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 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, pop acts Kate Miller-Heidke, Wende, and These New Puritans, and well-known European actors like Klaus Maria Brandauer, Samuel West, and João Reis.
“Here is no avant-gardist who mercilessly frightens off his audience, no esoteric metaphysician, no gushing neo-Romantic. Instead, here we have a powerful seeker on a quest for the meaning of life who combines austere sounds with a preference for whip cracking rhythms and dense tonal atmosphere.” (Reinhard Brembeck, Süddeutsche Zeitung)
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, Opera de Lyon, the Holland Festival and the Barbican Centre, London.
Spring 2016 saw the premiere at the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ of Blank Out, a new chamber opera for soprano, baritone and 3D film, performed by Miah Persson, Roderick Williams, Nederlands Kamerkoor, and Dutch National Opera.
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.
“Rarely have modern techniques and ancient musical virtues coexisted more naturally.”
(Alex Ross, The New Yorker)
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 2015 Michel van der Aa has been awarded the prestigious Johannes Vermeer Award, the Dutch state prize for the arts.
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 will lead to several major new works, among them the Violin Concerto (2014), written for Janine Jansen. 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 Gardenin April 2013.
Looking Ahead: new double concerto for violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and cellist Sol Gabetta with performances in Cologne, Amsterdam and Vancouver (May/Jun 2019); French premiere of ‘Blank Out’ at Aix-en-Provence Festival (Jul 2019); new mixed media project ‘Eight’ (June-August 2019)