Jacob ter Veldhuis (TV) is a Dutch composer who is from the north of Holland about 150 miles from Amsterdam. As a young child, Jacob had the same issues that most European children had post World War 2 and that was finding something positive to do in a decimated and recovering continent. As the rebuilding process had begun, there were brand new schools being built and Jacob's parents enrolled him in a music school where he learned the recorder and the flute. In the early to mid 60's, The Beatles conquered the pop world of music and like a lot of adolescent kids around the world, Jacob started his own rock band. At this time he began to learn about American blues and jazz musicians and would go to see artists like Sonny Boy Williamson when they toured the area. He continued his music studies at the Conservatoire in Gronigen. After a lengthy period of study where he encountered what he thought was resistance to his idea's in music, Jacob embarked on a path of writing his own compositions. Having been exposed to some of the latest technology, Jacob was always experimenting in his compositions and tended to stray from the lines of contemporary music. One of his early compositions featured a live parrot. He would eventually start using sampling techniques in his music as his composing skills continued to mature. Not being afraid of bending the rules, one of his works caused an unintended controversy at the World Harp Congress when he used the sampled voices of drug addicted American women in a piece for the harp. After becoming intrigued by American television and news, he would frequently use sound clips from these sources in his music. Today Jacob has his works performed all over the world and his latest opera "The News" was just performed in Long Beach California. I recently caught up with Jacob during a visit to New York City.
R.V.B. - Music... How were you exposed to it from the beginning? Where your parents musical?
J.T.V. - My mom told me a bit reluctantly that she had a grandfather who was a farmer and he was a very sensitive man. In the middle of the night, he used to take his violin and go out on his land to play in the darkness. Later on they had to bring him to a hospital because he went totally nuts.
R.V.B. - Did people hear him out there?
J.T.V. - (Hahaha) No, I don't think so. Apparently he was very musical. That's as far back as I can go. My mom always made music. She played piano when she was a young girl but then the house was bombarded in the war. The British thought that this was already Germany. It was a miracle that my grandparents, uncle, and my mom, all survived... nobody got hurt. That was the end of my mom's piano playing. My mom is now 91, she sings in a choir, and she's incredible. I think I inherited my musical ability from her.
R.V.B. - Did you hear mostly classical music around the house?
J.T.V. - No, not at all. My father was a school teacher and we had a simple life. Their parents were very poor farmers. My father's parents didn't have electricity or running water. My father went a long way and became a teacher. As far as musical education, I was so lucky to grow up in the 50's. In the 50's, Europe had to recover from the second world war. They built music schools in many small cities. That's where my parents sent me when I was 9 or 10. I started out with the recorder, like many kids did. Then I went to the flute. Within one or two years, I could practically do anything with these 2 instruments. Then came rock and roll... with The Beatles and The Stones etc. What was more important was the discovery of blues. I knew a guy who was a steward on the Holland/America line. He went to New York and he came back with records... Big Bill Broonzy, Buddy Guy... So we started a blues band, trying to copy John Lee Hooker.
R.V.B. - What did you play?
J.T.V. - I played mouth harp... I played bass guitar... I also played flute. That was my instrument. At that time here, you had Charles LLoyd... Herbie Mann. At that time the flute became popular in rock music with Jethro Tull etc.
R.V.B. - There was Hubert Laws.
J.T.V. - Yes of course... Hubert Laws. I quickly learned to improvise. That was so fascinating. We identified with those African American guys, who in our regards were very old men already. They were only in their 40's maybe. We didn't understand their misery. We didn't know anything about segregation.
R.V.B. - I heard that a lot of European people thought that they were treated like anybody else, when they really weren't. They were treated much better in Europe than they were here.
J.T.V. - Totally. Even later Miles Davis was discriminated against. Of course we knew about Martin Luther King. He was on television all the time. That's the advantage of living in a small country. America is so big that all of the news is about itself. If you go to France, it's still big. If you buy a France newspaper, It's all about France. But Holland is totally different. We have always been looking around with what's going on in the world. If you open a newspaper, there's Obama... there's Putin.
R.V.B. - Our news about the world is filtered.
J.T.V. - With Dutch culture, 500 years ago we started to explore the world. We did some very bad things, like conquering these colonies in Indonesia... etc. If you travel, you'll find Dutch people everywhere.
R.V.B. - They came right here to Manhattan. It was originally Dutch.
J.T.V. - We were forced to sell it to the British. (Haha) They were stronger then. In the 17th century, Holland was very rich. It was our golden age. That's when Rembrandt and Vermeer became famous. We were strong back then. Britten was a kingdom, France was a kingdom... Germany had an emperor. In Holland, we didn't have a king, we were just salesman and farmers. We started this kind of democracy in this delta. It's very muddy and very flat... everything is below sea level. We built dykes. We had to collaborate. At that time we conquered the Spanish, even with the Spanish armada.
R.V.B. - Not an easy thing to do.
J.T.V. - Not an easy thing to do, but in the mid 17th century, things were turning. The French and the British attacked us. France occupied us. It was the end of the Dutch power in general. We make fun of ourselves. We're a small country and we know that. It's also a luxurious position because Holland is a rich country. Just this morning I saw that we're number 7 of countries with the happiest people. Denmark is number 1. The United States is 13th... which is surprising. It's a prosperous country.
R.V.B. - You never hear anything bad about it.
J.T.V. - Well it has the drugs and the red light district. We're very liberal. It's been legal for as long as I can remember.
R.V.B. - There's a classic example on how we're 20 years behind. We're still throwing people in jail
J.V.B. - Yes, but things are changing. You can get pot now. In Amsterdam we have what we call a coffee shop on every corner. You don't go in there to buy coffee. They keep them away from schools. They're not allowed one mile near any schools. They're very common and I know people with multiple sclerosis who use hashish.
R.V.B. - For medicinal purposes. When you were starting with the blues, was there anyone who you would try to emulate, such as Sonny Boy Williamson?
J.T.V. - I saw him live. He was traveling with a blues festival. I was 16 when I saw him. He was amazing. He was so old that they had to help him on stage. His voice was very weak.
R.V.B. - He drank a lot.
J.T.V. - Yeah, he drank a lot. There was one guy who pissed on stage. His pants were getting wet. It was so tragic. But there they were... our hero's. What happened with Europeans was... look at the Rolling Stones for example... they discovered this African American music and turned it into their kind of rhythm and blues. For the British, it was exotic. It was from another planet. Imagine post was Holland... it was a very gray period. The only things that were colorful came from America. Like ball games, bubble gum, cars, rock and roll, Hollywood... It was fun. I thought as a kid "What kind of country is that? It's amazing!" But I also saw the flip side... we all admired Kennedy, and then he was assassinated. His brother was assassinated and Martin Luther King... we couldn't understand the violence. Then when I turned 16 - 17, there was Vietnam. There was more horrible things. We had these mixed feelings but for me, the music that came from this country was great. Somebody gave me a John Coltrane record "Ole". That's a well known record and there are only three pieces on that record. He played with 2 bass players. It's based on Spanish modal lines. It's so incredible... each piece lasts 15-20 minutes. I was improvising but this was improvising that went beyond anything. It almost sounded like world music. It opened a whole new world for me. Then I discovered "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis.
R.V.B. - So you had a variety of influences.
J.T.V. - Yes. This all came from America. We had folk music too... bagpipes in Scotland.
R.V.B. - What kind of music did the Dutch have?
J.T.V. - I remember when my grandmother was lying on a bed of death, she sang old Dutch songs that nobody knew of. I still remember them. There were a lot of couplets. It went on and on and on. It was about a prince, and a king, and a castle... and in old Dutch. That was the last generation that still knew a lot about original Dutch folk music. This musical development of gospel, blues, all the way to the hip hop of today is folk music. The contributions of the African Americans is incredible.
R.V.B. - They're amazing singers. We had Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Mahalia Jackson...
J.T.V. - Their voices are so rich.
R.V.B. - The male singers are good also.
J.T.V. - I saw a doo wop band on Saturday afternoon on West Broadway. They were singing on the street corner. I immediately bought their CD. There's a great groove about it.
J.T.V. - Yes. There was already a schizophrenia situation. At the music school, I had one hour a week of classical flute training. That came in handy because it helped me read music already when I was 10. At the same time I didn't tell my teacher I was playing in a band. My parents didn't like that... "Where were you last night?"... "I was playing in a band". My girlfriend went to study piano at the conservatoire in Gronigen. I lived in the north of Holland... not in Amsterdam. I asked my parents if I could study music. My father said "You can't earn a penny". I already knew that I wanted to compose music. He said "I want you to become just like me and be a teacher. That way you have insurance and other things". I went to the conservatoire for the flute... which I didn't like anymore. The flute is a very limited instrument. I should have played the piano or the saxophone. My professors at the conservatoire didn't know what to do with me. It was good musically but I had no appetite for the flute. Other people could play Bach on the flute much, much better. I didn't like the instrument. The high register was harsh and the low register was too soft. Then through improvisation, I started to write music and that was very important for me. I still played keyboards and bass guitar, in rock bands, but I'm a shy person and the stage wasn't really my thing. I have stage freight. I found rock and roll boring, playing the same chords all of the time. I wanted to explore things and I started to think about new compositions. We rehearsed in an old school and there was this blackboard. I was telling my band members about chords. We experimented with loops and rhythms, and that was an interesting period. We discovered minimal music structures... and so on.
R.V.B. - Were you interested in the minimalists like Terry Riley, John Cage, and Steve Reich?
J.T.V. - They came later when I was around 20 years old. They were in Europe all the time. They had many premiere's there and they were very popular. They were very inspiring. I discovered them in the early 70's. That was another example of incredible art coming from America. It was incredible music. Far more interesting than Stockhausen and Boulez... at the same time in Europe... in my opinion. Frank Zappa... his music is about engagement. There's humor in his music. He criticized the American society. That was also very inspiring.
R.V.B. - He had to do it with his own money. He almost got blacklisted.
J.T.V. - It was more American inspiration. I had never been there.
R.V.B. - What kind of music were you writing at this time? What were some of your first pieces?
J.T.V. - It is so hard to write music. I coach young composition students every now and then. The technique of writing is difficult... to put your ideas on paper. You and I can make a pop song right here, if we have a guitar. Writing something down in musical notation is a whole different thing. It took me many years. I was very ambitious... I wrote a piano concerto when I was 20. I didn't have the proper technique to do it, but I still did it.
R.V.B. - When you put your thoughts to paper, did it always come out the way you intended it to?
J.T.V. - At that time I didn't know, because it was not performed. Nobody performed my piano concerto. I didn't know what to do with the score. I'm happy that it wasn't performed. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - Do you still have it?
J.T.V. - I still have it. I was not interested in counterpoint. We had to write fugues in the style of Bach. The professor said "Jacob, Where's your fugue?". I said "I don't want to do it". I had long hair to my waist. It was not interesting for me. He said "You should learn the technique". I said "Yeah, but there's all of these rules". We were hippies and we didn't care. At the same time I wrote "Little Pastiche for Piano" for my girlfriend. I called them "Love Letters". She showed them to the counterpoint professor. He was angry at me. He said "You don't do what I tell you to do. You have to write fugues". She said "But he is writing this for me". I was blushing. This teacher said to me "How do you do that?". I couldn't play piano and I said "I don't know?". He said "You have to take composition lessons". That's the reason why I'm sitting here. I got a composition teacher... there was none in the north. Bill Fredrick Vaughn... an assistant of Bernhardt Heitink... came to teach me composition. I studied composition from that moment on for 8 years. "When are we going to finish?". We became more of less colleagues during these 8 years. My skills got better but I was a loner. A short time ago a woman came up to me and said "You were such a dreamer. You had very long blonde hair... you were there but you were not there. Nobody knew what you were doing there?".
R.V.B. - You were kind of taking up space?
J.T.V. - Yeah. I didn't use that many drugs but I was really a dreamer and I didn't feel at home at the conservatoire, although the composition lessons were fascinating.
R.V.B. - When did you finish up at the conservatoire?
J.T.V. - 1980. I was 29 when I finished my studies. There was also an electronic studio there... in the style of Stockhausen. It was founded by a French composer Luctor Ponse. He opened another world for me... the world of electronics. We were not allowed to have synthesizers there... with keyboards. He really taught me to work with tone generators and the old style electronics. Moog's were not allowed.
R.V.B. - You used actual electronic oscillators.
J.T.V. - Exactly. When I was in a rock band I played on a Moog, but I didn't tell him. I said "Why no keyboard?". He said "No keyboards. We have to get away from the diatonic and chromatic system. We have to think in hertz.". His ears were so good, he could listen in hertz. When he listened to my sketches he would say "Hmmm... there was a section where you were in 3,200 hertz". I had good teachers but I was a loner. At night I went to the conservatoire. I heard Chopin here and Beethoven there. I went to this little laboratory and did my thing. On the weekend, I played in rock bands. It was a very schizophrenic world. Then I became a librarian, believe it or not. A music librarian in a remote city.
J.T.V. - He buys records, which can be borrowed in the library.
R.V.B. - That had to be pretty interesting?
J.T.V. - It was. Every Friday, I drove to the city and I bought as many records as I could. I had a huge budget.
R.V.B. - Did you buy a variety of genres?
J.T.V. - Yeah, every style. I went to a very good record store. They gave me a special price. On the weekend, I had piles of records. That was in the mid 70's. I still didn't know what I really wanted to do. I was still playing in a rock band.
R.V.B. - Give me an example of what songs you played?
J.T.V. - We didn't do any covers although Little Feat was one of my favorite bands.
R.V.B. - I heard a Little Feat song on the way into the city today... "Juanita".
J.T.V. - Jaunita is a fantastic song. Lowell George was one of my heros.
R.V.B. - It's a shame he died so young.
J.T.V. - I saw them about 5 or 6 years ago with the original lineup. Bill Payne on keyboards and Richard Haywood on drums... who recently passed away. We didn't cover their songs but we tried to copy their style. They had a blend of styles. They had jazz influences, bayou, and blues. Amazing guitar work. they called it cracked mosaic... the technique that they used, was very advanced at that time. They had 24 track tape recorders in the mid 70's. They recorded a lot of piano parts... guitar parts... and on the mixing console they would decide which parts they were going to use in the mix. What eventually got on the record was cracked mosaic... they took a little bit here, a little bit there. They were a great inspiration.
R.V.B. - After you were librarian did you start composing more?
J.T.V. - Yes. I did some experimenting. I had a bird... an Australian albino parakeet. (Haha) I ended up having 7 birds. I started with 2 but they started breeding in my living room. (Haha) I finally had 7 and they were flying around the rooms. I was studying their language and I wrote a parakeet quartet. One of my birds would conduct the ensemble from its cage. This was in the early 80's and we performed it and it was really interesting. It's the first time that I used a melody that was not of speech, but the melody of birdsong in the composition. I knew it was very predictable. I kept the female bird at home but the male bird was there in the theater... on its own. I knew what was going to happen. I would play the sounds of his girlfriend on tape. The bird would get crazy in his little cage, and start singing its own song.
R.V.B. - There was no problem with the bird complying in front of an audience. It never got scared?
J.T.V. - No. We amplified it and the bird got so excited. I had a quartet with djembe... African drums, keyboards, reeds... saxophone, and I played one of the earliest computer synthesizers. I owned a PPG... a German made synthesizer. Very few people had it at the time. Peter Gabriel used to have one... Stevie Wonder. They were beautiful machines. So that was an experiment. I wrote a typewriter concerto.
R.V.B. - I like that you were thinking outside the box... even early on.
J.T.V. - I didn't take 12 tone music serious at all. I wrote piece called "13 in 12". It's a Dutch saying that means 13 in a dozen. There's plenty of it. It means it's not interesting. I felt 12 tone music sounds like gravel. My ears can't define all of these tones... all these serial structures. I think it was one of the biggest mistakes in the history of music... to think that you can build a kind of democracy for tones. Every tone is equally important... why??? That's pure theory. I still can't understand it. I think music needs a ground... some kind of center where you can switch from one center to another but if you have no ground??? This was pure hypothetical experiments by very serious white men that thought they were going to change music forever.
R.V.B. - It's not easy to listen to.
J.T.V. - There are some of examples by Stockhausen that are incredibly beautiful. There's always good music.
R.V.B. - People started taking chances in the early 20th century after the romantic period. When you started out did you have any breaks where maybe someone of prominence ay have performed one of your pieces?
J.T.V. - Not many. The parakeet concerto was performed because I went to the main concert hall with another composer and we said we want to do a new kind of chamber music experience. We want to have lighting and architecture on stage. The musicians were also in a cage. It's a new thing. I said "Chamber music is boring". A string quartet in between two ponds. This was in te early 80's. I said "Look at rock music... what they do with lighting and stage props!". They gave us a chance to do this.
R.V.B. - Where was this venue?
J.T.V. - In Gronigen. It's a provincial city in the north of Holland. It's a university city. It's about 150 miles from Amsterdam. It was so important for me to have my work performed. There was some theater involved... there was an actor. I learned a lot from it but I still felt like an alien in the new music world. I also felt like an alien in the rock world. I was already in my early 30's. There was an important moment in the 80's... I discovered a couple of composers like Steve Reich, Arvo Part, who much to my surprise were tonal. They did tonal things. Arvo Part was do original. His music is so simple and if it's three notes, you know it's Arvo Part. He has such a strong identity but at the same time his music has no ego.
R.V.B. - He's still alive.
J.T.V. - Yes. He's in his 80's now. He's from Estonia. He plays a kind of east European minimal music. I was invited to Darmstadt in the early 90's and that was an important moment. I was already 40. I did a lecture recital there with a pianist. I had written a very complex piano piece that was so complex that you had to use the nose to play it. (Hahaha) It was meant as a pastiche to Brian Ferneyhough. The music was so complex that two hands were not enough. Here I was in Germany... in the heart of the intellectual contemporary German music world... giving this lecture. I thought everybody would start laughing as my pianist was demonstrating. I said "The interesting thing about the nose in modern piano literature... we can go back to Mozart who used the nose also. It was a joke. "There are serious possibilities with the nose but the only problem dynamically is you can go from pianissimo to mezzoforte but you have to be careful because you can easily get a bloody nose". All of these people were there and nobody laughed. They took me seriously. We did the recital and I was never asked back.
R.V.B. - (Hahaha)
J.T.V. - I was there for three weeks and I heard a lot of weird music. I heard string quartets that consisted mainly of silence. They played one note and then silence. Things like that. I didn't buy it. The iron curtain had just fallen, so for the first time there were Russian composers there. I became friends with some of them. New music was more far out for them than it was for me. We had something in common, we thought this mathematical approach to music was not the way to go. There was one Russian composer - Rashid Kalimullin - who said to me in Russian "This is dead music". (Hahaha) He couldn't speak English.
R.V.B. - How many languages do you know?
J.T.V. - In Holland, we usually speak 4 languages... Dutch, German, English, French, and a little Italian. They teach us this at school.
R.V.B. - You are in close proximity to these places. We generally just speak English.
J.T.V. - It's a beautiful language. It's a very rich language.
R.V.B. - Was it a difficult language for you to learn?
J.T.V. - French is far more difficult. English is an Anglo-Saxon language. There is a lot in common with Dutch. What is difficult is that in a lot of conversations, I still have to ask my American friends still "What kind of word is that?". I'm still learning.
R.V.B. - Did you gradually work visual aspects into your music?
J.T.V. - I was already doing it with the parakeet concerto. I was thinking about this white parakeet in this parrot cage with a spot light on it... it's beautiful. I was very aware of the theatrical aspect. I also told musicians... although I'm not a stage director... the first moment you appear on stage, it's already part of the show. What do you do when you appear on stage? I was also experimenting where somebody would play a piano piece but just before that, there's a French horn player passing by, behind the piano and leaving again. Just to play with the expectation of the people in the audience. The horn player didn't play, he was just passing by. I was aware of aspects beyond music but music can say things that words can't do. That's the magic of music.
J.T.V. - It is so powerful. It gives comfort and yet it's abstract. You can say "This is sad music or this makes me cry", but other people will be moved by it and they don't cry.
R.V.B. - It evokes emotions.
J.T.V. - You say evoking emotions. I thought "Why is that??? How did music start in the pre-historical days? When did speech become singing?". Probably because when you get very emotional, there is more melody in your speech. When you're tired, there's not much melody in your language, but when you get excited, or angry, or scared, your voice reacts differently. Imaging the pre-historic people when somebody died in front of their eyes. They started crying but they also used words to express themselves. I think that through the crying, they started to do what we call singing right now. An important discovery in the 90's for me was, if you go back to language and to human speech, you will probably find light motifs in music... sound bites that are so beautiful to use to make music. Of course Steve Reich was already doing it. He borrowed it from Scott Johnson over here as you may know. I admire Steve for what he's doing but the way he treated the sound bites, I thought it could be done in a different way. In the mid 90's, I envied visual artists. When I go to a contemporary art museum, what they can do... Andy Warhol is a good example... take a readymade object... and turn it into a new work of art. It's fascinating. I thought that this should be possible with sound bite. Hip Hop started at the same time as well as dance music. They use sound bites also. In the early 90's I had bought my first sampler. It took a long time before a sampler was invented. My first sampler dates from 85... an Akai. That opened up a whole new world. All of a sudden I could isolate a word or a sentence... manipulate it... splice it... and through midi - trigger it. That was such a big discovery. Suddenly I was a photographer... taking pictures of the world with audio sound bites. Then language has meaning, so I almost felt like a documentary maker... or a poet. I found a way to express myself.
R.V.B. - I'm sure that the basic electronic training that you had helped.
J.T.V. - It came in handy. The Jerry Springer show in the late 90's. We had it on Dutch television. We couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it.
R.V.B. - It's a little embarrassing. (Hahaha)
J.T.V. - It is embarrassing. My wife Christine would always say "Turn that off". I was addicted to it. I was laughing a little bit but sometimes I was crying. I saw these ordinary and a little bit crazy people, exploited by Jerry Springer in front of an audience of millions. They saw their misery and inability to communicate. They were so helpless. He has a couple on stage and he knows the guy has a mistress. After 10 minutes, his mistress comes on stage and the shit hits the fan. I thought "This is real life". Some people said "Those are actors". Maybe there were actors among them but some were from the fringe of society... in my opinion. Somebody asked me to write music for choreography, about confusion of people in modern times. I said "What do you think if I would use Jerry Springer sound bites. It's so effective. These dancers move... and using these one liners from the Jerry Springer Show. That piece is called "Heart Brakes". It's a suite for a jazz sextet and soundtrack. There was also video to it.
J.T.V. - One of the firsts. It became very successful. I released a record with it and all of a sudden I had invented something. I mean a bikini is basically a bathing suit, and all you do is cut it in two halves and there you have it. It's a simple invention... to use these sound bites. It had already been done and it's not an original, but I did it my way. I used a jazz band to perform it. I had written everything down including the drum parts. The drummer threw his sticks at me. He said "Your crazy. I'm a jazz drummer, I know what to do. Why did you write it down? This is foolish". I said "I know this is foolish. Please listen to the sound bites and you'll know why I've written it down. Gradually you can do your own thing". I wrote it for a reason.
R.V.B. - Framework?
J.T.V. - Yes - framework! Again you have the exotic aspect of American Language... American slang. Wherever I go I hear in my ears, people talking... even in the subway. Listen to the groove of this line. I can't get enough of it. It is so beautiful. I love Chinese, Japanese, and Italian too. I truly believe that blues and jazz comes from American Language... from speech. It already has the groove. Jazz is basically a kind of talking. What Charlie Parker did on the saxophone was talking. So I thought I need to have a jazz band and combine these grooves from the Jerry Springer show. It's a 24 minute piece with improvisation in it.
R.V.B. - Where was it premiered?
J.T.V. - In Holland. I had a 4 day festival of my music in Rotterdam.
R.V.B. - That had to be very exciting?
J.T.V. - It was incredible. It was in a sold out theater. There were long lines outside. I'm not from Rotterdam... I'm from the north. It's often hard to have an audience with the new music scene, but here, there was so many people asking to get in. There are strict fire codes. I remember that some friends wanted to get in and it was packed.
R.V.B. - That's a good problem to have.
J.T.V. - It is a good problem to have. They were surprised that all of these subsidized Dutch music groups often have more people on stage than in the hall. Here comes Jacob TV, and he has a full house. I was around 50 and it was a turning point for me. I was suddenly regarded as a black sheep in Dutch music because I was not part of the contemporary music world. I was lucky that musicians wanted to play my work... people wanted to program it. Some of the reviews I couldn't understand.
J.T.V. - That's true. At the same time I wrote an orchestra piece called "Paradiso"... about paradise. I was at the 1st rehearsal and the conductor was laughing. I tried to write very, very sweet music. Sweeter than sugar. I wanted to express beauty... what a world would sound like without suffering. There was no dissonance... only harmony. It was inspired by Jeff Koons... an American artist. Jeff Koons did the same thing in the 80's with his pornography and his shinny balloons. The conductor didn't understand it. I saw the musicians in the orchestra also laughing. They were simply laughing at my score. It was very humiliating in a way and made me very insecure. Contemporary music was always atonal and packed with dissonance. Dissonance was the calling card of modern music. Here I came with a super tonal piece.
R.V.B. - Everybody said you're two centuries behind?
J.T.V. - They said "This is like Mantovani". It was important for me to see what happens if you write very, very sweet music... big clouds of sounds. I still believe in that piece. We eventually performed it the day after 9/11. It was a big event and it was almost cancelled. That's an oratorio I wrote. "There's a Heaven of Religion" uses sound bites from American TV evangelists.
R.V.B. - I read about something in a similar vein, where you wrote music for the harp that had sound bites of females in the gutter.
Jacob TV - I used drug addicted women here from New York City... homeless - crack addicted women. I got commissioned to write a harp piece. This young harpist (Lavinia Meijer) said "I'm so fed up with my instrument being sweet and heavenly". The instrument is from the bible... David plays on the harp. "Can you write something different?". I said "Yeah. I could write songs where there's no live singers". It was performed at the World Harp Congress in Amsterdam and it caused a huge scandal. They called me a musical terrorist. There was a Canadian harpist who said "This Jacob TV... who comes from a city that's known for its drugs and for its prostitution... how on earth does he dare exploit American drug addicts in this piece "Cities change the songs of birds". It's a metaphor for what cities do for people. It caused a big scandal.
R.V.B. - Scandals help sometimes.
J.T.V. - To be honest, I was shocked being called a musical terrorist. That piece is very moving in my opinion. Many people love it and get emotional when they hear it. There is some strong language in it and not everybody likes that of course. The harp world is a very conservative world. There was 700 harp players in one building.
R.V.B. - That's quite an atmosphere! I could picture how that harp room was.
J.T.V. - It wasn't meant to shock. it was also meant to explore the possibilities of the instrument. It was very effective.
R.V.B. - "Grab It" Is a piece is accompanied by a boom box.
J.T.V. - All of these pieces come with boom box. It was also kind of a statement. In the 90's, contemporary composers who used electronic means, were supposed to use complex equipment like a mixing console to perform. In the subways in so many cities I've seen violin players pay The 4 Seasons accompanied by a boombox. You put the CD in it - of music minus one - and you play along with it. Boomboxes sound perfect. You get rid of all the equipment and you put on a ghetto blaster on a table and play it, and you play along with it. You can't do that with a jazz sextet because the boombox is too small and you need a PA. I wrote many, many pieces based on speech melody, for one instrument. Like the harp piece. "Grab it" was one of the most successful pieces. I still like the idea of having one tenor sax player and a boombox. You can put them anywhere and the sound is always good.
R.V.B. - Obviously you're not going to run out of material with all of the things going on in American news. Do you create new music from the current trends. For example under the Bush years, some people liked him and some people hated him. Do you take these feelings and put them into your music?
J.T.V. - I did that 10 years ago, when Bush was still in power and the Iraq war was going on. The weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist.
R.V.B. - The big lie.
J.T.V. - I had this Whitney festival. A three days at the Whitney Museum. At that time I was working with New York musicians and I made a piece called "White Flag". It was based on sound bites from American soldiers on the battlefield crying for their mother... catching a sniper and killing him... the hatred against Muslims... the madness of war... along with statements by George W. Bush. I wrote a piece called "Believer". There was a beautiful interview with Bill O'Reilly and George W. Bush. They got along very well. This is the interview where George W. said "I believe in the power of liberty to transform society". That's what he did, he took the liberty to invade Iraq and transform that society.
R.V.B. - Look how successful it was.
J.T.V. - Now we have Isis. He transformed it... great job. American equipment is used against ourselves. It's unbelievable.
R.V.B. - It's a money making machine. The whole world can see it.
J.T.V. - We can all see it. The whole area is a wasp's nest. Put a gate around it and let them solve their problems. It's sad. My American friends here said "Jacob, you have your festival here, do something with the Iraq war". I wrote 'White Flag" for rock bands. There's a great rock band here... Electric Company. They are not together anymore. They were all Juilliard trained musicians.
R.V.B. - How did that go?
J.T.V. - They had a huge space across from Grand Central. They used the space for 3D monumental sculptures. It was totally inadequate for a concert. The reverb was approximately 6 seconds. When they showed me the space said "This is beautiful but my music will be lost in this space." I had no choice... it was a great offer. Now I see the new building they have a beautiful exhibition space and theater. It's a beautiful part of New York now.
R.V.B. - I understand you recently had a production of your opera "The News" in Long Beach California.
J.T.V. - After 10 international editions of my reality opera THE NEWS, I can truly say that the production by Long Beach Opera was one of the best, if not the best. I had the feeling: this is where my opera is finally ‘at home’. It was a joy to work with this wonderful adventurous company. Bravo to Andreas Mitisek and staff, to the outstanding singers, to the band, and to the very creative contribution of stage director Tanya Kane-Parry. She treated my work with respect, and all her stage direction did not distract from to content, videos and music, on the contrary: it added so much and made the show run like a roller coaster. The audiences were great, I had so much response from them. I only wish we would have had a bit more youngsters attending our shows, taking place in a campus theater, notably.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for taking this time to chat with me.
J.T.V. - Your welcome.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz in NYC
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