In Michel van der Aa’s Grawemeyer Award winning cello concerto 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.
Up-close, commissioned by the European Concert Hall Organization and featuring the Argentinean cellist Sol Gabetta and Amsterdam Sinfonietta, is thus a cello concerto duplicated and magnified until it reaches the boundary of video opera.
Are the elderly woman and the cellist playing out the same role? The film is seen in excerpts ‘inserted’ into the music, so is the music driving the film, or the film the music? The music never ‘narrates’ the film, but somehow the two layers seem to extend one another around a common subject. Furthermore, the live instruments are augmented with an electronic soundtrack, which at some times seems closely related to their music and at others appears to derive from the ‘concrete’ sounds of the action on screen. Are these plural realities or versions of a single experience.
Much is left unexplained and the course of the piece, including a striking coup de théâtre towards the end, provides no easy answers. One theme that does emerge, however, concerns loneliness. As in other Van der Aa pieces – such as the video opera One or the ensemble piece Mask – elements of an uncanny, inscrutable ceremony are never far away, and in Up-close these become part of the difficult ritual of human to human contact.
Visual references recall the methods of the Dutch Resistance of World War II, but it is the spirit of secrecy, protocol and adversity that pervades, rather than any specific historical setting.
The woman is apparently trying to transmit coded messages of some sort and, at one of the work’s climaxes, she employs a large mechanical decoding device, built especially for this piece by the composer. As it decodes the woman’s messages, the machine creates music of its own. This intertwines with the sounds of the ensemble, a singular moment when film and music cross over into each other’s realms. If anything we are left with more mystery, not less.
— Tim Rutherford-Johnson
Cellist Sol Gabetta joined Amsterdam Sinfonietta for a European tour of six performances in March 2011. Venues included the Stockholm Konserthus, Luxembourg Philharmonie, Brussels BOZAR, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, London Barbican and Hamburg Laeiszhalle.
A DVD and movie download of Up-close are available on the Disquiet web store.