A pioneer in the realms of music and technology, Michel van der Aa is one of today’s most sought-after composers and stage directors.
Michel van der Aa, winner of the 2015 Johannes Vermeer Award and 2013 Grawemeyer award, is one of today’s most sought-after composers and stage directors. A pioneer in the realms of new music and technology, his staged works – incorporating film and sampled soundtrack – are a seamless hybrid of musical theatre and multimedia. In 2014, he was selected to be an inaugural member of a prestigious new Academy of Arts in Netherlands that has been established to study the relationship between science and art, and to act as an independent sounding board for politicians and policy-makers.
Van der Aa’s imaginative music theatre works Sunken Garden (2011-12), The Book of Disquiet (2008), After Life (2005/06) and One (2002) have received critical and public acclaim internationally. Staging, film and music are interwoven into a collage of transparent layers, resulting in works that are part-documentary, part-philosophy. His repertoire also includes concert works and chamber music for small ensemble, soloists and soundtrack and he collaborated with Sol Gabetta on the cross-media cello concerto Up-close (2010). A hugely successful project, the work has been performed in many cities including Berlin, London, Brussels and Hamburg and has received excellent reviews. His 3D film opera, Sunken Garden (2013), an ‘occult-mystery film-opera’, was created in partnership with the English novelist David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas. Co-commissioned by English National Opera, Opera de Lyon, Toronto Luminato Festival and Holland Festival, the work received its world premiere by ENO at the Barbican, London in April 2013 and its US premiere at Dallas Opera in 2018.
Netherlands-born, van der Aa maintains strong roots in his home country including close ties with the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, and the Holland Festival. The Concertgebouw Orchestra announced a long term partnership with van der Aa. The new position of ‘House Composer’ led to the creation of several major works including a new violin concerto written for Janine Jansen, which was premiered in autumn 2014 by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Winner of numerous awards for his innovative work, van der Aa is a regular guest of the world’s most prestigious festivals and concert halls including London’s Barbican Centre, Opera de Lyon, Berliner Festspiele, Venice Biennale, Huddersfield Festival, Schleswig-Holstein Festival and Autumn in Warsaw. His compositions have been performed at the highest international level: by the ASKO|Schoenberg, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Modern, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, musikFabrik, Tokyo Sinfonietta, Philharmonia Orchestra and Helsinki Avanti Ensemble. In 2010, van der Aa launched Disquiet Media, an independent multimedia label for his own work.
In 2015-16, Van der Aa created an interactive digital song cycle, The Book of Sand, a co-commission of the Holland Festival, Sydney Festival and the BBC’s The Space, that was released as a website and smartphone app at the end of May 2015. His music theatre work, The Book of Disquiet, had its English-language premiere with actor Samuel West as part of Peak Performances, Montclair, New Jersey, and presented by London Sinfonietta at the Coronet Theatre, London.
Van der Aa’s latest music theatre work, Blank Out, received its world premiere in March 2016, presented in Dutch National Opera’s Opera Forward Festival. A 3D chamber opera for solo soprano onstage, baritone Roderick Williams on film, and Nederlands Kamerkoor and electronic soundtrack, the world premiere was performed by Miah Persson. Blank Out is a co-production of Dutch National Opera with Lucerne Festival and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, and received performances at Beijing Music Festival and Musica Nova Helsinki in 2016-17.
Michel van der Aa was Composer-in-residence at the 2017 Lucerne Summer Festival. The festival programme included the Swiss premieres of The Book of Disquiet, Up-close, Hysterisis and Blank Out.
Michel van der Aa’s music is published by Boosey & Hawkes.
3D multimedia chamber opera
Duration circa 75’ (No interval)
Premiere 20 March 2016
De Nationale Opera, Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ
Using the intersecting and reflecting planes of live action and video to explore the human condition, Blank Out centres on a dialogue between a man and his mother. The libretto is based upon the work and life of South African poet Ingrid Jonker. Blank Out uses innovative techniques of interactive 3D film and live electronic music to consider memory and the way in which people reconstruct and deal with traumatic life events.
The set of Blank Out is constructed in miniature, like an architect’s model. A 3D film acts as a backdrop, and is projected live via a camera that the singer moves around the model. Contact microphones and sound sources inside the model provide the musical elements of the opera - small church bells, water drops in a pond, etc. There is no pit orchestra or ensemble. As the woman moves the camera she not only changes her visual surroundings but also appears to be ‘playing’ her environment.
The impression is given to the audience of being both within and outside of an abstract cityscape. Musically, the text begins disjointed, but as words loop and accumulate the story of some unnamed trauma begins to emerge. As reality and the world of the model begin to blur, a man appears on screen. We discover that the woman’s words are connected to his; he is her son, and she drowned when he was a child. He is left to reconstruct the painful memories of his past.
World Premiere Cast: Miah Persson (Soprano), Roderick Williams (Baritone, on film), Nederlands Kamerkoor (on film)
A 3D film opera by Michel van der Aa and David Mitchell.
Full production and concert hall adaptation available.
Duration 110' (Fully staged)
Premiere 12 April 2013
English National Opera, ENO orchestra, cond. André de Ridder
What connects the disappearances of a software engineer and a glamorous young socialite, with a neurotic film-maker of dubious credentials and a gullible patroness of the arts? What is the unfolding crime and who is the criminal? Are their shared dreams of a walled garden between life and death – a place where guilt and grief cannot enter – just dreams, or might such a garden be real? And if so, what is the true price of entry?
Dealing in bright hoax and dark truth, in patronage and manipulation, in the virtual and the bodily, in the isolation of the broadband age, in the primal impulse to cheat mortality at any cost, Sunken Garden is an occult-mystery film-opera by Dutch composer and film and stage director Michel van der Aa, and British novelist David Mitchell.
The opera is the first collaboration between the composer and stage and film director Van der Aa, and the celebrated English novelist David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas).
Sunken garden was given its world premiere by English National Opera on 12 April 2013 at the Barbican Theatre. It was sung by Roderick Williams (baritone), Katherine Manley (soprano), Claron McFadden (soprano) and Jonathan McGovern (baritone). The performances were conducted by André de Ridder. Sunken Garden has received further performances at the Holland Festival (June 2013), Toronto Luminato Festival (June 2014) and Opera de Lyon (March 2015).
A concert hall adaptation of Sunken Garden has been created, with re-designed physical elements of the production and reduction in some technical aspects to enable a simpler presentation. The intimacy and physical presence of the concert hall is maximised and the original interaction between screen and stage is maintained. Duration is slightly reduced to 110’ with no interval.
Sunken Garden was originally commissioned by English National Opera, Barbican Centre, Toronto Luminato Festival, Opéra National de Lyon, Holland Festival. With support of Fonds Podiumkunsten, Ammodo, Societe Gavignies
Scoring: 1 baritone; 1 clarinet B-flat; soundtrack: 4 channels; 2 sopranos; 1 bass clarinet; Film: 2D and 3D; 1 high baritone (film); 1 trumpet in C; 1 mezzo-soprano (film); 1 trombone; 1 vintage keyboard player; 1 percussion player; strings (220.127.116.11.2)
Music theatre for actor, ensemble and film
Premiere 2 January 2009,
Bruckner Orchestra, cond. Dennis Russell Davies
In The Book of Disquiet van der Aa provides cutting-edge integration of music, film and soliloquy, built from text fragments by the Portugese poet, Fernando Pessoa.
Pessoa was many authors in one. He often cast himself in a series of distinct characters, or ‘heteronyms’, prompting van der Aa to portray multiple personalities on video and soundtrack, surrounding the central figure of the actor on stage. Pessoa 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.
The Book of Disquiet is available in English and Portugese language versions.
The Book of Disquiet was the first staged production in Linz’s Cultural Capital of Europe celebrations in January 2009. It was originally commissioned by LINZ09 European Cultural Capital, ZaterdagMatinee and Fonds voor de Scheppende Toonkunst.
Scoring: 18.104.22.168 – 0.1.0.0 – perc (1): vib / glsp / 3metal pieces / cabasa / maracas / egg shaker / 4Chin.tom – t / BD / bamboo chimes / ratchet / whip (med) / wdbl (lo) / 2log dr / tgl (hi) / 2susp.cym – 4vln. 3vla. 2vlc. db – soundtrack (laptop, 1player) – film (2screens)
Opera for six singers, ensemble, video and electronic soundtrack
Premiere 2 June 2006,
De Nationale Opera, ASKO Ensemble, cond. Otto Tausk
Based on the film of the same name by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, the opera introduces us to characters that are about to trade their earthly existence for perpetuity in heaven. They are allowed to relive a key moment in their life one last time in the form of a film, and subsequently take it with them to eternity.
In combining staged action and film, live music and electronics, Michel van der Aa produces a complex structure in a follow-up to his successful one-act chamber opera One. Divergent time planes are reflected in the music and the narrative, while the work still manages to retain its clarity and certitude, drawing on humanist beliefs.
The world premiere of After Life opened the 2006 Holland Festival at the Muziekgebour aan ‘t IJ, it was revived in 2009/10 with performances in Amsterdam, London and Lyon.
Scoring: 2S,M,A,2Bar; 0.1.1.bcl.0 - 0.1.0.1 - positive org(=hpd) - strings(22.214.171.124.2); electronic soundtrack; 2video projections
Crossmedia cello concerto
Premiere 11 March 2011, Amsterdam Sinfonieeta, dir. Candida Thompson, Sol Gabetta (cello)
Winner of the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, in Up-close the traditional interaction of soloist and ensemble is reflected by a mysterious mirror reality seen on film.
When the piece begins, a solo cellist and string ensemble sit on the right of the stage; on the left stands a large video screen. On the screen we see an elderly lady sitting among an arrangement of chairs and music stands that parallels the real-life version on the other side of the stage. It soon becomes clear that this is only one of a variety of interactions across a hall of mirrors created by the soloist, ensemble and film.
The music never ‘narrates’ the film, but somehow the two layers seem to extend one another around a common subject. Much is left unexplained and the course of the piece, including a striking coup de théâtre towards the end, provides no easy answers.
Up-close is a cello concerto duplicated and magnified until it reaches the boundary of video opera.
Up-close was commissioned by the European Concert Hall Organization, Fonds Podium Kunsten and Het Concertgebouw. Cellist Sol Gabetta joined Amsterdam Sinfonietta for a European tour of six performance in March 2011, including Stockholm Konserthus, Luxembourg Philharmonie, Brussels BOZAR, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, London Barbican and Hamburg Laeiszhalle.
The DVD of Up-close received outstanding reviews and is available on Van der Aa’s Disquiet label and in stores.
Scoring: solo cello, string ensemble (min. 4,4,3,2,1 ; max. 6,6,6,4,2), soundtrack (1 player) (doubleA player software, from laptop, film (from laptop)