An elderly woman flicks the switch on a silver box. Inside a glass container a yellow light turns on and low electric hum begins to sound. She blinks. With her bandaged hand on a wooden handle, she slides some kind of sheet of paper, with metallic stubs, through the hanging strips of a mysterious machine. An orchestral chord from an onstage ensemble pierces through the quiet moment.The interplay, from a piece entitled “Up Close,” of filmic imagery and composition, is typical of the work of Dutch composer Michel van der Aa. One recent evening, we Skyped about the dangers of the concrete, the financial risks of innovation, and what to do with a one-star review.

VAN: The film for your piece “Up Close” features a woman performing solitary actions, then at points seemingly interacting across mediums with a cello soloist. This has a specific resonance when the soloist is a woman; at the Lucerne Festival this summer, Jay Campbell will perform it. Does it work with a male soloist?

Michel van der Aa: Obviously the narrative changes, but a different, interesting narrative emerges. There are different questions you can ask yourself about the relationship between the person on stage and the person in the film. All the scenic things are the same, it’s just that it’s a man instead of a woman: [the relationship] can be that of a mother and a son, a son and a daughter, a couple. There are always questions you can ask yourself—it depends on how abstract you can think.

When you work with film, there’s a risk of things becoming very concrete. I think a strength of art is that you can steer people in a certain direction, but they have to take the last few steps themselves—everyone can find their own truth in the piece. I like to push people in a certain direction, but leave a few things for them to interpret themselves.

YouTube video

Michel van der Aa, “Up Close”; Vakil Eelman (Actress), Sol Gabetta (Cello), Amsterdam Sinfonietta

Have you ever made something too concrete?

Sure, it’s something I’m constantly aware of when using film on stage. It’s such a dangerous layer in a way, because people basically stop listening—or they listen on a different level—when they see something happening on film. So I play with foreground and background. When there’s something really important happening in the narrative of the film, I try to thin out the music and have the film in the foreground, and when there’s something happening that I want the people to hear, then the film is either gone, or it’s like a tableau vivant, very static.

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With your recent music, it occurred to me that there weren’t many unusual instrumental techniques. Did you experiment with those sounds and decide you didn’t want to use them?

When I started I did write quite abstract pieces, like my percussion quartet “Between,” from 1999, which won the Gaudeamus Muziekweek. The score is like a Darmstadt piece, conceptual, sound-focused, and quite rigid. And that element is still there in my work: it’s just not done in extended techniques, but it’s a part of the structure and the way I follow through on the concept of a piece.

But I do think that my language has as much to do with pop music as with classical music, maybe slightly more with classical music. I definitely don’t feel as tied to genres as I used to. In my opera “Blank Out” or in “The Book of Disquiet,” both pieces that are also being performed in Lucerne, there are moments of electronic, beat-y stuff, and then we go to super abstract orchestral textures with electronics. I like to find a vocabulary that works for each moment in the piece.

In a Guardian interview from 2010, you said that “the idea behind a piece should always be something I can explain in one sentence.”

The consequence of that is, now every journalist expects me to explain what the piece is about in one sentence [laughs]. OK, let’s go back a step. In 1994, I did a course in the UK that was important to me: there were eight composers, eight choreographers, musicians, dancers, and Lloyd Newson and Judith Weir were there. Every day we were supposed to make one short piece together, and then it was performed in the evening. It was super high pressure, but also incredibly freeing. I used to take ages to finish a piece, and then I was afraid to have it performed. It was never finished, you know? But what I learned there from Lloyd Newson was that you have to get rid of everything that is surrounding your idea and clouding things.

That’s what I mean with being able to explain a piece in one sentence. You have to be utterly true to yourself and get to the core of it; it can also be a feeling or an instinct. But it has to be only that thing: without 16 layers of orchestral textures that hide the fact that you don’t have an idea.

So I guess I became conscious of what I was doing: hiding the fact that I didn’t know what direction the piece was going in by deriving all these complex things. [Those pieces] sounded quite interesting, actually, but I was like, “What am I left with?” I think what makes good art is the balance between the structure and the poetic, human aspect of things. You hear examples everywhere where you’re either like, “What the hell is this, why are these notes here?,” or you have this super melodramatic new age crap that doesn’t mean anything. It’s a balance. And all the composers that I admire have that balance: Bach, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Radiohead, Aphex Twin. It’s something I try to always be aware of.

When you have film and complex electronics in your music, it seems to me like there is a lot more that can go wrong. How do you handle that?

I also often try things that haven’t been done before, like “Blank Out,” which is a live 3D film. Discovery is part of what I love about theater, but it’s also dangerous. “Blank Out” actually went quite wrong: we budgeted it and had a playout system for the live 3D film, and during the rehearsals we had to have a shitload of engineers coming in to rewrite the customized software. And in the end we just had to conclude that it wasn’t going to work: we weren’t going to have a safe, solid patch for the show. So we had to transfer everything to another system. There were big financial consequences. Fortunately, that was the first time something like that had happened to me in such a major way.

YouTube video

An excerpt from “Blank Out”; Roderick Williams (Baritone), Nederlands Kamerkoor 

How much technology is too much in a new piece?

That’s a legit question. We just had a performance of “Blank Out” in Hannover, Germany, and when people were walking out, nobody was talking about the 3D technique. That’s a compliment to me. Technology should absolutely be in service of the idea and the music. Once people start talking about technology, which has happened sometimes in the past, then something isn’t balanced right. On the other hand, technology is all around us, it’s so much a part of the DNA of our time. That’s why I use it: it’s the language of now, it’s what people relate to and understand.

With “Blank Out,” [the use of technology] worked better from than for example with [the 3D opera] “Sunken Garden,” where expectations were so high for the 3D film part that it was almost impossible to honor them.

There was a bad review of “Sunken Garden” that came out in the Telegraph after the premiere. In that situation, are you the type of person who thinks through what the critic says and considers changing things based on it, or do you just think, “Fuck you”?

I have to say that premiere of “Sunken Garden” was a big thing for me. I was like, “Fuck. This is it.” And then the expectations were so high, and there was no way not to disappoint some people. I don’t think it was a one-star piece at all, though. I think it was a slightly political thing, because [the critic Rupert Christiansen] had already written, the year before, “Why did they give a Dutch composer the commission and not an English composer?” But it was the first time in my career that this happened, so there was some…stormy weather [laughs]. You’re so exposed at that moment, and it made me grow up a little bit.

Fortunately we also had some good reviews from highly respected journalists, and everybody talked about it. I think the piece that people heard and saw then was the best I could do at that point with the time and knowledge that I had.

We didn’t have subtitles, though, which was a mistake—it was a budget thing, I should have pushed for it. And the orchestra was a better fit for the music in [a later performance in Amsterdam] than in England. We also improved and reworked a lot of things, it’s now been through many incarnations. Almost every bar in the piece has been touched; it’s 20 minutes shorter, so the ark is better; the film is re-edited, the stage direction tweaked. Also [David] Mitchell and I killed a few of the more confusing side storylines, so it’s a bit more to the point.

Will the U.S. premiere at the Dallas Opera in 2018 be different from this version?

No. At some point you have to let go, I think. ¶

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… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...

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