Speech by Minister Bussemaker on the occasion of the conferral of the Johannes Vermeer Award 2015 to Michel van der Aa

Ridderzaal, The Hague, 26 October, 2015

Your Royal Highness, Ladies and gentlemen,

Today, two old friends meet again: Michel van der Aa, and Johannes Vermeer.

The opera Writing to Vermeer debuted in 1999, with a libretto by filmmaker Peter Greenaway and set to music by Louis Andriessen. The main characters are the three most important women in Johannes Vermeer’s life: his wife, his mother and his model. The master himself is absent – he is away in The Hague to view a number of Italian paintings.

It was a turbulent time in seventeenth-century Delft, Vermeer’s home. The French were about to invade the Netherlands. The De Witt brothers’ lives were at stake.

In 1999, intermezzos of image and sound sketched that historical background, sweeping the audience into the tumultuous reality of 1672. The composer Louis Andriessen entrusted the task of creating these ‘musical collages’ to his former student, Michel van der Aa. Inspired by Vermeer and his era, he composed the electronic music accompanying the images.

Today, 16 years later, you, Michel van der Aa, encounter Johannes Vermeer yet again. Not in an opera, but in an award that bears Vermeer’s name. And now you are no longer just a former student, but a true master of your craft.

The Vermeer Award is intended for masters. Each year I present it to an artist of great virtuosity in his or her field. Today, Michel van der Aa is receiving this prestigious award. I feel that his mastery is twofold: it is expressed in his skill as a composer, and in his ability to touch his audience. Both facets are deserving of praise.

Michel van der Aa’s craftsmanship is exceptional. He is not a craftsman with just one gift – rather, he is a true polymath. Someone who excels at everything he does. Anyone who knows his oeuvre will be aware that alter egos play an important role – you can see it in One, and in the new The Book of Sand. Van der Aa himself often seems to be several people bundled up in one.

Van der Aa first trained as a recording engineer. But he is also a composer. And a director. And a filmmaker. Still, all of Van der Aa’s personalities can be grouped together under the label of ‘composer’. Michel, you are a composer in the most literal sense of the word. Com-ponere. Place-together. Combining disciplines, forging them into a varied unity, is perhaps your greatest talent, which runs like a thread through your work.

It also signifies your big breakthrough. In One you combined a soloist’s voice with image and sound. I heard and I saw One – a single verb is not enough for a true Van der Aa – and I was exceedingly impressed. The soloist remains distinctly human, the emphasis is on the sound, as echoed by the image. This is very special: the elements of your composition never lose their own, individual character. They remain distinct, while complementing one another. The soloist’s voice, for example, and the sound of a breaking branch merge into a new, intriguing, and beautiful whole.

One recognizes the master not only in his craftsmanship, but also in the way he touches his audience. “I don’t just commit notes to paper,” you once said. And indeed you do not. You write music for the eyes; you compose images for the ears. This is what makes a Van der Aa so special. You work your magic with time and space. You can follow a Van der Aa, but never fully grasp it. No, it grasps you, it takes you to a place you’ve never known before. It makes you think.

That’s what I especially admire in your work: the sense of wonder and surprise that it evokes. The questions that your characters – and your audience – are incited to ask. Sweeping, yet highly personal. What does it mean to be alone, to be afraid, to be sad? – Questions from Spaces of Blank. Or from After Life: If I may take one single memory with me to the afterlife, what will it be?

I feel that this is one of culture’s major duties: to ask questions. This is how we gain a better understanding of ourselves and of others.

Moreover, you ask these questions in the vernacular of our time. Following the premiere of your opera Sunken Garden in London in 2013, the English National Opera noted more young people in the audience than ever before. Your ability to find contemporary forms for a classical medium is truly amazing.

You did it again last year in the violin concerto that you composed for Janine Jansen – proof that the traditional music lover, too, is in good hands with you. You showed the world that you need no electrical sockets to write an innovative, impressive piece. I quote from a notice: “Van der Aa thrills by demonstrating the contemporary relevance of an ‘old-fashioned’ genre in the essence of his idiom.” An idiom of one’s own – that’s how one recognizes a true master.

Dear Michel, you are very deserving of this award. You are a master craftsman who knows how to galvanize his audience time and again. You yourself once said, “you’re only as intriguing as your most recent idea.” This award represents our appreciation for all the ideas you've had. I congratulate you from the bottom of my heart. And it is my hope this award will inspire you and give you the scope to compose yet another new idea.