Michel van der AA (b. 1970)
Spaces of Blank (2007) [27:08]
Mask (2006) [13:50]
Imprint (2005) [14:10]
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo: Blank)
Gottfried von der Goltz (violin: Imprint)
the Asko|Schönberg Ensemble/Otto Tausk (Mask)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Ed Spanjaard (Blank)
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (Imprint)
rec. 20 March, 2009, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Netherlands (Blank); 3 July, 2010, Muziekgebouw aan't IJ, Amsterdam, Netherlands (Mask); 3 June, 2006, Muziekgebouw aan't IJ, Amsterdam, Netherlands (Imprint). DDD

Michel Van der Aa's music is exciting, innovative, evocatively beautiful and accessible. It's also highly experimental and often starts from abstract conceptions. Yet on the evidence of this CD (and the Here Trilogy also reviewed recently on MusicWeb International) at least it's always highly musical and engaging. Strangely unassuming, unobtrusive, undemonstrative, it's also music (and a musical milieu) of real significance to new music and its wider concerns.

In 2010 the Dutch composer, who is also a multimedia director, founded the label, Disquiet Media http://disquietmedia.net/ to further and promote the many meeting points between multimedia, music and the arts emphatically in the context of the most forward-thinking recent developments in technology. This disc appears on that label. Its production standards, aesthetics and technical quality are every bit as impressive as Van der Aa's music.

Spaces of Blank is a collection of three recent works. They all exhibit those characteristics: Van der Aa's is music about music, his works examine humans' reactions to and perceptions of music. But this is not impossibly vague or discursive self-indulgence. Each of the three pieces here looks at and progressively explores the construction of sound itself. And the ways in which relationships work between makers, players and listeners. As the clear and helpful liner-notes put it, 'Van der Aa imperceptibly transforms acoustic sounds into electronic ones, or manipulates them beyond recognition by electronic means, thus creating a sound universe that arouses a permanent state of wonder: what am I hearing, what is meant by this?'

In practice this means providing some of the answers to the questions about communication and identity as we listen to others' (the composer's, the players') conception of music. The confluence of a Baroque orchestra (the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in Imprint), for example, with musical idioms of 2005 is an exciting prospect. And it's one that fulfils the promise of that examination of our conception of music well. Imprint carefully opens up for examination the role of electronics, which transforms familiar sounds into, not puzzling, but certainly stimulating ones; the inversion of conventional violin and other instrumental timbres throughout - not to shock, nor scarcely to provoke. But to invite us to re-examine how we hear.

Then in the case of Spaces of Blank the invocation of poetry (by Emily Dickinson, Anne Carson and Rozalie Hirs) works in such a way that the standard three-movement song-cycle is almost subverted by the complement of electronics and mechanical commentary on the soundtrack. Yet not as intrusions, still less self-conscious, or spurious noise for its own sake.

Van der Aa writes, perhaps, as Stravinsky would write were he alive today - with a touch more apparent restraint. As if the earlier composer had internalised and rationalised the phlegmatic qualities of his more bravura attachments to sound. For Van der Aa's is a supremely confident style. He sees no need to shout. Yet he shares Stravinsky's fascination with fragmentation and sequence; though the later's music is not scored for the same spectacular impact as was that of the earlier. Van der Aa impresses by doing much with little.

It's insistent, melodic and concentrated, rather than speculative or tentative music. There's next to nothing that's spare. The performers are intent on pulling the most out of the rich sound-worlds; but never have to squeeze. Van der Aa's is music that yields its substance readily and without fuss - for all its depths and variety. These are works for intimate orchestra, soloists (Christianne Stotijn (mezzo) in Spaces of Blank; Gottfried von der Goltz (violin) in Imprint) and ensemble, the Asko|Schönberg in Mask. In all three cases the momentum never once lapses, the sense of purpose is never abandoned, however much the music can be considered exploratory.

Spaces of Blank (from 2007) is the longest work on this CD - at nearly half an hour. Commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, it concentrates more on imagination than exposition - almost as some of Britten's song-cycles do; anxiety and illusion are not only firmly embedded as subject matter. They comprise the music's own substance and style. The soprano shares with her counterparts in the opera, One, and the Here Trilogy that almost sublime, certainly near-resigned, self-awareness that allows her to observe her own suffering. The solitude is detached. Here the question is, Why and How can someone in this state treat herself as a case for study and neither pity nor regret? The music is accordingly demonstrative without indulgence.

Mask (2006) lasts almost half as long. It also makes use of electronics and sound-track. Conflict is present though not as a dramatic theme begging resolution; rather a model with which to examine perception, deception even. This requires a mix of real imagination that's played with as much care as flair. Success on both counts here.

Imprint (2005) is also nearly a quarter of an hour duration. It explores the relationship between the almost mechanical regularity expected of certain facets of Baroque music and the apparently incongruous spontaneity of instrumental intensity which, in this case, violinist Gottfried von der Goltz, conveys very well.

This is a CD to approach head-on. Repeated listening reveals more of substance each time. The playing is uniformly excellent. If the name is new to you, try and supplement the compelling music on this CD with a little background. His is a project that's certainly going places.

Mark Sealey

Another excellent and excellently-produced CD from Van der Aa's Disquiet label. He's a composer much in demand at present. Listen to this interesting and convincing music to see why.