Michel van der Aa Wins 2013 Grawemeyer Award

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dutch composer Michel van der Aa (mee-SHEHL VAHN dur-a) has won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for his 2010 piece Up-close, for solo cello, string orchestra and film. The prize is worth $100,000.

Up-close was premiered on March 11, 2011 at the Konserthuset in Stockholm, Sweden with the Stockholm Konserthuset, Amsterdam Sinfonietta and soloist Sol Gabetta. The work has yet to be performed in the United States. 

Established in 1984 at the University of Louisville by entrepreneur and philanthropist, H. Charles Grawemeyer, the $100,000 Grawemeyer Award is one of the most lucrative prizes in music and is handed out annually in the fields of music, political science, psychology, education and religion. Previous winners have included last year's prize to Finnish composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen for his Violin Concerto and to Louis Andriessen, Aa's compatriot and former teacher who won the prize in 2011.

Up-close was commissioned by the European Concert Hall Organization and originally written for Argentinian-French cellist Sol Gabetta and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta.

The 30-minute work is presented with the theatrical, on-stage juxtaposition of live musicians and large projection screen, and unfolds with a dramatic counterpoint between the virtuosic writing for solo cello and the film's complex narrative of an elderly woman's determined attempts at communication as she moves from empty sound stage to abandoned house in the woods. As the piece progresses, barriers between on-stage and on-screen identities begin to dissolve, with the richly mysterious suggestion of the woman serving as alter ego of the cellist. 

Following its European tour in March 2011 the Dutch newspaper Parool described Up-close as a tale of "fundamental human loneliness" that "unerringly envisages images and actions, arousing associations that make painfully clear that we are all locked up very much alone in our own little self. Image and music are woven into a coherent whole in a perfectly timed, tightly directed play of varied repetitions. Its powerful charge derives from the fact that it is all structured so unsentimentally and in an abstractly musical way."

According to Grawemeyer Award director Marc Satterwite, Up-close distinguished itself as "a fascinating multimedia experience that defies simple classification… It really creates its own genre."

Van der Aa, 42 and resident composer for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, explains that he has not always employed new media in his music, but rather that it was a gradual process. "I found at one point that I couldn't express all my ideas in music alone anymore," Aa wrote in an email interview. "I needed to extend my 'toolbox.' That's where film and staging came in."

Van der Aa was born in 1970 in Oss, Netherlands and studied composition and recording engineering at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague before stays in New York in 2002 and 2007 studying film at the New York Film Academy and stage direction at the Lincoln Center Theater Director's Lab, respectively.

Though his international reputation might soon reside in his innovative adoption of new media, van der Aa insists that new media is merely a means to an end. "The subject of piece," Aa explained, "has to ask for multimedia, demand multimedia. I first have an idea for a piece and then I start thinking how to translate that to an audience, sometimes it needs a string quartet, sometimes it needs 3-D film. But always the idea is the starting point."

Van der Aa's recent activities include the launch of Disquiet TV — an ambitious re-imagining of the online concert experience through a single interface that promises multiple video feeds, online chats and interactive camera direction — and the upcoming production of the 3D film opera, Sunken Garden, with libretto by celebrated novelist David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas). 

The trailer for Up-close

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