Michel van der Aa’s fondness for high-spec technology is well known. Nearly all his works use electronic soundtracks. To synchronise the electronics with the live performers, he has written his own bespoke software. Often there are videos too, creating another layer of technological complexity. His most recent opera, Sunken Garden, added 3D film to the mix. So what happens when he replaces the laptops and digital workstations with a portable tape recorder and a solo violin?
Van der Aa composed Memo for the Dutch violinist Maaike Aarts, a member of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. She gave its first performance in June 2003 in The Hague and has played it many times since. Although it is short (about 9 minutes), and its lo-fi approach makes it unusual in Van der Aa’s output, Memo shines a light on several of its composer’s preoccupations.
Many of his favoured sounds are there: clicks, shudders, scrapes of indistinct noise. In other pieces these echo the shapes and methods of digital sound editing and processing. Here they reflect the mechanics of the tape recorder. The clicks are the buttons, the scrapes and shudders are the sound of the tape being rewound. As always, there is a close correspondence between a visual element and a sonic one: in this case, the sounds you get when you press buttons on a tape player.
The violinist begins playing solo. First a slow series of isolated two-note chords. These are followed by faster but no less enigmatic figures. After the first chord she presses record on the tape machine. After a page of music, she rewinds the tape to the beginning and presses play. She continues to play her own part, but now she is in a duet with herself from just a minute or two ago. A strange and hesitant dialogue begins between her and her recording. It isn’t always clear who is leading. Of course the tape is a shadow of her playing. But on occasion the violin sounds more like the tape than itself – the fast arpeggios that come later are an eerie echo of the tape rewinding. This is a complicated dance between performer and technology, between art and real life. Which comes first? Is it all a trap? In the end, and despite the violinist’s pyrotechnic efforts to break free, a sort of reconciliation takes place. The slow chords return, and the music ends in a closed loop between violin and tape.
— Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2014