“Follow your heart also, not just your ear but your heart. In that regard, composing music and living a life shouldn’t be so different at all.” -Jacob T.V.
I began a not-so-typical Wednesday morning speaking with Dutch composer, Jacob Ter Veldhuis, via webcam across a seven-hour time difference. Despite the slight lags in the internet connection and my charming, but loud nine-month-old puppy causing slight interruptions, I left the interview enlightened, inquisitive, ponderous, and ready to explore new sounds in both my saxophone playing and compositions. Often grouped into a general grab-bag of “electronic music” due to his boombox style compositions, JacobTV is a unique voice with whom all musicians, saxophonists or not, should be readily familiar. His use of electronics to mix chordal structures, everyday sounds and the human voice with the various colors of the saxophone are not only original but extraordinarily effective in his storytelling.
Mr. TV described himself to me as a storyteller, noting the importance he finds in saying something or conveying some message in his music. Any amount of careful study of his music supports this description, as it appears that he has placed each note, articulation, word, and dynamic meticulously, as an author would order the words, sentences, and paragraphs in a novel. Further, he allows the saxophone to narrate the story, utilizing the instrument’s numerous colors to satisfy the full gamut of human emotions. These compositions do not only ask the saxophone to mirror the rhythmic and pitch content of the human voice but to also match the quality and emotion found inside the voice. Grab It! requires the saxophonist to shout, mourn, and celebrate. Jesus is Coming writes a saxophone quartet in conversation with the human voice– amidst a constantly shifting texture– as if to convey the confusion around the inspiration for the piece: what role religion has in society.
Another compelling and popular work is Garden of Love for soprano saxophone and tape. The piece features a poem by William Blake and also includes bird sound samples embedded into the tape. Notably, this is a clear example of Mr. TV’s storytelling and preference for creating ambient sound. The adjustments in tempo, timbre, and color paint a bright, big picture of Blake’s poem, inviting the listener inside the wonder and pain of finding the chapel, only to discover the gates are shut. The piece requires a great deal of concentration and skill from the performer, as the performer’s involvement in the piece is constant. However, the time needed to prepare such a piece will be undoubtedly met with a rewarding and memorable performance experience.
JacobTV often describes his overt gratitude towards those performers who have become ambassadors of his music. After all, in his own words, “Where is a composer without musicians and an audience?” Ambassadors of Mr. TV’s music in the USA include the Prism Quartet, who recorded their first JacobTV CD in 2008 and are likely set to record another in the future. Branford Marsalis is another notable performer of Mr. TV’s works, as he performed his “Tallahatchie Concerto” with the US Navy Band, Cincinnati Orchestra, and several others. Other momentous musicians to include are the New Century Quartet and Dr. Connie Frigo. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the indispensable relationship between saxophonist Arno Bornkamp and JacobTV. Mr. TV states, “I owe a lot to Arno Bornkamp and his former Aurelia Quartet, for whom I wrote many of my works.” This connection remains current in the lives of Bornkamp and TV and will presumably lead to new, exciting projects in the near future!
Pimpin’, for baritone saxophone (or saxophone quartet with the baritone feature) and tape, is not only an incredibly fun piece to perform, but is also a gripping study in Mr. TV’s ability to utilize rhythm to reflect the intricacies human speech. Based upon sound clips of an original speech by American pimps and prostitutes, the jagged lines, asymmetric rhythms, and accented articulations depict the rough quality of the text and the character of the voices. Additionally, the syncopated quality of the melody overtop the synthesized backtrack are reminiscent of hip-hop and rap music, further heightening the atmosphere in which the listener should experience the text and the music.
Stepping away from the avant-garde, electronic aspect of Mr. TV’s compositions, it is important to mention the Tallahatchie Concerto for alto saxophone. Rooted in the romantic lyricism that TV heard in his early love for composers like Beethoven, the the first movement of the concerto is deeply emotional and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The second movement finds the saxophone wailing and exclaiming in a jubilant celebration.
The saxophonist’s part does require some use of extended technique– as a means to imitate the colors and technical capabilities of the other instruments of the orchestra.
Within such a myriad of unique pieces, the one to which I always find myself returning is Believer, written in 2007. My connection with this piece was immediate. I was (and still am) captivated by how eloquently the timbre of the baritone saxophone melds into the electronic chords and spoken words. Upon the conclusion of my first listening, I sat in silence for a few minutes pondering what I had just heard before listening twice more through, again needing to stop and think in between each hearing. This piece enthralled me because it didn’t just entertain me– it made me contemplate how I view the world we live in. The piece made me think about something other than the music itself. To me, this is a quality of true genius.
Though Believer primarily resides in a state of stillness and calamity, not once does it become static. Each and every note exists with purpose and intention; likewise, all sound elements are of equal importance and are equally justifiable in their presence. Perhaps this is one of the greatest achievements of Mr. TV’s music. The electronics and the instrument(s) he chooses to pair with the electronics are always necessary in conveying the story he is telling. The choice to use electronics never seems arbitrary, nor does the choice to use a particular saxophone (or another instrument in his non-saxophone works).
JacobTV’s personality and character shine through in his music, with pieces which depict the joy, sorrow, anger, frustration, grit, goofiness, and passion of the human spirit. Since he is an improviser, constantly searching for new sounds and new techniques, in some ways, we as consumers will never quite know what to expect. Nevertheless, I can conclude that we can always expect a story and even more, we can always expect an honest telling of that story. One thing I can tell you is that JacobTV claims he has not yet written a masterpiece for the saxophone. If this is truly the case, we are sure in for a treat when he does.
Transcribed Interview with JacobTV
The Saxophonist: Can you talk a bit about your compositional background...your studies, early career, kind of what got you into it?
JacobTV: Long story, so let me think. I go back to when I was about 3 or 4 years old. It is the age where you hardly have any memories. My father was a grammar school teacher in a small village and not much was going on there. It was really a tiny, tiny village where I grew up the first four or five years of my life. And all of a sudden there was this street organ. In Holland, we have, street organs. You could call them the juke box of the past. They’re big, they’re really as big as a car, and high and mechanical puppets are moving. And some of these puppets are mechanically blowing a trumpet or hitting a snare drum or a little chime. The organ makes an incredible, loud kind of music and cardboard books are put inside and the books have tiny holes and these holes are connected to the machinery. Anyway, you should check it out on the internet and you will be surprised. This is typically Dutch I believe and I grew up with it. One of my first musical experiences. I was so small and I looked up at this huge organ making so much sound and it overwhelmed me; it totally overwhelmed me. My mom said it made me cry. And one or two years later in the classroom there was this girl playing the accordion and I had a similar experience. You draw, you push, and it creates a huge amount of sound. Very early experiences. I mean there was no television. There was hardly any radio. We’re talking 1954...1955. So that made a deep impression for me and I think music became even stronger when a marching band visited our village. A marching band because of Queen’s Day. And I remember, I cried. I cried just because of the sensation of all these brass instruments, drums, and especially the man who was walking in front of them with a stick. The ‘tambour maître’ we call him here. I don’t know if this is your custom in the USA but this guy is the conductor and he is carrying a silver staff, throwing it high up in the air, catching it again. This man seemed like the creator of the music, I believed that stick was magic and I wanted to become like that…
These were very, very early sensations. When I was 10 I sang in the boy’s choir of the St Matthew Passion. At 12 I heard the Eroica by Beethoven. And my flute teacher was in the orchestra. I couldn’t believe it. And then of course came rock and roll. My parents sent me to dance lessons and in the early 60s, dance was still very traditional… you know, you had to politely ask a girl for a dance….we learnt the foxtrot, tangos, the English waltz, quite boring, to be honest, but all of a sudden, here were the Stones and The Beatles and our dancing teacher was quite revolutionary and decided we should learn the twist, like Chubby Checker sang in those days. And a lot of that great new music came from your country of course. Deep impressions that probably later on made me write music. When I was 12 or 13, I asked my parents if I could buy a guitar. And I learned myself to play 3 or 4 chords and play Bob Dylan songs and play the blues. I was very much interested in chords, I remember that very well. In school, unfortunately, I was taught to play the treble recorder like many kids in Holland and maybe also in your country as well. And it’s an easy instrument, but I don’t know if it’s such a smart idea to have the recorder as the first musical experience for a kid. Anyway, I didn’t particularly like the instrument, I thought it was very uncool, but I practicing was easy and I soon was allowed to pick a different instrument. There was not many choices in those late 50s, so I decided to play the flute .I would have loved to learn piano, but we had no piano at home. Not very...I love the flute, I learned the flute, but it was my dream to learn to play the saxophone already at that age and I still regret I didn’t ask my parents for a saxophone. I quickly learned to improvise on the flute. I played jazz on it but it’s rather limited if you compare it to a saxophone. It is limited in range. The high range isn’t particularly interesting. It hurts my ear and the low register is really soft. So it wasn’t really an appealing instrument to me. Anyway, I had no other choice than to write music when I think back. Becoming a hippie I played in different rock bands. And I liked to write pop songs, but I was shy on stage, I was not really a stage personality, so I hid myself behind my bass guitar or keyboard; I taught myself how to play all those instruments a little bit. It is sure exciting when you’re so young and you play in a rock band and you find out that it’s cool way to get a lot of attention from the girls. But that was perhaps the main attraction for me, because I simply was too shy for rock & roll.
When I was about 20, me and my girlfriend Renate were both studying at the
conservatoire. She was studying piano and I would write love songs for her–little piano
pieces– that I couldn’t play myself. That’s how I started to compose. I studied counterpoint and I didn’t like to write a fugue in the style of Bach, I could not and I would not. Instead I wrote these little piano pieces for Renate. And when the counterpoint professor asked “Jacob, where is your fugue?” I said “I didn’t write it, I am sorry, I just can’t.” Then Renate said: “But my boyfriend can do other stuff, look what Jacob has written for me!” I remember I was blushing, because these little pieces were like love letters, very intimate…The professor seemed quite impressed said I should study composition! And the rest is history more or less because then I studied composition for six or seven years and became a professional composer.
TS: Which composers were your biggest influences? How about non-composer
JTV: I think composers were Bach, Beethoven and Bartok– I’m really speaking about the sixties, so those were the classical composers that made a deep impression when I was young. And musicians, there were many. John Coltrane. Miles Davis. But also Bob Dylan. At that time, Bob Dylan was very intriguing to me, not just because of the music but because of the enigmatic lyrics and his strange way of singing, I liked. And also his
behavior. At that time he was very revolutionary. It was unheard what he did. And same
thing. It’s totally different but John Coltrane in the sixties, it was totally unheard of what he did. As well as Miles Davis. So I think musicians were mostly jazz musicians that
impressed me a lot and composers were usually classical composers. Then around 1970, I discovered Steve Reich. He became known here in Europe and I was fascinated by this minimal music. I was not so very interested in the complexity of Stockhausen and Boulez. That kind of music didn’t really ring a bell. I didn’t really...in a way I thought that complex music...I listen to it. I tried to discover something in that music but it never really dug it. And also because i grew up in the wild and distracting sixties, it was very difficult to find your way in those days, I mean it’s difficult for every young person, every adolescent, to grow up but those were really wild years, sex & drugs & rock & roll and everything was changing. Authority...there was no respect any more for authority. All of a sudden, there was revolution in Paris. There was a lot of protest against war. You had the Vietnam War, of course. So we were believing that the world could totally change. We believed in love and peace, and maybe rather naive . I tried to find my way, I played in so many bands and studied composition, but I more or less was leading two lives at the same time. At the Conservatoire, I was a very serious classical student, but in those crazy weekends, I would jam around. Those worlds were totally separate. I remember the Manager of the Conservatoire discovered I was playing in a jazz club until 4 am where I was making a little money and Learning so much from improvisation and jamming in a band, but he warned me and told me: “You have been seen at 3 am playing in a band in a pub. What will become of you? What will happen to your embouchure? Stop it! Focus on your studies! Otherwise we will have to kick you out of school!”
Now it’s very normal to study popular music, but in those days, it was totally taboo. So I
didn’t really know what to do with my life. When I finished my studies, I was 28 and it was 1980 and I did play in bands every now and then but I didn’t really know what to do.
I became a music teacher art a high school and I got a call from the Yellow Pages. WE
hear you are a composer, would you like to be mentioned? And I replied, “Yes! Oh yes!” So I was in the yellow pages between components and compost! So that felt like a milestone. But who on earth looks at the yellow pages for a composer?
TS: As a composer, what are you most proud of? Whether this is a piece or a statement
you’ve made or a story you told…
JTV: Well, proud might not be the word. Instead of proud, I would rather say gave me
fulfilment. What has given me enough fulfilment in life as a musician. I think in general, it is an incredible experience if you write something. Composing music is a very lonely job. You’re just on your own. You write your stuff and you have no idea what it’s going to be like. And besides I can’t play my own music. I don’t play an instrument myself. Of course now I have the computer, but in the early days, I didn’t have the computer so I couldn’t. I just had to imagine my music. At first you realise: nobody’s waiting for my stuff. The fulfilment was incredible when I wrote something and here comes musicians who play it and understand it and add something to it. That is already incredibly rewarding and then the audience comes and some of them love it as well. Amazing: As if you are an architect and you are designing a building here come the carpenter and the electrician and they built the house you designed. Like an architect needs the constructors and the carpenters, a composer needs musicians. Because the score is a dead thing. It comes alive when a musician plays it and every musician has a different quality and that makes it very interesting. And of course, when you design a house– and musicians perform, people hopefully want to ‘live’ in that house. That is another great fulfilment. If they like it and they come to you with tears in their eyes and they say, “Oh my god, where can we get this music? Was it released on CD?” that is so fantastic.
TS: Can you talk about your compositional process when you’re starting a new piece? I
study composition and we talk a lot about how everyone has a different process that works best for them. So start to finish, what’s your process?
JTV: I feel like a beachcomber. Like strolling along the beach to find stuff that the waves
threw on the shore. I am a dreamer. I don’t make plans so much...I mean, sometimes I
have the desire to write a piece for choir or so and I may have ideas about a subject, but in general, it’s more like strolling around. If I were to be a visual artist, I would just go to a junkyard, where people throw their garbage and find objects that have been thrown
overboard and inspire. “Ready-made” stuff. So the world around me is my source of
inspiration. But music is abstract so I cannot use visual objects in my work. My work is
about sound. So that is a limitation in a way. Sometime I am envious when I think of
painters. They go to their studio every day and see their paintings, it is more concrete than music. Composing is different. Okay you have your sketches, but it always takes a while before I can grasp with my mind, with my heart, with my whole being, the essence of it. Because it is time based…and even then: it’s not just a matter of listening. It is hearing deep down inside. It’s a way of...it is...it’s a way of…your tapping from a very deep place…
I can easily just sit down and write something, so I’m not a slow writer, but I’m very picky,so I don’t accept everything that comes to me... I mean, there’s so much noise. This world is so distracting.When I create, the next day, I am the consumer and I undergo the musical material and either get a thrill from it or totally don’t .
There are always moments of great doubt. Moments where I don’t even understand why I dare call myself a composer.“How on earth can you call yourself a composer? Have you written this? This is terrible.” Sometimes I wish I had a normal job. But I also know that I’m a lucky guy, doing exactly what I want and making a living this way. I’ve been a high school teacher, a music librarian...I did all kind of things, And for the last 35 years or so, I’ve been totally independent as a composer. Totally independent. Making a living of composing, thanks to BUMA, the Dutch ASCAP I owe that not only to my talent but also to my country. The Netherlands have a subsidy system for the arts. Like the Performing Arts Fund where you apply. But here the fundings do not come from very
rich people but instead are financed by the government. So that also gives me an
obligation of course. The grants that I receive come from the taxpayers. There have been serious cut backs over the last decade, so it is not as good as it used to be, but still we’re lucky as artists in the Netherlands.
Inspiration is vague, at least in my situation. The inspiration is something...all I can say is my hands get very warm, my head gets warm. I’m a zombie when I go for lunch to
Christine, my wife she says, “Where are you Jacob? Hello? I’m sitting right here.” It takes a while before I’m back on earth again and she doesn’t always understand it. And I say, “I’m sorry, I come from a different world.” Like a sleepwalker it takes a while before I’m conscious again. It’s also very exhausting because you feel a stream of consciousness and subconsciousness and ideas floating through your body and your mind and it makes you tired, but the reward of course is that you create music.
TS: The next question relates to electronics. You use the tape a lot and I guess the
question is more or less is how or if... do you think it’s different composing with
electronics? Adding that element in, versus standard composing methods without
electronics, how do you feel that the process is different and does it create a unique
challenge for performers? And obviously, this is a good and exciting thing and something that draws people to your music, but I’m just curious what your thought process is about how different it feels when you compose something with electronics versus without electronics?
JTV: I think...well there is a lot to say about that whole process. I was already at the
Conservatoire where I studied composition, I also studied electronic music. And I
remember that the first synthesizers that were invented in the early 70s were monophonic, like the Moog. You could only play one tone at the same time. You couldn’t play chords on it, but you could create incredible, magic sounds that were unheard at the time. The electronic sounds– the synthesizer sound– was unique at the time. Today I get easily bored when I listen to synthesizers, because I know what you can do with it and especially in middle of the road pop music you hear the same type of sound over and over and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there is so much more to it.
When I started to write electronic music with live instruments, there were several reasons for it. But when you think about it, my repertoire for the saxophone with electronics, is maybe not so much based on electronics at all! You may call it electronics, but if you listen to “Grab It” or “Garden of Love,” 80% of what you hear is ‘concrete’ sound: voices, banging doors of prison cells, birds whistling. At the time when I was still looking for a musical style, in the mid 80s, a very important invention was made: The sampler came into this world. The sampler was like a camera for composers where now you could capture any sound. I remember I had a very beautiful crystal wine glass and I thought, “Oh, this sounds so beautiful.” And I sampled it I hit it too hard and so the glass broke. And so I had a gorgeous sample of a breaking wine glass, which I used in one of my pieces. I used pots and pans. I sampled anything I could. The samples of pots and pans sound like a gamelan orchestra. I sampled my own voice, anything. And then I realized: “Wait a minute.” I can now create music using, audio samples from everyday life.
Andy Warhol used pictures from everyday life in his art. I mention him because when I
grew up he was already quite famous and one of the unique things that he did was just
exposing ready-made objects. It could be a picture of an electric chair or the face of
Marilyn Monroe, and of course he added colors to it, but basically he didn’t paint his
subjects, why would he?. And 20 years later, the sampler was invented and all of a
sudden, composers could do something similar with audio. That was very inspiring for me because I’m a storyteller and I wanted to tell something in my music and by using sound bites this way I became sort of a documentary maker so to speak. Besides you’re also a bit of a poet because you use lyrics from human speech and you decide which words you use so in a way you’re creating art with words. And last but not least: in these
compositions create an acoustic ambience. As a composer,I’m always worried about how my music will sound in a space, in a hall. Some spaces are dry, some are really loud. And I understood that if I would write a piece for saxophone, the nature of the soundtrack itself would enable me to ‘determine’ the acoustics. No matter where you play Grab it!, for instance, it will always include ‘my sound, my acoustic, which is the authentic ambience of a prison. You know what I mean? That adds so much to the power of expression of my music. So there is one important benefit when using electronics. Electronic manipulation of sound is very appealing to me.
TS: A lot of these pieces kind of dig into social and political topics and you’re able to use, especially speaking voice, to convey that. Is this something that’s particularly interesting or inspiring to you or do you feel that musicians and composers more specifically have some sort of responsibility to address these topics and that our pieces should make some sort of difference in this world and say something profound. Because I feel like your pieces do say something profound, especially when we’re talking about those social/political ones.
JTV: That is a very important aspect that I haven’t mentioned yet. If I hadn’t become a
composer, I may have become a social worker or something like that. I’m fascinated by the world we are living in. Like anybody, I have opinions based on memories from
experiences. When I was playing in a blues band as an adolescent and we were invited to play for inmates who were sentenced for 20-30 years here in Holland and I will never
forget I was so young and here were these guys...s Some were tattooed all over, some
without teeth. I knew they were murderers and they were rapers. They were criminals.
And yet... they appeared to be human beings. They enjoyed our music and we could have normal conversations with them. I was so young but that experience– and that’s just an example– made a deep impression on me. Without that experience, I couldn’t have written “Grab It.” The background of “Grab It”.. Many pieces of mine have a political or social meaning. A way to express myself through music and give the music an extra layer. For instance, when 9/11 happened it was something so overwhelming and I came back to New York, in the city, there was a strange vibe and people were suspicious and nobody really seemed at ease. And there was this man in Times Square yelling his lungs out, “Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming!” And I’m not
religious myself, but I thought, “Oh, if only this were true, we would need a guy like Jesus right now.” People flew planes into buildings in the name of God. That made me compose “Jesus is Coming.” And people sometimes ask me is that a religious piece. Yeah, maybe it’s a religious piece but my opinion doesn’t really matter.
TS: Kind of just open for interpretation?
JTV: Absolutely, that is so important. People sometimes ask me how should I perform this or that and I think there are several ways of performing. I like it when the musicians have different approaches to it, I believe a score should be like 60% composer, 40% performer. Maybe even 50-50…
TS: I suppose it depends a bit on the piece too for the exact balance…
JTV: If you play Stockhausen, it’s 90% Stockhausen and 10% you because there are so
many signposts along the way. And that’s okay, that’s the way he writes, but I like the input from musicians.
TS: Something else I noticed about your music in listening to a lot of it and kind of just
experiencing it is that you have, I feel, a strong balance between lyricism and more jagged lines and the use of extended techniques, more specifically in the saxophone music, of course. Something I find in interviewing and listening to a lot of modern saxophone composers, you get a lot on that second half. You get a lot of those jagged lines, extended techniques, but I find your music has a lot of lyricism built in as well along with those things. So what I was going to ask you is, personally, what do you feel the balance should be between those and in modern music, what should the role of lyricism be– and melody?
JTV: That’s an interesting question, but I cannot...there are no rules for that. The only rule I can think of is variation. It’s like cooking food. I mean, composing and cooking have a lot in common. If you want to be a good cook, you really have to be creative with the herbs, with all the ingredients. There are many, many ways to cook great food. As long as there is variety, as long as the next dish that comes on the table has a little different flavor, a different color, a different approach. When I look around, listening to contemporary music, I think many pieces are way too long, way too long. The most precious thing you should cherish as a composer is the attention of the listener, and not just the attention of the listener, but the also attention of the musician who performs your work. So time is very precious. Don’t waste the time of the listeners by writing music that goes on and on forever and ever without much variety. Of course, there are exceptions If I listen to Morton Feldman, the great American composer, his music can last for hours but that is able to...or La Monte Young, that kind of music is able to carry the time along without getting tedious. if you are really listening to it of course. But that kind of music may be an exception. Generally speaking often duration is a problem. Variance is a problem. I mean, a piece can last like 20 minutes but if you...it’s like in life; life gets very boring without variation. Everything you do, you have to do it in different ways. Some things you have to do the same way all the time but I think the beauty about music is and you can hear it if you listen to Mozart or Bach in any piece, these guys were giants in variation techniques; it’s always a little bit different and that makes it so fascinating.
Since we have minimal music there is a danger or there is a tendency- also since we have Rock and Roll and Hip-Hop, there is a lot of music with a basic repetitive structure. But even there, good Hip-Hop has enough variation to capture the attention of the listener. Talking about lyricism: I think by nature I am a romantic person so I like lyricism. Although I find it very, extremely hard to write melodies. Why? Because writing a melody is like painting a landscape. I mean, there have been so many wonderful painters painting landscapes. How to paint a landscape better than Van Gogh or you name it? So, I don’t think I will ever write an incredible, beautiful melody like–Paul McCartney can for instance. I find it very, very hard to do. The melodies I write, they come into being, not by thinking of melody but by thinking of the harmonies and the subjects.
TS: With the saxophone itself, obviously you’ve written a lot of saxophone music for solo saxophone or quartets, saxophone orchestra, concertos for saxophone, etc and so what do feel that saxophones are capable of or what are you able to get from a group of saxophones that you don’t feel maybe you could get from other instruments? And this might relate back to, in the beginning of the interview, you were talking about as a kid, you heard a lot of big sounds, the organ, the marching band. Do you think maybe...I mean, the saxophone it’s kind of a big instrument, it can produce a lot of sound, but is there something specific about the saxophone that made it so compelling?
JTV: You know, it is so weird that I fell in love with the saxophone relatively late, I was already 47, 20 years ago when I got a commission to write Pitch Black for the Aurelia Quartet, in my opinion, one of the most important saxophone quartets in Europe. Unfortunately, they split up after 25 years or so which is understandable but I was so lucky that my first experience was with them! It’s like for the first time in your life you step into a car and it’s a Rolls Royce. When I later worked with other great quartets, I realized how
good they were, how versatile they were like one tight band, intonation, balance,
interpretation, everything sounded so easy.
Let me tell you that I think I yet have to write my masterpiece for the saxophone. Because I haven’t yet captured…Years ago, Arno Bornkamp bought a tenor sax for me. We did a blindfold test in a famous saxophone shop in Holland. Arno played on different tenors behind a curtain and I picked this one. This is an old instrument and we don’t know who played on it but it sounds fantastic. And every now and then I pick it up and blow a little. Because as a flutist, I have no problem with the keys, same application. Just the embouchure is a bit strange to me and I need to practice more. But getting back to your question. I think the saxophone family is...first of all, it is built by a genius, Adolphe Sax! This versatility! You can have so many different colors on the saxophone, it’s unbelievable. The history of jazz is the best example of this. If you compare Ben Webster, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins. Three giants on the tenor and each have a totally different sound. Now you may say pick 3 classical cello players, famous cello players Yo-Yo Ma, Mischa Maisky, whoever, they all have a different sound but not as different as these jazz cats. The way of blowing, the color differences, the musical language.
If you put one saxophone in the symphony orchestra, as composers did about 100 years ago and listen to what’s happening. As if the sky is opening! Of course, an oboe is beautiful, a bassoon too so is a flute or a clarinet. But all these instruments, all four of them have different and very distinct textures. They have very definite textures. An oboe is always an oboe. It will never sound anything else than an oboe. So is a bassoon. But a saxophone is like a chameleon: you can whisper, you can cry, you can shout. It can also be very percussive.
Speaking of dynamics, speaking of color, the sax is amazing. Right now Arno has started a project. He is focusing on the baritone saxophone because that is the instrument he has least explored and we’re working on a new project for the baritone, trying to explore the baritone saxophone from a whole new perspective, and that’s all I can say about it, we just started, but I like this approach. When he’s in my studio, I ask him how he does this or that and I make recordings of his playing and I start to compose with the sounds we discover here in my studio. The electric guitar is probably an instrument that comes close when it comes to this chameleonistic versatility: you can play really soft, really tiny, you can play heavy metal on it, with all types of electronic equipment. But the saxophone family is acoustic so you don’t need any electric or electronic means...and it’s not a brass instrument but it’s made of brass and for some reason, it sounds different than a clarinet because it’s not made of wood. That is also amazing. I hope that will still write another two or three very appealing pieces for the saxophone. Yeah, but that’s all I can say about it. I think I haven’t even touched the surface, as you say in your language. And I’d like to dive deeper into it.
TS: It’s exciting to hear what you’ll do next with the saxophone.
JTV: To give you an example, in 1998 I wrote this now popular piece for the flute called
“Lipstick” and I wrote it so easily because I was a flutist myself. Sometimes flutists come to me and say that’s impossible and I tell them: “Give me your flute, it’s not impossible” and I can still demonstrate it, the technique how to achieve it. So if I would have been a saxophone player, I would probably achieve much more, you see, which is why this tenor is here in my studio. I have to practice a lot more, maybe I discover some new unheard possibilities.
TS: What’s the biggest piece of advice you’d give to young composers who are just
starting out and trying to find their own voices as composers. What would be your advice for them?
JTV: Follow your ears and write the music that you really enjoy listening to yourself. And
that’s easily said, maybe easier said than done. Follow your ears. I think it’s very important that you don’t focus on the musical score at first, but use your ears. I always start by using my ears and by listening. I’m not writing. The writing comes later. The writing comes after. Music is about sound and about experiencing the beauty of sound. And don’t make music too complicated. A thousand years of musical history can be overwhelming, but don’t be intimidated by it. All that great music has been written and what you can possibly add to it. Nobody knows...unless you write that masterpiece. Unless you write that piece that people like to play, that people like to hear...that’s all you can do. And it’s a very simple recipe, but I think it might work. Follow your heart also, not just your ear but your heart. In that regard, composing music and living a life shouldn’t be so different at all.