Up-close, a multi-disciplinary work by Dutch composer and director Michel van der Aa that combines a piercing cello concerto with an enigmatic silent film, has won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. The prize, which carries with it $100,000, was announced this evening by the University of Louisville, which sponsors the honor.
Musically, Up-close is a work for strings of Bartokian astringency and a cinematic intensity that recalls Bernard Herrmann; the ambiguous film leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. The 42-year-old van der Aa, a "house composer" for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, wrote the piece for Argentinian-French cellist Sol Gabetta and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, who premiered Up-close in Stockholm in 2011. Disquiet Media, a label founded by van der Aa, has released a DVD recording of the piece.
We caught up with van der Aa by email to chat about Up-close. The phone call about the Grawemeyer Award came, says van der Aa, as a total surprise. It puts the 42-year-old in extraordinary company; former winners include Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams, Kaija Saariaho, Pierre Boulez, and one of van der Aa's own former teachers, Louis Andriessen.
It's unusual for a classical composer to work as a stage director as well; which came first for van der Aa, writing the music or envisioning the piece's theatrical element? "Usually I think a long time about a new piece before actually writing down the first note," he says. "In the case of Up-close, I had an idea of dividing the stage in two halves, one half for the orchestra and the other half containing a film screen that showed us footage of the exact same setup of the orchestra, chairs, music stands.
"But instead of the solo cellist in the film," van der Aa continues, "we find an elderly lady sitting on stage. Gradually, the film world and stage word mirror each other more and more until the two layers start to overlap and the solo cellist picks up an antique lamp and walks 'into' the film world."
The action is cloaked in mystery — and that's very much van der Aa's intention. "One essential element in the piece," he says, "is the mysterious device that the elderly lady uses to communicate with the outside world. The sounds of the machine intertwine with the orchestra. We never find out if her messages are reaching the other side of the line. It's the ritual of the communication, or failed communication, that's more important to me than the actual message."