Freezing the Music and Fetishising the Subject

The audiovisual dramaturgy of Michel van der Aa

Dutch composer Michel van der Aa was one of the two keynote speakers at the 2007 Totally Huge New Music Festival. Van der Aa’s presentation included audiovisual documents of his compositions, while live performances of his works were offered by WAAPA’s New Music ensemble and the WA Symphony Orchestra. Van der Aa writes mostly for the traditional instruments of the orchestra and the chamber ensemble—as well as period instrumentation, such as in his 2005 commission for the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra:Imprint. Nevertheless, like Australian composer Anthony Pateras and Pateras’ sometime collaborator Robin Fox, Van der Aa is part of a growing number of artists who supplement the orchestral and chamber music palette with audiovisual materials, playback recordings, electronic processing and physical actions.
Critic Frits van der Waa has described in some detail the formal, musical properties of several of Michel van der Aa’s compositions. The discussion of the composer’s work with respect to operatic dramaturgy and theatre has however tended to be limited to generalities rather than in terms of art-historical references or in relation to the implicit meanings constructed through the performance of Van der Aa’s audiovisual pieces.

Throughout the essay, I base my model of the shift from Modernism to Postmodernism upon the characterisation of the work of dramatist Samuel Beckett as a critical example of “limit Modernism” by commentators such as Ihab Hassan, Frederic Jameson and others. Many of the key formal features and philosophical issues raised in the work of Beckett are archetypal of Modernist literature and dramaturgy, namely: meta-linguistic play and meta-theatre; the gradual reduction of the elements which define each art form, distilling the work down to its indissoluble core or vocabulary (as in the “absolute opticality” of Hard-Edged Abstraction in US painting of the same era); the Existential struggle of the self-realised yet alienated individual located within a universe devoid of any purpose outside that which man gives it; and so on.

At the same time, much of Beckett’s work presages the emergence of a Postmodernist sensibility after World War II in suggesting: that the human subject may at times be considered to be nothing more than a purely linguistic or performative construction (as comes to the fore in Laurie Anderson’s oeuvre); the radical opacity of language and representation in Beckett’s dramaturgy such that it no longer refers to anything outside of itself;

Beckett’s video piece Arena Quad I (1980)
Beckett Arena Quad I

the death of the subject and of humanism; etcetera. If one considers Van der Aa’s work in light of this aesthetic legacy as manifest within drama, opera and music, the composer’s use of technological doubles of the players dramatises the fragmentation of the human subject at the end of Modernism, producing what might be considered—in Freudian terms—to be a fetishistic rendering of the subject and his or her performative, technological prostheses in the form of music, image and gesture.

Dramaturgically, Van der Aa’s compositions tend to represent the individual, or his or her instrumental representative, engaging in a conflicted dialogue with a mechanised version of him or herself. The live performer is played off against audio or audiovisual recordings of him or herself. Alternatively, computer processed versions of the live materials may be featured within the score, acting to directly translate the live performer into his or her technologised other. In Auburn (1994), for example, the dulcet tones and Hispanic lilts of the solo classical guitar are lost, alienated and assaulted as they become embedded within an increasingly pressing, electronic wasteland of textures and clicks.

Van der Aa’s work constitutes, in this sense, an outgrowth of late Modernist and Postmodernist musical practice and performance as they developed within the avant-garde, Fluxus and other related movements, in which the strictly “musical” has been extended to include the implicit musicality of the “non-musical.” Here too, Van der Aa’s approach may be compared with that of Beckett given that in the playwright’s final pieces, Beckett became so focussed on minimalising onstage action that his performance works came to recall music more than traditional drama. Beckett’s video piece Arena Quad I + II (1980) consists of nothing more than four unspeaking figures, shrouded in different colored robes, who metronymically pace around a tightly bounded square situated within a dark void.

The additional elements from outside of the formal traditions within which Van der Aa primarily works are: the visual image (film and projection), distortion/processing (computer manipulations) and performance itself (gesture, mime and action). As Frits van der Waa notes with regard to Auburn, “the contrast” between the actions of “the live, visible players,” versus those musical or sonic actions which are implied by the “‘invisible’ sound track” is a strongly visual contrast—much like that of Beckett’s endlessly marching figures. It is hardly surprising then that Van der Aa has recently gravitated towards the visual and theatrical possibilities allowed by operatic styles of composition, since his aesthetic in many ways signifies the latest version of Richard Wagner’s ideal of a totalising musico-dramatic “Gesamtkunstwerk” in which all of the elements of the staging (the actors, as directed by Van der Aa, his authorship of the libretto and musical score, and his overseeing of the lighting and the design) come together as part of a single aesthetic vision and coherent, multi-layered meaning.

Van der Aa’s full length opera After Life, mounted by the Netherlands Opera and the Asko Ensemble in 2006, is the composer’s most advanced version of such an aesthetic.
Van der Aa’s aesthetic remains very much located within that overarching machine or teknos of the modern orchestra and its various derivatives within chamber performance. The radical performativity of say John Cage, where even the act of listening constitutes a form of musical gesture in-and-of itself, is not part of Van der Aa’s oeuvre. On the contrary, Van der Aa’s music depends much more upon larger structural relations and upon the tensions which they create within the often creaking machinery of the orchestra and the chamber ensemble. As Van der Aa notes above, his usage of these elements is designed to extend his musical vocabulary, rather than to displace the centrality of formal musical orchestration within his style. His work depends upon the unexpected interjection of the performative into a set of performance conventions and genres which typically downplay or minimalise such interjections.

In this sense, Van der Aa’s work owes relatively little to the Postmodern Minimalism of his either former mentor, Andriessen (who also taught Steve Reich), nor to the tradition of Postmodernist performance art and sound-based composition which opened up in the wake of Cage and his colleagues (which includes a varied array of practices ranging from those of Pateras and Fox in Australia, to Cage’s US peers Christian Wolff and Alvin Lucier, as well as sound and noise- event artists like Randy H. Yau and Toshiya Tsunoda).

The dramaturgical ambience and meanings which tend to accrue around Van der Aa’s work echo the composer’s ambivalent relationship with musico-dramatic history and avant-garde form. Neither radically innovative in terms of meaning, nor simply derivative of early musical and theatrical works, Van der Aa’s compositions stand (like those of Beckett) at the crossroads of musical and dramatic history; as curious “frozen” contradictions—in much the same way as many of the early passages within his own works recur later during the performances in a slightly different form, like etheric aural ghosts for our age of historical indeterminacy. As Novak observes, the sections of Van der Aa’s music need “to be heard in relation to other music”—not only the other musical elements within each individual work itself, but also with respect to musicology and to the history of Modernism.
Van der Aa’s reworking of Modernist aesthetics and its alienated or neurotic subjects is particularly visible in such works as his short film, Passage (2002), which sketches a portrait of an isolated obsessive-compulsive old man, as well the composer’s work for a soprano and her audiovisual double, One. Both pieces consistently use the fracturing of tempi, of voice and of instrumental line to depict madness and neurosis, in Spel’s words, exploring “loneliness verging on insanity.” In terms of meaning and dramaturgical ambience, Van der Aa’s work is highly Modernist in ambience, strongly evoking the early plays of Beckett as well as such classic neurotic atonal operas as Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung(1909).

It is significant in this respect that Van der Aa has had major commissions from the Schoenberg Ensemble and the Ives Ensemble (Above and Attach respectively, both in 1999), two groups whose style and artistic direction is closely in harmony with his own Modernist-influenced aesthetic.

Van der Aa’s work is not however entirely confined to such relatively familiar musico-dramatic forms. The sense of neurotic alienation which runs throughout Van der Aa’s compositions is principally a product of the relationship between the vocal and instrumental lines. As a result, when these lines are presented in their most unadorned form, the focus of Van der Aa’s work moves from that of the alienated psyche of the modern individual, to that of the alienated orchestra or chamber ensemble itself. Like the barely human figures in Beckett’s Quad, Van der Aa’s players are transformed into instrumental machines. In such works by Van der Aa, it is more the instruments which have become alienated from themselves and their fellows within the musical space represented on screen and upon the stage. In these instances, the performance is more akin to an intricate dance of failing automata, than one of the tortured human psyche; a fractured narrative of the non-human, rather than a potentially neo-humanist version of the Modernist dramaturgical aesthetic.

After Life - making of video projections
After Life – filmshoot

Discussing these trends in the work of Van der Aa and others, Novak notes that prostheses and cybernetic additions to the human body have principally been theorised as compensating for an “insufficiency” of the embodied human subject.
By contrast, in Romantic and humanist discourse, the performer is typically seen as almost organically joined to his or her acoustic orchestral instrument. The union of performer and instrument acts not so much as a compensation for a biological or psychological absence on the part of the player, but rather as a spiritual device which allows the human subject to outwardly express an already present emotional interiority. For the Romantics, the instrument did not serve as a tool to enable the subject to transcend his or her true nature, but rather as a valve which released and cultivated that which previously lay hidden within the depths of the individual. Van der Aa’s staging, his dramaturgy and his use of projection, however, foregrounds the status of the orchestral machine and its instrumentation as cybernetic additions to the live performer; as a non-cohesive set of fragmentary additives which are often in conflict with each other, as well as being in conflict with the human subject which rests at its core.

Spel indeed observes with respect to the Here trilogy that the replaying of portions of the score from earlier in the cycle via the soundtrack at the same time that newer elements struggle to emerge under the hand of the live performer highlights a failure to musically progress within the piece. Van der Aa deliberately arrests the progression of the material in such a way that the future can only be imagined as an endless, flattened conflation of past and present akin to the grey, post-humanist voids and near-apocalyptic scenarios depicted in pieces by Beckett such as Endgame (1957), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) and Quad. It is this, I would contend, which constitutes the contradictory “time axis” opened up at various points within the works which Van der Aa refers to above. It is a temporality characterised by dialectic in which stasis and progression coexist, or might be seen to alternate with each other. Such a construction of the orchestral machine, and the temporal space which it generates within itself, offers relatively little room for the rich emotional intensity and potential for heroic self-realisation upon which the Modernist and Romantic subject depended.

Harold Pinter in Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett
Harold Pinter in Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett

Nevertheless, part of what causes a certain humanist ambience to hover around Van der Aa’s work is the fetishistic quality of his compositions. Van der Aa’s nervous, atonal aesthetic is not comfortable with the cybernetic insufficiency and temporal voids which his works uncover. Under Freudian theory, the fetish is that which conceals what one cannot bring oneself to look at (the phallus for Freud and Lacan), whilst simultaneously demanding and celebrating this act of looking at the fetishised “screen image” which has been placed in front of the original, feared or lacking object. Fetishism is therefore bound by a logic of affirmation and denial, of looking and of not looking, and of a conflation of presence (of having the phallus or the sense of psychosexual unity which it allows one to construct) with an absence (as a phantasmic sign of unity and power, the phallus can never be truly “possessed” by any subject). This contradictory, fetishistic structure of presence and absence, fullness and fragmentation, progression and stasis, is deeply embedded within Van der Aa’s oeuvre. Van der Aa’s dramaturgy still clings to the centrality and importance of the psychosexual human subject for the creation of a viable culture and musical aesthetic after Schoenberg and Beckett, whilst nevertheless suggesting the potential erasure and collapse of such a subject as the source of any stable basis for knowledge, experience or aesthetic form. This is in contrast to such works as Metastasis (1953) by Iannis Xenakis, in which Modernist scoring and dramaturgy has been definitively rejected and for which any suggestion that a human subject or psyche might be leading or described in the piece is wholly spurious.

Van der Aa’s scores and his stage directions direct the audience’s gaze and attention towards a fetishised human subject, who is shown in compositions like One as struggling to realise him or herself—even as these same works suggest the impossibility of such a project of psychological and musical reclamation via any act or technological supplement (be it a sexual one or not). The foregrounding of the relationship of the instruments to their technologised others enacts a similar fetishisation of these objects, too, as the instruments struggle to realise themselves in the face of adversity.

Memo (2003) for example is performed by solo violinist who records her own playing onto the antiquated tape-recorder which Van der Aa always takes with him on tour (and which also featured in the performance given by the WASO at the 2007 THNMF). The performer then plays along with this crackling, recently recorded material. The piece depends for its effects and for its sonic character upon the hard plastic clunks of the machine’s buttons and upon the gentle hiss of the magnetic tape; a highly fetishistic rendering of the specific character of this now all but obsolete—yet nevertheless modern and electronic—technological device.
Quadrivial (1997) offers a particularly rich example of the historical and performative ambiguities with Van der Aa’s practice, presenting the audience with such ornate sound worlds as the frenetic free repetition which recurs in much of Van der Aa’s work, but here it is placed amidst small, angular, dissonant scenes. Despite the performers deliberately enacting or miming a number of false starts, this repeating, urgent phrasing grows into longer sequences and then into a series of unison clashes and attacks—without any sense of a central character or individual guiding or leading this musical development. The live player remains the focus against which his or her doubles are arrayed—here represented by the ensemble itself and its silent gestures, made by the performers without actually playing the instruments— whilst simultaneously becoming dispersed within the dramaturgy of the work and across its multilayered musical structures. The ensemble is absorbed in its own machinations, coming together and blowing apart in a series of tightly paired developments. This self-absorption of the orchestral machine also reflects the way that Van der Aa’s use of live recordings and playback in pieces like Memo and Here [to be found] (2001) can be read as suggesting that the orchestra itself is a kind of massive, dysfunctional music box.

In the Here trilogy, this lumbering symphonic machine is carried from hissy, clunky analogue accompaniment to more glitchie, slippery digital sounds, the electroacoustic elements recapitulating their own formal history from musique concrète to contemporary computerised processes like Max/MSP. Against this, the orchestra repeats and reworks grabs of material, breaking them and sharing them amongst clusters of instruments, before the whole thing collapses and empties out, ending with the players frozen, bows raised, waiting for that last note that will never come. Beyond the familiar tropes of Absurdist tragedy and Existential realisation implied here, there are many arrested sounds and motifs present that evoke much more than the 1950s cultural worlds and dramaturgical precedents otherwise suggested. Beyond simple atonalism, polyphony or pastiche—let alone Romanticism—Van der Aa’s multifaceted scores present an at times delicate, Ligeti-like assembly of materials and textures, which also hark back to those dramatic and musical signatures which defined Modernism from the nineteenth century until the post-World War II period. The composer’s admixture of Baroque and classical instrumentation and some of its lines, atonalism, clusters, textures and performative execution is both intriguing and unresolved, suggesting a highly fetishised machine of etheric hauntings and divided subjects, who even today circle the dying star of Modernist interiority.

— Dr Jonathan W. Marshall, June 2009

This is an edited version of “Freezing the Music and Fetishising the Subject:The Audiovisual Dramaturgy of Michel van der Aa,” Sound Scripts:Proceedings of the Totally Huge New Music Festival Conference, 2 (Perth: Australian Music Centre / Edith Cowan University, 2009), pp. 16-25

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