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The Body of your Dreams: Profiling Jacob ter Veldhuis

Jacob ter Veldhuis at the Whitney at AltriaJacob ter Veldhuis 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.Jacob TV Publicity Photo

The “Rainbown 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.

Comments

Comment from Anthony Cornicello
Time: May 22, 2007, 12:22 pm

And, there are a few things on YouTube:
http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=jacob+ter+Veldhuis&search=Search

Comment from Everette Minchew
Time: May 22, 2007, 1:18 pm

I enjoy the two saxophone works I have heard, Grab it! and Billie.
I heard Grab It! in Montreal (I think it was the world premiere) in 2000 performed by Arno Bornkamp and it was wonderful. It was exciting and was very different from alot of other sax works I was hearing at the time.
Supposedly Billie was written at the request of a saxophonist for a work without offensive language that could be performed at schools and other functions where school age children would be around. (The cd accompaniment features spoken phrases from death row inmates with rather colorful vocabularies.) I enjoy Billie but I prefer the aggressiveness of Grab It!. I also used to own a copy of the Heartbreakers cd but after various moves I can no longer find it. I do recommend listening to the cd. There are some wonderful hits and misses on the recording.

Comment from David Laganella
Time: May 22, 2007, 10:21 pm

You need to hear the ter Veldhuis “White Flag” premiered by Electric Kompany at the Whitney…. powerful statement.

http://www.myspace.com/electrickompany

Comment from Sparky P.
Time: May 22, 2007, 11:35 pm

There is also swell disc of three of his string quartets, which I got through the Berkshire Record Outlet (http://www.berkshirerecordoutlet.com/). One is ensubtitled “There must be some kind of way out of here”, influenced loosely on Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Watchtower”. This is, though, not at all like, say, Kronos’ literal take on “Purple Haze”

Comment from David Wegehaupt
Time: May 23, 2007, 1:48 am

While ter Veldhuis may not be known real well amongst the masses of
musicians in America, the saxophonists have certainly caught on, and
perhaps gone overboard with performances of his music. Not only do
saxophonists perform works originally written for saxophone, such as
Grab It! and Billie, but there are versions of The Garden of Love, and
TATATATA, as well as saxophone quartets Jesus is Coming and Pitch Black. I have heard a version of Heartbreakers with Soprano, Alto, and Tenor saxophones as the wind instruments. I know there are still at least 3 or 4 other saxophone pieces I have not heard.

While of course the saxophone literature is lacking in really great
music, I feel like this embrace of ter Veldhuis has been a bit
distracting. It’s hard to attend a saxophone recital these days without
hearing at least one TV piece, and this has quickly burnt me out on his
music. Then there are full recitals of TV’s music, such as that put on
by the PRISM saxophone quartet recently, which in theory might be
exciting, but in reality gets old after about 20 minutes. (I did not
attend the PRISM performance, but I have seen others, and I am only
speaking to those experiences. PRISM is just a high profile example of this sort of concert.)

While I do find the boombox pieces fun to listen to, they also seem sort of ‘one-trick’ in composition. Pop-culture samples chopped up into mimic-able beats to be played by whichever instruments are involved. While they all vary off of this, the variation is not significant, and after hearing one piece, it is easy to have a feeling for many of the ‘ghettoblaster’ pieces.

I am not at all trying to say he is a bad composer. I guess as a saxophonist, I just wish that we would embrace those pieces written for us and perform them in some sort of moderation so that it does not seem so fanatical and get old. Jacob is a good composer of pop-leaning contemporary music, but I have a hard time taking it very seriously after the amount that I have heard it in the last 5 years. Pieces such as “Grab It” and “Tallahatchie” are good pieces, but I think his music is best observed in moderation instead of obsession. I personally am not a huge fan of ter Veldhuis, but I understand the appeal. I just wish that saxophonists and musicians that may discover his music in the future will present his music in moderation. This is, in my opinion, the best way to listen to Jabob’s music.

Comment from jeff harrington
Time: May 23, 2007, 10:46 am

The elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about – and the bane of any pop-influenced new music composer’s productivity – is the quality of the material. Seems obvious but nobody ever seems to want to talk about it. Want to rock like the ‘real’ people – well your material better be as good or better. That’s my biggest problem with TV and my biggest problem as a pop-influenced composer, personally.

You can’t rush the good riffs, the great bridge, the perfect transition. It’s work and it’s painful to admit that it’s hard. And TV’s material is just not that good.

I checked TV out a few years ago at Steve’s suggestion and was initially impressed and then when I went to re-listen… yawn. ;)

Comment from Jacob Sudol
Time: May 23, 2007, 11:34 am

i have to agree with on this one jeff.

i’ve heard a number of Jacob der Velhuis’s music here in montreal over the last years after roderick de man brought some recordings over a year ago. at first a number of my friends were really taken with the profanities and general ballsyess of “grab it’s” intro. Unfortunately after about 30 seconds that the piece grew pretty damn formally boring and then replays were ever more boring.

…since then i’ve heard a number of his other pieces (quasar played one at M/NM last year as well) and was even less impressed. it almost seems a bit of a gimmick that looks better on paper to me.

Comment from Seth Gordon
Time: May 23, 2007, 11:38 am

The elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about – and the bane of any pop-influenced new music composer’s productivity – is the quality of the material. Seems obvious but nobody ever seems to want to talk about it.

I think that’s the elephant in the room of all new classical music criticism, pop-infulenced or not.

I’m with you (Jeff) on the quality question… full disclosure: I’ve only heard what’s online. Still, none of that was enough to make me think I should actually spend money on more of it.

The only thread I’m picking up uniting the pieces on his website is a certain genericness. Only “Grab It” stood out at all to me – and even that, not to any particular extent. I guess I’d rather just listen to QBert or Rob Swift than someone’s Composed Music that’s supposed to sound like them.

I’m just kind of having a “what’s the big deal?” moment about this fella. Maybe there’s something I’m missing.

Comment from Lisa
Time: May 23, 2007, 1:38 pm

Listening to Grab it! I hear someone with compositional chops who hasn’t done his homework. It sounds like he hasn’t listened to the best music in the areas where he works. Does anyone know if that might be true?

Comment from Galen H. Brown
Time: May 23, 2007, 10:29 pm

Obviously you guys are entitled to your opinions — after all, I’m the guy who has been known to call Elliott Carter America’s most overrated living composer, which isn’t the sort of thing that wins friends :) — but I’m finding your objections somewhat perplexing.

What’s the definition of “quality of the material” that you’re using where you feel this music doesn’t live up to it? I think the quality is uniformly high.

Why do you say that it’s “supposed to sound like” QBert or Rob Swift? What little I’ve heard of theirs seemed quite different both musically and conceptually, and nowhere near as interesting.

And what is “the best music in the areas where he works”? He’s obviously heard “Different Trains,” but I don’t think that’s what you have in mind. . .

Comment from Graham Rieper
Time: May 23, 2007, 10:35 pm

This is like the story of the blind guys describing the elephant.

Comment from Charles Amirkhanian
Time: May 24, 2007, 12:46 am

Jacob was a featured guest at Other Minds Festival 6 in San Francisco in 2000. We’re delighted to hear of his “discovery” by our friends in New York. At that time we presented his String Quartet No. 3, “There Must Be Some Way out of Here” (1994). You can hear it free at http://www.otherminds.org/shtml/Terveldhuismusic.shtml

Comment from Seth Gordon
Time: May 24, 2007, 1:22 pm

after all, I’m the guy who has been known to call Elliott Carter America’s most overrated living composer

Actually, I might agree with you on that the moment (if) he outlives Babbitt. Until then…

As to QBert / Rob Swift – maybe not them specifically, but it sure sounded like JTV was trying to emulate the sound of a DJ cutting – to an extent. Certainly Reich was an influence in there as well.

I think Lisa’s absolutely right in her assessment – it sounds as if JTV’s exposure to pop forms is lowest-common denominator. It reminded of the time I unfortunately witnessed the Canadian Brass “rapping” to end a show. It sounded exactly like what a bunch of 50-year-olds in 1985 would have thought “that rap music” sounded like. This wasn’t as bad, not by any stretch, but I definitely felt there was some disconnection from the forms/genres JTV was playing with. It was like his knowledge of hiphop / rock / jazz was just surface and no subtleties. But I suspect a great deal of the classical audience has approximately the same immersion level in those forms. I tend to get the same feeling from about… 80% or 90% of the classical music I hear that tries to appropriate from other genres.

To reverse it, it’s the same way a classical guitarist might feel watching this.

Anyway, like I said, I’ve only heard his website samples. Those who’ve heard works in their entirety have a different context.

Comment from jeff harrington
Time: May 24, 2007, 2:36 pm

To add to Seth’s comments, IMO, it’s music that uses pop idioms as ‘symbols’ to be dropped in as needed for the ‘cool moment’ and not as a digested and inherent part of the pieces melodic/rhythmic/textural gestalt.

And that Canadian Brass moment happens for me EVERY time these days I hear a classical piece with electronic beats. It’s just weird… you hear the audience just get excited and it’s typically beats that if you heard in a club you would just get up and leave. I talked to a guy who’s piece had some pseudo DnB stuff with solo flute a few months ago. I asked him what he used… he laughed and said, ‘I just used presets.’ I wanted to say ‘I bet the rhythms were presets too weren’t they?’

These beats, these riffs that TV uses, the snippets of coolness that seem to be an inherent part of practically all pop-influenced classical music today reek of symbolic not substantial co-option. And IMO – that sux. ;)

My previous point, specifically though, was that his beats, his tunes, his riffs and bridges that he uses in this symbolic and undigested manner all are just not good enough to even get close to being classical homage or digested and developed composition (what I try to do).

They’re not good enough to make it to the radio for sure and the fact that he gets away with it shows how his audience, with seemingly no deep knowledge of the interesting qualities of these pop musics, respond to it symbolically as ‘cool.’ If you’re going to play with these materials, take the time, use your talents, and come up with new material that rocks ala the genre in question! Or just mash it up. But don’t use cliches.

Speaking of cliches, I went to a concert Friday where a group played a jazz-influenced piece. The freakin’ cellist started the piece guess how… descending scalar pizzicati. I wanted to scream. That’s not jazz. That’s crap lounge music of the Holiday Inn sort. I know of no jazz piece that works that primitively, but the classical audience responds to a descending pizzicato cello with a jazz scale as if it were jazz nirvana!

In conclusion, ;) TV’s materials come off as Euro/Academic cut and pasting of the most primitive and pretentious kind. The loudness, the insistency and the belligerence carry it – NOT the music. The belligerences thus function as symbol too! And that is not worthy of repeat listens.

Comment from Daniel
Time: May 24, 2007, 3:12 pm

I’m with you Jeff. The composers I’ve come across, who are either pop/rock/hip-hop/electronica guys writing “classical” or the other way around, end up creating a product (of you’ll allow me to use such a capitalist term) that fails both, instead of fusing the two to create a unique sound.

I keep my popular and classical foods separate, because I know I can’t create anything that could combine the two successfully. So instead of trying to be cool by adding a hip-hop rhythm to a string quartet, I just stick to what I know works for me.

Of course, if you like how JTV’s music or any other composer’s sounds, what’s to stop you from listening to it or creating it. What gets me is when an ensemble or performer throws something like this in the repertoire so as to say “I’m relevant.”