Two Worlds
An image from the film in Michel van der Aa's Up-close. Photo: Vakil Eelman.

Two Worlds

Dutch composer Michel van der Aa uses film, soundtrack, ensemble and soloist to investigate the mirror-like dichotomy of contemporary life.

Ding. A synthesised chime announces a new email. A message from a loved one, a rejection for that job, some unsolicited spam. Each a possible new world, a hypothetical beginning, the sound of a wormhole opening.

Sounds aren’t like road signs that only point towards where the action is. They have an active role as vessels, couriers across thresholds. They may be our most vivid connection to a time, a place or a person; a CD doesn’t just sound like the Beatles, to all intents and purposes it is the Beatles. Now so easily recorded, copied, distributed and decontextualised, music in the twenty-first century is almost exclusively a gateway to the hyperreal, or at least some kind of rehashed version of reality. An elemental legacy of recorded music is perhaps the way in which it has blurred the lines between what we call real, and what we call virtual. That, at least, is the starting point for Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, whose recent music creates a dialogue between the real (live musicians, theatre direction) and the virtual (electronic soundtracks, film projections). Van der Aa’s music perfectly encapsulates our glitchy, post-digital experience, combining stop-start passages that recall skipping CDs with periods of tense, crackling stasis.

Up-close, a cello concerto for Sol Gabetta and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta that has just completed a six-country tour around Europe, is in effect a thirty-minute opera in which the cellist is joined onstage by a solitary old woman, albeit in a film screened to the side of the musicians. The old woman’s story is mysterious – she seems to inhabit (in dream or in memory?) both an empty concert stage – set up for the concerto – and a remote woodland. Lost or hunted, she discovers a house with blacked-out windows and a strange machine that looks like the mechanism of a music box. When a sheet of wood studded with pins is pushed through the machine it chimes a chord that sounds in the auditorium and seemingly in the woman’s head – it seems to relate to a troubling, tinnitus-like memory. The machine’s sound has been present throughout the music: the cello’s opening melody is comprised of the same pitches. As the piece progresses, the actions of the woman and the cellist come closer and closer until at the end they mimic one another, without ever completely connecting. It is almost as if one is the alto ego of the other.

A distorting mirror
Van der Aa’s aesthetic – he trained first as a recording engineer – is that of the editing suite, an objectified world of cuts and switches, selection and combination, sequencing and mixing. His material is therefore modular, made of small moveable units like frames of film, rather than continuously streaming and specific to a larger context. The sound can be chopped, moved, juxtaposed and layered. Van der Aa always uses recordings of live instruments as the source material for the electronic soundtracks that form part of the live performance, but in these soundtracks, the sharp edges of Van der Aa’s digital edits become part of the material, drawing out the detail of the prerecorded sounds more vividly, as if magnified.

However, live musicians remain important for Van der Aa; for him they perform a stabilising function. ‘Within a string quartet,’ he says, ‘you know roughly within what parameters it will sound, but with a soundtrack there’s an unpredictable element. You open up the head of the music and get inside.’ Rather than being something totally new, the soundtrack is like a distorted mirror image of the live sound. So the idea is not to extend the sound palette of the instrument but to confront the instrument with itself. Speaking to Van der Aa, he makes a comparison with traditional counterpoint, in which the juxtaposition of two or more musical lines gain their tension from this kind of internal dialogue.

The analogy works, because there is also something Baroque about his music on the larger scale: a hall of mirrors that echoes the structures of large and small, concertino and ripieno, bass and figure, ground and ornament. It is telling that Imprint – one of Van der Aa’s very few mature works not to feature an electronic soundtrack – is a concerto grosso for period strings, harpsichord and portative organ. There are similar Baroque characteristics to Up-close, which can also be read as a double concerto in which cello and film, electronics and strings mutually reflect each other.

This virtual world
Writing on reflection in painting, Jonathan Miller has shown that without the context of a view or a real object, the reflected or virtual can come to look like reality itself. Imagine a still life of peaches. If a mirror and the peaches’ reflection is painted behind them, they gain a reality of their own. As painted peaches without a reflection they are simply something other to us. With a reflection they exist within a complete world, a full virtual reality within which they are real and the reflected peaches are their other. The process of reflection gives the painted the logic of the real, or, more simply, reality is relative.

If we extend the metaphor, in Up-close the cellist is the peaches and the woman in the film is her reflection. Although we, the audience, see the cellist live and on stage, the fact that she has a reflection of her own places her in a self-contained virtual world, more vividly hers but somehow apart from our own. We see the psychological crisis of the film as a reflection of her crisis – not as the cellist but The Cellist, a co-protagonist with the old woman.

In its concern with technology and the fracturing of identity, Up-close resembles another cybernetic extension of the cello, Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study II, which also confronts man with machine. However, whereas the Ferneyhough is open-ended in its values, Van der Aa’s piece contains a strong element of critique. ‘I wanted it to be a piece about the ritual or failure of communication.’ Although the two women appear to be reflections of one another, they remain divided by ways of being: one is live, one is recorded. The only thing that can bridge the distance is electronically processed sound, but although it can synthesise the two worlds it cannot effect an internal transformation for either protagonist. They end the piece matched but not meeting.

Themes of virtual reality, plural identities and our relationship with technology have been present in Van der Aa’s music for around a decade – he also has one of the largest social media presences of any major composer. ‘I find it fascinating that some people observe the world, behind the window of Twitter, Facebook and our online personas, without actually participating,’ he tells me. His second opera, After Life, based on the film of that name by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, tells the story of a group of characters at the point of death and about to enter heaven. Each is allowed to watch, on screen, a single moment of their lives that they can take into eternity. In Up-close Van der Aa has folded the screen over and over on itself until the core image is no longer recognisable.

Published on 19 April 2011

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is a freelance editor and writer on contemporary music living in England. He blogs at The Rambler (


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