Ahead of our UK premiere of The Book of Disquiet, Philip Cashian, composer and Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music analyses Michel van der Aa’s striking music.


Van der Aa was born in 1970 and is a truly multidisciplinary figure: “his ability to fuse music, text and visual images into a totally organic whole sets him apart from nearly all his contemporaries” (The Guardian). Acoustic instruments, voices, electronics, actors, theatre and video are all extensions of his musical vocabulary, many of which will play a part in The Book of Disquiet on Wednesday 24 and Thursday 25 February 2016.

Here, Philip focuses on one of his most recent works – the Violin Concerto written in 2014 for Janine Jansen with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, a piece rooted in tradition but with a distinctly theatrical edge.


From the US Premiere of ‘The Book of Disquiet’. Photo by Marina Levitskaya, courtesy of Peak Performances at Montclair State University


Surprisingly for a composer who is at the forefront of incorporating cutting edge technology with live performance, this recent Concerto, written only two years ago, aligns itself with the traditional three movement structure and has no electronics. A lot of the writing reminds me of the fabulous, under rated Stravinsky Violin Concerto, particularly the episodic structure and energy Van der Aa’s third movement has, which I find has parallels with the final movement of the Stravinsky – a set of variations that fly around the orchestra at breakneck speed.

On his website Van der Aa described writing for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and soloist Janine Jansen as his “dream team. He goes on to say I love the theatrical possibilities of having someone who is the embodiment of the work. The theatre begins in Jansen’s presence and personality, but extends across the whole stage”. This energy and dynamism is clearly audible in this virtuosic, almost toe-tapping live recording!

The music is constantly changing direction, repeating itself (02:28 – 02:33 is a return to 01:11 – 01:16), going back and re-tracing it’s steps but always finding something new.

A lot of this frenetic activity is underpinned by a regular pulse somewhere in the orchestra, pizzicato or un-pitched percussion, so that the feeling of syncopation is strong (07:50 – 08:37). Van der Aa has talked much about the influence of jazz in the piece.

The movement starts with the solo violin (00:06 – 00:11) playing a repetitive figure that acts almost as a leitmotif or ‘musical engine’, which keeps returning in different guises around the orchestra to re-energize the music (01:02 – 01:08, 04:06 – 04:12, 06:12 – 06:32, 07:11 – 07:25).

He uses the orchestra not just to accompany and punctuate what the soloist is playing but also like a hall of mirrors, reflecting and transforming the violin’s music.

At 04:31 – 04:33 a tremolo in the violin becomes a flutter-tongue in the flute. At 03:41 – 03:50 violin tremolos and a trill are passed to the trumpet.

The movement is full of surprises, such as the brief brass riff coming from nowhere that sounds almost like a sample at 05:12 – 05:25, or the suddenly more reflective, delicate writing with bells at 06:01 – 06:11.

Listen out for the music starting to slowly accumulate from 06:22 – 07:14, taking us into the final section with lots of pulsing, ticking percussion and a bluegrass feel to the violin writing, particularly from 08:02 – 08:37.


Michel van der Aa Oog
Oog – Michel van der Aa, Markus Hohti

Tansy Davies Neon
Neon – Tansy Davies, Azalea Ensemble, Christopher Austin

Simon Steen Andersen

Andrew Norman

Martijn Padding White Eagle

Julia Wolfe Believing
Believing – Julia Wolfe, Bang On A Can All-Stars

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