two tones to the initial pitch. Section D brings back the drums, now in a climactic four-layered dialogue reminiscent of section A. The fifth section (E) is the heart (if not the centre) of the piece. It consists of no more than a long-held jingling chord of five tones. After this the composition starts to repeat the whole sequence in reverse order. In the process the different layers of the ‘ball’ start to shift, until the percussion section finds itself coinciding with the sound track, leaving gaps in what used to be a continuous flow of sound.
In Attach the sounds of the ensemble and the sound track are glued together: they seem to be in line with each other, even when they contrast. The most prominent ingredient right from the start is a regular, mechanic pulse, occurring in several tempi at once. The piece opens with an exposition in which this pulse alternates with rapid unisono passages and long-held chords that are strangely discoloured by the electronic sounds ‘attached’ to them. Then follows a much quieter music, in which a perspicacious listener may recognize the opening section of Above, now reduced to a skeleton of unraveled chords. This quiet, reflective texture is gradually invaded by pulse beats and faster notes until the music explodes into a headlong rush of alternating lightning phrases, hammered chords and dramatic pauses, that gradually intertwine and culminate in a feverish tutti in which the unison has given way to a rapid succession of chords (the same ten chords that underlie the whole trilogy). At last the movement stops short in a furious attachment, after which the calm counter-music takes over the discourse. This, however, is soon disrupted by intruding dry pulses, which go on to end the piece by themselves. Attach was awarded the 2000 incentive prize by the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts.
Just Before, the most recent work on this CD, was written for pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama. It was composed shortly after the trilogy, and is audibly related to it, although being an independent work in all other respects. Notably, the close chords and woodpecker-like ostinati are features it shares with the former work. As in all Van der Aa’s compositions, the material for the sound track was derived from the instrument itself. To the CD listener it might appear as if the pianist is tampering with the instrument’s interior, but in reality her activities remain confined to the keyboard itself.
Just Before, says the composer, is like a rubber band one draws out and allows to spring back in different directions. The drawing out takes the form of a slowly rising riff, which opens the piece. The sound track then produces the first recoil. This is followed by a quiet, falling, almost diatonic motif, offsetting the agitated, dissonant opening, an echo of which lingers on in the sound track. The theme blurs, getting stuck in repetitive notes, and then regains momentum, gradually rising in pitch, thus initiating a new tension curve, this time in combination with a rousing burst of electronic sounds.
Tomoko Mukayama performing ‘Just Before’
Once the elastic band is drawn taut again, the music bogs down in a compulsive woodpecker pattern with clusters marking the very limits of the register. Again quiet returns abruptly, again the melodious theme appears, but it almost immediately runs amok, and another hammered ostinato takes it to a third climax. Humming low chords conclude the piece. The rubber band has lost its spring, the piano has reached its highest notes and the pianist allows the sound track to take over.
Auburn (1994) is a relatively ‘early’ work in which Van der Aa tried to feature the guitar’s intimate character as well as its rougher side. The title Auburn (reddish brown) stands for the extreme and the traditional aspects of the instrument respectively. The contrast is excellently realized, partly with the help of the electronic component, which again derives its sounds from the instrument itself. The work has a rhapsodic beginning, with broken chords and ostinato patterns. Here as before Van der Aa shows his skill in building a fascinating discourse from the simplest material. Almost unnoticed the sound track creeps in. Its long-drawn strips of sound strips gain prominence, until after five minutes a spectacular lurch brings change. Next comes a motoric section in which the guitarist works like a percussion player to keep up with the relentless pace of the electronic rhythm box. In the epilogue the guitar resumes its sweet, melodious role, but the electronic backdrop – a synthetic mixture of bowed strings, adds a touch of the surreal.
Oog (Eye) for cello and tape shows some resemblance to Auburn, which was written a year earlier, but this time the different sides of the instrument – the continuous bowed sound and several kinds of staccato playing – are introduced right from the start.
Also, the piece already bears some distinctive Van der Aa fingerprints, such as the double demisemiquavers and the mechanic pulse. As in Auburn, the sound track creeps in almost unnoticeably and then gradually takes the initiative. The electronic sounds are once more derived from the instrument itself, with the exception of the sound of clashing stones, which persists prominently after the climax. A remarkable feature are the illusionary contrasts between the dry and spatial acoustic effects. In the end (but here one needs to see a live performance) even the musical reality becomes an illusion, as the cellist mimes bowing her instrument while the final tone is produced by the loudspeakers only. It is the kind of game Michel van der Aa is fond of playing.
— Frits van der Waa. Translation: Ko Kooman