I admit I was a bit skeptical as I put in the first CD of the music of Jacob ter Veldhuis. But I sat and listened, suddenly transfixed. Then, a second CD, and a third. I found myself asking the same questions everyone else seems to ask: "Who is this Jacob ter Veldhuis? Why haven't I heard about him before?" The JacobTV Festival at the University of Tennessee this week can answer the first question rather easily; the answer to the second question is quite a bit more complicated.
Simply, Jacob ter Veldhuis is a 57-year-old Dutch composer, popularly known as JacobTV. His output of music falls roughly into two categories. The first consists of larger works for which he has been attracting commissions from European orchestras and ensembles. The second group consists of so-called "boombox" works—pieces written for solo instruments and ensembles that are performed against pre-recorded audio collages. The collages—bright, intricate sonic structures created from sampled sound bites from elements of popular culture such as political speeches, television commercials, interviews, talk shows, and TV evangelists—are not merely background or accompaniments, but actual fellow performers.
Ter Veldhuis has called his music "avant pop," but that term can be a bit misleading. His idea of "pop," much like "pop art," seems to refer to a fascination—or perhaps even an obsession or love/hate relationship—with American popular music and culture. This grew out of his childhood in post-war Holland, a time he terms "a very gray time" in Europe when most of the "color" was imported from America.
However, in the United States, outside of New York and a few scattered venues, his music has mostly escaped notice and appreciation by all but a handful of fiercely loyal and devoted musicians and listeners. One of those devoted musicians is Connie Frigo, professor of saxophone at the UT School of Music and a member of the New Century Saxophone Quartet. Frigo has organized and directed the JacobTV Festival; in her first encounter with JacobTV's music, she, too, asked herself: "Who is this composer?"
"In 2000, I was up in Montreal for the World Saxophone Conference," Frigo says. "One of the big evening concerts featured this Dutch saxophonist, Arno Bornkamp. He walked out on stage by himself, saxophone around his neck, a boom box in his hand, a sweatband around his head. He set the boombox down, started it, and began to play JacobTV's ‘Grab It!,' which is his most famous boombox piece. The audience was blown away. I was blown away."
Shortly after, Frigo obtained a Fulbright scholarship and went to the Netherlands to study saxophone with Bornkamp. It was there she met ter Veldhuis and commissioned a saxophone work from him. "From that point on, we've struck up an incredible partnership in what I do for his music in the United States," she says. "I've recorded some of his music and I play it whenever I can."
However, passion, perseverance, and long-distance advocacy can only do so much—the music must hit the streets, clubs, and performance halls. In the same year of the Montreal World Saxophone Conference, ter Veldhuis was being introduced to several American audiences with Jungle Heart, a work for flute and percussion duo, via a tour by James Galway and the Safri Duo. Then in 2005, the Symphonic Space in Manhattan hosted the Prism Quartet in a sold-out evening of ter Veldhuis' music. That success eventually led to support for a three-day JacobTV Festival in the spring of 2007 at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art entitled "Grab It! The Music of JacobTV."
With Ter Veldhuis himself on hand, this week's JacobTV Festival at UT under the sponsorship of the UT School of Music and UT's Ready for the World program should offer plenty of opportunities for similar awareness-altering encounters. The Thursday night concert will feature the world premiere of a newly commissioned arrangement of the Tallahatchie Concerto for alto saxophone and band.
An even bigger event is planned for Friday evening. Guest musicians and ensembles from around the country, UT music faculty members, and UT music students will take the stage for "The Boombox Music of Jacob Ter Veldhuis," an exploration of nine very different and intriguing pieces. Among these will be Heartbreakers for saxophone quartet, rhythm section, boombox, and DVD, featuring the New Century Saxophone Quartet, guest pianist David Cutler, and UT faculty musicians Rusty Holloway (bass) and Keith Brown (drums). Jessica Sherwood, an Atlanta flutist, will open the concert with Lipstick for flute and boombox. UT faculty cellist Wesley Baldwin will team with pianist Cutler for May This Bliss Never End.
Who is Jacob ter Veldhuis, you ask? This time next week, all will be clear.