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Jan-Peter De Graaff composes Parallax: 'I show how much effort people put into creating their own world' #novembermusic

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Jan-Peter de Graaff (b. 1992) is and thinks big. As an islander, raised on Terschelling as a child of musicians, he also perhaps perceives things a little differently from the peripheral city. The height of the sky, the nothingness of a strip of land surrounded by the movement and power of water; they suggest infinity and the mystery of higher powers.

That perspective did not drown in the abyss between dream and deed during studies in composition and conducting in The Hague and later a bit of London. Since then, he has written dozens of pieces from solo to massed, always with the energy and luminous brilliance of the deeds man whose eagerly touted heroes mark not so much the influences as the breadth of his search area. He is the kind of admirer who sees in the stern Ravel and ditto Dutilleux the yardstick for his own actions, despite the all too human uneasiness about their boundlessly perfectionist natures. De Graaff, the ex-saxophonist who does not flatter his love for the hustle and bustle of jazz even as a composer, is not that delicate as an artist. Surely he is more the pounding type. But in their drive for high flights, they are kindred spirits.

In September 2020 and last month, two of De Graaff's major orchestral works attracted attention. They aimed high. In Les Cymbales Sonores, on Psalm 150, choir and orchestra even rise symbolically. Climb and struggle, the score asks the players. Upwards, until they float weightlessly in space, 'flying above the darkness beneath'. Event horizon, an even grander anniversary piece for the 75th anniversary of the Grand Omroepkoor and Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, propels undulatingly across the boundary of the sensible. The work is about the attraction of black holes and the fate of the matter that disappears into them - and thus also about the mystery of human destiny, because everything in art is metaphor. The text by e.e. cummings brain flashes about love, the enigma of the heart, according to De Graaff particularly about "the longing for a love that is not yet there or has already passed". Where is the love that has been sent out? Will it too be swallowed up by a black hole?

De Graaff likes to explore the outer edges of knowing. His new piece Parallax, written for soprano Katrien Baerts and five players from the Belgian ensemble Het Collectief, takes a step back in terms of scoring but goes a little further, thematically and in length, beyond the point where (pseudo)science becomes faith. It deals with one of the most wondrous flavours in the waffle-grabbing barrel of conspiracy thinkers, the flat-earthers who think the earth is flat. The title refers to a specific form of optical deception, by which, depending on perspective, the position of an object seems to change in relation to other objects. In a nutshell, it could be called optical deception, and that brings you close to the theme.

The other theme is the history in which the play wishes to place itself. Like more of De Graaff's works, it throws Parallax conceptual anchors out to music history. To one-man dramas like Schubert's Winterreise, Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, Poulenc's La Voix Humaine. The similarities are palpable. In Schubert's last song cycle, an Einzelgänger breaks all ties with society. With Schoenberg, the link is in the identical scoring and the dramaturgical conflict between music and text, 'though with Schoenberg it is that between a funny character and blood-serious music and with me it is exactly the other way round.' In Poulenc's La voix humaine De Graaff struck the one-way traffic between the protagonist on the phone and her invisible interlocutor. This is exactly how the soprano performs in Parallax tragically one-sided conversation with the audience, which she tries to win over to her worldview. Obsessed with the views of the Flat Earth Society, she wants to launch a rocket to see for herself that the earth is flat. Her character is drawn to life. In February 2020, US flat-earther Michael 'Mad Mike' Hughes was killed in a similar experiment.

Parallax, on a libretto by Yuri Robbers and Eleanor Barlow, bears the subtitle 'a conspiracy cycle in 14 songs'. That is what it is; a play disguised as a song cycle, to be directed by Kenza Karin Koutchoukali, about human beings for whom belief is proof. That is already almost a definition of 'belief' and that is where, for an inclusiveness-seeking world, the hassle begins that Parallax poses as a moral dilemma. Why religions tolerate for reasons of principle and flat-earthers dismissed as charlatans on equally principled grounds? It would seem to be a framing issue. Because they are, and we have been able to establish from space that the earth is round. But a believer will continue to say: you see it that way. And you see it wrong. Because faith does not need proof. It finds that in unconditional surrender to representation. Just like love, by the way; no beginning of hold and yet the core of existence. For the flat-earther Faith is such a sacred knowing. In the ninth song of Parallax, The other side On lyrics by Robbers, that credo sounds like this:

"People ask me questions... They ask all sorts of things, like
What's on earth's other side?
Nothing. If anything were there it would fall
Think of a coin: a coin has two sides...
So does the earth, but on one side is all and on the other there is nothing at all
For if there were anything at all
It would of course fall"

It is the tone of the fanatics on twitter, always aggrieved, sickened by the slightest doubt about their culpability - whether it is about vaccines, the European conspiracy or the shape of the earth. The lyricists of Parallax could shake their one-liners like apples from the tree, whether it was the eternal battle against prejudice ('Oh, I am not a fundamentalist') or the glorification of their by a moral majority tragically misunderstood common sense ('I distrust equipment and use my senses').

Now for the catch. The gullibility strikes back at us, the listeners. On what unproven certainties do you build yourself? Should they accidentally be built on sand, why do you set the bar lower for yourself than for supposedly inferior opponents? Who stands in Parallax proclaim an inclusivist belief to be respected? The wappie we can comfortably look down on? Or someone with reflexes that the right-thinking majority might care about? Parallax poses an oppressively contemporary question of conscience.

That's how De Graaff intended it. "I don't think there will be many flat-earthers in the audience at the performances of this play later on, but I find it far too easy to place myself above those people and turn it into satire. I am not writing this play to point fingers. I am showing how much effort people put into creating their own world. After all, as a composer, I don't do anything else."

So his character must be ambiguous enough to land that confrontational identification opportunity with the audience. "With all the views the soprano proclaims, the audience will basically agree; don't be talked into anything, listen to your intuition, be critical. And my piece is only performable if the singer really believes at that moment that what she is singing is true. Katrien can do that." Until everyone sees that it is madness, the rocket takes off and the deluded man succumbs to the consequences of a delusion. De Graaff: "Human beings have traditionally been predisposed to develop religious feelings. When that doesn't happen, he grabs any surrogate he can find." Flat-earth is such a substitute, and so the countdown to the launch of the rocket is akin to an ascension in song 12.

But - as ever - I strive after sublimity
So I thrust the launch key into its socket

And thus make my name and fame persist
Greater glory lies beyond death
Not the mortal coil
But the immortal soul
Will endure with eternity

There the mission is exposed as the substitute faith it might be. The connecting song thirteen, Launch, makes itself detached, weightlessly small. Pathos no longer makes sense. The deed is done, the sacrifice to reasonlessness irreversible. Above the salutation is the sentence we also find in the score of Les Cymbales Sonores met: flying above the darkness beneath. It is precisely in this song that the pianist turns to the toy piano which, according to De Graaff, is emphatically not a persiflage: "It is very serious. He stands for the boundless inventiveness of the hobbyist. Who can also float above the darkness with a toy piano." After all, he builds his own dream, just as the composer devotes his life to powerful and sometimes hilarious illusions.

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Parallax by Jan-Peter de Graaff can be seen during November Music. Information.

Bas van Putten

Bas van Putten (24 July 1965) is a Dutch writer and musicologist, who is also active as carjournalist. In 1989, he obtained cum laude his doctoral musicology to the University of Amsterdam. He worked as music journalist for The TelegraphThe Parool and Vrij Nederland. In 1996, Van Putten won the Pierre Bayle Prize for art criticism and in 2001 the Debutant Prize for his novel debut Thorn. With Rob Kamphues He presented the television programme PK. He is music director of De Groene Amsterdammer and columnist at Autoweek and NRC Handelsblad. He has published stories, reflections and poems in publications including Dutch Monthly and The Guide. He wrote biographies of the composers Hans Kox (2005) and Peter Schat (Part 1, 2015).View Author posts

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