The young Dutch composer Michel van der Aa likes to describe his works as containing multiple "layers" or "mirror realities."
For example, in Van der Aa's 30-minute "music theater" piece "Up-close" (2010), which will be part of Tuesday's Green Umbrella program at Walt Disney Concert Hall, a live performance by a cello soloist and string ensemble is synchronized with a film depicting a haunted-looking woman engaged in enigmatic activities — gathering shiny paper strips from a forest, placing furniture in a spartan room, and apparently composing music.
At times, the cellist is required to rise from her (or his) seat on-stage and mimic the actor's cinematic gestures, blurring the line between them as the actor becomes the soloist's alter ego (and vice versa). The music itself, with slashingly aggressive, dissonant stretches yielding to softly contemplative interludes, echoes the film's editing rhythms and quick-shifting visuals.
For Van der Aa, these complex interactions — between soloist and ensemble, imagery and music, live and recorded sounds, physical and virtual realities — are metaphors for the split-focus nature of modern life, in which our actions and sensory perceptions are reflected and refracted through laptops, hand-held devices and a slew of other high-tech paraphernalia. Trying to achieve harmony in such a multi-tasking environment, he says, is a tantalizing challenge for art and for artists.
"This is the world of social media that we live and somehow sometimes lose ourselves in and fool ourselves that that's sort of reality, while it's certainly not," says Van der Aa, speaking by Skype from his home in Amsterdam. "And that aspect of sort of sitting behind a window and being more of an observer than an actual participant in your life, that's something that always has fascinated me."
Van der Aa isn't the first composer or visual artist to integrate live classical music with film. The L.A. Philharmonic has been a pioneer among U.S. orchestras in presenting such multimedia ventures, including video artist Bill Viola's "The Tristan Project," a 2005 collaboration with director Peter Sellars and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
But many critics agree that Van der Aa's works unite these elements into groundbreaking hybrids, with poetic seamlessness and a scrim of richly ambivalent emotions. His one-minute opera, "With my ear to the ground," posits a musical dialogue between one of the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days in 2010 and his wife awaiting his return.
In "After Life," which is "set on a way station between heaven and Earth" and is based on Hirokazu Kore-eda's 1998 film, the dead must choose a single memory to define their lives, which is then dramatized on film. To create these movies, Van der Aa incorporated documentary footage of interviews with real people.
Van der Aa's 3-D opera "Sunken Garden," staged last April by the English National Opera at the Barbican in London, concerns a video artist who's making a film about the strange vanishing of an IT engineer. As the opera progresses, it dives down a rabbit hole of increasingly weird and menacing plot turns. A reviewer for the Guardian cited the teasingly self-referential work's "gradual merging and deepening ambiguity between what is live and what is on film."
"My generation, and generations before me, we all grew up with MTV," says the composer, who also directs the staging of his works. "All these elements became a natural part of my vocabulary. And I think more composers and creators are using these, and therefore also finding an audience that recognizes themselves in it, because this is the language they have around them."
Johannes Moser, the young German Canadian cellist who will handle Tuesday's demanding solo part, originally written for the Argentine Sol Gabetta, fits that profile. Known for his advocacy of new works, he premiered Enrico Chapela's "Magnetar," a concerto for electric cello, with the L.A. Phil, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel in 2011.
Moser says that Van der Aa is building on Richard Wagner's idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total art form, "in a very 21st century way." One key to Van der Aa's approach, Moser adds, is that although works such as "Up-close" feel organically coherent, they aren't overcontrolled.
"The message he is sending with that piece leaves very much room for interpretation," Moser says. "He is going in a very David Lynch way in that sense, that he presents something that is slightly mystical and it frees the listener from being just simply an onlooker."
Moser compares Van der Aa's strategy to that of films like Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris" (with a score by Cliff Martinez) and Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" (which utilized the prelude from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde"). Those movies, he says, deploy music to "spark your imagination" rather than to "drive your emotions" in pre-scripted ways.
"Up-close" will be performed Tuesday by the L.A. Phil New Music Group, led by conductor Brad Lubman, along with Pierre Boulez's "Éclat" and Elliott Carter's "Triple Duo."
Van der Aa says he has received offers to direct feature films, outside the concert hall, but "up until now I have politely refused."
"But never say never," he says. "If the right script lands on my desk, and the right producers give me a bag of money, I'm sure I'll be very tempted."
'Green Umbrella: Contemporary Legends'
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall