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Michel van der Aa: interview about new clarinet concerto

(April 2014)

Michel van der Aa discusses his new clarinet concerto, Hysteresis, premiered by the London Sinfonietta on 30 April in a composer portrait concert.

The title of your new clarinet concerto is Hysteresis. What is this?

The easiest way to explain hysteresis is the idea of material having memory. There are examples of matter being affected by a magnetic field, so the change is carried forward in time. And hysteresis also happens in electronics, biology and economics. The simplest way to visualise it in physical terms is when an elastic band is stretched a number of times. It becomes deformed, so that it has lost the full memory of its original shape.

Where do you observe hysteresis in music?

In musical tradition you could think about how the same material in a recapitulation is perceived differently to when first heard in the exposition, because of the memory of the intervening journey. The timeline alters everything. But I’m more interested in transformations that relate to my work with electronics and sound editing. The title was prompted late in the composition of the concerto as a way to summarise many of the processes in the piece, and the relationship between digital and acoustic material.

How do you explore memory in the new piece?

As musical material undergoes transformation, the core DNA is remembered but its outward sound is altered. This act of memory – sometimes faulty, sometimes creative – is a key ingredient in a lot of my works. The soundtrack can retain an electronic residue of what the instrumentalists have played, like a faint handprint. But it can also work backwards in time, so that the soundtrack provides a premonition of the musical material appearing later in the piece. For instance, the clicks of old gramophone discs, heard faintly at the opening of the work, take on a full life within the ensemble later on.

What are the materials on the soundtrack?

There are a number of elements moving in and out of audibility. Sounds drawn from the solo clarinet and the ensemble are treated and transformed, for example so that single notes become chords, sometimes frozen in time. There are physical effects, almost noise, that make you think of the mechanical workings of a sound carrier, rather like the cassette player in Memo and Here [in circles]. But as well as these subtle manipulations, I’ve also used material designed with my analogue modular synthesiser, heard in its raw condition for the first time in my music, particularly in the shorter second movement, where a sequence provides energy that ultimately drives the full ensemble.

This is your first work with clarinet in the spotlight. What have you discovered about the instrument?

I like the versatility of the clarinet and the way it can move freely between genres, such as jazz, world and classical. It can be a melody instrument, but it is also good at rapid virtuosic figuration. When it plays sustained notes it is very close to a pure sine wave, which makes it perfect for mixing and manipulation. So, as well as bridging different musical genres, the clarinet is also a bridge between the analogue and digital domains.

How do you view the relationship of the soloist and the ensemble?

The work doesn’t follow the classic concerto format with melodic statement in the solo part, orchestral tuttis, cadenza etc. That said, I have played with a lot of these traditional expectations, and there are sections that might be recognised as question and answer interchanges. The clarinet also forms relationships with instruments in the ensemble, for instance a duet with the trumpet. What I endeavoured to ensure was that the clarinet can always be heard, by providing a low density accompaniment.

There is no video element in the new work, but is there always a visual aspect?

Any work that is a concerto implies a certain theatricality which will be visible. There is a clear protagonist on stage, and in the ensemble you can often see the processes take on physical form. For instance the nostalgic sound of gramophone discs turning, with their clicks of static, is taken up by the circling movements of the percussionist, with sandpaper on a table creating surface noise. However, within my output, this stands as a fairly abstract work. After a big theatrical project I often like to focus back in on the notes and sounds themselves. When I’d finished the opera After Life I wrote Mask, and this concerto follows Sunken Garden.

The second movement is more rhythmically driven and dance-orientated. Does this relate to the increasing range of stylistic references in your stageworks?

My background was in pop and electronica, and I’m increasingly comfortable with letting these worlds come to the fore in my concert works, when appropriate. The pop writing in Sunken Garden was liberating in this respect. The second movement of the concerto becomes increasingly forceful with ostinato patterns on the soundtrack and rhythmic unison writing in the ensemble, and I’m hoping it reaches a wild conclusion. I was aware the title hysteresis may imply some association with hysteria, and this growing madness should sweep away the movement’s abstract opening.

What are your future plans?

I’m currently writing a new violin concerto for Janine Jansen to be premiered by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in November. Then I’m turning attention to preparatory work on a chamber opera, Blank Out, which will head me back into theatrical territory over the coming years.

Interview by David Allenby


Hysteresis (2013)
for solo clarinet, ensemble and soundtrack
Duration: 17 minutes

Commissioned by London Sinfonietta (with the support of London Sinfonietta Pioneers), Ensemble musikFabrik, Kunststiftung NRW, Kari Kriikku and Fonds Podiumkunsten. Written for Mark van de Wiel, Carl Rosman and Kari Kriikku.

30 April 2014 (world premiere)
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Mark van de Wiel/London Sinfonietta/Baldur Brönnimann

7 June 2014 (German premiere)
WDR Funkhaus, Cologne
Carl Rosman/musikFabrik/Susanna Mälkki

> Further information on Michel van der Aa


> Further information on Work: Hysteresis

Photo: Marco Borggreve

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