Michel van der Aa
Johannes Vermeer Award 2015 Laureate
The Johannes Vermeer Award is the Dutch State Prize for the arts and has been awarded annually since 2009 to an artist of extraordinary stature. It is a prestigious prize that expresses the importance the government attaches to top artistic talent and the effect of that talent on society. The Minister of Education, Culture and Science is advised by an independent jury who survey the Dutch art world, producing a list of artists who stand out for their exceptional activities and creativity. The jury also ensures that all artistic disciplines are equally represented: after laureates originating from various domains – theatre, photography, the visual arts, graphic design, film and architecture - this year it is music that takes center stage. Lastly, the jury takes the present moment of a candidate’s artistic carrier into account: the Johannes Vermeer Award is intended for artists who have reached the peak of their powers. And while they may already pride themselves on a balanced and distinct oeuvre, their own development continues unabated.
This year’s laureate is the youngest to date. Forty-five years of age, the composer Michel van der Aa shows such originality, versatility and productivity that the jury has unanimously and unconditionally recommended him to the minister. Using theatrical means Van der Aa knows how to build a bridge between contemporary classical music and modern digital technology – a unique synthesis that has produced followers but has as yet not been equalled.
Life and career
Michel van der Aa was born in Oss, a city in the south of the Netherlands, in 1970. He grew up in a musical family. Although overt biographical references are not found in his work, Van der Aa has repeatedly said that his love of music originates from the deepest layers of his subconscious. As a child he suffered so badly from nightmares that his parents took him to their family physician. By suggesting that music could open up this dark world, this doctor not only gave sound therapeutic advice, but inadvertently encouraged a musical career that has now been honoured with the Netherlands’ only state prize.
Not convinced after secondary school of his own originality, Van der Aa first studied audio engineering at the Koninklijk Conservatorium (Royal Conservatoire) in The Hague where he learnt the craft of recording. He then switched course by moving over to the composition department, studying with Louis Andriessen, Gilius van Bergeijk, Roderik de Man and Diderik Wagenaar. In 1999 he was the first Dutch composer to win the International Gaudeamus Music Prize which has been awarded annually since 1950 to the most promising young composer worldwide. It was the first of many predominantly international prizes.
Michel van der Aa is a loner and a team player. He is a perfectionist who prefers to maintain control of all aspects of his work. For his music theatre works One and After Life he wrote both the score and the libretto as well as directing them – simultaneously playing chess on three boards, as he himself describes it. The 3D opera Sunken Garden proved an exception when Van der Aa asked the British novelist David Mitchell to write the libretto. A team of no less than fifty technicians worked on the recent realization of the interactive digital song cycle The Book of Sand – a co-production of the Holland Festival, the Sydney Festival, BBC’s The Space and the Google Cultural Institute.
Van der Aa sets high standards for himself and the people around him. With his professionalism, drive and powerful ideas he pushes himself and others to meet the exacting demands that his work requires. In the process of producing highly complex works, the outcome of which is by no means clear, he is able to convince and inspire.
Michel van der Aa’s oeuvre, which is published by the internationally renowned Boosey & Hawkes, comprises more than forty works, including five large-scale works for music theatre. In 2010 he set up the Disquiet Media label which has the objective of exploring the boundaries of new media in the hope of developing new distribution channels and platforms for classical music. In this way he is trying to reach a public who normally are not likely to come into contact with the world of composed music. This same ideal is the reason for his appearances on the popular television talk show De Wereld Draait Door for which he has composed several mini-operas. Lastly, Van der Aa has been named a member of the Akademie van Kunsten (Academy of Arts) as one of its representatives of contemporary music. This prestigious institution was founded last year by the KNAW (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences).
A recurrent motif in Van der Aa’s oeuvre is the relationship between man and machine, a classic theme that has never been more relevant than today when daily life is increasingly determined by technology. While still at the conservatoire Van der Aa was already writing pieces in which the musician played opposite a soundtrack or cassette recorder as partner. The friction between the imperfection that is inherent in human beings and the rigidity that typifies technology produces a theatrical tension that Van der Aa explores further in all of his work.
In the monodrama One the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan encounters an image of herself on a large video screen. Together they create the emotionally twisted character of One. It proves to be a practice run for After Life, based on the film of the same name by the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda, in which the singers, on the threshold of death, look back on their own lives in documentary film fragments. Equally intriguing is the mysterious relationship between the solo cellist in Up-close and her older alter ego on the film screen. Music and image intermesh in a refined way and leave the viewer space to make their own interpretation. In The Book of Disquiet, with the German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer in the leading role, Van der Aa uses the medium of film to give shape to the heteronyms of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. He achieves something completely new in The Sunken Garden, in which several dreamlike scenes are realized with the help of cinematographic 3D techniques, giving rise to an illusion within the already illusionary world of the theatre. In this way, Van der Aa’s multidisciplinary artworks reflect the ambiguity of human consciousness.
Michel van der Aa uses technology solely out of dramatic necessity, which makes his work powerful and poignant. Whether this is a manipulation of time (a game of past and present) or an intervention in the acoustics (resulting in a new musical space), these interventions are always meaningful to the story he wants to tell – often dealing with existential themes such as loneliness, the relationship with others, and death. Technology functions as a theatrical means with which he invokes great emotion.
The Book of Sand, with words by Jorge Luis Borges, is in this respect a tour de force. This digital song cycle was designed for the computer, enabling the user to switch between the three layers which comprise the story. This drama maintains credibility through its fluent synchronization of image and sound. The complex, refined programming of this beautifully designed app gives new meaning to the concept of ‘interactive art’.
Grounds for granting
The Johannes Vermeer Award jury is impressed by Michel van der Aa’s great qualities: he is a new renaissance man who is highly competent in several disciplines. Within the field of music theatre he has developed into an innovator of international allure. His broad interest is infectious, enabling him, with his roots in contemporary composed music, to connect as easily with the literary classics of the twentieth century, such as Pessoa and Borges, as with the imagery of the modern cinema, the idiom of pop music, digital culture and the mores of the opera house.
The jury commends Michel van der Aa’s character: his enthusiasm and perfectionism not only enable him to achieve great things but also enables the people around him. He realizes his ground-breaking ideas with a drive and perseverance that now and again verges on obsession. And in spite of the many prizes he has already received, arrogance is foreign to him.
Having every confidence that the Netherlands will hear a great deal more from him in the future, the jury has nominated Michel van der Aa the Johannes Vermeer Award 2015 Laureate.
The prize jury consisted of Ernst Hirsch Ballin (chair), Irma Boom, Claudia de Breij, Ann Demeester and Stephan Sanders.