A branch snaps with icy confidence. It seems like an everyday occurrence, an everyday sound. But within the oeuvre of Michel van der Aa (1970), the snap of a branch means more than just that. In a musical context removed from the 'everyday', the gesture suddenly suggests loneliness, insanity, anger. And while the crisp noise a breaking branch makes is indeed pure nature, with closed eyes it also carries an electric charge. The gesture and the sound carry more layers and more weight than one might think. That breaking branch is a symbol for Michel van der Aa's oeuvre in general and the Here trilogy in particular.
The interaction between natural and electric sounds and a visual-theatrical component are recurring themes in the Here trilogy, composed between 2001 and 2003. The cycle is thematically related to the chamber opera One (2002). In One an anonymous female character (soprano) undertakes an obsessive search for herself, and enters into a dialogue with her alter ego on film. In the second and third sections of the Here trilogy the soprano returns in the same vain quest for herself and for a connection with the world around her.
One and - in a more abstract, purely musical way - the Here trilogy both owe their confrontational dramatic effect to the theme of loneliness verging on insanity. The drama is not an imposed extramusical idea, but rather a product of the musical structure. It is not surprising that Michel van de Aa's oeuvre is often referred to as the musical equivalent of the work of M.C. Escher. Escher's perspectivist suggestions and spatial manipulation find a musical parallel in Van der Aa's equally intriguing play of acoustic distortion. In Oog (1995) a cellist is engulfed in the shadows of her own taped sound fragments. In Wake (1997) a percussionist and a 'drumming' mime play a duet.
'I am fascinated by the contradiction between what is and what seems,' says the composer. 'The sculpture When I am Pregnant (1992) by the English sculptor Anish Kapoor appears, seen from the front, to be a solid wall. You only see the belly by looking at it sideways. In all its simplicity, this is an extremely dramatic effect. I strive to create a similar kind of drama in my music.'
In the Here trilogy as well, the dramatic content is an organic consequence of the poetics in Van der Aa's music. Tension is aroused by the audible failure of the music itself, in which the musical present (live chamber orchestra or ensemble) clashes with the past (soundtrack). As a whole, that failure of the musical progress leads to the sensation of chilling, detachment and disunity that, after the purely instrumental first movement Here [enclosed], is given a voice in Here [in circles] and Here [to be found].
A black plexiglas cabin the size of a telephone booth is set up on stage as a dominant yet silent partner. What does this object mean? What secret does it contain? The conductor tentatively inspects the black box but the music from the chamber orchestra forbids him to reveal its contents. The visual revelation is delayed as long as the process of musical enclosure is not complete. Only at the end of the piece does the cabin become illuminated, revealing - as a deus ex machina - a female figure. The mystery has been exposed - but not solved.
In his Here trilogy, composer Van der Aa draws the listener into the musical exploration of the clash between the individual and his surroundings. His irrepressible fascination for theatrical and visual means is one recurring feature of the trilogy. A recognizable harmonic signature is evidence of his economical use of material. The harmonic DNA of the Here trilogy consists in each of the three sections of the same eleven chords, both in the orchestra and the soundtrack.
The opening work Here [enclosed] is, in its scoring for chamber orchestra and soundtrack, the most abstract of the triptych: the dramatic 'ego' is only visually present (in the cabin). While the individual and her surroundings encircle each other in Here [in circles] and attract and repel one another in Here [to be found], Here [enclosed] is entirely about an instrumental process of containment. That happens on various levels. The soundtrack hems in the orchestra by repeating sampled notes as chords in an ever-tightening texture. But the tension also tautens on a micro-level, in the approach to timbre and the development of individual instrumental lines - until the acoustic enclosure reaches a visual as well as musical climax with the disclosure of the cabin's contents. The sound is audibly confined, and the individual is visibly imprisoned.
Van der Aa resolves the resulting vacuum by turning the music inside out in the epilogue. Foreshadowing the role of the soprano in Here [in circles] and Here [to be found], the first violin emerges from the muted string orchestra as an individual dramatic entity. The lone protagonist rises above the collective to which she once belonged, and wages war on the surging and increasingly threatening white noise emitted from the soundtrack.
The interaction between the live sounds (man) and the electronic sounds (machine) is consistently and noticeably marked by the sound of clicks and snipping that cut cruelly through the music. In this way Van der Aa reveals his compositional skeleton as in an X-ray, or as a blueprint that is permanently illuminated behind the music.
Here [in circles]
Here [in circles] is the heart of the trilogy, and in its instrumentation (five strings, trumpet, clarinet and bass clarinet, percussion and soprano) it is the most fragile and intimate section. The role of the soundtrack has been reduced to the most basic and spontaneous form possible. The soprano operates a cassette recorder on which she records herself and the ensemble in real time; she rewinds, fast-forwards and plays back, illuminating the cyclical hopelessness of the music on a small scale.
It is worth noting that Van der Aa is the author of the texts sung by the 'dramatis persona' (the soprano) for Here [in circles] and Here [to be found]. An existing text would never be able to reflect the musical progress as organically as words the composer writes himself. And that very organic indivisibility of drama (text) and structure (music) is characteristic of Michel van der Aa's compositional style, one that avoids 'imposed emotionality' at all costs.
Both in Here [in circles] and Here [to be found], the soprano undergoes a certain development. In their content, Van der Aa's texts are intentionally murky, strengthening the intended ambiance of disengaged derangement. Words are employed as figurative colouring of the sound, not as literal transmitters of a particular message. 'Music has the potential to be unspecific,' says the composer. 'It can suggest an ambiance and still leave room for the listener's own imagination. The more concrete the text, the less three-dimensional the music.'
In Here [in circles] the dramatic 'ego' attempts to break loose from the cyclical progression of the music. The contact between the extremely virtuosic, harried soprano, the live ensemble, the soundtracks and the incisive snip and click sounds (a percussionist flicking fake electric switches) are alternately alarming and internalized. The music only reaches a kind of repose at the end, where the soprano enters into an emotional, schizophrenic dialogue with the shadows of her own voice on tape.
Here [to be found]
Here [to be found] (2001) is officially the closing section of the Here trilogy, but it was in fact the first to be composed. The density of the ideas present clearly suggests that Van der Aa realized that he could expand the theme of the individual vs. her surroundings in two additional sections. Here [to be found] sketches, using a minimum of harmonic means, a thoroughly oppressive mood, introduced by wispy chords in the strings.
The inevitable sense of drama of Here [to be found] comes primarily through the process of attraction and repulsion between the soprano, chamber orchestra and soundtrack. Just as in Here [in circles] the composer penned the tranquil yet ornate texts himself; words that express the meandering reveries of the emotionally wayward dramatic 'ego' (the soprano). She searches for - and finds - contact with the orchestra and soundtrack, but thereafter only sinks deeper into her own musical micro-universe. The soprano drifts ever further from the elements around her, the text as well as the music.
The soprano’s icy disengagement is reflected in Van der Aa's music. He manipulates the music's linear progression by snipping it up and reintroducing these fragments on the soundtrack in altered form. In doing so - rewinding and fast-forwarding - he creates an additional dimension of time. The sensation of a vacuum that arises when the music 'freezes' and then 'thaws' parallels and reflects the isolation felt by the soprano, and at the same time acts as an abstract expression of her mood. The singer, together with the orchestra and the soundtrack, searches for a new departure point. In that respect, drama and structure in the Here trilogy are constantly indivisible.
© Mischa Spel, translation Jonathan Reeder
"The highlight of this Musiktage... Here [to be found] contains cantilenas sung beautifully by soprano Barbara Hannigan. The music flows organically and is of exquisite simplicity. After the preceding examples of aimless syntax and compositional convulsions, Here [to be found] was a true blessing." (Stefan Hoffmann, Die Welt, 23 Oct 2001)
"One could say that Michel van der Aa poses the best questions during these Donaueschinger Musiktage, both to himself and to the music. For example: how can I best express what I want to say? And, worthy of a true craftsman, not only: how do I build a tower?, but also: how do I then get out of the tower? How can I say the ‘old’ is new again? Van der Aa’s piece is called Here [to be found] and the title does not promise too much." (Mirko Weber, Stuttgarter Zeitung, 23 Oct 2001)
"Success for Van der Aa at the Donaueschingen Festival. It's beautiful how the airy string chords precede Van der Aa’s quiet poem. He knows how to freeze a scene, create a vacuum. The theatricality in turbulent figures comes across very well. The same is true for the ending, where the synchronicity of the voice, the orchestra and the soundtrack gradually disintegrates. The piece was very successful with this select audience that included many composers, programmers and publishers." (Ernst Vermeulen, NRC, 22 Oct 2001)
"An impressive work... The sound of the electronic soundtrack melted with the orchestra and the soprano, and ‘mechanical switch’ sounds send into the hall through loudspeakers triggered the orchestra to start and stop. There we finally had the idea that we were listening to ‘state of the art’ Dutch music and for a moment it lifted the festival [Netherlands Music Days] above its provincial level." (Anthony Fiumara, Trouw, 17 Dec 2001)