Michel van der Aa

Born 1970

Michel van der Aa



Dutch composer Michel van der Aa has forged a substantial reputation as an inter-disciplinary composer with a strong, individual voice. He has studied sound engineering, composition and film directing, putting him in an ideal place to convincingly undertake the many different roles required to realise his projects. He has achieved many prizes and recognitions including becoming the first Dutch composer to receive the Gaudeaumus prize for composition in 1999. His activities span chamber music to orchestral works and from script writing to opera.

Van der Aa was born in Oss, in North Brabant, The Netherlands in March 1970. His early musical studies were in classical guitar and, later, sound engineering in the Royal Conservatory of Den Haag. He went on to study composition with Diderik Wagenaar, Gilius van Bergeijk and Louis Andriessen. Early in his career he gained recognition for his chamber works and solo pieces, often incorporating a theatrical element into the compositions.

In 1994 he was awarded a scholarship from the Foundation Fund for the performing Arts to take part in 'The International Dance Course for Professional Choreographers and Composers'. In 1996, together with the choreographer Philippe Blanchard, he composed the work, 'Staring at the Space' for orchestra and 10 dancers, which had been commissioned by the Norkopping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden. In 1997 and 1998 he was the composer in residence of the Hague Percussion Group. His work 'Between' was conducted by them for the Gaudeamus festival in 1999 and he was then awarded with the composers prize for that year. This piece is part of a trilogy, 'Above Between Attach'. Also in 1999 he had a premiere in Tokyo, Japan, with the piece 'Faust' for chamber orchestra, dance and acting. This was performed by the New National Theatre Tokyo. The trilogy 'Above-Between-Attach' was again awarded when Van der Aa received the Amsterdam Art Fund in 2000, specifically for 'Attach'.

In 2002 he went to New York to undertake film studies at the New York Film Academy and in 2007 he participated in the in the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Lab which was an intensive course in stage direction. At this time the work 'One', a chamber opera for soprano solo, video and soundtrack dealing with the characters’ loss of identity was created. It was premiered in the Frascati Theatre in Amsterdam on the 12 January, 2003 by the soprano Barbara Hannigan. After a successful tour the work was awarded the Netherlands' Matthijs Vermeulen Prize in 2004.

In 2004 Van der Aa signed a publishing deal with Boosey and Hawkes, who describe him as a truly multidisciplinary figure in contemporary music. The first work on their catalogue was 'Lord' for chamber orchestra and soundtrack. In 2005 he was awarded the Charlotte Kohler Prize and the Siemens Composers Grant and in 2006 the Paul Hindemith Prize. This is an international prize aimed at young composers founded in 1990 and carries with it a sum of 20,000 euros.

In 2007 he was commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and he composed the song cycle 'Spaces of Blank' for them. He has since worked extensively with the orchestra who premiered new works of his such as 'Violin Concerto' 2014 with the Dutch violinist, Janine Jansen.

He has worked with many ensembles and orchestras worldwide, including musikFabrik , ICE, Tokyo Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Chamber Players, SWR orchestra Baden-Baden & Freiburg, the ASKO|Schoenberg ensemble, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Phiharmonia Orchestra London and the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra. The work of Michel van der Aa has been featured at many festivals internationally such as; the Perth Tura New Music Festival, the Holland Festival, the Berliner Festspiele, Venice Bienalle, Donauschinger Musiktage, Gaudeamus Musiekweek, Opera de Lyon, Huddersfield Festival, Warsaw Autumn, the Festival d'Automne á Paris, LA Philharmonic New Music Series, Lucerne Festival, Tokyo Suntory Summer Music Festival, Schleswig-Holstein Festival, Moscow Music Week and Oslo Ultima Festival. He launched Disquiet Media in 2010 which is an independent label for his own work,which '...is a multimedia label that embraces unfurling technologies in a wide spectrum of the arts. Based in Amsterdam, it focuses on compositions and music-theatre works that are firmly rooted in twenty-first century life'.

Michel van der Aa's musical style is 'a unique layered vocabulary'. He is one of very few artists who manage to successfully blend such diverse art-forms and media with a high degree of skill, achieving a unity of expression in his works.

The opera 'One', 2002 is a great example of this unity. The fusion of libretto, video and soundtrack creates the world of this piece. Images are projected and sounds are electronically manipulated in the soundtrack which blend seamlessly with the onstage performance of the soprano. The premier and subsequent tour was with the soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan whose amazing stage presence, incredible virtuosity and interpretation was highly praised. The work deals with the soprano’s relationship with 5 elderly women who relate their existential stories through the layer of the projected video. Gradually a connection is established between the protagonist and the women as her own identity disintegrates. The idea of a live performance viewed with or against itself; a recording, a mimicked representation of the live action, is ubiquitous across his work.

Earlier works already explored this idea of two worlds. In 'Wake', 1997 for two percussionists, one of the players mimes the actions of the other. They 'play' the same material after each other yet only one player has the expected sonic result. This creates a theatrical layer, a visual distortion of the material.'It’s not important that the player mimes but what he mimes, a remembrance to the material of the other player'.

The 'Violin Concerto' 2014 is composed in the traditional 3 movement form. The composer describes them as: an abstract movement, a more direct melodic one and finally a third at breakneck speed, almost close to an impossibility. Musically it has allusions to popular music, specifically jazz and bluegrass. It is interesting to note the lack of electronics or tape in this work and shows that Van der Aaa is very comfortable in any setting he chooses. The orchestra do take on a theatrical role, more so in the material itself which'mirrors and balances the soloist, rather than playing a traditional accompanying role'.

The work has theatrical aspect also, stemming from the personality of the soloist, Janine Jansen – Van der Aa composed the piece very specifically for her. All visual considerations stem from his composing for her personality, including the lighting and the spacing of the musicians onstage. This work came about as Van der Aa's role as a 'house composer' with the orchestra and was therefore able to work very closely with them throughout the compositional process.

 Michel Van der Aa is a truly multidisciplinary artist who has a clear artistic vision of a new breed of art form. One that includes the multitude of media we have access to and uses it in a coherent way with a very consistent aesthetic.

Photo credit: Renske Vrolijk