MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A Radically New Cello Concerto

Here’s the more-complete version of my Los Angeles Philharmonic essay on Michel van der Aa’s remarkable cello concerto, Up-close, which gets its West Coast premiere in the Green Umbrella series next week:

Regular followers of the Los Angeles Philharmonic will have encountered the work of Michel van der Aa before, but Up-close has intensified his profile, particularly in North America, thanks to the acclaim it earned last year, when it received the mega-prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. Written in 2010 on a commission from the European Concert Hall Association and the Dutch Performing Arts Fund for the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and the Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta – who premiered it in Stockholm in March 2011 – Up-close represents nothing less than a thorough reimagining of the concerto genre to mirror the way our high-tech, wired era shapes and compartmentalizes perceptions of reality.

Like Louis Andriessen, an important mentor with whom he has collaborated on such works as the multimedia opera Writing to Vermeer (1999), van der Aa has evolved a music theater aesthetic that resists classification in its intriguing combination of live performers and film visuals. The younger composer (born in 1970) studied recording engineering as well as composition in his native Holland and later enrolled in classes at the New York Film Academy. Many a composer combines multiple talents within the realm of music, but van der Aa brings a synthesis of composer, stage director, and filmmaker to several of his endeavors, including Up-close.

Van der Aa has also created works showcasing each of those talents separately. He emphasizes that his use of film visuals and extra-musical components has to be “a necessity,” not an adornment “which is there merely to be hip or entertaining. I try to be strict with myself, to use film in a way that extends and enhances my musical vocabulary. The film contributes something I can’t communicate with the music alone.” In Up-close, Van der Aa points out, he conceived the music “in parallel with my work on the script for the film and the small staging. These feed into each other. I like that flexibility. Sometimes the music gives me visual ideas, and sometimes it’s the other way around.” He considers Up-close to be a work of music theater, the cello concerto embedded within as a part interdependent on the whole.

Michel van der Aa (photo: Marco Borggreve)

Michel van der Aa (photo: Marco Borggreve)

Along with the familiar three-movement concerto format which he uses as a formal design for Up-close, van der Aa explains that the relative significance of its constituent layers likewise structures our sense of unfolding events. Their interrelations also pose unique challenges of synchronization. There are three such layers: the conventional one of the solo cellist and the all-string ensemble, the “mirror reality” of the film that is projected simultaneously, and the prerecorded sounds (encompassing electronic samples and the film’s soundtrack).

There is a fourth layer, which is less extensive, pertaining to the instructions for the soloist to take part in the mise-en-scène (as at the end of the first movement, when the cellist gets up and moves a lamp on the stage). “It provides a way of exaggerating the inherent theatricality of instrumentalists,” according to the composer. The soloist is required not only to perform with traditional musical virtuosity but also to act. The gulf separating the illusionistic reality of the film and that of the live performance becomes one of a cascading series of metaphors for what van der Aa has described as “a dream about communicating” which in the end fails.

But all of these layers don’t function with equal intensity throughout. The process of creating Up-close involved determining at each point “which of these layers are in the foreground, and which are in the background.” In the opening minutes of the work, the soloist remains in the spotlight, introducing crucial thematic material that will appear in new lights in conjunction with the other layers. The connections between the three movements make the shifting perspectives of van der Aa’s concept especially evident. For example, a lengthy segment of about five minutes bridging the first two movements brings the film to the center of attention as the main bearer of the “narrative,” with a thinned-out sonic background from the prerecorded music and the live ensemble remaining silent until metal chimes link up their world to the enigmatic “code machine” in the film. (Van der Aa collaborated with a friend who works as props master at the opera to build this visual, imagining “a cross between a music box and a Morse machine.”)

For the frenetic final movement, the code machine “ignites the ensemble” back into action, as the strings pulsate with a nervous energy at times reminiscent of Bernard Herman. Van der Aa likens the musical patterns of their “timbral counterpoint” to “little wood fires spreading through the ensemble,” while the woman in the film becomes increasingly anxious.

Writing the piece originally for Sol Gabetta, the composer imagined the elderly protagonist in the film as a kind of “alter ego.” The Dutch actress Vakil Eelman was chosen, he explains, because he wanted “an archetypal elderly figure: someone who carries youth in herself as well as wisdom and experience. I really like that ambiguity in her.” Johannes Moser is the first male cellist to perform as Up-close’s soloist, which, says van der Aa, “will generate different questions, but not necessarily less interesting ones, about the relationship between these two people – the actress in the film and the soloist on the stage. I think it’s important to let the audience take the last steps itself to decide what the piece is about.”

And my commentary on the other works on the program is here:

Pierre Boulez, Éclat
Elliott Carter, Triple Duo

(c) 2014 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: composers, new music, orchestras, program notes

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  1. […] premiere in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series just last month. I’ve recently written about Up-close — scored for solo cello, string ensemble, and electronic soundtrack — and its […]

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