Bachtrack is asking the same six questions to many composers this month as part of its focus on contemporary music. Here’s what Michel van der Aa had to say.

1. What influences are important to you and your music? Do you choose them, or do they choose you?

Both – I get my inspiration from a multitude of art forms, music, film, theatre, visual arts. Sometimes I go and see a specific event that I expect will inspire me. But every so often something comes on my path really unexpectedly, grabs me by the collar and plants a seed for a new work. I have quite a few Moleskine notebooks full of scribbles and ideas for future works, and frequently leaf through them.

2. What (if anything) do you want listeners to take away from your music?

First of all I want to write music that is absolutely true to myself, something I myself would like to hear in a concert hall. This may sound like an open door but I believe it is very important for a composer to only use his or her own instinct as a guide. One shouldn’t write towards on audience or try to fulfil the expectations of an audience. Having said that, I believe that if you allow your vocabulary to be open to everything you see and hear around, you potentially will speak the language of your certain audience.

3. Is there a composition of yours which you are most satisfied with? What makes it successful?

I have a love/hate relationship with all my previous compositions and would like to eternally keep revising them. But it’s good at a certain point to abandon the works and let them be what they are. There often are aspects of a piece that I’m satisfied with. I’m quite happy with the way music, film and staging are balanced in a rather organic way in Up-close, a recent work for solo cello, string ensemble and film.

I’m also proud of the risks we took in my recent opera Sunken Garden. The piece caused quite a stir, people seemed either to love it or to believe it was a crime against Proper Opera. I’m happy with the discussions it provoked and with the massive positive feedback I also received for this work. I will continue tweaking and revising Sunken Garden for its future performances. That’s one of the blessings of having multiple commissioners.

4. How important is new technology to you as a composer?

I believe the use of technology on stage is only legit if the subject and content of the piece ask for it. So I only add a visual layer if there’s something I can't communicate with the music. It should extend the music, not Mickey Mouse the same idea. The electronic soundtrack and film layers in some of my pieces can be seen as an alter ego for the live singers and musicians. The visual layer often changes foreground and background with the music, resulting in a play of changing perspectives. When I have an idea for a new work I first ask myself: “how does this idea need to be translated so it can communicate with an audience?” The answer could be “a string quartet” or “3D film projections”, depending on the core idea. This is a very important starting point for me.

5. What music do you enjoy listening to?

I’m a real omnivore and listen to a broad range of music, contemporary classical, world music, jazz, pop. My “recently played” list in iTunes could include Ligeti, Bach, Radiohead, Amália Rodrigues, Squarepusher and Kaija Saariaho.

6. How is composing changing, and where do you want new music to go in the future?

The wonderful thing is that composing changes differently for each composer. There’s no singular answer to the future of new music or the future of music theatre and opera. I think we should neither look back or forward. We should compose in the “now”, allowing our vocabularies to be influenced by the kaleidoscopic sounds, events and views surrounding us. There’s so much undiscovered territory here. To quote the Portuguese writer and poet Fernando Pessoa: “Every landscape is located nowhere”.


Michel van der Aa (Netherlands, 1970) is a truly multidisciplinary figure in contemporary music. A unique voice, he combines composition with film and stage direction, and script writing. Classical instruments, voices, electronic sound, actors, theatre and video are all seamless extensions of his musical vocabulary.

Before studying composition (with Diderik Wagenaar, Gilius van Bergeijk and Louis Andriessen), van der Aa trained first as a recording engineer at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. In 2002 he broadened his skills with studies in film direction, at the New York Film Academy, and in 2007 he participated in the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Lab, an intensive course in stage direction.

Van der Aa’s musical materials are hard to tease apart, constantly switching between stasis and high energy, concrete and abstract, acoustic and electronic, “pure” and processed, brand new and half-remembered. Many of them are as visual as they are aural. The possibilities of digital and audio-visual technology often feature, not as a surface gloss to his work but at the core of his artistic outlook.

Another important aspect to van der Aa’s music is collaboration and interdisciplinarity. He has worked with leading classical performers such as Sol Gabetta, Barbara Hannigan, Janine Jansen, Christianne Stotijn and Roderick Williams, as well as the Portuguese fado singer Ana Moura and well-known European actors like Klaus Maria Brandauer and João Reis.

His most recent partnership is with the English novelist David Mitchell, with whom he is writing his fourth work for music theatre, Sunken Garden, an “occult-mystery film-opera” co-commissioned by English National Opera, the Toronto Luminato Festival, Opéra de Lyon, the Holland Festival and the Barbican Centre, London.

His music has been performed by ensembles and orchestras worldwide, including musikFabrik, ICE, Tokyo Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Chamber Players, SWR orchestra Baden-Baden & Freiburg, the ASKO|Schoenberg ensemble, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Phiharmonia Orchestra London and the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra.

He has been a featured artist at the Perth Tura New Music Festival and Holland Festival. He is a regular guest of the Berliner Festspiele, Venice Biennale, Donaueschinger Musiktage, Gaudeamus Music Week, Opera de Lyon, Huddersfield Festival and Warsaw Autumn. Additionally his compositions have been performed at the Festival d’Automne à Paris, LA Philharmonic New Music Series, Lucerne Festival, Tokyo Suntory Summer Music Festival, Schleswig-Holstein Festival, Moscow Music Week and Oslo Ultima Festival.

Van der Aa has won acclaim for his multimedia works for the stage and concert hall (not only the operas One, After Life and The Book of Disquiet, but also Up-Close, and Transit for piano and video). He has directed both the filmed and staged elements of all of these works. His operas have been staged in more than a dozen countries, with After Life and The Book of Disquiet being regularly revived.

In 1999 Michel Van der Aa was the first Dutch composer to win the prestigious International Gaudeamus Prize. Subsequent awards include the Matthijs Vermeulen prize (2004), a Siemens Composers Grant (2005), the Charlotte Köhler Prize for his directing work and the interdisciplinary character of his oeuvre (2005), the Paul Hindemith Prize (2006), and the Kagel Prize (2013).

Michel van der Aa has won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for his multimedia work Up-Close.

In 2007 the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra commissioned the song cycle Spaces of Blank, and since 2011 he has been a ‘house composer’ with the orchestra. This association that will lead to several major new works, including a violin concerto and an evening-length Passion setting in 2017. Over the last few years he has also developed strong ties with the Barbican Centre, with performances of After Life and Up-Close, which led to the premiere of Sunken Garden in April 2013.

In 2010 he launched Disquiet Media, an independent multimedia label for his own work, and in 2012 developed Disquiet TV, an online virtual auditorium for contemporary music events.

Michel van der Aa is published by Boosey & Hawkes, and his stage works are represented byIntermusica. He is an active user of social media, with presences on Facebook and Twitter.

© Tim Rutherford-Johnson 2013

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