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After Life After Life
DUTCH COMPOSER MICHEL VAN DER AA VISITED AUSTRALIA IN 2000 WITH HIS FORMER MENTOR LOUIS ANDRIESSEN AND DIRECTOR PETER GREENAWAY TO WORK ON THE GREENAWAY OPERA, WRITING TO VERMEER. VAN DER AA’S OWN PIECES FEATURE PRE-RECORDED SOUNDTRACKS OR VIDEO PROJECTIONS WHICH DOUBLE THE LIVE PERFORMERS, CREATING A DYNAMIC INTERACTION BETWEEN THE TRAGIC, HARRIED, ONSTAGE CHARACTERS AND THEIR TECHNOLOGISED OTHERS. VAN DER AA IS A KEYNOTE SPEAKER AT THE 2007 TOTALLY HUGE NEW MUSIC FESTIVAL CONFERENCE WHERE SELECTED SCORES AND FILMS FROM HIS OEUVRE WILL BE PRESENTED.

How would you characterise your aesthetic?

I often work with electronics or soundtrack, combining pre-recorded samples and live music, which lets me stretch the sounds of the ensemble or the orchestra, or put them in a different context. The soundtracks are closely related to the live sound, so they act as an alter ego for the live players. In the operas One (2002) and After Life (2005), the singers on stage are also singing in the projections—they do duets with themselves. They finish each other’s sentences and movements. It’s almost an extra set or layer of musicians. The use of a visual alter ego in the projections and an electronic alter ego in the soundtrack—both of which I do in One—is another way of stretching the personality on stage and of providing insight into the mind of the protagonist. It becomes an internal dialogue.

In terms of video and multimedia in opera, Greenway and Andriessen—together with Steve Reich, Robert Wilson and Philip Glass—are key figures.

I was here for Adelaide [with Vermeer]. At that point Louis collaborated with Peter Greenaway and with me, and now I’m trying to do it myself. The important difference between us is that we have a different starting point. In One and in After Life, while I was writing the music I was also thinking about what would happen in the projections and on stage. By writing all three layers in one I could decide—for each moment—which of these elements would be foregrounded. The shifting of weight to and from the music also influences the musical structure and the phrasing.

Mischa Spel describes your doubling of the performers as being like “freezing” sections of the music, which then “thaw out” as they are repeated or extended. The metaphor which I would prefer, however, would be to call this a kind of “blurring” or “smudging” of material, like charcoal on a page, so that it becomes not just an opposition between two things—two musical lines, or the live singer versus the filmed one—but that there is also a spreading of these opposed elements, and an exchange of sounds and rhythmic elements between the two lines.

[Freezing] is something that I often do with the soundtracks, though. The ensemble stops playing and the tape echoes the last chord they played. With a dry cut between them, the reverb or the echo is cut open and the new part is then played live with that reverb in the background. In that sense time is stopped and then a new time axis is shown through that echo.

So it’s not so much that time stops, but that another time opens up.

Yes. That’s the way I use polyphony.
Michiel Cleij notes that in many of your works there exist what he calls musical or “aural images”, which might be considered as blocks within a collage of elements, structured together, and which then recur or are worked through over the course of the piece.

I don’t see it so much as that montage style of music. It’s more like you cut open the music and you look through and see what is happening behind it or underneath it—and then that original musical element continues again. That use of polyphony is quite different from the postmodernist montage technique where things are cut or stopped and then a new thing simply happens.

Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape seems an obvious comparison with your work, not only because of the sense of identity which Beckett develops—of tragic individuals dealing with their past and the fragmentation of their identity—but also because Krapp records his own voice and then plays it back over the course of a dramatic scene.

You are the first one who has pinpointed that work, but some people have made the Beckett comparison before. I had never heard of it before I wrote Here—in circles (2002), in which the soprano uses a tape recorder during the performance. I know Beckett, of course, but I’m not that familiar with his work.

Here—enclosed (2003), in which the soprano is meant to be locked inside an opaque box, reminds me of those 19th century seances where a medium would be locked in a box in order to prevent them from tampering with what was going on outside.

The soprano is not actually there, though, in Here—enclosed. It’s a dress dummy which the conductor reveals at the end. But theatrically, she’s there [and is heard in the soundtrack]. The text which I wrote for the Here trilogy [and for One] is about a woman who is completely lost and who tries to find herself again. The box emphasizes the sense of confinement which she feels and you hear this musically. The conductor walks to the box twice. At first he doesn’t do anything. Then the live ensemble gets ‘stuck’ in the soundtrack; the soundtrack encloses the ensemble. At the climax, the conductor hits a light switch on the side and you see the silhouette of woman in a dress. The ensemble then starts miming and you hear the sound coming from the box. So the music is captured and enclosed acoustically within this box.

Are these some of the things which you will be talking about in your keynote ddress?

I will talk about the theatrical layers and the use of multimedia in my composition, using examples from One, After Life and Passage (2002), focussing especially on the relationship between music, soundtrack, live action onstage, and the action in the film or video. I am hoping that this will generate a lively discussion. Also there is a good cross section of my pieces and films being presented in the festival.


Michel van der Aa, Keynote Address, Totally Huge New Music Festival Conference, April 28; works by Michel van der Aa are in the programs: Sonic Sights, WA Symphony Orchestra, AGWA April 28; Sonic Image, Luna Cinemas, Northbridge, April 27; Resonator, WAAPA, April 30; Sparkling Rhythms, with percussion ensemble Defying Gravity, WAAPA, May 1-3. www.tura.com.au/events/totallyhuge/
Michel van der Aa’s website, www.doublea.net, includes the articles by Mischa Spel and Michiel Cleij referred to in this interview.

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 41

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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