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Michel van der Aa
Just Before
& Mask

Julian Anderson presenter
Claron McFadden soprano
Benjamin Kobler, piano

members of the Philharmonia Orchestra/Baldur Brönnimann


Music of Today: Thu 9 Oct 2008, 6:00pm Royal Festival Hall, London

For any new music lover desperate to hear beyond the half-dozen post-war composers who now command an anniversary bonanza or two between them every year, the Philharmonia’s Music of Today series is breath itself.

Under Julian Anderson’s encyclopaedic artistic direction it unfailingly introduces Southbank audiences to substantial works by leading European and American composers. These are generally of the younger generation but are by no means raw ingénues. They are always talented, significant and have established reputations away, but are practically unknown to concert halls in this country.

Michel van der Aa (b.1970) is a perfect example. A respected figure on the continent, with a string of major prizes to his name, and a composer of rich, distinctive music that manages to be approachable without sounding cheap, he should be better known here than he is. Here’s hoping for a change. Trained as he is in film and stage direction, and with a strong interdisciplinary bent, van der Aa’s best work is probably in multi-media: my own experience of his video opera One in Warsaw in 2004 was unforgettable. Here were two works for instruments only, but some of that multi-dimensional approach was retained in the use of electronic soundtracks in each piece.

These digital accompaniments were constructed from samples of the live instruments, stretched, distorted and fragmented in the studio until they possessed very much a life of their own. Rarely were they used to simply augment the instrumental sound: in Just Before the piano was often engaged in an awkward and disruptive dialogue with the electronics, and in Mask the electronics were used to suppress parts of the instrumental acoustic spectrum. When acoustic and electronic were in such oblique relationships, the music worked best. Van der Aa is well aware that effectiveness in multi-media work comes from not only sensory indulgence but also from the disorienting envelopment of multiple layers of interacting information. Just Before drooped a little in the middle and was probably a little too long for its material, but Masks showed much of what is best of Van der Aa’s music, with a dynamic rhythmic surface, lush harmonic underpinnings and razor sharp editorial cuts. There was also a theatrical element. The piece was rhythmically punctuated by strips of gaffer tape being torn from a table surface: at the end the acoustic masking that inspired the piece was made physical as the percussionist gradually used this tape to wrap a ticking metronome in strips of black cloth, mummifying it into silence.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Music for Today in Musical Pointers:
Does the Philharmonia know the constitution of those who attend those Music of Today events?
... by a modest audience, attended by only a few, even though this Music of Today series is free to all comers. ...
Musical Pointers
- - maybe Ivan Fedele should be in line for one of the Philharmonia's Music of Today free concerts (eg Saariaho's in 2005)? ...