Nobel Music Prize Has Dutchman Dreaming of New Dimension

Composer Michel van der Aa has just scooped two awards, together worth $165,000, and is about to premiere a new work in London.

The 43-year-old composer has his work cut out with “Sunken Garden,” which employs 3D film and effects, at English National Opera. The 50,000-euro ($65,250) Mauricio Kagel Music Prize in Germany comes on top of the $100,000 Grawemeyer Award, sometimes called “the Nobel Prize for music.”

“It’s an amazing honor, quite aside from the money,” the Dutchman says of the Grawemeyer when we meet during rehearsals. “It helps put your name on the map, especially in the U.S.

“Several people were already interested in my works, and the award has pushed them into actually programming some of them. The LA Philharmonic will be performing my music-film piece ‘Up-close’ in January, and it’s led to other interest too.”

Van der Aa, wearing a blue sweater and jeans, says he’s still surprised. Previous winners include John Adams, Tan Dun, and Pierre Boulez.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist H. Charles Grawemeyer established the awards in 1985 with an endowment of $9 million. There are five categories, including education and psychology, and they are presented annually by the University of Louisville.

Van der Aa says his publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, sent “a bunch of scores” to the award committee without his knowledge.

What’s he planning to do with the money, I ask?

“After tax, you mean?” he says cheerfully. “I’m flying to Louisville after the last performance of the opera for the ceremony to collect it.

Studio Plan

“I’m thinking about having a separate working space outside of my house in Amsterdam, so I might invest in a studio, and make something acoustically right for me. I’ve also invested quite a bit of time and money in the 3D film for this opera, so it’s nice to get a bit of it back.”

Van der Aa (the name means someone who lives by a waterway) looks young and fresh-faced. His gray hair is in a boyish fringe. He trained as a recording engineer and composer before studying at the New York Film Academy. He directs his own stage works, as well as creating the filmed elements involved in them.

“Sunken Garden” has a libretto by British novelist David Mitchell (author of “Cloud Atlas”). It pushes van der Aa’s love of genre-mixing to new complexity. Live singers will interact with pre-filmed 3D colleagues and computer-generated 3D effects.

“It’s not just eye-candy,” says the composer. “The opera is about someone trying to find missing people. He finds them in a mystical garden, a place between life and death, between day and night. This is where the 3D comes in. It’s not a stunt. It’s a functional tool for storytelling.”

Clips of music on his website show he loves drama and atmosphere. What’s the music going to be like?

“It’s my most colorful score until now,” he says. “On one side there are some abstract sounds, and on the other I’ve used straightforward pop and dance. I wanted to make a contemporary story, a story that an audience could really relate to.”

“Sunken Garden,” staged by ENO, is at the Barbican Theatre from April 12 through April 20. Information: or +44-20-7638-8891

Muse highlights include Mark Beech on arts, Jason Harper on cars and Lance Esplund on U.S. art shows.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)