Pianist and composer Pieter de Graaf releases brand new EP
Published author Sammy Stein chats to Pieter de Graaf about his brand new EP release...
Pieter de Graaf has been described as a new talent in the neo-classical world. His debut project ‘Fermata’ created huge interest when the first part was released. The second part to 'Fermata', ‘Prologue’, was released on 24th May 2018 and is a recording of 6 compositions, each unique and beautiful in its own way.
Pieter grew up in a home where his father played piano and loved listening to him play. His early influences were Bach, Nils Frahm, Chopin and other classical composers and as a teenager he took a keen interest in jazz and improvisational music. Of his early influences, Pieter says, “Frederique Chopin was the composer and person who inspired me most as a child. My father used to play some of his pieces at home and we had records as well. I remember reading a book about his life and being inspired by the fact Chopin made such beautiful compositions and at the same time was a virtuoso pianist.'
'Later on, something weird happened. When I was sixteen years old, I bought this record by Herbie Hancock ‘The new standard’ (Verve Records). I still don’t know why I bought it as I had no affinity with jazz at all. I listened to it every evening on my headphones for almost a year. I fell asleep with it for a long period of time (although the music wasn’t especially good to fall asleep with). It made me realize I wanted to be a professional pianist/composer and I wanted to study jazz piano. So, I started studying really hard, from six to eight hours a day. Later on, there would be many more inspirational people for me, among them Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, Radiohead, the Beatles and Rachmaninov.”
How Miles Davis influenced him
Miles Davis’ music seems to have had a particular influence and Pieter says about this improvisational musician, “During my jazz piano studies, I got to know Miles Davis. What really struck me about Miles was that he can say so much with only a few notes. It’s also how he plays the notes, his timbre and phrasing. Next to that he had this amazing talent to find exactly the right musicians for his recordings. For example, he wanted a different pianist for only the second track of his album ‘Kind of Blue’ (Columbia 1959), and used Wynton Kelly instead of Bill Evans, who plays piano on the rest of the tracks and it works so well. “
Pieter considers that his eclectic listening and influences enable him to combine melodies with virtuoso passages without losing the meaning or essence of the music. It is perhaps no surprise that ‘Fermata’- his first major project- encompasses both improvisational segments and classically influenced compositions. With the first part, Pieter pushed boundaries and explored different musical aspects. ‘Prologue’, the second part to 'Fermata', has influences from many genres. Of the Fermata project Pieter comments, “One of the most important things for me is that I don’t want to feel any restrictions or boundaries concerning style. Of course, I studied jazz music as well as classical and I gained much experience playing pop music and hip hop (Pieter has played with many bands and toured widely with them), so naturally all these elements can be heard throughout the record and when I play live. Yet when I am creating a song or playing an improvisation, I tend not to focus on what material or skills I will use and from which styles they came. The main goal is to let the music decide what it wants at that particular moment. I’d say that all the music on ‘Fermata’, both part one and part two, - whether improvised or written - is influenced by all the styles I got to know in my life.”
'Rise and Shine'
His latest EP is a reflection of his use of many styles. It opens with ’Rise and Shine’ which has repeated motifs, some vocals and a development of the simple theme. What immediately strikes the ears are the changes in intensity which create a wavelike essence to the sound. The repetition of the rhythm, swapping from left to right hand becomes mesmeric after the 3-minute mark to the extent it becomes a backdrop to the voices. The sudden quietness and drop in intensity before a cello solo enters over the top is stunning in its effectiveness. The warmth flowing from the cello line adds even more contrast as it fills the air, just like the radiating energy of the sun as it rises.
This is followed by ‘Prologue’, the short title track of the album which is beautiful and atmospheric; the unadulterated recording complete with background noise, creating a life-like feel. The theme is simple and melancholic. The narrative is again enhanced by changes in intensity.
Pieter's use of felts in 'Hide and Seek'
‘Hide and Seek’ is playful with the initial triplet and crotchet motif repeated over a changing left-hand line, before a key change lifts the piece; the ascension taking the listener ever higher in terms of awareness. Pieter recorded this with felts placed between the hammers and the keys, which means the lower notes are clipped as the strings are deprived of their vibrosity and the higher notes sound as if they are plucked, which adds interest. The conversation between the rhythm of the two hands is a relevant and fluid dialogue. The slow down at the end is truly beautiful.
Regarding the complex score and experimental way in which the track was recorded, Pieter says, “It is true that the score for ‘Hide and Seek’ is more complex than, for example, ‘A Minor Story’. I didn’t think about that when writing the song, it just happened. My producer Jonas Pap and I felt this song could be stronger if the repetitive nature of the composition was strengthened. We found that, by using felt between the hammers and strings, the sound of the notes fitted perfectly to the song and we could record the ‘ticking’ of the hammers louder (because the notes sound softer), so that you hear the ‘ticks’ under every note, almost like a typewriter. So, by experiment we managed to achieve how we wanted this song to sound."
Follow Pieter online here:
'Charlotte's Daydream' and 'City 40'
‘Charlottes’ Daydream’ is short, sweet and pretty, the right hand working out a precocious melody over a steady left-hand motif with some interesting tempo and rhythm changes and a gorgeous overlaid cello line. It is followed by ‘City 40’ which begins with a long, sonorous, deep note over which the piano enters first with chords, then a trinkling, cheeky riffle comes over the top. The piece develops with contrasts between the chorded strengths of the lower notes and the rapid-fire rivulets of sound from the upper notes, creating a musical landscape which switches in tempo and atmosphere, reflecting the activities of a city.
'A Minor Story'
The next track, ‘A Minor Story’ starts with a relatively simple melody over a repeating lower-case motif but it develops with the theme being added to, key changes and a gradual texturing until the strings emerge from the background to underline those changes. By this point the multi-layered arrangement has created a deeply textured sound with depths over which the piano soars.
Pieter says of the links between musical styles, “For me, all musical styles have close links. For example, in musical harmony, the musical tension is always at the fifth degree of a scale; whether it’s jazz, classical, pop or hip hop. What defines a style, I think, is how all these musical elements are combined and how exactly these elements are used. For example, the timing of a syncopated note in jazz is slightly different to how it would be timed in classical music. That’s one of the reasons why the music feels different, but the general effect of a syncopated note is the same in all styles. I found out that if you master these basic musical ‘rules’, you can oversee music in a more general way.”
Pieter's 'quest for the best'
It takes motivation for a composer to continue on a daily basis. For Pieter, what drives him is, “the eagerness to keep making better compositions and improvisations; better music. For me, this has to do with so many things: playing the right notes (only the ones that really matter) and playing them the right way in terms of touch and timing, connecting these notes in a perfect way regarding the phrasing, finding the right sound, the right arrangements and instruments, and the perfect tempo and key. I think things can always be more perfect so I hope this ‘quest for the best’ will never stop, because this quest is actually one of the nicest things about making music for me. “
Keep up to date with Pieter by visiting his website here.
What does he listen to now?
Pieter says, “I must honestly say I don’t listen to music very often. It’s not that I don’t like listening to music but since I’m working on my own music quite intensely I really enjoy having no sound around me. When I do listen to music, it’s never as background music. Preferably I put on my headphones, close my eyes and let myself disappear totally in the music. The music I listen to is not bound to a certain style. I could, for example, choose to listen to Mozart’s ‘Requiem’, Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto, Radiohead, Hauschka ( German pianist and composer) or Keith Jarrett.”
Do musicians today have it harder than musicians of the past?
Musicians today often say it is harder for them to be heard but Pieter has clear views and says, “ I don’t believe musicians today have a tougher or easier time than in the past. Sure, things have changed. I guess it’s much more difficult to stand out nowadays because there’s much more people making music and releasing it. On the other hand, it’s easier to release your own music than it used to be. Everybody can promote their music via the internet and you can make and record music on your laptop more easily than before, when you had to pay to go to a recording studio. Also, I don’t know what to prefer: Having to earn money by making music commercially (like in the present time) or having to earn money by writing music for the king and/or god (like in the past, for example W.A. Mozart, J.S. Bach). I think it’s all about making good music and that’s how to stand out. It was like this then and it is like this now, and hopefully will always stay like this.
What inspired you for this project?
On the inspiration for ‘Fermata’, Pieter says somewhat ironically, “In my case, the lack of inspiration inspired me to start this 2-part project ‘Fermata’.” He explains further, “For many years I studied music intensely, toured, and recorded albums with many artists and bands in a broad spectrum of styles from jazz to pop, classical and hip hop. Over the years it became clear to me I had lost my joy in music. I was playing many notes but not really feeling them. The turning point came when I was walking the streets of Tokyo. I remember thinking, “‘I’m in Japan, doing a tour with a great band. They’re lovely people, we’re playing fantastic venues and have the best hotels but I’m not happy. If this doesn’t make me happy I really have to change something.”
So, I quit all the projects and bands and took time to figure out what I really wanted. I found out I wanted to make my own music, without boundaries while creating it. That’s why I called this project ‘Fermata’. It’s a sign used in music scores. Whenever this sign is written above a note in a score it means the musician can hold this note as long as they want. It's more or less the same as me taking a break and taking time to start over, feel the music again. I didn’t choose to mix styles, I chose to abandon styles, but that doesn’t mean that the outcome will not have a certain character in a certain style. Until now, the songs I released were categorized as ‘neoclassical’. Who knows what the future will bring.?”
From listening to Prologue, there is, throughout this EP, a sense of simplicity, cleverly interlaced with, at times, an improvisational feel. The musical pictures reflect the titles in nearly every track. When the instruments enter, joining the piano, there is an immediate and compelling sense of dialogue which is engaging. This is a composer and musician who is developing and maturing, and there is an underlying sense that Pieter de Graaf has only started tapping into his huge well of talent. When Pieter plays, you can see the concentration on his face and hear it in the music. The exacting rigidity of the rhythm can, at times, make the music sound constrained. But what you also hear is clever arrangements, huge color in the sounds, and a musician who is on the threshold of even greater things.
By Sammy Stein. Sammy is an author, jazz series radio presenter, and reviewer.