Introduction to the work of Michel van der Aa

At first glance, Spaces of Blank (2007) by the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa appears to be a conventional three-movement song cycle for mezzo-soprano, orchestra and soundtrack. The work, written on a commission from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Radio France and the Norddeutsche Rundfunk, is a setting of evocative poems by Emily Dickenson, Anne Carson and Rozalie Hirs; it is scored for more or less standard orchestral forces; the solo part is, for the most part, without vocal eccentricities. Less common is the addition of a soundtrack, but on the surface there appears to be nothing particularly radical about it. Right from the opening measures, though, nothing is as it seemed. Sombre multi-voiced brass blocks vaporize in a stratosphere of high-frequency electronica and cool, soft strings; in the background, mechanical ‘clicks’ on the piano, harp and glockenspiel in their uppermost register transform the orchestra into a quasi-digital instrument. As ‘beautiful’ as it is, the music is clearly the product of an imagination that far surpasses the purely musical. The broad expanse of the orchestra creates an immediate sensation of space, the audible space that, as a metaphor for anxiety, becomes the work’s ‘house’. Anyone familiar with this composer’s music will recognize its inhabitant. Since the opera One (2002) and the Here cycle for soprano, chamber orchestra and soundtrack (2001-2003), she is the proverbial Van der Aa personage: a reclusive individual, this time lost in ‘a solitude of space / a solitude of sea / a solitude of death’.

The composer explores her in the same way the woman observes her own world: hyper-edgy but devoid of sentimentality. He views her drama objectively, not explicitly. The apparently ‘Romantic’ gesture of the rushing, driving strings is neutralized by the strictly-imposed detachment of the notes; vibrato is forbidden from the first to the last measure. The orchestra is not so much an instrument of overt feelings than a study object. At times it is as though it gets caught in a groove, and is transformed into a misfiring apparatus that operates even more mechanically than the human-like electronica. The singer, detached and yet close by, sings ‘in Baroque style with regard to vibrato, clarity of tone and expression.’ And so Spaces of Blank becomes, by playing with the outward show of the opposite, everything that a ‘normal’ song cycle is not. No vale of tears, not yet another post-Romantic intimate declaration; the cool yet intense analysis of sweeping, cryptic suffering. As a dramatized documentary about a genre it is quintessential Van der Aa. He is the observer whose expedition begins with the vital life questions his characters pose on his behalf. What do I see and hear, who am I, what do I feel, what do I think, where do I stand? His brand of composing – and in the meantime, much more than just that: Van der Aa also films and directs – is less a matter of style as of attitude. ‘I’m not a composer of just notes,’ he once said. Although he willingly qualifies that statement (‘not that notes aren’t important’), music is for Van der Aa unmistakably part of a larger whole.

After Life - Chiefs farewell
After Life [2005-2006]

The immediate recognizability of his tone, with the typical alternation between hectic motion and serene, surprisingly sonorous electro-acoustic harmonies, does nothing to diminish this assertion.

Van der Aa’s subtle and refined implementation of his conceptual principles earned him a meteoric reputation, first in the Netherlands and then abroad. Not yet 40, Van der Aa is already one of the world’s most performed Dutch composers. It says something about his musical qualities, but also about his talent for presenting abstract ideas in such a way that his complex musical language still appeals to a wide audience. The unruly, rugged idiom of Imprint for Baroque orchestra (2006), written for the Freiburger Barockorchester, does not pose a problem for the listener. It cannot escape him that the piece is about the intense dialogue between the musicians of the orchestra. The medium – pitches – remains completely subordinate to the objective: the dramatization of a musical action.

Equally essential to Van der Aa’s music is the alienating, magical power struggle between electronica and acoustic instruments. The composer developed the technology himself for the controlling the interaction between these poles – he took a course in recording technique as part of his composition study – and leaves nothing to chance. Van der Aa’s soundtracks, executed on a laptop he calls the ‘doubleA player’, undermine music’s linear timeframe with samples of pre-recorded music fragments, echoes, white noise and montages of clipped sound. The result is to the ear what an illustration of M.C. Escher is for the eye: a dizzying, irresistible and intriguing trompe l’oeil. Van der Aa blurs the line between acoustic and electronically-manipulated material to the point that the origin of his sounds is often nearly impossible to ascertain. At certain moments during a piece it is as though a nearly identical composition can be heard in the background, almost simultaneously, like a faraway echo from a parallel world, and only audible when the live music happens to fall silent. ‘And then you suddenly realize that that other music was being played the whole time,’ he explains. ‘Through a gap in one layer of music you can make out another layer. It is more than a montage technique. You create peep-holes.

I want to show what’s behind that window without the object being visible right away.’ In this way he creates space in a real-time context.

A conflict model arising from the interplay between mechanical/electronic and acoustic components makes more recent instrumental works like Second Self for orchestra and soundtrack (2004) and Mask for ensemble and soundtrack (2006, rev. 2008) into textless theatre pieces, with abstracted ‘plots’ that dramatize the interaction between the poles. In Mask, a game of sound layers, the soundtrack ‘steals’ overtones from the ensemble, and the soundtrack and musicians ‘mask’ one another, while the percussionist rips lengths of gaffer tape from a desk and wraps an old-fashioned metronome, inside a three-dimensional frame, with tape until the ticking of the metronome is nearly muted. In Second Self a similar conflict situation occurs within the orchestra when a string quartet separates itself from the rest of the string section, ‘in order to confront the orchestra with its own material, and force it to respond,’ says the composer. ‘Finally it sinks into reclusiveness. That is what the piece is about.’

‘Before I begin on a piece,’ says Van der Aa, ‘I want to be able to communicate in a single sentence what it’s about.’ At times a work emerges from the abstract projection of two time lines that first converge and then diverge. At other times he sees in his mind’s eye a desperate female singer who is crushed by the overwhelming might of an orchestra: the individual vs. the masses. Always that solitary individual. Sometimes he hears the snapping of branches: a sound, a click, a gesture. That is the germ of a composition. The exact pitches come later; they are the flesh on the skeleton of an idea. And with Van der Aa it’s always about identity: of people, sounds, instruments, musicians, musical societies. Even in his earliest works, the ‘communication mechanism amongst the players’ is at the forefront. ‘My work,’ he says, ‘is about conflicts, dialogues and the way in which the individual experiences them.’

Book of Disquiet - smoke
The Book of Disquiet [2008]

The consistent multidisciplinary approach, apparent in his earlier compositions as well as later works, justified the expectation that Van der Aa would, sooner or later, move on to music theatre, the world of sound and imagery. And he did. His move from the concert hall to the theatre was accompanied by the necessary expansion of resources and media. The laptop was joined by the film camera and the composer became stage director as well. In 2002 Van der Aa took a year’s leave of absence to study at the New York Film Academy; he felt that his technical and musical expertise was no longer sufficient for an oeuvre with an increasingly important visual aspect: ‘I could no longer express my dramatic ideas in music alone.’

With his multidisciplinary chamber opera One (2002) for soprano, video images and soundtrack, featuring soprano Barbara Hannigan, Van der Aa demonstrated – now as composer, director and librettist – the fruits of his new, expanded horizons: a keen sense for the immediate impact of imagery.

A totally isolated protagonist – shadowed by video fragments in which five women relate a vague but crucial event in their life –becomes increasingly confronted with herself. The combination of timeless human drama and high-tech dramaturgy gives One an uncommon intensity, in part thanks to the unwavering concentration on a single theme: solitude.

In retrospect, One, both structurally and thematically, can be seen as a preliminary study for the opera that resulted in Van der Aa’s international breakthrough: After Life, for six soloists, large ensemble, video and soundtrack (2006), based on the film by the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda. But After Life goes one important step further: it is a work in which composition, stage direction and film are definitively forged into an integrated whole, in which the composer can, in his words, ‘determine the balance between the three elements note for note.’

Another essential aspect is that in After Life the conceptual themes of his earlier works are reincarnated as music theatre. It is an opera about memories: memories that, in earlier vocal-instrumental works, Van der Aa manipulated by technological means. With the aid of soundtracks, but also, for example, by having the singer in Here [in circles] record live orchestra fragments with a cassette recorder and then play them back later. In After Life the concept of memory is transformed into a symbol of humanity.

Michel van der Aa 2009
Michel van der Aa, 2009

After Life takes place in a transit camp, a way station of sorts, between earth and heaven, where a group of recently deceased persons has one week to pinpoint the most decisive moment in their life.

Only once this key memory has been chosen – it is then filmed by the staff and shown to the deceased – can they proceed to heaven, accompanied by this one memory. ‘I was struck by the humanist quality of Kore-Eda’s film,’ says Van der Aa. It’s about what one really thinks is important in life. After Life’s drama is essentially the contrast between the two worlds I present. On the one hand you have the bureaucratic system that produces the memory films; on the other hand are the poignant stories and memories of individuals. In a certain sense the music is just the same. On the one hand fairly foursquare, with hard clicks from one block to the next; but within that space there is room for emotion.’

And that space keeps expanding. In 2008 Van der Aa wrote The Book of Disquiet for actor, ensemble and film, based on a posthumously-published text of the same name by Fernando Pessoa. The German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer plays Pessoa’s alter ego, the book merchant Bernardo Soares, who is confronted by issues of identity and the meaning of life. In him we by now recognize the observant, questioning composer Van der Aa. What do I see, what do I hear, who am I, what do I feel, what do I think? In watching and listening to The Book of Disquiet one is again struck by how consistently and intelligently Van der Aa integrates his ‘instrumental’ themes into the multimedia context of his music theatre works. The alter egos of his electro-acoustic pieces have become flesh and blood, such as the memories in After Life.

Most significant, perhaps, is that fact that Van der Aa’s visual and musical components have by now become so amalgamated that they assume one another’s role. For the on-screen fado singer Ana Moura, who pursues the dissociated central figure like a poltergeist, Van der Aa wrote extraordinarily moving, serenely plaintive music, whose effect is so powerful that the image of their meeting feels like the musical climax of her notes. Decisive moments.

Michel van der Aa is already mulling over a new opera, again with actors and a yet broader role for the medium of film. He is ready, having followed an intensive course of study in stage direction at the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Lab in 2007. The circle has closed, but it keeps getting bigger. The projection screens in The Book of Disquiet: round.

— Bas van Putten, June 2009
Translation, Jonathan Reeder