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White Light Festival: Michel van der Aa's Up-Close and Other Works

White light festival up-close

Photo credit: Andrea Mohin, The New York Times

Visuals—be it film or computer-generated projections—have become something of a mainstay in contemporary concert music, and with good reason: More than ever, we live in an image-oriented society, where we expect not only our ears to be stimulated, but our eyes as well. But, most of these visuals are created apart from the actual music

Enter Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, whose 2010 multimedia cello concerto, Up-close, won this year's Grawemeyer Award and was given it's first U.S. performance Monday night at the Manhattan Center Ballroom as part of this year's White Light Festival. Displaying a rare jack-of-all-trades ability, van der Aa not only composed the music, but also wrote, directed, and edited the accompanying non-linear film, which depicted an elderly woman struggling against an unseen villain—possibly of her own imagining.

Even more impressive, van der Aa has written instructions for the soloist (here the energetic and intense Kaori Yamagami) so that her movements mirrored those of the old woman in the film. At one point, Yamagami left her seat in the center of the chamber ensemble (the impressive Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, playing without a conductor) and moved a lamp from one side of the stage to the other at the same time as the woman in the film; Yamagami then used the lamp to continue performing the score. As Grawemeyer director Marc Satterwhite said in his citation: "It defies simple classification. It really creates its own genre."

Still, as impressive as van der Aa's skills are as a filmmaker and stage director, they wouldn't amount to more than mere gimmickry if it weren't for his music, which uses acoustic and electronic elements to create a rich soundworld that alternates between brittle tension and deep, rich sonorities. Van der Aa, who studied with Louis Andriessen and is now the Royal Concertgebouw's composer-in-residence, writes music that is both economical and with supremely confident. 

Earlier in the program, members of ICE performed three less satisfying solo works that tracked van der Aa's development as a multimedia composer. Memo, for solo violin and electronics (2003), was like hearing Bach's partitas or Bartok's sonatas run through a blender, while Oog (1995) had a solo cellist play against a tape of himself, occasionally allowing the tape to take over. Transit (2009), for piano and electronics, appeared to be a dry run for Up-close, using one of van der Aa's less accomplished student films.

In conversation with WNYC's John Schaefer after the concert, van der Aa eschewed any Wagnerian delusions of theatrical grandeur, using film and stagecraft as understated tools to deliver his creative vision. But, by leaving his plotlines deliberately vague and without any narrative arc, van der Aa's works end up being more performance art than concert music. Atmospheric and technically impressive? Absolutely. Inspiring or transcendent? Unfortuantely not. 

If you missed it, van der Aa's music will be heard again next month at BAM's new festival of contemporary art song, 21c Liederabend, Op. 3. Tickets available at the box office or online.

More pics on the photo page.