Name: Michel van der Aa
Occupation: Composer, Script Writer, Director
Current Release: Time Falling on Disquiet
Recommendations: The entire catalogue of J.S. Bach :-)
For me, art must always find a balance between form and structure, content and human poetry for true emotion. When one side comes to the fore, I personally feel something is lost. Bach is for me the master of this balance.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Michel van der Aa, his website is the best place to find out more about him and his work.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started playing guitar and piano when I was 9 years old. From the get-go I was more interested in improvising and creating than in studying music from books. I made up new songs and performed them to my family in the living room. My dad was an organ player and choir conductor and my mum a good amateur alto singer, and I remember falling asleep with the sound of them making music a few doors away. I think this is also when my love for Bach music began.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I’m not sure if it was emulating others in my case, but there’s certainly an ever-changing backdrop of art that I come across that I am struck by that influences my taste and output. I get inspiration from many artists and art forms; film, dance, theatre, visual arts, and music.
When I finished high-school I went on to study sound engineering at the conservatory and started my own record company. When I realised this wasn’t fulfilling, I changed direction and took up composition studies instead. I was already a bit older and perhaps because of this was less influenced by my teachers. But many artists have inspired me over the years and continue to inspire me today.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
I think the biggest challenge was (and occasionally still is) to trust my instincts and to not let external factors influence my creative decision making. Initially this was very much about letting a visual world in, to extend my audible vocabulary, for example film and lighting etc.
Over the last few years my music has become much more genre-fluid and my early pop roots have had a greater influence in my writing. I’m in a happy position now that my audience understands me and knows and expects this to be part of my output.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
My studio is centred around a Mac; running ProTools, Ableton and Finale. I create much of my electronics in the box, but a few years ago also added a substantial modular synth. I missed the tactile link to sound creation and the modular synth is wonderful in that respect.
I compose both on music paper and on the computer. When I write for voice I often try out things at the piano as well.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My creative brain works best in the morning, so I make sure I block each morning until lunch for composing. In the afternoon I deal with emails, production and arrange most meetings. I try to be really strict in separating the creative work from production and administrative work. I found it doesn’t work well if I combine them, I get too distracted.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
It’s a daily struggle, and it doesn’t get easier. I find that waiting for inspiration doesn’t work for me, I have to keep doing, trying, failing and trying again. This is the only way I make progress.
The output is also non-linear, I can work for 4 hours on a section of music that sucks and I end up binning the next day. And then suddenly in 10 minutes I can write something that works well. I feel that I work best by creating a lot of sketches first in order to get to a certain essence that can lead to what I’m really looking for.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
I’m currently working on a new opera called “Upload”. It focusses on the question: What if our minds could live forever? Recent advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience mean that we will soon be able to map our memories and experiences, and use these data to build a digital consciousness identical with our own. These ‘whole brain emulations’ will be able to carry on indefinitely after our deaths: a way of virtual resurrection. But where do our identities really reside? In our minds, our bodies, or our relationships? And how far does the data from our lives determine our fate? “Upload” will explore these ancient philosophical questions against the backdrop of present-day and near-future technologies.
I have been studying this subject for years, knowing I wanted to use it somehow in a new piece, and then suddenly things fell into place and a new opera commission emerged. “Upload” will tell its story through live action, motion-capture, and immersive film. So in this project I started with the story, I’m now composing the music and am still researching the stage technologies to prepare short ‘sprints’ to test ideas. The opera will be premiered in March 2021 at Dutch National Opera, and will tour to Opera Cologne, Bregenzer Festspiele and New York Park Avenue Armory.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
We’re surrounded by technology, it’s in the DNA of our time, thus I always felt it would be strange not use it in my work. When I put my work together I like the idea to be clear and easy to explain in one sentence. Key to me is how the idea can be communicated to an audience and what tools can help in this. It could be just a string quartet, or it could be a full-blown orchestra with film projections. Technology is therefore for me a wonderful tool that allows me to realise more ambitions ideas and concepts from my work, never the other way around.
Technology and computers are also very good in helping the organisation of my ideas. Working with a computer helps save time on things like expanding instrumental parts from scores or lining up electronics with my soundtracks. I know my digital tools so well that I can imagine a sound in my head and then instinctively know which plugins and applications I should use to create this sound. So for me there’s usually first a ‘dreamed’ sound that I recreate with my digital tools.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, including the artists performing your work?
Collaborations are the lifeline to my creative momentum. I love collaboration and learn so much from the people I work with. Especially in the opera and music theatre work I make, it’s wonderful to be working with dramaturges, designers, singers; who give me so many new ideas and help take my work to another level.
How is writing the music and having it performed live connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I often write for musicians that I find inspiring, especially in case of a solo concerto. The soloist becomes a muse. Writing for Janine Jansen for my violin concerto for example was an amazing experience. She ended up performing her part in a way I could never have imagined when composing it. So, if things go well a live performance reveals aspects of a piece that you didn’t even know were there.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
Time in composition means everything, it’s one of the most difficult aspects to consider. How do you determine the density of events over time so that an audience can still take information in? Too much content in too little time and it becomes a blur. Too little and the music can become boring, causing the listener to lose interest. To distribute content well within a work over time is one of the hardest things to judge, especially since you as the creator and already know the material and therefore don’t have the perspective of someone hearing it for the first time.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
The electronic layer in my work often is created with recordings of the musicians that are performing the work on stage. So the soundtrack becomes their alter ego, the live performers duelling with their own recorded sound. It's a dramatic tool, but also serves as a tool to defy the expectations of the audience. The acoustic sound world of the ensemble or the musicians blend in such a way with the electronics that the source is not clear anymore.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Sound for me is very much connected to the visual. I stretch and extend the sound world in my compositions often with a visual layer. In some works the visual and theatrical gestures of the musicians directly translate to the sound, I ask them to mime, or playback with a pre-recorded excerpt.
In my operas the ideas and concepts are often divided between the sound and visual aspects. Since I create both layers I use the interplay between them continually transforming perspectives.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I’m a humanist and my work focuses on humanist themes over social or political subjects. Having said that, through the personal stories of the characters in my music theatre I do touch upon themes such as apartheid (e.g in ‘Blank Out’) or anti-Semitism (e.g in ‘After Life’)
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
A whole generation of listeners have Spotify playlists that move from Bach to Beyoncé, from Radiohead to Ligeti. I think genre lines don’t exist anymore for many young listeners and for me neither, and it feels very artificial to keep them in my work. The same is true with visual culture: We’re surrounded by technology, and it’s a key part of modern life, so I naturally incorporate it in my work.
This is how I feel how art could develop, artforms becoming less and less separated with music becoming genre-fluid, and technology driving better ways to combine sound and vision.