The sadistic edit: Michel van der Aa’s Disquiet Media

Editing is a solitary, violent act. It takes place in quiet rooms, away from the noise of creation. The editor wears a mask of impassive analysis and correction, yet takes pleasure in striking, warping and cutting into the material before them. The satisfaction of editing is private because it is a hidden art, purposefully invisible, deliberately shy of the public acclaim accorded to the creator. Editing takes place behind closed doors; it is a secret, sadistic pleasure.

Editing is at the root of Michel Van der Aa’s music. Formally trained in film and theatre production, he has a truly multimedia approach to his work. We’re not talking Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk quite yet, but there is a unity between the theatrical, textual and sonic layers of Van der Aa’s music that recalls the master of Bayreuth. Yet what Van der Aa seems to have taken from his education and experience is not so much the audience-side unification of artistic media, but the artisan-side commonalities of construction between them. To put it in cinematic terms, Van der Aa’s music takes us away from the passive consumption of the screen and into the electric activity of the editing suite.

These two CDs are the first offerings from Van der Aa’s new label, Disquiet Media, officially launched over the weekend. Disquiet’s focus will be on “compositions and music-theatre works that are firmly rooted in twenty-first century life,” a commitment illustrated across the Van der Aa pieces recorded on these launch releases.

DQM 01 collects three recent pieces for varying ensembles and is perhaps the fuller introduction to Van der Aa’s range. Spaces of Blank is a substantial three-part setting of poems by Emily Dickinson, Anne Carson and Rozalie Hirst for mezzo, orchestra and soundtrack (a near ever-present in Van der Aa’s ouevre); Mask is for small orchestral ensemble and soundtrack and Imprint is for solo violin and Baroque orchestra.

Michel van der Aa: Spaces of Blank, Mask, Imprint [excerpts] by disquietmedia

Spaces of Blank – as well as the Here trilogy recorded on DQM 02 – revisits the proverbial character of the solitary, traumatised woman familiar from Van der Aa’s video opera One (2002). Her persona is energised through editing: her life is a rough cut in formation. The music’s breaks and cuts, its loops and second glances, the fragments retained and discarded, the shedding of layers and the reconstitution of new meaning-structures beneath: this is her hyperactive existence, a kaleidoscopic prison. The potential of every element is exposed, but its development remains in perpetual flux; reconstitution is seemingly impossible.

In the Here trilogy the female protagonist, brilliantly sung by Claron McFadden, enters only in part 2, [in circles]. But she is present on stage from the start, hidden in a black plexiglass booth: only at the end of part 1, [enclosed], is the box illuminated and the female figure revealed. The ensemble, meanwhile, has established the trilogy’s mood and material through edgy, stop-start passages that – like a skipping CD – crosscut any sense of line, but project something great and hidden beneath (two-thirds of the way in the analogy is made explicit as both soundtrack and ensemble freeze on a single juddering moment). The skips become the foreground, creating their own rhythms and timbral profiles: the music discovers a new vitality as it dramatises its own post-digital failure to cohere. Part 3, [to be found], replaces much of the chaotic bluster of parts 1 and 2 with a glacial serenity. The blend of strings, percussion, voice and soundtrack is beautifully managed: this is one of Van der Aa’s best works. It has been previously recorded (for Col Legno, as part of the 2001 Donaueschingen documentation), but this is the superior recording, I think: slightly shorter yet somehow sounding slower in pace. The opening in particular is wonderfully hesitant.

Michel van der Aa: Here Trilogy [excerpts] by disquietmedia

In Mask, the violent incisions into the music’s fabric are sonically recreated in the tearing-off of nine thick strips of tape, which are used to mummify and silence a ticking metronome. Van der Aa thus dramatises several of his music’s primary themes in a brilliantly concise piece of music theatre: the dialogue between clock and musical time (and between forward and recursive time); music as transcendent, individualising act and the aestheticisation of material through the invasion of artistic agency.

If these consistencies and thematic crossovers make it sound as though Van der Aa’s music is all the same, Imprint makes us look again. In its instrumentation and form, it hints at a grand Baroque concerto, and those dramatic jumps and crosscut dialogues may be found as much in Vivaldi as in Van der Aa. Unusually there is no soundtrack, but Van der Aa plays on the relation between soloist and ripieno to create his familiar world of mirrors-within-mirrors: and, of course, the interaction of humans with technology is once more audibly apparent, whether in the thuds and clunks of the harpsichord or in the portative organ that the soloist uses to sustain long droning chords beneath the main instrumental texture.


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