Michel van der Aa: Oog

Program Note

Dutch composer Michel van der Aa trained as a recording engineer at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and studied composition with Louis Andriessen. Van der Aa received his first large-scale platform through his mentor when Andriessen asked him to compose the electronic music interludes for his opera Writing to Vermeer (1999). In 2002 he studied film direction at the New York Film Academy, and in 2007 participated in an intensive course in stage direction at Lincoln Center. "First and foremost," he said in an interview with The Guardian, "I consider myself a composer. But I'm a composer who refuses to stop with what you hear. I've always been interested in film as a hobby, and as soon as I started composing, there was a theatrical element in my music. Even if it was just a few gestures, I was already thinking about what you see as well as what you hear."

Van der Aa’s operatic works, which he typically composes, writes, directs, and films, are integrated digitally and audiovisually. They include After Life (2006), based on the film of the same name by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, and the chamber/video opera One (2002), written in collaboration with Barbara Hannigan. In addition, the composer won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for his multimedia cello concerto Up-Close. His music has been performed by ensembles and orchestras worldwide, including ICE, Ensemble Modern, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, SWR orchestra Baden-Baden & Freiburg, and the ASKO|Schoenberg ensemble. In 2010 he launched his own label, Disquiet Media, and in 2012 developed Disquiet TV, an online outlet for contemporary music events. This year, van der Aa premiered his chamber opera Blank Out for soprano and interactive 3D film at the Dutch National Opera.

Oog (Eye) for cello and tape investigates the contrast between computer-generated sound and the inherent unpredictability of human expression. Throughout the piece, the cellist is instructed to use a stopwatch to stay tightly aligned with the electronic elements. "Musicians must be on the edge of their seats in order to be in time," the composer says. "The energy, which comes from this, is what I find interesting. I like the idea of a struggle to the finish very much indeed, of an almost masochistic fight with the tape." The struggle of the internal time of the performer with the irresolute stopwatch is mirrored in the fight to be heard between the acoustic cello and the amplified recording. Almost all of the electronic sounds are derived from recordings of another cello, but sonically altered in order to produce a blended resonance impossible to replicate with an instrument or a computer alone. At the same time, the score calls for techniques such as striking the body of the instrument and sweeping the bow through the air – sounds which mimic the effect of the electronics, which themselves mimic the cello. Thus, the cello duets with itself, forming a parallel between its live and processed counterparts. Two years after its premiere, Oog was used as the basis for a solo dance piece by choreographer Thom Stuart, adding a movement component to van der Aa’s multimedia conversation.

—Josh Davidoff