Michel Van der Aa Brings his Unique Vision to Campus

A woman ascends a ladder through a hole, reaching a barren desert. An old man covers his left eye while a variety of urban stills flash behind him. An elderly woman gazes at a mirror while her movements are mimicked by a cellist opposite her.

What do these series of images have in common, other than their consistently turbulent classical background scores? They all originate from the works of Dutch artist, Michel van der Aa, whose projects have a worldwide impact, even within our own  Wake Forest bubble.

Van der Aa is truly a jack-of-all-trades — a filmmaker who combines music and imagery in a unique and expressive way, creating intriguing art films that greatly stimulate the senses. His films are usually quite lacking in dialogue and tend to provide very little context regarding the images onscreen, and thus tend to feature a great amount of symbolism in the rich and sometimes frightening imagery. He has written and created numerous multimedia works for the screen and stage, including films and operas that are still often revived. He is currently working on the premiere for his fourth opera, Sunken Garden. The artist has received numerous awards for powerful work, including the International Gaudeamus Prize in 1999.

Some of our very own Deacs saw the man in the flesh on the night of Thursday March 15, when

Wake Forest’s Interdisciplinary Performance and the Liberal Arts Center, also known as IPLACe, presented “An Evening with Michel van der Aa.” This was a talk in which the eponymous direc

tor screened one of his films, Transit, featuring accompaniment from live pianist Louis Goldstein in Brendle Recital Hall in the Scales Fine Arts Center. Following the performance, Van der Aa gave a lecture during which he described his creative methods and his own personal history. A lively question-and-answer session followed the talk.

The presentation of Transit was a powerful introduction to the talk, especially for the uninitiated. The film was shot with a stark black and white palette, and displayed footage of an old man in his home, featuring frequent cuts of doors and urban images spliced throughout. The film was accompanied by a meticulously constructed modernist piano soundtrack, played by Louis Goldstein with power and precision. The imagery was rich and heavy, and combining it with the eerie soundtrack created a truly unique and surreal mood.

Following the performance of his work, Van der Aa began the lecture portion of his visit. He began by discussing his own personal history, from his beginnings in studying sound engineering to his moving on to the study of film. He played clips from several of his other works, detailing the vast range of methods that he uses to bring his art to life. A particularly impressive work of his, “Book of Sand,” was constructed as an interactive three-level website that featured the same piece, played in three different styles for each level. Van der Aa even said he had a virtual reality installation in the works. However, the extravagant style of the artworks was not universally loved by all.

“This is nice, I guess,” said sophomore David Bumsted. “But I don’t think I really get it.”

This expression of perplexity could be a natural reaction to the composer’s creative and expressionistic choices, as the mood generated by his work may seem fairly alien to those who are unfamiliar with the genre. Not every Wake Forest student felt the same way, however, as shown by piano student Andrew Murphy who attended a lunch with Van der Aa earlier on Thursday.

“We talked primarily about the intersections of music and the other arts,” Murphy said. “Mr. Van der Aa is very interested in combining the arts, including technology. He said this is natural; Wagner, he said, would have used film were he alive today.”

While Van der Aa’s work is clearly not for everyone, his synthesis of music and technology is a powerful one, suggesting that classical music has indeed adapted to the 2018 internet era. His work is undoubtedly complex and potent, even for those who are largely uninitiated into the world of art films. For those interested in his innovative vision, many of his works are available on his website.