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interview-editorial Beata Pincetic

I talked with the multi-award-winning Dutch composer Michel van der Aa before the performance of his critically praised piece “Book of Disquiet” with Ergon ensemble and the conductor Kasper de Roo at the Onassis Cultural Centre. Mr. van der Aa’s successful and highly innovative fusion of visual and musical art has been his signature throughout his career.


Please tell us about your musical beginnings. Did you go to music school and how did you find it? 


As a kid, I was suffering from nightmares and sleepwalking. When I was 7 or 8 years old it became quite bad. One night my mother caught me hanging from an open window in our house. My parents got quite worried so they took me to the local doctor. 

After examination, he said to them: “Your son has all this creative energy within himself that he can’t get rid off. I recommend that you try and make him play a musical instrument”. I started having guitar lessons and the nightmares and the sleepwalking stopped. So for me, it is a biological necessity to make music. As soon as I could play a few chords on the guitar I started writing my little songs and perform them for my parents. 

In the village where we lived there was a youth opera company where I sang as a child and my parents worked in the production. There, I saw the magic of the theatre. You could paint a mountain on cardboard and with the right lights, it felt like you were really in the mountains. That’s what made me fall in love with the theatre.

So these would be the two important beginnings of my musical development.


You studied recording engineering at the Royal Conservatory of the Haag. What motivated you to study composition?


I was always making music, I liked it indeed, but as an adolescent, I got into the recording business so I studied that. During those studies, I missed the creative aspect. Later on, I wasn’t happy with the recording business, I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life because as I said, I missed creating something myself. That’s why I applied for composition in the same conservatory. To my surprise, I was accepted. I was 24 years old, I had completed my studies in recording engineering, had my own recording company, my own equipment, and recorded a lot for several labels, not mainly but only contemporary music. I always worked with the scores in front of me so by recording them I also studied them and although my musical language is quite different from the music I recorded, I think it helped me train my ears in a certain way.


You have been recognized and awarded for your innovative fusion of musical and visual arts as well as for the interdisciplinary character of your work. When did you understand that writing music in the traditional sense, even with all the instrumental and vocal extended techniques, will not be adequate for your artistic expression?   


This happened very gradually. I started adding notes to my scores that had to do, not with what you hear, but also with what you performers should freeze their movement or mime playing. I would be making notes on how people should enter the stage, what lighting we need on the stage, and so on. Then I wrote the piece called “Wake” which is for two percussionists that each have the same setup, but one never touches his instrument. He only mimes the playing. That duet was an important step in my work.

I combined the visual language with the audible language. Then I decided to take a year off and study film in New York, at the Film Academy. I made my first opera called One. I found out that some of the ideas I have I cannot put only in music. I need film or staging to express them. But not all of them. However, the IDEA is a very important starting point and it alone shows how it should be realized. Sometimes it is going to be through a string quartet or a solo guitar and for some others I’ll need 3D film and complex technology. Technology should always be in the service of the idea. That’s very important to me.


How do you choose themes for your projects? What’s the process?


It’s often something I’ve been reading about or a film I saw or just thoughts hovering in my head for years and then suddenly they start forming into something. It gets born in different ways. I’m working on a new opera now and I’ve been reading a lot of books on the subject and I thought I knew what I wanted to make but suddenly it became something related to it. It seems I had to go through all that material until I can decide what aspect of that subject interests me. It’s often a long process of preparation, thinking, and reading. But initially, I don’t “hunt” for themes. I let them be triggered. It can be while watching a movie - a scene will inspire me, a book I read, or a combination of things.


How did you come to the Book of Disquiet of Fernando Pessoa and what intrigued you to write an opera about it?


I wrote this piece for the Linz Cultural Capital of Europe celebrations of 2009. I was asked by the intendant there and it was his suggestion. He also suggested the actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, that starred in the original version. I read Pessoa, his poetry. I found it difficult to write a musical theatrical piece for it because it’s already so autonomous, dense, such artwork in itself. Then I started reading the book. The concept of the book, since it is a collection of separate notes, allowed me to choose from all that. Lots of material.....I spent few months reading it, understanding it, making decisions, and then I ended up with the libretto that would fit this 70-minute piece.


Do you like to work with permanent collaborators? Do certain musicians, singers, or actors inspire you to write especially for them?


Yes, actually I need it. Collaboration is the most beautiful thing. When I write an orchestral piece sitting at my desk at home I start missing the collaborative aspect and I can’t wait to be in the room with the ensemble, the conductor, and the musicians. I guess one of the reasons I like the opera so much is that you get to work with a team of people including the dramaturge and the designer so that from early on you collaborate on something, which I enjoy a lot. 

When I write a solo concerto I like to write it for a person, not an instrument. So the violin concerto was written for Janine Jansen, for her amazing capabilities and special features. The same with the cello concerto and Sol Gabetta. It is very important for me who performs it. I work with the artist, I have conversations with him or her and that inspires me to write a certain way.


How can in your opinion music schools and academies of today, being initially conservative and passive, respond to artistic needs and challenges of the modern world?


That’s a big question. I think it starts with the teachers. If the teachers are open-minded, they are the ones that have to inspire the students. In the conservatory that I was, in Haag, some of the instrumentalists had conservative teachers and they taught them contemporary music is bad, not real music and those students got very influenced by it. Then other teachers were big advocates of new music. So their students often chose it as their path or at least they kept an open mind. 

I think this is the big responsibility of the teachers. And on a higher level, I think it is important for the conservatories to consider that the genres are not as separated as they used to be. I believe conservatories should have also the jazz, pop, and world music departments. Everything should be blended together. Today we all work on projects together and influence each other. On our playlists, there is everything from Bach to Aphex Twin from Nono to Haas. For the audiences today, especially young people the boundaries are much more blurry than before and there is a certain openness to it. I believe it is also up to concert promoters and agencies to allow a broader approach and view on these genres.


How did you find working with Ergon ensemble? Was it any different from other ensembles you worked with?


I really enjoyed it. I’m not lying. Everybody is super prepared and I like the attitude of the musicians. 

The ensemble managed to find my style, play it in the way that serves the piece, and still maintaining the ensemble sound. I’m super excited about it. Very nice musicians, Kasper de Roo has done a wonderful job conducting it and everyone seemed dedicated to the piece, not because they had to but their heart was in it. That’s so important for the composer - to feel that the musicians are wanting to play the best they can and not just “be there”. I think the level of playing is exceptional and I feel that people are wanting to do it. So I hope we get to work together again.

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