Articles + Interviews

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! aka 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 discov-ered music in spoken language, the potential of samples and the power of the boom-box 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