On the international contemporary music scene, Michel van der Aa has established a distinctive profile. His works often involve multiple layers of sound or vision, even when they are, on the face of it, pure music, and those layers tend to be suggestive of other dimensions – past and present, individual and society, and so on.
In the UK, the 44-year-old Dutch composer is best known for Sunken Garden, the “occult mystery film-opera” co-commissioned by English National Opera and performed a year ago at the Barbican. Other outings have included the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Music of Today series and now this London Sinfonietta concert, bringing another premiere to the capital.
The title of the new work, Hysteresis, describes the scientific state in which a system depends on its past environment as well as its present. According to the programme note, Van der Aa aims to extend this idea to music, exploring how musical ideas might evolve and still retain something of their original character. This immediately raises the question of whether composers have not been dealing in hysteresis ever since they started to pen symphonies and sonatas, but perhaps that does not matter.
Nobody coming to Van der Aa’s new work is likely to focus long on its philosophical pretensions. What we hear is simply a clarinet concerto, but one bristling with life. Even Van der Aa’s characteristic layers of sound – a recorded soundtrack, the static from an old record player, analogue synthesiser sounds – seem incidental and could almost be swept away in favour of the virtuoso writing Hysteresis gives to the solo clarinet and small orchestra. Mark van de Wiel, principal clarinet of the London Sinfonietta, made a spine-tingling job of it as the music raced to its frenetic conclusion.
The concert also included two earlier Van der Aa works, Memo (2003) and the first UK performance of the complete Here Trilogy (2001-3), a full half an evening conducted by Baldur Brönnimann. The composer’s fingerprints – visual elements, recorded sound, layers of thought – were again present in force, but the music was less interesting and all the philosophical baggage acted as a dead weight. Claron McFadden, though, performed astonishing feats in the Here Trilogy’s exhausting soprano part.