by Colleen Verbus, December 2013
JacobTV (Jacob ter Veldhuis, Westerlee, 1951) started his musical career as a rock musician. He studied composition at the Conservatory of Groningen with Willem Frederik Bon and electronic music with Luctor Ponse, graduating in 1980, when he was awarded the Prize for Composition. In the following years he attracted attention with two symphonies and works such as Insonnia, Drei Stille Lieder and Diverso il Tempo, while earning his living by writing film scores and music for the clowns of Circus Krone. In 1984, he became a full-time composer searching for a voice of his own as he did not connect with the avant-garde nor feel at home in the rock and jazz scene. His fascination for American culture and the seamier side of society can be found in his so-called boombox works. Currently, samples from political speeches, commercials, documentaries, talk shows and interviews form the basis of much of his compositions. In (1999), he wrote Grab It! for tenor saxophone and boombox, his most successful piece up to then, and his music became popular internationally. His more conventional works, such as his string quartets, solo concertos and orchestral pieces, were increasingly recognised because of their content full of influences from the Classical and Romantic period, minimal music, jazz and rock. In 2001, a four-day festival in Rotterdam was dedicated entirely to his work and in 2007 a similar festival took place in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. On that occasion, an anthology of his work was released on CD and DVD. Since the premiere of his video-oratorio Paradiso in 2001, he has focused on the integration of image, frequently collaborating with choreographers and video artists, such as in Mountain Top (2008) which is based on visuals and audio from Martin Luther King’s last speech, and in his latest project, the reality opera The News. Although JacobTV frequently uses existing techniques, the original combination of elements make him unique: he describes himself as an avant-pop composer.
At the Distinctively Dutch Festival, JacobTV presented his video opera, The News, synthesizing speech, music, and video for a multiplatform musical commentary on contemporary news media.
Colleen Verbus: How did you become part of the Distinctively Dutch Festival?
Jacob Ter Veldhuis (JacobTV): Representatives of Dutch culture have been active in your country for many years, and that is probably the reason this whole festival came into being. As you may not know, The Netherlands has, as until now, a policy that exports not just economic goods but also culture. For as long as I can remember, since the Second World War, this has been part of Dutch policy. Every Dutch embassy in the world has a cultural department. There are 1twelve countries in the world that the Netherlands regards as most important culturally. And of course the U.S. is one of those countries. So, representatives of my publishing company, Music Center in the Netherlands, and most importantly, the Dutch consulate in New York, have been active with important presenters in your country for many years. This is the result of their talks. The other thing is, over the past 10 years, I myself have been quite active in your country. So even my name, I mean, everyone calls me Jacob TV. This [nickname] was invented by New York musicians who couldn’t pronounce my name. So they started calling me JacobTV.
CV: Ah, so that’s why they call you JacobTV?
JTV: That’s right! But then when they invented this, it was a very apt name, because television and media are one of the sources of my inspiration. I think the fact that my music was all over the place in New York and other cities along the East Coast, and that is probably one of the reasons that these presenters thought maybe we should program Jacob’s new opera. It’s a combination of things.
CV: I read about your multimedia pop opera The News and am wondering what inspired you to put together such diverse elements?
JTV: First of all, as a composer, I’m very interested in sound bites from every day life. I’m a classically trained composer. I write string quartets, piano concertos, and the like. At the same time, I write music that is based on sound bites from speech and speech from people in spontaneous situations. What I do is I pick a subject, this can be anything, and then I analyze the melody of speech, because speech has a melody and I put that to music. One famous composer from your country is Steve Reich who did that long time ago. I think it was Scott Johnson, another composer who lives in New York City, and he invented this technique maybe forty years ago. I find it a very interesting technique, because you know, in visual arts using ready-made objects has been done for fifty, maybe eighty years. Marcel Duchamp started with it. But like Andy Warhol, for instance, he uses images from newspapers in his work. I try to use that technique in my music by using sound bites. In the last fifteen years, I’ve been using this speech melody technique writing pieces about several subjects like “Jesus is coming,” or lipstick. These pieces are based on American talk shows or inmates life behind bars, or homeless people, or soldiers, veterans from the war in Iraq. And, of course, these pieces often have a social context because of the meaning of the words. Some people call me an engaged composer, and maybe that is true because I am interested in society and the world I am living in. Music is very abstract. It doesn’t mean anything. As soon as you use speech and language, it becomes far more interesting because you deal with subjects of every day life. In a way, I feel like a poet the way I use these speech samples. I’m not just a composer anymore; I’m kind of a poet because I put together all those words and those sound bites. I did this for many years. I have always been very fascinated by the media and by television. I can still remember—I’m that old—the first television in the 1950s. It was miraculous! Suddenly we could see something that was in a remote country. I remember I was eight years old. The Olympics took place in Rome in 1960. My parents bought a television especially for that. It was black and white and very slow image. But you could see people in Rome! It was fantastic! And so I’ve seen the media change over half a century. Now we are living in an era where news has become infotainment, and everything that happens in your world is being presented to us in a way—at least in many countries. Television stations and news programs have become infotainment programs. As long as there is news, they have something to say. If there is no news, they make it up just to have news. For instance, there’s a dog walking on the highway and the traffic has to stop because someone has to catch the dog. Then, they film this from a helicopter and that’s news. They say, “Oh there was dog on highway 61 and we had to capture the dog…” And so we have news. I started studying news from hotel rooms when I was in Tokyo, New York, or wherever. It’s fascinating to see television in foreign countries, because in a way, it’s exotic. For me, as a Dutch man, American TV is very exotic. It’s different than in Europe. I started using sound bites from American television like The Jerry Springer Show. And then I thought this news, this infotainment, is so fascinating. Why can I not portray this world by using footage from television stations from China, Japan, the US, Holland, Italy, from everywhere? Make a portrait of politics, economy, finance, environment, show business, war, and peace. All these subjects can be part of my never-ending opera, because it’s an opera that is constantly being updated. The news is never-ending. That’s basically the concept. Again, putting speech to music, but now I have videos as well. You can see Obama. You can see Putin. You can see Berlusconi or Lady GaGa or whoever. Then, there are singers also on stage who are presenting the news. These singers interact with these talking heads on the monitors. You get a kind of fake news program. So people in the audience begin thinking, “Is this a live television broadcast? What is this?” It’s not a fictitious opera. No, it’s a non-fiction opera. Nothing has been made up. It’s reality. It’s a reality opera.
CV: Why did you decide to present The News at Distinctly Dutch?
JTV: It was a great occasion for me. For a composer, it is a dream come true when a presenter, and in this case an important presenter, like Paul Organisak of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, approaches you. He said, “I’m so curious about your opera concept,” because the opera wasn’t ready, yet. I hadn’t even written it. I had just written a couple scenes for it. And he had invited me to do this opera in Pittsburgh. It was fantastic, because as a composer you’re totally dependent on presenters and musicians. Without them, I’m nowhere. A painter makes his own paintings but a composer doesn’t make his own music. I’m writing it, but I need musicians, I need presenters, and I do need an audience. I was very happy with Paul’s offer. But then, I thought I didn’t have a band and “Whose going to play it?” That was my next step in my search to make this happen.
CV: Has the reception to The News varied from country to country?
JTV: Oh yeah, absolutely. So far, we have done short previews of The News showing 45-minute sections. We’ve done that in Tokyo, Amsterdam, and other places in Holland. Then, we had a world premiere in Pittsburgh, and then we did a couple of shows in Chicago. Last month we were in Rome. I can compare a little bit how people respond. It’s different. There’s an intermission in the opera, and what you see—well I saw this in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Rome—is that people are not leaving the theater. They stay in the theater and are discussing the opera. They stand in the aisles talking about it. Normally, they go drink coffee, but they didn’t leave the theater. They stayed there and were so fascinated by the subjects and discussed this. I was very happy. I try, as an artist, to make people think. I’m not going to tell the people what I think the world is like; people have to think for themselves. I’m not trying to moralize in the news. I show politicians with whom I don’t agree at all like Berlusconi or Sarah Palin. But I show them, and I show them without making a fool out of them. Well, I do sometimes a little bit. It’s so people can get a different point of view about these people. I remember the Pittsburgh audience shouted during the show. For example, when Michael Moore with Occupy Wall Street appeared on the video, you could really tell some Americans like him and others didn’t. I heard some people shouting “Yeah!” and others said “Boo.” Same thing with Obama. People in Europe responded a little bit more positive towards the Obama scene. In America, even my best friends who are Democrats have become very critical about him. We (Europeans) look at him from a distance, and for us he’s still the hero he was in 2008. But of course, we also see that he failed for many reasons. It’s interesting to see how audiences responded differently to the same guy in different periods of time. It’s the same thing with Berlusconi in Italy, and the Italians are so embarrassed by him. He’s such a fool, and no one believes him anymore. But I still present Berlusconi in this opera as a statesman. I show his speeches, with all his wisdom, etc. They wanted to get rid of this guy, and they finally did. But they don’t understand why still I show him in my opera.
CV: How are American audiences different from the Dutch audiences?
JTV: The audiences in Amsterdam have seen so much, and it’s a very liberal city. People are not shocked so easily in Amsterdam. They were really moved [by The News]. As I said, Americans tend to shout a little bit more. The Japanese are very polite people. They laughed, but not loud as Europeans or Americans. A critic of the Chicago Tribune said, “This opera makes you happy, sad, angry, wild, crazy, moved to tears, aggressive. Any emotion a human being can have, this opera triggers.” That was a great compliment, and is something I try to achieve. I try to move my audience. We’re all so used to watching television. Most people have the TV on all day and hardly watch it. I try to zoom in on these talking heads and show the person behind the icon, showing real human beings. This can be very touching. Generally speaking, the way people responded wasn’t such a big difference. The Italians, they don’t speak English like Dutch people do, so they had a little difficulty understanding everything, even with subtitles. The Dutch people had less difficulty. Also, many of the jokes were understood by Americans. The differences weren’t so big, I think.
CV: What was your experience doing the festival in Pittsburgh?
JTV: It was fantastic. I haven’t seen anything from the festival myself because I went to Pittsburgh and prepared the opera. Once it was done, I left pretty quickly. We had to go to Chicago and prepare the opera there. So, I didn’t get to see any other gigs at the festival. We had a great time working there. We performed in an old theatre, the Byham Theater. They were very helpful. The technical stuff was great. We had a great time. Well, we had some difficulties maybe. In your country (America), you have these unions. We have unions, too, of course. Every person who works has to be represented by some kind of union. I was surprised, for instance, the musicians of the band, which was a band from Chicago, Fulcrum Point New Music; they are all members of a union. So were the technicians in that hall in Pittsburgh, they are also members of a different union. We had just one day to one and a half days to set everything up. On day 1, at 10 o’clock in the morning, we just started rehearsing. Suddenly, there was a break. Because the technicians said, “Sorry guys, you have to leave the theatre now, because we are having our break.” So we had a break for a half an hour. We started again. Then, suddenly, one of the musicians said, “Sorry guys, we are having our break right now.” So that was crazy. We were losing precious time for our rehearsal, because both unions had different schedules. That surprised me. In a Dutch theatre, a band of technicians would be like, “OK guys, we will keep on working. No problem. We stop working an hour earlier or something later.” For me as a European, it was hard to understand that there was no communication between two unions. Everybody is tense and everybody is nervous, and then you have these unions with their rules. We had so little time. That was scary for me. That was a weird experience. I praise the unions, but that kind of communication was not perfect. Apart from that, we had a great time. Everything we wished for was there. I was a bit worried about the viewing angles of the theater because it is an old theater. When you hang video screens behind the band on the stage, these video screens have to be visible from every corner in the theatre. And they were not. I knew from looking at the drawings of the map of the theatre, I could see a couple of rows of chairs we couldn’t sell because they couldn’t see the whole video. So we had to tell people “Don’t sit there.” We couldn’t even sell those chairs, because you couldn’t see the video screens. That was my concern already from the beginning. There are so many things you have to think about when you do a production like this. I personally would have preferred a black box theater where the audience is sitting in an amphitheatre, and looking down on the stage. That is a much better situation. The black box theatre has no walls and no frame around the stage. It’s just open. That would have been ideal. Maybe when we come to New York with the opera, and we will, maybe hopefully we’ll have a theater with better viewing angles.
CV: You have current plans to bring the opera to New York and how is that going?
JTV: Tough. We have several opportunities and we’re negotiating right now. This is top secret. We have some very interested locations that are interested in presenting it in the New York premier. I think in the 2014-2015 season we will have the New York premiere. I can’t tell anything about it.
CV: Erwin Maas presented a talk on the Dutch system of government support of the arts in our class and how it has changed and how the Dutch are looking to U.S. models. How has this change affected your work as an artist?
JTV: It was a very luxurious situation that I grew up with. When I grew up, the Dutch government basically supports everything, even when you wanted to study music at a university. When I was young, you could do that basically for free. That’s not the case anymore. You have to pay a little. You can borrow money from the government without paying any interest. You can finish your studies. It is not as expensive in your country (the US). For parents, it’s sometimes very expensive for a child to study at the university. That is rapidly changing over here. I already spoke about how the Netherlands sponsored culture. I knew when I was fourteen years old [that I was a composer]. You can’t become a composer. You are a composer. It’s like that. You can’t become a composer. As a little boy, I felt “I’m a composer.” But I needed somebody to teach me, of course, because composition is difficult and its complex. In the beginning my parents said to me, “You want to become a composer?” My father was a professor in French language and he said, “Why don’t you become a high school teacher?” I wasn’t interested in that. Well, I did become a high school teacher in the beginning just to make some money. But I knew I was a composer. Then, I found out, in my late twenties, that I was supported by the Dutch government. They gave me commissions that I had to apply for. A substantial part of my career I owe to the Dutch government. Thanks to them I could write music and was financially supported by the government. That is a wonderful situation. In your country, it’s totally different. In your country, you can apply for grants from institutions that aren’t funded by the government but funded by very rich people who do something very good with their money. I think both systems make sense. Right now, over here due to the economic crisis, the European governments changed their attitudes towards art. They say, “Art & artists have to make a profit.” That is an arguable thing to say. In general, not many artists can make a living with their art. Painters can make a lot of money when they’re famous. But for composers it’s a different thing. I think both systems have their advantages. I have American friends who are artists and musicians, and I know how tough life can be in your country, because there’s no government support. If you want to be a musician or a painter, go ahead but you have to make your living and you can apply for grants here or there. It’s tough. I admire my American colleagues because they have a harder way to make their living compared to my situation. It has been quite luxurious so far. But, again, it’s changing over here, because the cutbacks in the arts have been surreal in our country.
CV: How do you view U.S. culture at this time? What do you find most interesting and what do you find most challenging?
JTV: You can still tell America is a young nation. That is something I feel when I’m in your country, even when I’m teaching. I think American students are very ambitious and have a very positive attitude towards life, in general. Compared to Europe, there is a kind of energy in your country, which I really love, probably because America is still a young nation. Two hundred-fifty years is nothing if you compare that to all those European countries that exist for a thousand years almost or many hundred of years. That is what I really like about America. Speaking of music, if you look at the development of music in one hundred years or one hundred-twenty years, starting with gospel going to jazz, blues, rock and roll, hip hop, etc., then, you see an incredibly rich development of musical styles in just one hundred years, which is amazing. That has of course spread across the globe. Rock and roll has spread everywhere. It’s not typically American anymore. It comes from your country. It has roots in European civilization. I find that very interesting. I grew with American pop music and jazz. It inspired me and it still does inspire me. So in general, I think the American society inspires me more, to be honest, than European society. In a way, Europe is an old lady. It’s an old institution. We have many traditions, based on old values. I think if I were twenty-five years younger than what I am right now, I would consider immigrating into America, because I love the spirit of Americans. I love meeting Americans.
CV: What you currently working on?
JTV: I’m still working on this opera because, as I had said earlier, it’s a never-ending opera. We will have a Dutch series of performances coming up in the next season. I’m writing new scenes involving Nicaragua, Ahmadinejad, the Taliban, and dangerous subjects. You need to be very careful when you deal with those kinds of subjects. There is an important peace festival in Holland, in the city of Utrecht, where I’m living basically. They asked me to make a special peace edition of The News for them. The Dali Lama will be in it, and other matters of war and peace, so that’s what I’m working on right now. It’s still the opera. It’s a never-ending piece. I think in ten years from now, I’m still working on it.
CV: Where are you hosting this, again?
JTV: Takes place on an old American military airbase. Americans protected large parts of Europe from the Russian dangers. And we had an American airbase not so far from here. The Americans left but everything is still there, such as beautiful old buildings. The fighter jets and planes were all hidden. My opera will take place in one of these old buildings. It’s a beautiful location in the middle of nature. Nature has taken over now that the soldiers have left. You can still tell that this is a military base.
Colleen Verbus is a graduate of the MFA in Performing Arts Management at Brooklyn College and a freelance social media manager.