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Spaces of Blank

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Michel Van der Aa’s song cycle Spaces of Blank for mezzo-soprano, orchestra and soundtrack received its world premiere on 19 March in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. The Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn was soloist, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Ed Spanjaard. The 26-minute work, set to texts by Emily Dickinson, Rozalie Hirs and Anne Carson, was commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Radio France, the NDR Orchestra in Hamburg and the Fund for the Creation of Music.

The common element of the poems is the use of space as an analogy for anxiety. These five poems, spread over three movements, inspired van der Aa to take the listener on a virtual journey through ‘spaces of blank’: ominous moods combined with spatial experience, varying from an endless ‘solitude of space’ (Emily Dickenson) to a closed ‘garden of statues’ (Rozalie Hirs). The alternation between overwhelming expanses and oppressive intimacy is an essential element of the work, assisted by a soundtrack that either expands or freezes the sound of the orchestra and manipulates the acoustics of the various spaces.

At first glance, Spaces of Blank (2007) by the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa appears to be a conventional three-movement song cycle for mezzo-soprano, orchestra and soundtrack. The work, written on a commission from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Radio France and the Norddeutsche Rundfunk, is a setting of evocative poems by Emily Dickenson, Anne Carson and Rozalie Hirs; it is scored for more or less standard orchestral forces; the solo part is, for the most part, without vocal eccentricities. Less common is the addition of a soundtrack, but on the surface there appears to be nothing particularly radical about it.

Right from the opening measures, though, nothing is as it seemed. Sombre multi-voiced brass blocks vaporize in a stratosphere of high-frequency electronica and cool, soft strings; in the background, mechanical ‘clicks’ on the piano, harp and glockenspiel in their uppermost register transform the orchestra into a quasi-digital instrument. As ‘beautiful’ as it is, the music is clearly the product of an imagination that far surpasses the purely musical. The broad expanse of the orchestra creates an immediate sensation of space, the audible space that, as a metaphor for anxiety, becomes the work’s ‘house’.

Anyone familiar with this composer’s music will recognize its inhabitant. Since the opera One (2002) and the Here trilogy for soprano, chamber orchestra and soundtrack (2001-2003), she is the proverbial Van der Aa personage: a reclusive individual, this time lost in ‘a solitude of space / a solitude of sea / a solitude of death’.The composer explores her in the same way the woman observes her own world: hyper-edgy but devoid of sentimentality. He views her drama objectively, not explicitly. The apparently ‘Romantic’ gesture of the rushing, driving strings is neutralized by the strictly-imposed detachment of the notes; vibrato is forbidden from the first to the last measure. The orchestra is not so much an instrument of overt feelings than a study object. At times it is as though it gets caught in a groove, and is transformed into a misfiring apparatus that operates even more mechanically than the human-like electronica. The singer, detached and yet close by, sings ‘in Baroque style with regard to vibrato, clarity of tone and expression.’

And so Spaces of Blank becomes, by playing with the outward show of the opposite, everything that a ‘normal’ song cycle is not. No vale of tears, not yet another post-Romantic intimate declaration; the cool yet intense analysis of sweeping, cryptic suffering. As a dramatized documentary about a genre it is quintessential Van der Aa. He is the observer whose expedition begins with the vital life questions his characters pose on his behalf. What do I see and hear, who am I, what do I feel, what do I think, where do I stand? His brand of composing – and in the meantime, much more than just that: Van der Aa also films and directs – is less a matter of style as of attitude. ‘I’m not a composer of just notes,’ he once said. Although he willingly qualifies that statement (‘not that notes aren’t important’), music is for Van der Aa unmistakably part of a larger whole. The immediate recognizability of his tone, with the typical alternation between hectic motion and serene, surprisingly sonorous electro-acoustic harmonies, does nothing to diminish this assertion.
— Bas van Putten. June 2009

Christianne Stotijn, Michel van der Aa. Photo Marco Borggreve.


Mezzo as muse in flexible song cycle

[…] Christianne Stotijn, for whom the work was written, has – as a true muse should – roused the singer in Van der Aa. The 39-year-old composer, who established himself with multi-disciplinary compositions and applied electronics, has composed an honest-to-goodness song cycle in three movements, with only a modest Mac player adding a bit of extra colour. The majority of the tinted timbres come from the orchestra itself.

In an idiom that is at the same time sec and sumptuous, and absolutely coherent but seldom tonal, Van der Aa unfolds flexible sound combinations, cool chords à la Stravinsky, pumping Puccinian bass notes and driving repeated notes reminiscent of the most fearful song in the history of music, Schubert’s Erlkönig.

The theme ‘anxiety’ is the binding factor in the poems of Emily Dickenson, Rozalie Hirs and Anne Carson, brought together here by Van der Aa. Mezzo Stotijn never gets boxed in by all that distress, but introduces, where necessary, a quiver in her voice and conveys the texts clearly and fluently. ***** (5 stars)
— De Volkskrant, Frits van der Waa, 20 March 2009

Soprano Stotijn ecstatic in excellent song cycle Van der Aa

‘Spaces of Blank’ revealed the lyrical side of the young composer. But at the same time it was genuine Van der Aa. In the strings one recalls the racing ascending and descending scale from his earlier work Imprint, but more thoroughly worked out and finely contrasted with the blocks of sound in the brass. His harmonic language stands out among thousands, only here it was more sonorously orchestrated: in expansive sound planes with a view of the sea, or in spasmodic moments that reduced the main hall of the Concertgebouw to just a few square metres.

The use of electronics was refined as well, often indistinguishable from the orchestra sound whence it emanated. The ticks and white noise were an integral element of the attack, colour or resonance produced by the acoustic instruments. Exceptionally well thought out, and a poetic addition to the already rich orchestral sound.

Van der Aa composed the songs with Stotijn’s variegated voice as his guiding light. They fit Stotijn’s voice like a glove, as though she had never sung any other repertoire. [In them,] she moved about freely, fanning out in colours, and clearly felt at home in these contrasting surroundings. The subtly amplified mezzo hit all the gradations between loungy, ominous, ecstatic and frantically searching. All the elements fell naturally into place, and you had to keep thinking: yes, this is it.
— Trouw, Anothony Fiumara, 21 March 2009

Poetic Van der Aa and Stotijn touch the soul

Van der Aa was sandwiched in between the Austrian expressionist Alban Berg and the German weeping willow Karl Amadeus Hartmann, but at the end of the concert there was no doubt about it: Van der Aa made the best impression.

Van der Aa translated the dizzying poetic potential of the texts into entirely satisfying music. He was aided by the robust and amiable playing of the KCO (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) under conductor Ed Spanjaard, but most of all by the mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn, for whose voice Van der Aa set the words.

Stotijn proved to be the ideal singer, with an incredibly rich arsenal of timbres and expressive features; her performance was dramatic yet controlled, right down to the smallest details. She touched the listener’s soul.

Van der Aa’s alternation of brass blocks, textures dominated by shadowy hues, hectic and static moments, and the use of electronics was tasteful, effective and vivid. This is modern music that warmly welcomes the listener, but that also takes him seriously. […] a beautiful piece.
— Parool, Erik Voermans, 20 March 2009

Stotijn fascineert in rust en kaalte

Onrustig gezap tussen verschillende klanksferen, een orkest dat de noten ‘fastforwardt’, en een elektronische laag die de livemuziek subtiel schaduwt en vervormt: componist Michel van der Aa (1970) laat in zijn nieuwe liedcyclus Spaces of Blank al zijn handelsmerken voorbijkomen.

Wat Spaces of Blank, gecomponeerd in opdracht van het Concertgebouworkest, anders maakt dan eerder werk, is de aanwezigheid van mezzosopraan Christianne Stotijn. Stotijn is geen specialist in hedendaags repertoire, maar zingt – op het hoogste niveau – vrijwel uitsluitend ‘oude’ muziek. Haar stem, techniek en uitdrukking horen in die wereld thuis.

Van der Aa schreef dan ook een vrij conventionele zangpartij. Maar door die wel in een doelbewust discontinue structuur te plaatsen, treedt een fascinerende vervreemding op. Alles aan Stotijn refereert aan de grote soliste die controle heeft over het muzikale verloop, maar hier is ze onmachtig onderdeel van een groter geheel.

Schijn bedriegt daarbij voortdurend: soms geeft Van der Aa haar even een vertrouwd klankbedje, maar dan worden zinnen ineens abrupt afgebroken en dramatische lijnen onverwachts verlegd door orkest of elektronica. Dat gaat met harde lassen, waarbij het orkest schakelt tussen rusteloze drukte (driftige violen) en ongemakkelijke rust in kale passages.

Het past allemaal goed bij de teksten over angst en verontrusting die Van der Aa gebruikte, van de dichteressen Emily Dickinson, Anne Carson en Rozalie Hirs, die zelf overigens ook componeert.
NRC Handelsblad, Jochem Valkenburg, 20 March 2009



Song cycle for mezzo-soprano, orchestra and soundtrack

mezzo soprano

1 flute
1 oboe
2 clarinets in b-flat
2 bassoons

4 French horns
2 trumpets in C
2 trombones
1 bass trombone

2 percussion
1 harp
1 piano

strings (10,10,8,6,4)

Soundtrack (1 player)

(doubleA player software, from laptop)




First performance

19 March 2009
Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Commissioned by

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Radio France, NDR Orchestra, Fund for the Creation of Music


Boosey & Hawkes


Last performance

27 September 2018

Spaces of Blank (Norwegian premiere)

Christianne Stotijn, soprano. Trondheim Symfoniorkester

Olavshallen Concert Hall, Trondheim, Norway

All performances of Spaces of Blank


7 June 2011

UK premiere ‘Spaces of Blank’

BBC Symphony Orchestra London’s Spitalfields Summer Festival will host the UK premiere of Michel van der Aa’s Spaces of Blank on 18 June 2011. The internationally acclaimed singer Stephanie Marshall will appear at the elegant Christ Church Spitalfields venue, supported by the BBC Symphony Orche...

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5 February 2011

Spaces of Blank at the Spitalfields Festival and in The Guardian

BBC Symphony Orchestra Michel van der Aa’s song cycle Spaces of Blank is to receive its British premiere on 18 June 2011. Internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Stephanie Marshall will be supported by the BBC Symphony Orchestra as part of London’s renowned Spitalfields Summer Festival. In addi...

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20 September 2009

World premiere ‘Spaces of Blank’

Christianne Stotijn & Michel van der Aa Michel Van der Aa’s new song cycle Spaces of Blank for mezzo-soprano, orchestra and soundtrack was successfully premiered on 19 March in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. The Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn was soloist, with the Royal Concertgebo...

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Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Ed Spanjaard, Christianne Stotijn