“Van der Aa is a master of many media… Rarely have modern techniques and ancient musical virtues coexisted more naturally.” Alex Ross, The New Yorker
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 2010, van der Aa launched Disquiet Media, an independent multimedia label for his own work.
Van der Aa’s imaginative music theatre works Upload (2019-20), Blank Out (2015–16), 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, such as his cross-media cello concerto Up-close (2010). 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.
Van der Aa’s 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 and Nederlands Kamerkoor on film and electronic soundtrack, the world premiere was performed by Miah Persson. A co-production of Dutch National Opera, Lucerne Festival and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, the work has since had performances at Beijing Music Festival, Musica Nova Helsinki, KunstFestSpiele Hannover, Park Avenue Armory and National Taichung Theatre.
Recent highlights include the premiere of a new virtual reality installation, Eight, featuring singer-songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke and the Nederlands Kamerkoor. In collaboration with designer Theun Mosk and virtual reality company The Virtual Dutch Men, van der Aa has created a unique groundbreaking fusion of musical theatre, VR and visual art. This had its world premiere at Holland Festival, followed by Chateau La Coste / Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, alongside performances of Blank Out and was followed by a presentation at Beijing Music Festival. Eight has since been programmed at the Nederlands Film Festival, Adelaide Festival and KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen.
The 2021/22 season will see the world premiere of Michel’s new film opera Upload. This multimedia work is co-commissioned by Dutch National Opera, Park Avenue Armory, Oper Köln, Bregenzer Festspiele and Ensemble MusikFabrik and features live performances by Julia Bullock and Roderick Williams. It explores the possibility of eternal life through an upload of a digital version of ourselves. Investigating what this means for our ‘humanness’, our identity, and our relationship with others.
Netherlands-born, van der Aa maintains strong roots in his home country including close ties with the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, and the Holland Festival. In 2011, 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 Barbican Centre, Opera de Lyon, Berliner Festspiele, Venice Biennale and Huddersfield Festival. His compositions have been performed at the highest international level: by the ASKO|Schoenberg, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Modern, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, musikFabrik, Philharmonia Orchestra and Helsinki Avanti Ensemble. In August 2017, van der Aa was composer-in-residence at Lucerne Festival, where a variety of his works including Blank Out and The Book of Disquiet received performances.
Michel van der Aa’s music is published by Boosey & Hawkes.
Duration 85' (no interval)
Premiere 29 July 2021, Bregenzer Festspiele, Bregenz, Austria
What if our minds could live forever? Recent advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience mean that we will soon be able to map our memories and experiences, and to use these data to build a digital consciousness identical with our own. These ‘whole brain emulations’ will be able to carry on indefinitely after our deaths: a way of virtual resurrection. But where do our identities really reside? In our minds, our bodies, or our relationships? And how far do the data of our lives determine our fate?
Upload will explore these ancient philosophical questions against the backdrop of present-day and near-future technologies.
Dutch National Opera and its co-commission partners Opera Cologne, Park Avenue Armory New York, Bregenzer Festspiele, doubleA foundation, and Ensemble Musikfabrik will co-produce the World Premiere of Upload, a new opera by Dutch artist Michel van der Aa.
Upload tells the story of a father, who suffers a severe trauma, and a daughter. It features two timelines: the present (shortly after the upload of the father) and the recent past in which the upload process takes place. In these flashbacks, we see the technology used for the uploading: motion capture and foley recordings. During this process the physical body dies. The father is treated by a psychiatrist and two technicians in a Swiss laboratory. Conversations with family and friends with all kinds of memories emphasize the failing of memory and implicitly the inaccuracy of the upload process. In between we see moments from the present: the daughter wasn’t aware of her father’s ardent wish to be uploaded in order to reduce his trauma. This process fails; the father puts his fate in his daughter’s hands. She has to decide whether or not she will delete him, a form of digital euthanasia.
Julia Bullock – daughter
Roderick Williams – father
Ensemble MusikFabrik, cond. Otto Tausk
Scoring: 1 soprano, 1 baritone, 1 flute, 1 clarinet in B-flat, 1 trumpet in C, 1 horn in F, 1 keyboard player (Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3), 1 percussion player, 2 violins, 1 viola, 1 violoncello, 1 double bass (low C string), soundtrack (surround, laptop, 1 player), film (multiple screens)
Virtual reality installation
Premiere 4 June 2019, Holland Festival
Eight is a mixed reality project by the composer and director Michel van der Aa featuring singer-songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke; it is a unique, ground-breaking fusion of musical theatre, Virtual Reality (VR) and visual art. It tells a woman’s life story in reverse chronology: visitors meet a woman of about 70-years-old, then the 35-year-old version of her and finally an eight-year-old girl. Visitors literally and figuratively follow the woman in a mixed reality world, interacting with the woman and the installation itself.
The elderly woman takes the visitor on her journey back in time, leaving traces of her body and memories behind. The walls display them as hieroglyphics and show their shapes to the visitors. Touching a shape releases the associated memory. The traces indicate a path which can be followed. The journey leads visitors to a forest with the younger woman accompanying them with her singing on the route between the trees. Once a glade in the dark forest has been reached, a cappella voices can be heard and the silhouettes of choir singers become visible. The trail eventually leads visitors under a table where the eight-year-old girl is; she softly sings to the visitor. The journey ends in a black space where pulsating walls display memories and human images until the music fades away. There is finally only silence.
Eight is commissioned by Holland Festival, Festival d’Art Lirique d’Aix-en-Provence/Château La Coste, Beijing Music Festival, KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen and Helsinki Festival.
With support of Fonds Podiumkunsten, Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie, Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst, Nederlands Kamerkoor, Gieskes-Strijbis fonds and doubleA Foundation
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 (18.104.22.168.2)
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: 22.214.171.124 – 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(126.96.36.199.2); 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)