a new genre: the digital, interactive song cycle

The Book of Sand

Michel van der Aa

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With The Book of Sand composer Michel van der Aa has invented a completely new genre: the digital, interactive song cycle. Inspired by the allusions to infinity and the use of mazes and mirrors in the fantastical stories of Jorge Luis Borges, Van der Aa puts you in a space where all places in the world exist simultaneously. A young woman (played by the Australian pop singer Kate Miller-Heidke) collects up sand which is being moved between the film layers by a mysterious machine. Three parallel film layers reveal alternative points of view and introduce new elements and characters to the story, which allows you to choose a new route through the narrative at any point. It’s a wonder of interactivity which will have you returning to it time and again.

The Book of Sand can be accessed through the web (thebookofsand.net) and via an app (iTunes and Google Play).

Optimal performance of the site can be achieved by using Chrome, Safari or a mobile browser.


‘It is true that I never leave my house, but it is also true that its doors (whose numbers are infinite) are open day and night to men and to animals as well.’ From Jorge Luis Borges’ The House of Asterion


The Holland Festival and Dutch composer Michel van der Aa teamed up to develop The Book of Sand, a song cycle which audiences can access through an app on their smart phones or tablets or by going online to a website. Van der Aa has invented a new genre: the digital, interactive song cycle. By switching between different musical and visual layers, viewers can determine their own version of the performance. The Book of Sand will be launched on 31 May 2015 at 4 PM. From that moment on, the website will be live and the app available – both for free.


The Holland Festival’s new artistic director, Ruth Mackenzie, is planning to make digital art a regular part of her programming. Michel van der Aa is an artist who frequently combines different types of media in his work and does not hesitate to develop new formats, such as 3-D film opera for instance. Ove the years, the Festival has produced and presented important work by Van der Aa with regularity, including his operas After Life (2006) and Sunken Garden (2013).


Van der Aa does not use technology as a gimmick; he integrates it aesthetically and conceptually in his productions in a natural manner. In the opera One, a woman in psychological distress engaged in a virtuoso dialogue with her alter ego on video. In the film opera Sunken Garden, three-dimensional film images evoked a surrealistic underworld. Also playing an important role in that production were scenes filmed by the characters with their own smart phones – a contemporary way of presenting parts of the story, which moreover offered new narrative possibilities. Those possibilities have been further developed in The Book of Sand.


The script and music for The Book of Sand were inspired by ideas related to the concept of infinity and by the mirrors and mazes that appear in Jorge Luis Borges’ stories, such as The Zahir, The Aleph, The Book of Sand, The Library of Babel and The House of Asterion. The libretto is composed of excerpts from these stories.


The central figure is a 30-year-old woman, played by the Austrian singer-songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke with whom Van der Aa previously worked in Sunken Garden. The woman collects up sand that is being moved between the film layers by a mysterious machine. She enters a space where all places in the world, seen from every angle, are present at the same time. Anyone who gazes into that space can see everything in the universe simultaneously, from every possible perspective, without distortion, overlapping or confusion.


The Book of Sand is told by means of three different layers of film and their accompanying music. By switching between the layers, viewers can choose their own route through the song cycle. Each of the layers introduces new and different points of view. Kate Miller-Heidke’s vocal part remains the same in each, but the accompaniment is different in all three. Alter egos of the protagonist, a device Van der Aa uses more often in his work, appear in each of the three layers and react to one another.


Musically, the first layer is intimate, abstract and electronic. The second layer is the most pop like, with beats, electronics and a choir. The third layer is a cappella, with only a choir of 12 voices – the Nederlands Kamerkoor – and the protagonist’s solo part. After a certain period of time, the film returns to the beginning and the viewer can discover new elements of the story by taking a different route through the cycle. The music fragments seamlessly flow into one another as the viewer switches from one layer to the next.


With The Book of Sand, the Holland Festival is presenting an innovative production that explores the boundaries between traditional performing arts and contemporary digital innovations.


The Book Of Sand Filmstill 02 Michel Van Der Aa Halfbreed The Book Of Sand Filmstill 05 Michel Van Der Aa Halfbreed


Dutch composer and director Michel van der Aa (b. 1970) is a true multidisciplinary artist who combines composing music with film and theatre directing and scriptwriting. Classical instruments, voices, electronic sound, actors, theatre and video are just so many extensions of his vocabulary. Van der Aa studied under Diderik Wagenaar, Gilius van Bergeijk and Louis Andriessen and gained knowledge and training at the New York Film Academy and in the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Lab. His music is performed all over the world by the most renowned ensembles and orchestras; as a composer, he has been highlighted during the Perth Tura New Music Festival and at the Holland Festival. Michel van der Aa has captured a variety of awards, including the Gaudeamus Prize, the Grawemeyer Award and the Mauricio Kagel Music Prize. His multimedia works have received high praise, including the operas One, After Life and The Book of Disquiet, and the concert pieces Up-Close and Transit, for which he directed both the filmed and staged elements. Since 2011, he has been ‘in-house composer’ for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which premiered his violin concert for Janine Jansen late last year. In 2013, the Holland Festival presented Van der Aa’s film opera Sunken Garden.


Australian vocalist Kate Miller-Heidke (b. 1981) studied classical voice at Queensland Conservatorium. She sang the role of the British dancing girl in Death of Klinghoffer with the English National Opera. Elsewhere, her opera roles include Flora in The Turn of the Screw and Baby Jane in Jerry Springer the Opera (Sydney Opera House). O Vertigo! is Kate Miller-Heidke’s most recent album. Nightflight, her third studio album, was put out in 2012 by Sony and rose to second place on the Australian charts. Her debut album, Little Eve, won a gold record and four ARIA nominations; her second album, Curiouser, achieved double platinum sales and scored two platinum hits: Last Day on Earth and Caught in the Crowd. With the latter song in 2009, she became the first Australian to win the Grand Prize in the International Songwriting Competition. Kate Miller-Heidke has toured extensively through the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and Australia. She has given more than 100 shows across the world as a special guest of Ben Folds and performed at the opening of the Coachella Festival in California. In 2013, she sang at the Holland Festival in the film opera Sunken Garden by Michel van der Aa.


No purer sound than the human voice, and no vocal ensemble whose sound has to be more precisely measured and balanced than a chamber choir. The Nederlands Kamerkoor knows a thing or two about that, having been a top-class chamber choir for decades. Their field of activity encompasses the entire chamber choir repertoire, from medieval to contemporary and from a cappella to accompanied. The choir is an independent organisation, not attached to an opera or broadcasting company. As well as putting on its own concert series in a number of Dutch cities, the choir regularly collaborates with ensembles such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Asko/Schönberg Ensemble and the Orchestra of the 18th Century.


How multifaceted the Nederlands Kamerkoor is these days is demonstrated not only by the programmes in its own subscription series, but also by its many collaborative projects and premieres of works it has commissioned. Among the composers who have written for the choir are Sir John Tavener, Giya Kancheli, Harrison Birtwistle, Mauricio Kagel, Karin Rehnqvist and Edith Canat de Chizy, as well as Dutch composers including Jan Vriend, Elmer Schönberger, Micha Hamel and Joost Kleppe. In many of the works, singers from the choir are given solo roles, proving again and again the enormous versatility of the individual choir members. Permanent guest conductor Peter Dijkstra and choirmaster Klaas Stok play a significant part in the preparation and performance of the very demanding repertoire in which the choir is well versed.


The Nederlands Kamerkoor has released some seventy-five CDs, several of which have been awarded an Edison or a Diapason d'Or. In recent seasons, tours have taken the ensemble to countries such as France, the United States, Canada, Spain and Poland. With unusual programmatic formulas, such as a semi-staged evening of Burt Bacharach songs arranged for chamber choir, or a programme of psalms in the synagogue of the Liberal Jewish Community of Amsterdam, the choir continues its process of rejuvenation. To watch over this process, and over the preservation of the precious chamber choir culture so characteristic of the NKK, the 2011-2012 season sees the arrival of a new chief conductor: the youthful Risto Joost from Estonia. 


based on short stories by
Jorge Luis Borges
composition, film script, direction
Michel van der Aa
mezzo soprano
Kate Miller-Heidke
performed by
Nederlands Kamerkoor
MaNOj Kamps
creative production & AD (film), assistant director
Ruben van Leer
line production (film)
film production
Co-commissioned and coproduced by Holland Festival and Sydney Festival, co-sponsored by Google Cultural Institute, developed in association with BBC The Space, with additional support by Performing Arts Fund NL, Grame / Biennale Musiques en Scène Lyon and Nederlands Kamerkoor.
Excerpts from "La casa de Asterion", "El aleph", "El zahir", and "La biblioteca de Babel" by Jorge Luis Borges
Copyright © 1995 by Maria Kodama, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

This performance was made possible with support by