A few weeks ago I (Katy) sat down with Pieter de Graaf in Manners McDade‘s office to have a chat and find out more about him as an artist. Later that evening he gave a mesmerising performance. In conversation with Pieter we discuss his musical journey to where he is today, his EP Prologue, and much more.
Hi Pieter, tell us more about yourself and your musical background.
That’s a big question, how long do we have?!
So, I was raised at home and my father used to play – amateur, but modern classical. When I was around 8 I started figuring out chords from songs on the radio. That was actually the first thing I did instead of taking lessons. And then later on I took classical lessons and that sort of continued like normal. Then pretty late, when I was 16, I still don’t know why, but I decided to buy a jazz record of Herbie Hancock ‘The New Standard’. I didn’t have any affinity with jazz, so it’s for me still a big question as to why I did it.
I listened to it really every night. I went to sleep with headphones on and then a year later I started studying on the conservatory direction jazz music. So that was kind of, at once there was jazz, then I started studying that, then I totally went into it, especially as Keith Jarrett is a big influence of mine. During these studies I started playing with dance, mostly hip-hip, pop, poppy jazz, also world and Latin music. So, I did a lot of things and I started touring with bands.
After my studies I continued doing that and then I finally got to the point that I started losing my joy in music because I didn’t feel the notes, it didn’t give me satisfaction anymore and I was thinking what can it be. I decided what I really want is not just touring and travelling and playing the same songs every night but I want to be creative and make my own music. That’s when I started this project and quit all of the other bands and projects. So, in short that’s my background, a lot of different styles, but now I tend to let them go.
So would you say now, you’re more passionate about composing or equally composing and performing?
Well, performing is really nice for me as long as I can feel the music and I’m not a puppet playing the song and oh there comes the.. You know, at a certain moment it becomes repetitive and that’s where I really want to be careful to make sure that that doesn’t happen, so I can always be free also in life to make small adjustments and play improvisations so every time I can feel really connected with what I am doing.
When you decided you wanted to compose and go into a different style, did that change as you were writing? Did you write what you thought you were going to write or did it surprise you?
It didn’t surprise me but I didn’t know what to expect because it wasn’t my plan to write neoclassical music. Like I said, I started losing connection with the notes I was playing and then the first thing I actually did was have a lot of theoretical and technical background and I said to myself okay let it all go and start with one note and then try it, with simple chords and from there on I’ll see what happens and this was the result. So it didn’t really surprise me because I was of course all the time there myself but I didn’t know what to expect.
In May you released your EP Prologue, how would you describe the sound of this to someone who hasn’t heard it yet or heard your music?
I would say it’s cinematic, that’s a word I always use. It’s really easy to imagine a film or documentary. For the rest it’s mostly piano, of course, centred but sometimes with more instruments like celli and choir. Actually, it’s really hard for me to explain to people what kind of music it is but it’s sort of neoclassical. I don’t know what the coming years will bring, I don’t feel any restrictions.
Is there a piece in Prologue that is particularly meaningful to you? If so, which is it and why?
All of them, otherwise they wouldn’t have made it. All of the songs have a meaning, not that I can describe the meaning like ‘oh this is about that person or this’, that’s also not how I write. I just play a note and let the music decide but all in a very intense way.
We really love the melody in ‘Charlotte’s Daydream’, and the moment when the strings come in. When you compose do you think about the melody or does it just happen?
No, I never really think. Some of them are composed in a more traditional way where I say ‘okay I want to write a melody’. But this particular song ‘Charlotte’s Daydream’, actually I did some live streams, just a few, and I did improvisation sessions and then one of the improvisations I did was Charlotte’s Daydream. So actually this one really happened. And of course it wasn’t there at once, so I began with this [plays piano], and then I guess during the session I was improvising I heard [sings the melody], then it goes to the third degree. So that part was there and then I had that [plays piano]. I’m not searching for difficult music. It’s not difficult music if you know what I mean. I studied jazz and they would say you cannot do that it’s too simple and now whenever the music feels it needs to go there, I don’t care. This song [Charlotte’s Daydream] existed and it came alive.
In your day to day life do you find yourself composing only when you get inspiration, or would you say you play the piano so much that inspiration comes anyway?
Of course, I am very often physically close to my piano, but it is not just actually playing the piano, it’s also programming sounds in Ableton, working on my setup, etc. If I’m behind a piano now, it’s not that I always have inspiration but there’s always a certain eagerness to make new things. Sometimes I get an idea and I record it on my Dictaphone and I sing a small melody, or a pattern that is really nice to be working with and I make a recording for when I’m at the piano.
As a composer and artist, what do you find most joyful about your day to day life?
Before I was also a pianist but now for the first time I can really work on my own music with all of my heart and then not just leave it there. I always wrote music but now I also do something with it. You know, release it, do shows, and that for me is really special and I’m really grateful and happy about that.
What music do you enjoy listening to currently? Do you have any favourite composers?
I almost never listen to music. Never when I’m in the car or at home. Sometimes I really listen with headphones or speakers, but never as background music. I don’t want to be the artist that never listens to music, but it’s just the way it is. Sometimes I do listen, and the music I listen to the most and like the most is Mozart’s Requiem, Radiohead, also Nils Frahm – I got to know him during this process, he really inspires me as well, and Hauschka, there’s so much good music I think, Rachmaninoff the third piano concerto, I really like as well. But especially one version, the London Symphony orchestra with Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Finally, do you have any new music or new projects in the works?
Yes, lots of new music and that’s actually also why we called Prologue an EP. I had this name Fermata because Fermata is this sign in music – if it’s above a note in a score it means the musician can hold this note for as long as he or she wants. And because I took a break from all the bands and started my own work I called it Fermata and decided let’s call Fermata the project and not the album because there’s so much going on and it’s not finished. So, there’s lots of music that’s already ready, waiting to be released and I’m working with electronics too.