What do you get when you pair genre-defying Dutch composer Michel van der Aa with a musical chameleon like Australia’s Kate Miller-Heidke? A quick survey of their previous encounters might prompt answers like “an opera”, a “song cycle”, or even “a video installation”, but in this instance the correct answer would appear to be “a pop album”. Or is it? In fact, Time Falling is best probably best appreciated by anyone who hates labels.
Kate Miller-Heidke and Michel van der Aa. Photo © Jo Duck (left) and Sarah Wijzenbeek (right)
Van der Aa has immaculate credentials as an innovative composer of contemporary opera, but his back catalogue is revealing. From his first opera, Vuur, composed in 2001 for solo voice, actors, singers, ensemble and soundtrack, to his fifth opera, Sunken Garden, which included both soundtrack and film (and coincidentally starred Miller-Heidke), he’s looked to incorporate a diverse range of electronic and recorded media to reflect his idea of opera in the 21st century. More recently, he’s taken music and technology – plus his relationship with Miller-Heidke – to the next level with his digital interactive song cycle The Book of Sand, based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, and Eight, a virtual reality installation that appeared as part of this year’s Adelaide Festival.
As a composer, his musical roots turn out to be in indie-pop and rock. “I was playing in several bands in my teens, writing my own songs and performing every weekend,” he admits. “This has always influenced my musical language… I never really believed in writing differently from genre to genre.”
The immediate idea for Time Falling originated with Eight. Inspired by the idea and meaning of infinity, Van der Aa found himself with so much material that he decided to be explore it within the context an entire album. Their frequent collaborations of many years made Miller-Heidke an obvious partner in crime. “Michel is interested in melting barriers between genres. He’s also a polymath, with skills in film direction, technology and sound engineering, as well as being a gifted composer and guitarist,” she says. “Pretty much the only thing he can’t do is sing, which is where I come in! I really admire his gumption. He is not beholden to anyone – he’s a true artist.”
Van der Aa is quick to return the compliment. “I really love working with Kate,” he says. “Like me, she defies genre working in both classical and pop music and has such a broad range and taste. She’s an amazing vocalist and a wonderful artist to collaborate with – we really click.”
Even a cursory listen to Time Falling is enough to make you aware that here are artists dealing with major themes. On the surface, a song like the chugging and energised I think of fire may be about a woman who crashes her car, but dig deeper and at its heart is what it’s like to experience a moment on the cusp between dying and not dying and how paradoxically a person might yearn to recapture such a fleeting moment. A parallel domain – the border between waking and sleep – is explored in the haunting Mirrors at night. It’s lyric mentions “time falling”, a phrase from a poem by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, a complex figure who embraced esotericism, occultism, numerology and alchemy and in the process concealed himself behind 75 pseudonyms! Similar ideas obsess the desperate insomniac in the catchy, up-tempo Queen of the Night, a song that pays homage to the stratospheric coloratura of Mozart’s demonic monarch and gives Miller-Heidke a chance for a bravura vocal workout.
“Time Falling is a rather kaleidoscopic concept album,” Van de Aa admits, referencing the elusive Pessoa, but also Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca, American poet Emily Dickinson, and Argentinian master of the short story Jorge Luis Borges. “I have always been a great admirer of the work of Borges. I share his fascination with multiple realities, mirrors, and labyrinths. I also really love the way he self-references other stories across his work, almost like hyperlinks that increase our connections with the various strands of the internet.”
The song Asterion is a perfect example. Based on Borges’ The House of Asterion, it’s a rich and multi-layered affair. “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,” goes the lyric. Like the novella the song is designed to conceal before it reveals. Only when the reader – or listener – realises that the singer is in fact the Cretan minotaur does the lyric deliver its sucker-punch.
Kate Miller-Heidke as realised in the song I think of fire
At its most intense, the collaboration on Time Falling involved piles of poetry and literature changing hands. Miller-Heidke would then string words and melodies over Van der Aa’s instrumental beds. The ravishing ballad What a dream, for example, was co-written in Amsterdam. “I recorded the guitar part and Kate took this to her hotel room and came up with this beautiful folk-inspired lead vocal,” Van der Aa explains. “I then wrote backing vocal parts to accompany and we recorded the entire song in the same week!”
If the above hasn’t made it clear, Time Falling is pretty complex for what is described as an album of pop songs, partly because of their intensely literate texts and partly because Van der Aa has approached them in the same way he would approach an operatic aria. “I realise in hindsight that this may make them appear more complex to the average pop music lover,” he admits, “but I think Kate and I have also managed to find something powerful and have created some addictive hooks! I do believe the album reveals more on each listen and benefits from repeat listening.”
Miller-Heidke agrees that the albums audience will likely find their own meaning and narrative. “Michel trusts them to do that – it’s a leap of faith,” she says. “It’s Michel’s idea of pop, which means it sounds like nothing else on earth – ha ha!”
“There’s a lot of new music coming out blurring the traditional boundaries between genres, and I think there is a big audience for quality music in general,” she continues. “I think it’s very clever for a piece to art to be so emotionally powerful without being prescriptive. I saw Eight last week and it was an intensely personal experience. It really resonates, perhaps because I’m still figuring out what it was about!”
While none of these songs are easy – in fact, some come across as fiendishly tricky – Miller-Heidke’s classical training and experience in both pop and opera has stood her in good stead. It’s what you might expect for a singer whose musical nous and vocal gifts have uniquely seen her representing Australia in the Eurovision Song Contest and also enabled her to appear at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. “Michel’s music is good for the brain,” she suggests wryly. “It usually takes me about a week to get all the strange rhythms and intervals into my head. Singing is so physical; it’s muscle memory (which is sometimes hard to trust for an over-thinker like me). The songs with tempo shifts are the trickiest!”
As a technician, Miller-Heidke has a deft way of hiding any sign of effort behind an apparent veneer of ease. But given Time Falling’s challenging range and calls on vocal dexterity, how does she keep the physical machinery in good working order? “It’s a discipline: being vigilant with warming up/warming down/not drinking too much/not talking in loud restaurants etc. Sometimes it’s miserable,” she explains. “I still have lessons when I can (with my teacher Allison Bell) and I see a speech pathologist for help managing the vocal load if I’m really busy and using my voice a lot. Having a three-year old who wakes up at 5am is probably my biggest challenge at the moment!”
Van der Aa cites Kate Bush, The Police and Talk Talk as formative influences, while his go-tos today include Radiohead and Kendrick Lamar. Miller-Heidke’s list includes Yma Sumac, Nina Simone and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. “I love it when someone’s vocal quality can give you lots of extra emotional information about the song,” she says.
For those who enjoy an extra visual dimension, the album has already spawned a series of intriguing videos such those embedded above. Whether the “pop” sound is your bag or not, Time Falling contains sufficient musical tropes to suggest an appeal to the classical music fan as well. With its cross-referential lyrics, it’s absolutely original, an album so full of twists and turns you’ll be googling references and ordering up additional reading material before you know it.
Time Falling is out now and available through most retailers and streaming platforms, or visit Michel van der Aa’s disquietmedia