Jeroen VAN VEEN (b. 1969)
Piano Music - Volume 2
Jeroen Van Veen (piano, organ & keyboards)
Flute Octet BlowUp! (Continuum)
Sandra Van Veen, Mile del Ferro (piano)
rec. 2015-2018, Van Veen Productions, Studio II, Pernissimo, Pernis, Evert Snel, Werkhoven & Beauforthuis, Austerlitz, The Netherlands
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95561 [7 CDs: 514 mins]
Jeroen Van Veen’s opening sentence in the booklet for this set is, “All my music is about time and space…” This is arguably true of all music, but with his “slow progression, building of the material, the motifs and the search for new sounds” all contributing to an added layer of temporal awareness: “time goes by so quickly in these modern times that it has become an exclusive privilege to people”, you can be assured that there will be places in this collection of works that will deliver oases that seek to stretch or sidestep a conventional perception of time. This set follows Jeroen Van Veen’s first volume of Piano Music (review), which is in turn supplemented by a further set of Minimal Preludes (review).
I have to declare an interest in this release at the outset being, as a member of the BlowUp! flute octet that accompanies Jeroen Van Veen in his piano concerto Continuum, I count as one of the ‘& Friends’ involved in this set. People often seem to turn their noses up at the idea of a flute octet, but BlowUp! leans heavily on the low instruments in the family, with alto, bass, contrabass and my own subcontrabass giving the ensemble the same range as a string orchestra – a ‘living organ’ if you like. Continuum has minimalist features that build on the example of Nyman, Reich and Riley, but is in its overall impression more of a concerto in the Grand Romantic tradition, with sweeping melodies and harmonic gestures that Van Veen freely admits draw on the influences of Grieg and Schumann for the opening, and Tchaikovsky, Philip Glass, Simeon ten Holt and numerous others later on. There is also a sweet and sentimental side to the music that can be heard in the fifth movement; its tune built on a descending bass that sails close to cliché, but Van Veen’s alchemical ability to turn such things to his own idiom soon shines through. Continuum also gives a bow to Bach in its ‘concerto grosso’ set-up, with the piano in the middle facing the ensemble and acting as conductor as well as soloist. The recording was made in the Beauforthuis in Austerlitz, a converted farmhouse that has a spacious but not overly resonant acoustic in its concert hall. Not entirely soundproof, you can hear birds twittering outside in some quiet moments, and there are a few coughs in the live recording but nothing too distracting.
Continuum is a long blow for a low flute at around 55 minutes, but CD 1 is rounded off by Minimal Prelude 50 for two pianos, a beautifully atmospheric piece in B minor – indeed, a single massive V-I cadence in B minor only resolved in the last bar – that has one piano repeating a single note B whole the other plays simple but expressive chords and melodic cells, the whole thing growing in sonority before receding into a final variation on the opening.
Incanto No. 2 develops the marvellous sound of two well-matched pianos in a piece that is heard here in its full duration, but which players can shorten if desired. The first part of this work has a Simeon ten Holt minimalist feel, with a gently swaying 11/8 time signature, the slightly off-beat quality of which keeps the brain guessing as the harmonies slowly shift. The immersive effect of the music is broken by moments with expressive melodic shapes, with accents that draw the ear to a different part of the bar, or with contrasts of articulation. The character of the piece changes at its golden section point, a bass pedal tone intoning as its minor-key feel becomes heightened, a Lisztian drama point is reached and unexpected paths are taken before the 11/8 pattern finally returns.
After this fulsome experience, the slow and open textures of the start of Minimal Prelude 48 come as an interesting contrast. I like the meditative start, and while the two-against-three pattern that follows rolls along nicely I feel it’s a bit betwixt and between – too dense for real expressive variation and too static for much in the way of rhythmic subtlety. This pattern is broken at a mid-point in the piece but, unusually for Van Veen, we’ve learned nothing much new by the time it returns, the first half mirrored with an all too brief return of the meditative chords of the opening, and yet another patch of that two-against-three with which to finish.
Ripalmania is described as “a complex piece in 5/4 time signature for six pianos in six movements. Each piano is staged at a different spot in the hall so that each instrument has its own voice. The vibrant energy of the Port Rotterdam is transcribed into music. The Rippen Pianolas have drifted in from the shore and are playing on their own…” The recording details don’t list this as having been played on Rippen instruments – on which more later – but a more metallic edge to the sound certainly suits the industrial, machine-like rhythms of this work. I suspect ‘& Friends’ in this case is Jeroen Van Veen overdubbing himself and keeping everything together with a click track, the relentless consistency of the pace certainly has that feel. This is however a large-scale work with plenty of fascinating development, the relatively slow basic tempo leaving space for filigree minimalist ‘talking pianos’ textures above that remind one of some of Steve Reich’s best work in his true minimalist period. These upper lines are released for a time from the machine-room bass, which returns in a different form, new patterns being set-up in a penultimate movement that has a genuinely groovy dance feel, before the extended finale revisits and expands on what has gone before.
CD 3 concludes with In Sea, for any combination of instruments, which gives Van Veen an opportunity to bring out a selection of keyboards and instruments both acoustic and electronic. There is a mildly Krafwerk feel to the driving rhythm set up, and the association is to a certain extent continued in a choice of electronic sounds that has a distinctly retro-feel at times. In the end this is a kind of process piece in which modal musical cells run and overlap to create the overall texture, notes rising in the first half and descending in the second – a kind of ‘Trans Atlantic Express’ as it was written while in a plane travelling to Vancouver.
CD 4 has a selection of Minimal Preludes that explore space and time in different ways. Minimal Prelude 41 is a slow piece that was conceived within the acoustic of a venue called the Metaalkathedraal, building layers on a simple minor-key motive that runs throughout. Minimal Prelude 46 has a hint of Erik Satie in the chords that move around its F minor tonality, the reverberation of the piano strings part of its character, which moves from block chords to meditative variations on the main harmonic progression. Minimal Prelude 47 is a fast ostinato using a variety of electronic sound effects under which the acoustic piano finally vanishes, while Minimal Prelude 49 uses a tape delay and electronic effects that swirl around the piano in grand cinematic style. Talking of cinema, Minimal Prelude 51 was written for a short film called ‘Hotwax’, Van Veen’s narrative style with a little sprinkling of Philip Glass suiting this kind of project perfectly. Minimal Prelude 52 is dedicated to jazz pianist Mike del Ferro, a close friend of Van Veen. This piece is great fun, taking the jazz principle of the stable left-hand and an improvisatory right, but very much in ostinato minimalist style. At nearly 30 minutes, Minimal Prelude 53 is in a class of its own. Two alternating C minor triads open and are given an extended development, while the virtuoso middle section “sounds more like an Etude than a Prelude.”
CD 5 continues with Minimal Prelude 58, dedicated to theatre director Luk Perceval who has used some of these pieces for the play ‘Het Jaar van de Kreeft’ (The Year of the Crab). Using Ebows to extend notes, this functions as the deeply atmospheric opening to the play. The lovely Minimal Prelude 54 is summed up as “A freely and spacy preludes in E” revealing further need for some editing to these booklet notes. Minimal Prelude 55 is another of the more extended pieces, using subtle sound effects to create a spacious, Harold Budd feel. Minimal Prelude 56 also uses electronics to create a vast soundscape and make “the pounding chords tremble” in that space. Minimal Prelude for two Rippen Grand Pianos and 6 Ebows brings us back to a make of piano for which Jeroen Van Veen has a particular affection. Rippen was Dutch brand of pianos, designing an instrument with an aluminium frame and straight string alignment. These instruments have a unique look and sound but, dominated by Ebows for that extended and atmospheric sustain, we don’t really hear much of that character here. There are more conventionally played notes towards the end, but this is a development that seems to commence too late and run out of time too soon. Almost Six O’clock uses prepared piano, the strings played every which way other than with the normal hammers, and the underlying musical material enhanced with an upper layer of electronic effects and manipulated piano sounds. Una Corda is the shortest piece here, the piano also ‘prepared’ in some way. giving the notes a semi-dampened character with a different balance of upper harmonics that creates something exotic in the sound.
Velvet Piano “is about exploring the various sounds of prepared pianos; from piano with felt, with paper between the hammers and the strings, with lower and sustained sounds, all about sound explorations in minimal settings.” Slow tempi add to this a feeling of soundscape and distance, the unusual attack of notes and at times added mechanical sounds providing surreal shifts in context from what you would normally expect from piano recordings. Growing up my family used to have an old Moon upright piano, the soft pedal of which raised a velvet screen between hammers and strings, and I can remember being endlessly fascinated with this muffled sound. There is of course much more going on here, and the nine sections of Velvet Piano take us into different spaces, with pianos singing and rumbling at distance in huge acoustic spaces, where simple music is given extra poignancy through transformed sonic effects, and a piano can sound like an organ or a steel drum. The structural thread is a piece called Looping which opens the cycle and returns twice in different forms, and there is a penultimate movement called Rhythmic Pleasure that has a powerful, clock-like energy, with mechanical sounds corralled and placed up close over a rich pedal tone in a magnificently unstoppable groove – a sort of Birtwhistle’s Chronometer meets Boris Blank. CD 6 is rounded off with Minimal Prelude 60, Tango for Organ, which pretty much does what it says on the tin – the pedals playing a Piazzolla-like bassline while a nicely harmonised two-against-three-rhythm is set up on the manuals.
The final disc in this set, ‘Minimal Jazz’, is a collection of improvisations on two pianos made together with Mike del Ferro. These musicians have performed many concerts together and they clearly have an excellent synergy. Van Veen points out that some of this kind of work has led to new compositions, “the line between composition and improvisation is sometimes very thin”, and this of course is the continuation of a tradition well-known from the Baroque period and beyond, though more commonly as a solo pursuit. Some of these pieces take their tonal cue from an Ebow note, the second, Building, developing in all directions and whipping up quite a storm. It’s certainly intriguing to listen in and see how the two musicians work through material and respond to each other’s dynamics and textures. Modulating is always a bit of an ask in these circumstances, as what one will hear as a cue to move up may be the opposite to what the other might expect, but is plenty of variety here including many beautiful moments and some solid and daringly extrovert performing to get your teeth stuck into.
Well recorded and nicely presented in Brilliant Classics’ standard glossy clamshell box, this is an excellent addition to anyone’s piano library, and a distinguished extension of the ever-expanding shelf-space required to house Jeroen Van Veen’s recordings. There will inevitably be some pieces you prefer to others in such a wide-ranging collection, but the special attraction of Van Veen’s vast box of tricks is that there is never a dull moment, and this is a place in which you will certainly discover new and fascinating sounds and musical experiences.
Continuum, Piano Concerto No. 1 (2014) [56:51]
Minimal Prelude 50, for two pianos* (2013) [7:47]
Incanto No. 2* (2011-15) [52:52]
Minimal Prelude 48 (2014) [24:31]
Ripalmania for 6 pianos (2015) [40:21]
In Sea (2013) [29:49]
Minimal Prelude 41 (2010) [5:11]
Minimal Prelude 46 (2014) [11:08]
Minimal Prelude 47 (2016) [4:50]
Minimal Prelude 49 for piano and tape delay (2015) [4:26]
Minimal Prelude 51, Hotwax (2014) [10:00]
Minimal Prelude 52, for Mike (2015) [13:47]
Minimal Prelude 53 (2016) [27:07]
Minimal Prelude 58, for Luk Perceval (2016) [7:23]
Minimal Prelude 54 (2016) [5:41]
Minimal Prelude 55 (2016) [18:29]
Minimal Prelude 56 (2016) [7:01]
Minimal Prelude for two Rippen Grand Pianos and 6 Ebows (2017) [18:32]
Almost Six O’clock (2012) [6:24]
Una Corda (2017) [3:56]
Velvet Piano (2016-17) [71:20]
Minimal Prelude 60, Tango for Organ (2017) [08:21]
Minimal Jazz (2017)**
Inside Out [8:25]
Muted String [4:36]
Back to f [7:15]
Two Ways [4:42]
On the Move [5:54]
With a little help from my piano [8:44]