Michel van der Aa / Works / 

The Book of Sand

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With The Book of Sand composer Michel van der Aa has invented a completely new genre: the digital, interactive song cycle. Created in partnership with the Holland Festival, Sydney Festival, Google Cultural Institute, BBC The Space and other partners, and created exclusively in digital format, The Book of Sand was launched as a website and smartphone app.

Inspired by the allusions to infinity and the use of mazes and mirrors in the fantastical stories of Jorge Luis Borges, Van der Aa puts you in a space where all places in the world exist simultaneously. A young woman (played by the Australian singer-songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke) collects up sand which is being moved between the film layers by a mysterious machine. Three parallel film layers reveal alternative points of view and introduce new elements to the story, which allows you to choose a new route through the narrative at any point.

The Book of Sand takes its title from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, and is based on this and four other Borges stories, The Zahir, The Aleph, The Library of Babel, and The House of Asterion. In Borges’ story, the Book of Sand is a book with infinite pages, with no beginning and no end, that becomes an obsession and gradually consumes its owner. The other stories all deal in similar Borgesian visions of the infinite – a point that contains all other points in the universe, an object that holds the attention so much that it becomes all of reality itself, a library of all possible books, the Minotaur in an infinite labyrinth.

Mirrors and self-replication are common themes in Van der Aa’s work, from his first opera One to the cello concerto Up-Close, so the stories of Borges are an ideal match. Borges is often described as having foretold the Internet, and Van der Aa uses online technology to explore his ideas in ways the writer could not have foreseen,

Incorporating three audiovisual layers of film and music, which the user can jump between as they wish. Each layer is based around the same vocal line, but the accompaniment and the film are different for each, meaning that users can create their own paths. The first layer is intimate and abstract; the second builds on Van der Aa’s previous forays into pop-electronica in Sunken Garden and Hysteresis; and the third features 12-voice a-cappella choir. Each layer of film shows a different perspective on the story, introducing different alter egos of the central female protagonist.

Listen, watch and interact at thebookofsand.net


Intricate design of the interrelations and cross-pollinations

“Van der Aa has surpassed himself in his intricate design of the interrelations and cross-pollinations between music, video and digital technology. […] The music contains beautiful vocals by the Netherlands Chamber Choir, very recognisable Van der Aa-esque melodies (Miller-Heidke) and a rock music type middle layer. […] Van der Aa has once again proved himself to be the consummate composer to see and explore new possibilities without compromising his own distinct themes.”
NRC, Mischa Spel, 1/6/2015

Beautiful, sweeping melody lines

“Based on the work of Jorge Luis Borges, Van der Aa wrote his piece for the fantastic Australian mezzo-soprano Kate Miller-Heidke, the Netherlands Chamber Choir and electronics. With a length of 12 minutes, the piece is a cross between an arty music video, a musical and a chamber opera video. Stylistically it’s closely related to the mesmerisingly beautiful aria ‘I have these dreams’, the high point in Van der Aa’s much-discussed opera ‘Sunken Garden’, combined with influences from pop music as heard through the ears of a modern composer.
With ‘The Book of Sand’, Van der Aa has invented a new form, which only exists in digital media. A live performance of the piece is impossible, or at least would compromise the essence of the piece, because the user (listener / viewer) is the director of the performance.
The music is dream-like with ethereal choral parts, beautiful, sweeping melody lines for Miller-Heidke and subdued beats and synth sounds. According to Borges’ widow María Kodama (78), who was present at the launch, if he were still alive the late author would have been appreciative of the work, as it has been written ‘in the spirit of my husband’. A beautiful and deserved compliment.”
— Parool, Erik Voermans, 1-6-2015

The Book of Sand's dream logic is impressive (*****)

“The Book of Sand is not an ordinary song cycle. Rather than performed at a concert hall, it can only be watched, for free, via the website or mobile app. The viewer can switch between the layers, which contain different pieces of music. Only Ms Miller-Heidke’s vocal line is the same in each layer. The background varies from a modern choral piece, sung by the Netherlands Chamber Choir, to a catchy, but not everyday pop tune and a surreal, alienating electronic patchwork of sound. The elements are all interrelated and it’s all gripping, beautiful and mesmerising stuff. Together, the three layers have a duration of 12 minutes, but they form a labyrinth where one could roam endlessly.
With this ultimate video, set in a variety of visual and musical dimensions, Van der Aa is making confident strides into unexplored terrain. What’s most impressive over and beyond his control of multimedia technologies, is the dream logic of the world he has created, sustained by strange, yet captivating sounds.
— De Volkskrant, Frits van der Waa, 5-6-2015

A completely new genre […] a giant leap forward

Exactly nine words were added by composer Michel van der Aa to the enigmatic texts he distilled from Jorge Luis Borges’ stories. Borges’ texts form the basis for his latest project, the digital, interactive song cycle ‘The Book of Sand’ – a work which introduces a completely new genre. The nine words Van der Aa has added are: three, five, six, twelve, fourteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen and – of course – the number nine itself. Intriguing, because you start wondering almost immediately – and to no avail – why he’s chosen just these words. Is there any logic to this series of numbers? It’s vintage Van der Aa, as is the technical wizardry of the piece.
From his earlier work, we had already gathered that Van der Aa loves to apply different layers, but with ‘The Book of Sand’, the courageous Dutch director does more than take a bold step forward – it’s a giant leap. Combining three layers of sound with three layers of film, he allows his audience to switch between these three layers at any point during the twelve minute piece, offering them different points of view as well as different music. The only constant factor is the melody, which is performed with poise and conviction by the Australian pop singer Kate Miller-Heidke, who also starred in Van der Aa’s film opera ‘Sunken Garden’. In The Book of Sand’s three film layers she appears in a desert landscape, a kind of factory works and a mysterious vaulted cellar. Depending on which layer we see her in, she’s accompanied by an a capella choir (the Netherlands Chamber Choir), electronic sounds or the kind of delightful classic techno which also featured in Sunken Garden. Rougly eight minutes in, just before the third song starts, the three Kates come together. From that point onwards, the music is the same in all three layers, the sand streaming upwards from the singer’s mouth in Bill Viola-esque images. Simply beautiful.
All the technical wizardry might make you forget that Van der Aa’s music, with its instantly recognisable chord progressions and distinct orchestration, is just superb. What’s more, he’s avoided a scenario of sensationalist expectations for a long awaited premiere, and the piece subsequently sinking into oblivion, never to be performed again. In contrast, The Book of Sand will always be available, everywhere. That’s quite an achievement, and very clever.”
— Trouw, Peter van der Lint, 13-06-2015

A revolutionary app

“A revolutionary app from the Holland Festival […] In many ways a wonder of cultural-technological significance. Experiencing ‘The Book of Sand’ you flow from one level to the next, buoyed by the continuous, completely synchronic music.
The music reviewers who praised Van der Aa for his use of modern techniques, didn’t actually realise quite how revolutionary the result was. Championed by the Holland Festival, which under Ruth Mackenzie is spearheading the development of new digital art, the work does more than just that: in his piece, Van der Aa, who also directed the project’s three films, delves deeper, reflecting on different forms of representation of music and image.
For a few decades now, interactive art has been a kind of holy grail […] Van der Aa has managed to actually give it substance, by creating an artistic metaphor of our current, virtual existence; a work which invites you to zapp and surf without necessarily staying on the surface. It’s almost as if he’s managed to square the circle.”
NRC, Hans Beerekamp, 22-6-2015

Een wonderbaarlijke poëtische eenheid

”Kate Miller-Heidke zingt en speelt prachtig. De muziek is fascinerend, op de grens van nieuwe muziek en pop. De tekst is helder en de beelden zijn strak en overtuigend […]
Het levert een wonderbaarlijke poëtische eenheid op, die juist de zapper uitnodigt om goed te luisteren en te kijken. ‘The Book of Sand’ van Michel van der Aa is een klein muzikaal en visueel doolhof, waarin het goed toeven is. Ook omdat het geen moment prijs geeft hoeveel programmeerwerk er in is gestoken. Chapeau!”
— Cultuurpers, Fransien van der Putt, 4-6-2015

Michel van der Aa is een dapper mens. Hij schreef zijn liederencyclus naar verhalen van Jorge Luis Borges. Eén verhaal van Borges is al moeilijk in 12 minuten te vatten, laat staan meerdere verhalen, zonder dat je de draad volkomen kwijt raakt in zijn magisch realistische wereld. Toch weet van der Aa een mooi werk te maken waarin je zelf de koers bepaalt, maar waarin de verschillende lagen steeds naar elkaar verwijzen.
Kate Miller-Heidke zingt de sterren van de hemel […] De 3 lagen zijn onafhankelijk van elkaar prachtig gemaakt, zoewel muzikaal als filmisch. […] The Book of Sand is een klein en gesloten universum (misschien is multiversum hier een betere term) waarin het goed toeven is. Het nodigt uit tot spelen en ontdekken, op rondjes klikken en aan het klokje draaien. Gaande weg ontdek je meer hoe de lagen ten opzichte van elkaar zijn gestructureerd en hoe ze elkaar beinvloeden. Het resultaat is, hoe je er ook doorheen navigeert, prachtig.
— Cultuurpers, Helen Westerik, 1-6-2015

De muziek is, zoals altijd bij Van der Aa, adembenemend mooi en de beelden zijn prachtig

Michel van der Aa lijkt een voorliefde te hebben voor ronddolende vrouwen, die spiegels, kelders, dromen en vooral zichzelf tegenkomen. Dat gebeurt hier in drie fictieve ruimtes, waar je als kijker tussen heen en weer kunt bewegen. Boven dwaalt zij in een uitgestrekte zandwoestijn. In het midden manoeuvreert zij in een lege ruimte met een raadselachtige machine. En beneden dwaalt zij rond in geheimzinnige stenen gangen. Zand stroomt op geheimzinnige wijze van de ene naar de andere verdieping. Je zou er haar – herinneringen in kunnen zien, die worden opgeroepen,- doorgedacht en weer verstuiven.
De muziek is, zoals altijd bij Van der Aa, adembenemend mooi en de beelden zijn prachtig. De zang is in de drie lagen gelijk, maar de achtergrond kan variëren van rock of elektronische muziek tot a capella koorzang. Het duurt maar twaalf minuten, maar je kunt het zo lang maken als je wilt door telkens op een andere manier te schakelen naar de verschillende niveaus, al dan niet met ondertitels, want de betekenis ontging me nog wel eens in de schoonheid.”
— De Groene, Max Arian, 3-6-2015



Interactive song cycle

3 film layers

12-voice choir
modular synth
guitars (acoustic, electric)
drums, percussion




First performance

June 2015

Commissioned by

Co-commissioned and coproduced by Holland Festival and Sydney Festival, co-sponsored by Google Cultural Institute, developed in association with BBC The Space, with additional support by Performing Arts Fund NL, Grame / Biennale Musiques en Scène Lyon and


Holland Festival, Sydney Festival


Last performance

14 April 2019

The Book of Sand

Taipei Fine Arts Museum
Installation at Musica Mobile exhibition. In cooperation with Grame Lyon.
(until 14 July 2019)

Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

All performances of The Book of Sand


20 May 2024

The Book of Sand

Kate Miller Heidke, soprano
Nederlands Kamerkoor

Streaming: Vanderaa.net