Michel van der Aa, International Contemporary Ensemble offer emotion and drama

May 11, 2012

If you thought that all music was about melody, rhythm and harmony, Dutch composer Michel van der Aa could broaden your vision. His is all gesture, emotion and drama, and the four members of the International Contemporary Ensemble who were with him at the Phillips Collection on Thursday for another in the museum’s Leading European Composers series gave a convincing argument for the power of his musical ideas.

Van der Aa, who manned the synthesizer throughout the evening, is a recording engineer turned composer. He’s written music for the concert hall and the theater, for film and for dance, and recently the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra signed him on for a long-term partnership.

The seven short pieces in Thursday’s program offered a retrospective of 15 years of Van der Aa’s chamber writing, but anyone looking for some evolving direction in his musical thinking had to be disappointed. He seems to have sprung fully grown into the world of gesture. For his 2003 “Memo” for violin and cassette recorder (yes — that old hand-held device), the clicking of its play and rewind controls and the whistling of the rewinding soundtrack were as integral a part of the score as the duet violinist Erik Carlson played with his recorded self. Van der Aa’s 1995 “Oog” for cello and soundtrack had the cello expounding a whole arsenal of attacks, releases, thumpings and vibratos, echoed (mimicked?) by a soundtrack that morphed into overtones, and the piece occasionally had cellist Michael Nicolas slicing his bow through the air like Zorro on the attack in visual punctuation of what he had just played.

In “Quadrivial” (1997) for flute (the agile Eric Lamb), violin, cello and piano, pianist Jacob Greenberg, armed with a set of drumsticks that he rattled around on the piano body, held the rest of the ensemble in sway, Svengali-like, with false starts and threatening postures.

But the concluding “Transit” (2007), a dark silent video with piano score (or was it a piano score with video accompaniment?), was the most powerful testimony to the ease with which Van der Aa has brought the visual into his musical world and vice versa.


Dutch composer Michel van der Aa is all gesture, emotion and drama. He and four International Contemporary Ensemble members gave a convincing argument for the power of his musical ideas. (Marco Borggreve/Intermusica)

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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