By Blake Parker
Pieter de Graaf’s latest project, Prologue, is the composer’s next exploration in his search for musical meaning and depth. His debut project, Fermata, first introduced Pieter as a new talent in the neo-classical world. The songs aren’t “written” in any traditional sense; instead he plays and improvises segments, records them, and listens back over and over before deciding what to use, what to discard, and what to embellish.
Hello Pieter! Thank you for agreeing to let Piano & Coffee Co. interview you!
First of all: I absolutely adore a good coffee. And piano. My motto is: ‘No coffee no music’. So very nice to do this interview for you! Thank you!
It would seem that you have been involved with music for a very long time. How did it become a part of your life in the first place?
My father used to play piano at home. Quite often. Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, but also pop songs of the sixties like from the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Because of that, I can’t remember not having a piano and music around me.
What were some of your proudest moments as a young musician? Is there anything you look back on now that you are older and realize, “That was a special moment”?
Yes, plenty. Among them some highlights of my ‘touring life.’ Like the first gig I played on North Sea Jazz festival and playing the main stage of Pinkpop with the Kyteman Orchestra. Another special moment was in Seoul, South Korea, with Wouter Hamel, where we did a great gig at a festival and the audience was screaming so loud I never experienced before. But also some other special moments... One of the things that had huge impact on me is a workshop I had one day of trumpet player Ack van Rooyen. I remember so well, he talked in the same way as he played his instrument. Very little words with major impact. Very few notes, major impact. Another thing I remember is that the movie “Shine” had a major impact on me. David Helfgott learned to play one of the most difficult pieces there is for piano: The third piano concerto of Sergej Rachmaninov. He struggled, fought for it, with a very nasty family situation at home at the same time. I was sixteen or seventeen years old and saw the movie. Major impact. And this piano concerto is still one of my favorite compositions ever.
What was it that drew you toward the neo-classical style of music? Why do you feel that you should compose and perform this type of music rather than another type of music?
I never made a plan to make neo-classical music. I just started from scratch and for me it was very important to feel every note I played. I wanted to let go of all stylistic framing and be free to do what I want. This process, which I call ‘Fermata’ now, is still an ongoing development. So I don’t know what the future will bring. If everything I make from now on will be called neo-classical music it’s all fine by me, if a future album will be called an EDM album, or death metal, it would be fine by me as well. I don’t have any plans, except to make beautiful music that I feel very intensely and hopefully the listener does as well.
As you have grown in the neo-classical genre, what have you noticed as major differences between it and other music worlds such as jazz or popular music? Are there things you prefer about one world of music or the other?
In our modern world, the previously so visible differences are slowly vanishing. Musicians share and discuss ideas with each other and the public, they mix and match various genres and styles so I can’t necessarily say I feel differences in making music. I think that the differences today are way more found in the audience, concentrated listeners vs. wild party people for example.
Can you discuss how your entire musical background, ranging from formal classical to avant-garde jazz, has influenced your overall sound as a musician today?
I guess that every style I have gotten to know has influenced me in one way or another. In jazz music I discovered the interest and gained a lot of knowledge about musical theory, harmony, improvisation and timing. From classical music I learned a lot about arrangements and about instruments and orchestration. The classical repertoire I’ve played also definitely helped me to become a better pianist on a technical level. During my time playing in hip-hop bands as a keyboardist, I discovered the art of production and some about synthesizers and keyboards. All these elements, of course, have an influence on who I am now, musically, although I couldn’t point out in my music which part in the music comes from which style.
What was it like to take such a long break from music, your hiatus or “fermata” as you say, and then return to it? Have you experienced any revelations? Does your intention with what to compose and play come to you more naturally now?
It was a relatively short break I took. I stopped with all I was doing musically in order to find my way back to my joy and love for music and playing music. So actually, I directly started with Fermata at the point that I quit all the other things. But, then what? I just sat down. Started playing. Often started with one note. Quit playing whenever I felt I was playing but not feeling. Everything has to be felt. Fermata contained quite a few revelations, or at least they felt like revelations to me: like discovering the even more intense beauty of a single note, of a church organ, of certain intervals or chord progressions. Or discovering the use of dishcloths, a rubber hammer, and window wiper and making nice stuff with that. I could almost say that Fermata, the whole project, is like a Revelation to me. The intention of what to write or create definitely comes to me more naturally now, because the only intention I have is to make something that I deeply feel. Of course, every composer needs to feel the music he or she is creating. But the advantage I feel that Fermata offers is that I don’t have the intention to make an album, I don’t have to work in a certain style, or with certain instruments. I can do in that sense anything I want, whatever I feel at that moment. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have to ‘work’ for it: There are good and bad days, I’ve always had them and maybe always will. The bad days I believe do always, in the end, contribute to the music I am making.
Was the writing and recording of Prologue always intended to include the cellist Jonas Pap, or did that idea come after the ideas for the songs already existed? What was that process like, to involve a second instrument such as the cello on these recordings?
No, that wasn’t always intended. I met Jonas as a cellist of the Kyteman Orchestra. Later we started to share a studio in Kytopia. We became friends and we naturally discussed and talked about music quite often. Then, when I had plenty of ideas and I decided to start recording, it was a very natural decision to do this with Jonas. I do and did ‘write’ the songs myself, for 99%. Jonas has been and still is my ‘right hand,’ backbone, and he records, produces and mixes the music with me. We always start a session by finding a good sound. We put the microphones in exactly the right spot. Jonas listens where certain frequencies sound best while I am playing. Then, when the sound is set and it inspires us, we started the recording. Once a piano piece is recorded, Jonas and I sometimes feel like it should stay a solo piano song, but for others, we may feel they need something else. And we don’t want to feel any restrictions. So far we’ve recorded a church organ, a soprano choir, cello, synthesizers, tubular bells and some more instruments and effects.
You tell a story of being moved to tears by a classical performance, while your friend sitting next to you had little or no emotional reaction to the music. Do you ever find that this ability to feel music so strongly on the emotional side can have a negative effect on how you experience music, or would you say it only benefits your experience?
I would say it benefits my experience. For me music is a purely emotional thing. Of course, you need technique to play an instrument and there’s all kinds of other technical issues one has to resolve and arrange to make music, but when all of that is done, for me the mere goal is to make beautiful music.
Lastly, you mention that Prologue is only “the first part of Fermata.” Can we expect to hear more music such as this? And how do the next chapters of Fermata continue the spirit of Prologue as a careful and intentional piece of music? We are excited to know anything you can tell us about future projects of yours!
You can definitely expect more music to come. I cannot and do not want to say anything about what it’s gonna be like. This is because I really want to feel free to go in any direction I like. Of course, there will be a strong connection with Prologue, because I am the same person making the music. Right now I’m working with loops, synthesizers and bass pedals while I am creating my music. This opens new doors and I’m very excited about the results so far.