Michel van der Aa breaks new ground again this month with the premiere of his interactive song cycle, The Book of Sand. 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 on 31st May 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.
Listen, watch, interact on thebookofsand.net
‘Blank Out’, Michel van der Aa’s latest work for music theatre, will receive its first three performances next spring at the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam, performed by Dutch National Opera. A chamber opera for soprano (Miah Persson) and baritone (Roderick Williams), ‘Blank Out’ builds on the technological innovation of Sunken Garden, using the intersection of live action and 3D video to explore the nature of memory and the effects of trauma.
The opera will be performed on 20, 21 and 25 March 2016, and tickets are available now via the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ website.
Michel Van der Aa’s Violin Concerto may be his first major work without electronics in almost a decade, but that did not stop it earning strong reviews after its first performances in The Netherlands, Germany and Norway.
‘Your ears are popping to put it mildly,’ said Peter van der Lint in Trouw. ‘You might even need a second set to grasp everything that’s happening … For sure, it needs more than one hearing but it’s a real concerto; a musical duel between the soloist and the orchestra with challenging music for both partners.’
Critics drew attention to the fact that this is a concerto in the traditional, ‘old-fashioned’ sense, although one that also has a contemporary sensibility. ‘Here ancient and modern meet in congenial symbiosis,’ noted Peter Bilsing of Der OpernFreund.
The concerto was specially written for the Dutch superstar Janine Jansen, and Mischa Spel (NRC) wrote that ‘the music embraced her podium charisma and vibrant body language as the only theatrical elements of the piece. This was interesting because much of van der Aa’s recent work has incorporated multi-media aspects. Do you recognize van der Aa if he’s composing unplugged? Straight away!’
A live recording of the concerto will be released as a CD on Concertgebouw Orchestra’s RCOlive label
Sunken Garden is about to receive its first French performances at Opéra de Lyon, from 15 to 20 March. However, tickets will be hard to come by – all five shows sold out months ago.
The opera has had successful runs already in London and Amsterdam, but this will be the first outing for a new adaptation of the piece, which has been thoroughly reimagined for more intimate venues and with a greater physical presence.
Dealing in bright hoax and dark truth, in the virtual and the bodily, in the isolation of the broadband age, and in the primal impulse to cheat mortality at any cost, Sunken Garden is an unforgettable occult-mystery film-opera. With changes made to the libretto, music and film this new version – an alternative take rather than a true revision – has even greater impact than before.
Michel van der Aa’s new Violin Concerto for Janine Jansen will receive its first performances on 6 and 7 November in Amsterdam, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. It will then be performed in Essen, Germany, on 8 November and on 4 December in Bergen, Norway, with the Bergen Philharmonic under Andrew Litton.
Van der Aa has described the partnership of Jansen and the RCO as his “dream team”. It combines an orchestra with whom he now has a long-standing and intimate relationship, and a soloist with a magnetic stage presence and a heart-on-sleeve style of playing, ideally suited to Van der Aa’s direct and physically expressive music. As “house composer” for the RCO since 2011, he was able to work unusually closely with the players, checking details throughout the period of composition. He has also been free to write the works he chooses. In this case, it was Jansen’s personality that served as inspiration, and the composer claims that “If Janine had played the flute, I would have written a flute concerto.”
The piece has its roots in the classical concerto – unusually for him, Van der Aa hasn’t even included any electronics – but he couldn’t resist giving it a distinctly theatrical quality. “As an opera director, I love the theatrical possibilities of having someone who is the embodiment of the work.” The theatre begins in Jansen’s presence and personality, but extends across the whole stage. The lead violinist and cellist are drawn in as secondary soloists, and with Jansen often form a trio of their own. Their energy spreads outwards to three percussionists, harp, the string groups and finally the whole orchestra. Those lines of transmission are articulated visually as well as aurally – the three percussionists are spaced among the orchestra not only because of the way that distribution sounds, but also because of how it looks. Visual considerations extend to the stage lighting and even to the type of dress the soloist wears. “Yes, I am a control freak,” admits Van der Aa, “But in addition to the music all these aspects are of great importance to the total experience.”
The concerto is composed in the traditional three movements. Van der Aa describes the first as abstract, the second as more direct and melodic, and the third as very fast, performed at breakneck speed and close to the edge of possibility. Like Van der Aa’s other recent pieces – the opera Sunken Garden and the clarinet concerto Hysteresis – it also includes allusions to popular styles; in this case to jazz and bluegrass. With no electronics or video, the alter ego role familiar from many other Van der Aa pieces is taken up by the orchestra, which mirrors and balances the soloist, rather than playing a traditional accompanying role.