Monday evening at Lincoln Center’s annual White Light Festival, audience-goers were sucked into the multi-media universe of Michel van der Aa. The concert, which featured four of Mr. van der Aa’s compositions, took place in the darkened ballroom of the Manhattan Center, running to a bit over an hour with no intermission. Three solo works, each about ten minutes long, were paired with the U.S. première of the thrilling half hour of Up-close, a sort of surreal cello concerto featuring electronics and film. The piece, which won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award, amalgamates live music with pre-recorded sounds and images, resulting in (depending on which way you look at it) a score layered with thought-provoking cinematic effects, or a film with a very rich and enchanting live soundtrack.

© Kaori Yamagami
© Kaori Yamagami

The stage was arranged with the video screen on one side and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, as well as elegant soloist Kaori Yamagami, on the other. After Ms. Yamagami’s opening cello cadenza, an eerie scene appeared on the other side of the stage as one of Mr. van der Aa’s snippets of film flickered into action. On the screen was a doppelganger set-up of what was in front of us: a screen on the one side of the stage and a collection of chairs and stands on the other. In the echoed world, however, the screen was blank and the chairs were empty: no musicians and in fact no people were present aside from an elderly woman scribbling out some sort of code as she sat on the ground. As the film proceeded, we watched the woman descend into confusion and despair. During one segment she ripped strips of tin foil and stuffed them into jars. During another, she stumbled through a forest, her pale face ragged with anxiety.

In contrast with the non-narrative multi-media works I’ve experienced, Mr. van der Aa’s music felt at times subservient to the sequences of images. But during its finest moments, the work explored the concepts of loneliness, bewilderment, and sense of self (and the loss of it) within both audio and visual planes. The strings simmered; the cello soared. The electronics contributed a layer to the mysterious narrative; the visuals, particularly when matched with silence, added another. At times, the live and recorded scenes mirrored each other in clever, confounding ways. For instance, at one point Ms. Yamagami left the stage to fetch a floor lamp that she then set in front of the screen, where an identical floor lamp now stood in the midst of the trees along with the old woman. Was the film echoing reality; was our live reality echoing the film? At the end of the piece, the music and video had ceased, but the lamp – which had been turned on by this point – continued to glow. Finally, it faded to nothing, leaving us in the dark.

Preceding this mystifying collection of sounds and images, we experienced three of Mr. van der Aa’s earlier works, each performed by a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble. In Memo, violinist David Bowlin engaged in a harried conversation with himself via a tape recorder that he would click on and off with his left hand, often while still bowing with his right. The jots and jabs of music were entertaining to say the least, and a furious jab at the recorder even provoked laughter from the audience. During Oog, cellist Michael Nicolas took part in a similarly distorted conversation. The textures – his thumb drumming on the side of the cello, the whip of his bow through the air, the electronic footsteps pitter-pattering and sparkling around him – were intriguing, at times searing with melancholy and at others clicking and clucking energetically. Transit offered an appetizer of the multi-media we would experience shortly afterwards. In this piece, pianist Jacob Greenberg duetted with a video whose sound effects – the opening and shutting of a door, the whistling of a tea kettle – meshed exquisitely with the roving piano part. The sound effects, which continued after the pianist and video had ended, conveyed a mostly ominous feeling. The visuals did as well, showing an elderly man collecting steam in jars and despairing, like the old woman, over loneliness and old age. One wonders if the video is part of the score or if the score is a soundtrack to the video. Ultimately, however, these two elements of Mr. van der Aa’s composition synthesize into a unique, powerful sensation.