Dutch Composer Samples Pop Culture and Gives It a Melody
Dutch composer Jacob TV's work engages in a kind of pop-culture appropriation that has distinct parallels to visual art. On the three-box CD set of
his works, his orchestral music resembles Jeff Koons in its earnest explorations of kitsch. His boombox pieces, for recorded tape and solo instruments, are limning the outlines of larger-than-life American figures in a pop idiom (with digital sampling and D.J.-like repetitions).
And there is an overarching element of Henri Rousseau: the bright colors and slightly crude outlines of a folk artist.
Anne Midgette, NEW YORK TIMES
The music of JacobTV
Uproar, indignation, and protest! Ever since the much-disputed premiere of "Le Sacre du Printemps" in 1913, public revolt has not been a regular occurrence in modern music —unless you happen to be JacobTV! a.k.a Jacob ter Veldhuis. In the autumn of 2011, the aria "Corrotto,"—an integral part of THE NEWS about the tribulations of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi—was censored by the Maxxi Museo in Rome. That same year a lecture by JacobTV at the International Saxophone Symposium in Washington was suddenly interrupted by a high-ranking serviceman, who prohibited him to discuss his composition Believer, about George W. Bush and the Iraq war. In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) intervened during a live radio portrait on the New York radio station WQXR because of the use of improper language in Grab It!. And at the World Harp Congress 2008 in Amsterdam the world premiere of Cities Change the Songs of Birds by Lavinia Meijer caused a scandal: the combination of beautiful harp sounds and heartrending monologues of female drug addicts in the streets of New York was too much for some of the audience. Kathy Elarte wrote: "The harp, as we all know, is an instrument of beauty, of worship... To see it in the center of this atrocity just goes towards promoting more hate toward American society and is, in my opinion, just another form of Musical Terrorism!" If music can evoke so many emotions, it must convey a message. And that"s what JacobTV"s music does. By the topics he chooses and the way in which he turns these topics into heavenly or earthly music. The composer is fascinated by those at the bottom of society, as well as by populist world leaders and striking personalities. He transforms their words into a confrontation with suffering, inappropriate behavior, violence and tragedy.
For more over 35 years Jacob ter Veldhuis has been composing music that has inspired audiences while grabbing them by their viscera. The content disconcertingly converges in what have become the key works in JacobTV"s oeuvre. Having discovered music in spoken language, the potential of samples and the power of the boombox aka ghetto blaster, he managed to bridge the chasm between classical, jazz, blues and rock in the best possible way. The boombox repertoire turned Jacob Ter Veldhuis into an internationally popular composer. When New York musicians - who couldn"t pronounce his name - started calling him JacobTV, he adopted it, in order to have a nick-name for non-Dutch people. The reference to one of his most rewarding sources of inspiration was a nice bonus.
Through intelligent and musical sampling techniques, JacobTV manages to give voice to the bottom of society. His compositions address the cruelty of existence, something both fragile and moving, thus creating music that goes beyond mere sonority. For sonority is and will always be one of the main themes for JacobTV. Ever since he discovered that for him the road of the old school avant-garde was a dead end and he began to "spice up" his music "with sugar" _ like in his "video-oratorio" Paradiso, some advocates of contemporary music find him suspect.
His musical output is said to break the unwritten rules of the avant-garde and at times to go beyond the borders of kitsch. So be it. The fact remains that JacobTV takes heed of his rock music background (he once provokingly called Bob Dylan more important than Schoenberg) and that his work is performed some thousand times a year all over the world is no wonder. The power of his work comes from things that consciously or unconsciously occupy everybody: pleasure and beauty vs. pain and violence, two sides of the same coin. Thus, JacobTV expresses what the somewhat controversial French philosopher Georges Bataille tried to capture in words: that pain and pleasure, joie de vivre and longing for death are the main contradictory motives of human existence.
He has been called the "Andy Warhol of music". In a dissertation on the role of popular culture in JacobTV"s boombox works, Stefan Weiss wrote: "Here it becomes clear how near to artists like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons the composer JacobTV actually is. Though inspired in his technique by Steve Reich, he takes completely different directions in substance; he explores the common ground between Andy Warhol"s Pop-Art and the minimal art of the sixties, in which the minimal music that originated at that time hardly played a role at all. In this regard, JacobTV"s boombox pieces, in which mass-culture is both admired and put into perspective, are like a late form of musical pop-art."
This may well be his greatest merit. Because straightaway, JacobTV rejects the division between so-called highbrow and lowbrow culture, a division which still plays an important role when assessing art and amusement not only in the United States, but certainly also in Europe. A simple blues progression, a menacing cluster, a serious criminal in death row, a crowing baby, these are all elements that fit in a musical expression of mankind as it is today. In his new opera THE NEWS we find a video translation of his boombox principles applied to today"s news, politics and social discourse. And that will vary day-to-day and land to land. But the essence remains: Victims of violence, populist politicians, disasters, terror, nothing is safe from JacobTV"s intrepid investigation, in which current affairs and artistry blend seamlessly into music about everyday life, into art that is literally a mirror of the soul.
Paul Janssen, musicologist 2011
With boombox works like The Body of your Dreams, Jesus Is Coming or Heartbreakers, he also convincingly gave meaning to his own exploration. He did not feel at home with the sectarian inaccessibility of Post War modern music, but he was not comfortable with the clichés of rock and pop music either. Everywhere, he felt like an outsider—an observer who wanted to combine the best of all worlds and who, at the same time, was both full of compassion for and astonished about the essence of mankind. He is increasingly admired for uniting these elements in attractive music. JacobTV is a rock musician in a classical disguise. After the premiere by Ethel of Take a Wild Guess for string quartet and boombox at the Tribeca New Music Festival in New York, the Wall Street Journal wrote: "JacobTV"s new work makes many a hip hop artist look sedate."
JacobTV might be the best composer you’ve never heard of. Let me explain. Start with his 1999 piece “Heartbreakers,” which takes recordings of American daytime television talk shows like Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake, and Oprah, and sets them within the context of a Jazz ensemble. Ter Veldhuis uses the technique, pioneered by Steve Reich in pieces like “Different Trains,” of playing fragments of speech and doubling the melodic patterns with the instruments. Musically, the result is a sort of post-minimalist jazz jam-fest, complete with improvised solos and speech clips sliced and diced and repeated until the meanings of the words are subsumed by the musical content.
The bulk of the source material for the piece is crack addicted prostitutes being confronted by their mothers on Jerry Springer, and ter Veldhuis treats their plight with a fascinating combination of humor and sympathy, and that’s where the comparison with Steve Reich becomes moot.
The beauty of Reich is how cold and analytical so much of his music is–that he can say so much with so much reserve. “Different Trains,” which addresses the shipping of Jewish children off to concentration camps, is profound in its subject matter and almost classical in its musicality. Ter Veldhuis acknowledges his debt to Reich’s techniques, and once even wrote Reich a letter acknowledging the debt, to which Reich replied that the basic technique may be the same but what ter Veldhuis does with it is quite different. “Heartbreakers” is passionate music, sometimes angry, sometimes surprisingly beautiful, sometimes pathetic in the best sense of the word. These women and their mothers, and the American culture which produced them, are treated with a tongue in cheek mockery, especially in the first movement, but then we see the other side of the situation–they are real people in bad situations who are really suffering. Perhaps the best example is the line “It’s always been fighting. . . She took my kids from me. . .she said that I was irresponstable”–that’s not a typographical error, she really said “irresponstable” and it’s funny, but the piano underneath reminds us that this woman lost her kids.
The correct pronunciation of “Jacob ter Veldhuis” is something like Yakob ter Feldhouse–the last name means “from the field house”–but for obvious reasons ter Veldhuis is now promoting himself in the United States as “JacobTV.” The name is especially appropriate given his apparent obsession with American media and popular culture; in addition to the talk show piece he has written pieces using audio recordings of an infomercial for an exercise gadget, televangelists, Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, both Gulf Wars, and life-sentence prisoners, to name just a few examples. Asked about the reason for his interest in American culture, he explains that he grew up during the post-war period which was “a very grey time” in Europe and that most of the “color” from his youth was imported from America. Furthermore, with English becoming the de-facto international language, and with most of the Dutch population learning English from a young age, using English simply allows for a wider audience to understand his work. Among the American influences was rock and roll. He describes the first time he heard Bob Dylan as a profound revelation of the power of the combination of words and music, and cites bands like Little Feat as additional influences. Yet while he loved and played rock and roll, he also studied as a classical composer at the Groningen Conservatoire, and it took him decades to finally figure out how to fuse his two loves together. “Heartbreakers” is one of the results of this combination, as is “Grab It,” originally composed in 1999 for tenor saxophone and tape. “Grab It” uses samples of life-sentence prisoners, and has appeared in a variety of arrangements, including one for electric guitar.
Stylistically, Jacob ter Veldhuis is hard to pin down. His classical side is a lush combination of post minimalism and romanticism. While he was working on integrating rock, jazz, and pop culture into his music from one side, he was turning away from high modernism on the other. He feels that composers of the 20th century went overboard with dissonance and atonality, and with excessive seriousness, so he has taken up a tonal language that lies somewhere between John Adams, Arvo Pä rt, and perhaps Jean Sibelius. But it’s not even quite right to describe this as a “side.” He weaves all of his influences together, and while the Jazz influence may poke through a bit more in pieces with saxophones, or the Classical influence is more pronounced in an orchestral context, all of the pieces seem organically related on some level. Pieces like “Rainbow Concerto” or “Paradiso” are perhaps better described as residing in a somewhat more classical region of his style.
The “Rainbow Concerto” was the first ter Veldhuis piece I heard, and from the opening solo notes of the featured cello it is simply breathtakingly beautiful.
Commissioned by the Rotterdam Philharmonic and premiered in 2003, the two movements grow slowly and fluidly out of the opening notes. The first movement is a slow build, always intense but never ponderous, and leads into a faster second movement that is somewhat scherzo-like. But it’s an airy scherzo where even the brassy stabs and the thundering timpani are surrounded by soaring melodies. And that sense of joy and beauty are at the heart of ter Veldhuis’s philosophy on and attitude toward modern music. As I have said, he feels that too much of modern music is too ugly and too negative: “Since the second half of the twentiety century, art has become consistently more conceptual and hostile. Modern artists sometimes remind me of orthodox preachers whose sole desire is to hammer into us how depraved the world is.” “Rainbow Concerto” is beautiful and joyous. The “Boombox” pieces such as “Heartbreakers,” “Grab It,” and “The Body of Your Dreams” are sometimes funny and sometimes serious, but the seriousness and the anger are displayed for the purpose of inspiring compassion, not fear or despair. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this ideology is the oratorio “Paradiso.”
Treating Paradise artistically has fallen somewhat out of favor. Life is short, love is lost, we die alone, we drop the bomb, we hate, we are indifferent to suffering, we are strangers to each other, we take, we destroy, and ultimately we despair; and we express that despair in our art. But as much as we despair, we also hope—we seek paradise through love, drugs, sex, posessions, inspiration, religion, and that hope is important. In the third book of Dante’s “Divina Commedia,” Dante and Beatrice, reunited, journey through Heaven. Employing an orchestra, soprano and tenor soloists, a female choir, and a sample, Jacob ter Velduis weaves together the journey of Dante and Beatrice with sonic artifacts of our own time to describe a journey through a series of modern heavens. Recordings of the Apollo astronauts (”We’re up on a slope, Joe, and we’re looking back down into the valley and we have a view of the rille that is absolutely unearthly!”), a televangelist (”And he has taken away your sins”), what I assume must be a porn star (use your imagination), and a stoned Chet Baker (”may this bliss never end. . .”) represent the very real ways in which we seek paradise in our lives. Meanwhile, the singers sing excerpts from Dante (”Likewise I beheld so many flames descend the steps that I thought every light in heaven had come down from that place”), a video screen shows images of the journey, and the orchestra underscores the whole thing in characteristicly gorgeous fashion. The music sometimes reminds me of the “In Paradiso” movement of the Fauré Requiem, only better, and at other times of John Adams. I have only seen excerpts of the video component, and I hesitate to judge it, but what I saw struck me as a sort of high-kitsch. Kitsch, of course, is overly sentimental art designed to appeal for the sake of its surface qualities but having little concern for depth or substance, so by “high-kitsch” I mean to describe art which takes on the trappings of kitsch for the sake of making a deeper artistic statement. In this case, the statement is that much of pleasure is superficial, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant or unworthy of serious treatment. The ultimate result of “Paradiso,” as ter Veldhuis himself observes, is a sort of beautiful melancholy. We search for paradise every day, and while we capture moments of it the kind of pure bliss that we desire is a mirage.
Jacob ter Veldhuis may not be famous in America yet, but that may be about to change. The Whitney at Altria in New York recently held a three-day festival of his music to help break him to an American audience and to the American media. The festival featured many performances and a panel discussion of ter Veldhuis and two performers led by Frank Oteri of the American Music Center, and was reviewed favorably in the New York Times. At the same time, the Basta record label has just released three box sets of JacobTV: “Rainbow,” which includes two CDs of three concerti and “Paradiso” (audio only) and a DVD; “Shining City,” which includes a variety of “Boombox” pieces on two CDs and another DVD; and “Suites of Lux,” showcasing two CDs of straight chamber music. The ter Veldhuis website has a number of audio and video clips available, including excerpts from many of the pieces I have discussed here, and a concert schedule.
It’s always nice to find that a great artist is also personally likeable. I met Jacob at the Whitney festival and we had a lovely conversation. In person, he is warm, friendly, and personable. He seemed delighted and grateful for the attention the festival has brought, and devoted to the performers who played his music. During the panel discussion he was humble, and seemed genuinely interested in answering the questions and observations of the audience. With some luck (and perhaps with the right people championing his work), we’ll be hearing a lot more from Jacob ter Veldhuis, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
Audiences, musicians, programmers and theatre directors have in recent years shown an increasing interest in Jacob ter Veldhuis' music. Critics and other 'connoisseurs' in particular once seemed to have trouble 'placing' this composer, but now that the lines between genres - for example, between light and serious music - have become blurred, one has a clearer insight into the realm of his work, in which various of styles and methods of expression enjoy equal status. In his compositions Ter Veldhuis targets the listener's emotions rather than his intellect. His rock-band past (a tree that continues to bear fruit) taught him that music must not be 'thought up', but simply 'made'. Because, he says, 'Once you start contriving music, you'll get a product that sounds contrived.' This attitude has won over not only the 'composed-music' faction, but a jazz and rock-oriented audience as well. The three string quartets, the Goldrush Concerto, the recent oratorio Paradiso and the various works in which musicians are accompanied by a ghetto blaster all have a distinctive double-edged aspect in common.
Ter Veldhuis can express himself in a 'serious' genre with an accessibility and listener-friendliness that leans toward light music, but at the same time his more rock-oriented compositions possess a refinement and solidity that elevates them far above garden-variety pop entertainment. It is left up to the listener to decide to which side of the balance any given piece sways; Ter Veldhuis is noncommittal as to whether a work is serious or lighthearted, apollonistic or dionysic, a poem or a comic strip. He does, though, feel that two pronounced themes have emerged in his oeuvre. Some works (including those with ghetto blaster) have a worldly, at times even cynical component: they illuminate day-to-day reality, with the accent on transience, loss, the sordid fringe of society.
On the other side of the coin, some of Ter Veldhuis' works present an elaborate version of Heaven, with all its appropriate associations and implications. The most literal example from this latter category is Paradiso: a multimedia oratorio for soloists, sampler, women's choir and large orchestra, accompanied by video projections by Jaap Drupsteen. Ter Veldhuis' Paradise is a world of sensuality and pure harmony. It is not a backwards somersault into the past, but rather a flight into the future, far from dissonance, conflict, suffering: turning away, as the composer puts it, from 'the 20th-century craving for dissonance'.
'From Euripides onward,' says Ter Veldhuis, 'conflict has been seen as a precondition for a work of art. Romanticism confirmed this viewpoint, and in the 20th century - certainly after the second world war - art became progressively more conceptual and harder to swallow. Artists sometimes behave like preachers, shouting hell and damnation from the pulpit. Of course I'm moved by the tragedy of human failings and the suffering that results from it, but I want to sublimate this by striving for absolutely pure, unearthly and perfect mellifluousness: beauty as a drug.'
Dissonance - one of modernism's calling cards - has become, according to Ter Veldhuis, a devalued mode of expression. He prefers to pepper his music with sugar. The exterior sheen of works such as Goldrush, Jungle Heart and the Goldrush Concerto yields a pronounced 'design' character which a hard-line modernist would most certainly shun. In the visual arts, artists such as Rob Scholte and Jeff Koons have long since shed that embarrassment. Ter Veldhuis shares this aesthetic and chooses his material uninhibitedly, 'as though I'm wandering around a carnival or flea market, on the lookout for something that can be beautiful or meaningful in another context.' That says much about the craftsmanship that characterizes his work: the warm, polished sounds could become kitsch in less skilled hands, but Ter Veldhuis enhances the music's value by approaching the material in an unpredictable way. And in opting for the fine brush over the paint roller, he accentuates simplicity and beauty.
The combination of cosmetic exterior gloss and fine inner nuances has allowed his music to progress under its own steam. Ter Veldhuis is the last one to deny the usability of his music, and in the 1990s that resulted in a number of provocative theatre productions, including ballets choreographed by Hans van Manen.
Likewise, there is no objection to a piece being entertaining - a clear feature of the works influenced by rock music. In De Zuchten van Rameau (Rameau's Sighs, 1995) Ter Veldhuis combines harpsichord with rock samples. The result is a journey in time, an explosive mix of archaic and contemporary sounds.
This procedure has been developed further in the series of works for live musicians and ghetto blaster: Heartbreakers , GRAB IT! and Lipstick; enervating music, often with frisky, cavorting beats and a down-to-earth character that contrasts with the ecstatic visionary beauty of, for example, Paradiso. Samples of human voices emitted from the ghetto blaster uncompromisingly reflect the shadowy side of society.
Ter Veldhuis weaves them together into what he calls 'modern-day arias', 'in which the emotion is vulgar but authentic'. At times they have a comical effect, such as snippets of the Jerry Springer Show in Heartbreakers. And at other times they reveal genuine tragedy: in GRAB IT! , testimony of American prisoners becomes the rhythmic base for a virtuoso, 'multicultural' saxophone part. Here Ter Veldhuis shows not only his comforting side but also a more sceptical and anxious one.
The attentive observer is constantly reminded that Ter Veldhuis' oeuvre is varied and inspiring, one that is directed at a broad audience, not only at the musical elite. The dramatic stratification of the individual works corresponds to this diversity of target audiences.
Michiel Cley (translation Jonathan Reeder)
Studies in Musical Theatre
by Jelena Novak
Voices beyond corporeality: Towards the prosthetic body in opera (English)
Breach in the Dike
by Peter van Amstel
Promotion of Dutch Music abroad
(Dutch & English)
Gaudeamus / Donemus
ISBN / EAN: 978-90-812526-1-4
Contemporary music in The Netherlands and Vlaanderen
by Emile Wennekes & Mark Delaere
(Dutch, French, German, English, Spanish, Italian versions)
JacobTV on TV
Podium Witteman 2015
JacobTV on TV