In 2009, the city of Linz, Austria hosted a year-long series of Cultural Capital of Europe events — designed to touch on the traditions of various European countries — and Dutch composer Michel van der Aa was asked to create something for opening night.
He was an admirer of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa for a long time, he says, “and I always wanted to do something with his work.” He had not yet read Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet,” but “someone pointed me to this book, and I sort of dove in for a few months,” he says. “It’s a very dense, intense and rather dark book, but really, in my opinion, full of wisdom, and a real masterwork.”
Van der Aa’s multimedia music/theater/film piece, “The Book of Disquiet,” debuted in Linz, and will be presented by the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University, Jan. 21-24. It’s van der Aa’s first full-scale work to be performed in the United States.
It combines music with both live and film acting. Van der Aa, 45, is the director, Alan Pierson will conduct a 15-piece ensemble, actor Samuel West (“Suffragette,” “Mr. Selfridge,” “Howards End”) will be onstage, and singer Ana Moura, who specializes in the intense, melancholy form of Portuguese music known as fado, will appear in the film. The piece will be mostly in English; parts of the film, though, will be in Portuguese.
Critics George Steiner has called Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet” — which was first published in 1982, 47 years after Pessoa’s death — “a haunting mosaic of dreams, psychological notations, autobiographical vignettes, shards of literary theory and criticism and maxims.” It’s written from the points of views of various characters that Pessoa called “heteronyms.”
“He made them write letters to each other, and they all have their own writing style, so they’re much more than pseudonyms,” says van der Aa. Together, van der Aa says, the heteronyms provide “a total representation of the poet.”
Performances take place Jan. 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 23 at 8 p.m., and Jan. 24 at 3 p.m., at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. Tickets are $20; visit peakperfs.org.
Also, attendees can meet van der Aa, at no additional charge, at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 22 in the theater’s upper lobby.