The Book of Disquiet


Michel van der Aa’s music theatre work, The Book of Disquiet, was the first staged production in Linz’s Cultural Capital of Europe celebrations in January 2009.
Following his opera After Life, which enjoyed a sell-out run at the Holland Festival in 2006, van der Aa again provides cutting-edge integration of music, live action and video, here built from text fragments by Fernando Pessoa.

The Portuguese poet often cast himself in a series of distinct characters, or ‘heteronyms’, prompting van der Aa to portray multiple personalities on video and soundtrack, the world premiere surrounding the central figure of actor Klaus Maria Brandauer on stage, with an ensemble from the Bruckner Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.

Book of Disquiet - Klaus paper boatsKlaus Maria Brandauer, still from film projection

The Book of Disquiet is available in English, German, French, and Portuguese language versions.

Klaus, Ana & JoaoAna Moura, Klaus Maria Brandauer & Joao Reis

Fernando Pessoa was many authors in one. He attributed his prolific writings to a wide range of alternative selves, each of whom had a distinct biography, ideology, and horoscope. When he died in 1935, Pessoa left behind a trunk filled with unfinished and unpublished writings, among which the remarkable pages that make up his posthumous masterpiece ‘The Book of Disquiet’. This astonishing collection is the autobiography of alter ego Bernando Soares, whose personality Pessoa described as not different from his, but rather a simple mutilation of it. Though it does not matter what he writes, Soares writes anyway. For him, cataloguing his shifts of mood, notating dream vignettes, studying his own psychological states, relating autobiographical anecdotes, pushes him closer to the ever-elusive nature of the self.

Ana Moura with OxAna Moura, still from film projection

Team & cast
Bernardo Soares – Klaus Maria Brandauer

Film cast
Bernardo Soares – Klaus Maria Brandauer
Ophelia – Ana Moura
Vincento – João Reis
Young Ophelia – Sara Ramadinha Pereira
Street sweeper – David Pereira
Bookkeeper – Rogério Tavares
Major – Miguel Corte-Real

libretto after Fernando Pessoa, adapted by Michel van der Aa
musical direction – Dennis Rusell Davies
director – Michel van der Aa
scenography – Marc Warning
lighting – Gé Wegman
dramaturge – David Tushingham
sound projection – Clare Gallagher
audio and video technique – Marko Ciciliani
producer – Frank van der Weij
video script and direction – Michel van der Aa

press quotes


“Remarkable 75-minute conflation of avant-garde music, film and theatre by the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa. With Samuel West in terrific form as the pathologically solitary poet […] The monkish absence of self-esteem is startling and complemented on screen by image after image of Pessoa’s heteronyms frenetically folding sheets of paper filled with his scribbling and consigning them to a wooden chest or (later) flames. That manic intensity beneath a seemingly static surface is wonderfully captured in Van der Aa’s score, which has bouts of violent, jagged-rhythmed writing following by luscious, saccharine passages of calm. Sadly, only two performances. The Book of Disquiet deserves to be booked for a disquieting reprise.”
— ★★★★★ The Times, Richard Morrison, 25-02-2016

Wonderfully accomplished

“One of the most beguiling of Michel van der Aa’s multimedia theatre pieces […] wonderfully accomplished dramatic reworking […] spoken in English by Samuel West, who makes a more engaging and engaged protagonist than Brandauer. […] Van der Aa’s music, played by the Sinfonietta under Joana Carneiro is string-dominated, by no means the most important element in the dramatic mix; it’s just one ingredient in a beautifully crafted package.”
— ★★★★ The Guardian, Andrew Clements, 25-02-2016


— The New York Times, James R. Ostreich, 22-01-2016

Brilliant handiwork by composer/filmmaker Van der Aa

***** (five stars)
Dream flashes set to intelligent music.
Following the Japanese cineast Kore-Eda, whose film ‘After Life’ formed the inspiration for Michel Van der Aa’s multimedia piece of the same name (and until last week ran at De Nederlandse Opera), the Portuguese author Pessoa emerged last Saturday in a sold-out Concertgebouw as the invisible genius behind another, no less brilliant piece of handiwork by Van der Aa: Das Buch der Unruhe.
The true quality of Van der Aa’s work lies in the way in which images, electronic sound, live music and langauge interact. He has arranged thought flashes in a way that resembles Krapp’s Last Tape by Beckett, in which a lonely old man muses on his useless existence.
The music does not force itself onto the piece; it adjusts itself to the images and text. Here intentionally wooden, there agitated, at times mellifluous – but always intelligently calculated. The moment of a mild trumpet entrance essentially alters the sound colour.
— Volkskrant, Roland de Beer, 12 October 2009

Melodramatic in the most literal sense

***** (Five stars)
Arid and stark: summer in Portugal. One glance at the dusty earth under the feet of an ox and you’re in the world of Pessoa. Hey, a pair of women’s legs suddenly come into view behind those of the ox; their gait is neatly synchonized. This image went unnoticed at the premiere of Michel Van der Aa’s music theatre piece Der Buch der Unruhe in Linz (Austria) in January, but at the Amsterdam premiere the full Concertgebouw laughed heartily. There were other differences too.
The international success of composer Van der Aa (39) lies not only in the quality of his music (although publisher Boosey & Hawkes of course was also well taken by the notes), but also in his mission to explore new paths in music and music theatre with the help of a variety of media.
Actor Brandauer appeared to be more at home with the text this time around; his performance was looser, more compelling. Dutch surtitles helped the audience to appreciate not only the tragic side of Soares’s manic isololation, but the humor of the situation as well. His monologue about the deceptiveness of feelings was impressive in the way his musings were continually absorbed by the sound waves of the ensemble. Melodramatic – in its literal sense. The ensemble MusikFabrik, led by Martyn Brabbins, executed Van der Aa’s challenging score, with its restless figures and wispy, questioning strings more colourfully than at the premiere.
Das Buch der Unruhe rouses the intellect as well as the emotions through the mix of text, music and film. Van der Aa’s next piece is to be a cello concerto, but hopefully he will turn back to music theatre soon. His paths bring us to the kind of places we have not yet visited, but would like to see more often. Just like Soares.
NRC, Mischa Spel, 12 October 2009

Gentle, colourful music

The gentle, colourful music, reminiscent of the quiet shadow-world of Morton Feldman, goes splendidly with the film images. The Portuguese fado star Ana Moura steals the show.
— Parool, Erik Voermans

Ein symbolträchtiges wie ausdrucksstarkes Projekt

Zum Erfolg geriet Michel van der Aas Buch der Unruhe mit Klaus Maria Brandauer und dem Bruckner Orchester Linz in der neu errichteten Linzer Hafenhalle09. Ein symbolträchtiges wie ausdrucksstarkes Projekt, für welches der niederländische Komponist und Regisseur Texte aus Fernando Pessoas gleichnamigem Werk, Filmsequenzen und Musik eindrucksvoll miteinander verwoben hat. Dirigent Dennis Russell Davies und Musiker des Linzer Bruckner Orchesters verwandelten van der Aas von Streicherklängen geprägte Komposition in einen spannungsgeladenen, präzise wie zart geknüpften Klangteppich. Aussagekräftig wie originell in seiner Multifunktionalität erwies sich Marc Warnings Bühnenbild aus fünf verschiebbaren Kreisen, die ein eigenes, in sich geschlossenes Universum für einen um sich Kreisenden zu bilden schienen und dabei als Projektionsfläche für Filmsequenzen ebenso dienten wie als originelles Percussion-Element. Eine beeindruckende Inszenierung, die in sich stimmig zu packen vermochte.
— Österreichische Musikzeitung

Again and again Van der Aa finds memorable images

The music is an equal partner to the visual and language levels, combines with both, but also falls silent from time to time. Conductor Dennis Russell Davies directs the Bruckner Orchestra with precision, and seamlessly the music even accompanies recorded fado singing. Again and again Van der Aa finds memorable images.
— Salzburger Nachrichten, Michael Brommer

An oppressive picture of a man who questions everything in life

The well thought-out music theatre interpretation by the Dutch director and composer Michel van der Aa concentrated the material into an oppressive picture of a man who questions everything in life, but cannot do anything other than to create… Van der Aa’s music translates Soares’ ideas, his depressive thought spirals and visions into a convincing language full of harmonic frictions and dramatic compressions.
— Kurier, Michael Huber

An impressive, symbolically-laden production

The world premiere of The Book of Disquiet made a profound impression. The composer and director Michel van der Aa wove together text excerpts, film sequences and music into an impressive, symbolically-laden production… Brilliant in its multi-layered symbolism, Marc Warning’s stage set has the effect of a single, great metaphor for the main character’s attitude towards life, at odds with himself. Five circles which push into each other, then again drift apart, recall the planets of a universe, in the midst of which Soares circles around his existence… In van der Aa’s compositions, disquiet becomes music.
— Oberösterreichische Nachrichten, Karin Schütze

A true ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’

The first performance on Friday in Linz was a great success. A true ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ which captivated from beginning to end. The sinuosity of the composition was emphasised by symbolic film scenes and through the music’s insistence.
— Die Presse, Norbert Mayer

Van der Aa opens LINZ09

In Book of Disquiet, which brings together the two titans Fernando Pessoa and Klaus Maria Brandauer, Van der Aa has set himself a particularly difficult task. His success is due to the subtlety with which he organises all the ingredients. The music reflects the feelings and ideas described: at times melancholy, at times highly formal, but always dramatic given the alternation between the two. The film images too, which were shot in sun-drenched Portugal, are effective without lapsing into kitsch.
NRC Handelsblad, Mischa Spel

Download full review (PDF)

Linz's year of culture kicks off with eye-popping music musings

Magically, it all coheres: the parade of visuals, beautifully shot under Van der Aa’s direction; the musing disconnectedness of Brandauer’s utterances, which create the texture of a dream. If it’s in the nature of Pessoa’s book that there can be no resolution, there is a kind of closure here, a sense of knowing much more about the author and his alter ego than we ever would otherwise.
— The Guardian, Andrew Clements

Download full review (jpg)


Music theatre for actor, ensemble and film


1 flute
1 clarinet (in B flat)
1 bassoon
1 trumpet (in C)

1 percussion

4 violins
3 violas
2 cellos
1 double bass

Soundtrack (doubleA player software, from laptop)
2 channel HD video

Available in German, English and Portuguese language versions.


Duration 75'
First performance 02 January 2009, Bruckner Orchestra, cond. Dennis Rusell Davies Klaus Maria Brandauer, actor
Commissioned by LINZ09 European Cultural Capital, ZaterdagMatinee, Fonds voor de Scheppende Toonkunst
Published by Boosey & Hawkes


The Book of Disquiet - Scene 3 & 4

Scene 3 & 4. Klaus Maria Brandauer,
musikFabrik, cond. Martyn Brabbins


The Book of Disquiet - trailer

Book of Disquiet excerptsPortuguese language version with João Reis & Ana Moura.
4:49 min. trailer

Vrije Geluiden interview

Vrije Geluiden 2009Interview by Hans Flupsen.
VPRO Television, 2009.
31:53 min. | Dutch/English

The Book of Disquiet - news item

ORF news item about the world premiere of ‘The Book of Disquiet’
2:43 min. | German


Last performance:

  • 16 December 2017
    Kasper De Roo, conductor
    Miltiadis Fiorentzis, actor
    Onassis Cultural Centre, Athens, Greece