Artist Profile: Ralph van Raat Pt. 2

Collin: Do you compose music? If so can you describe your style?

Ralph: In fact I never had a big urge to compose music, as there are so many great composers out there, who have more to tell than I do in that respect. I have often thought what I would write if I would be a composer, but I had to conclude that it would be mostly a kind of mixture of all my favorite composers and pieces – some Messiaen, some Ives, some Debussy…However, as an instrumentalist, it is quite likely that one has some more pronounced ideas for a composition than for any other instrument; there are in fact quite a few pianists who do have composed for their own instrument, now and in the past, such as Glenn Gould, Arthur Rubinstein and Horowitz. However, also in these cases, in my opinion, the music sounds, in the first place, remarkably similar to the works by the composers they play as part of their concert repertoire.

That said – I have composed myself a few things, and during my conservatory studies, one work was actually performed at a concert of the composition department, after which I was encouraged to study composition. It strikes me that of the works I did compose (all were for piano solo), that without exception, they were in minor keys, and heavily influenced by the early and middle Scriabin especially, with some hints of Debussy and Chopin. Also I wrote a piece in memory of the great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, but thinking back of it, and although the pieces themselves are not bad I think, they are too much of an imitation.

I do realize that all great composers have started by imitating their great examples, and I think that as an instrumentalist, it is very useful to try composing – just to understand the process and the problems of composing to a greater extent (and ultimately, to perform other composer’s works better). However, I think that in order to seriously compose, one needs hard and serious work, and especially a lot of creativity and urge to add something really original of oneself to the enormous existing canon of great compositions.

Collin: What parts of the US would you like to visit? Do you have any venues that you dream about playing in?

Ralph: As a part of my studies in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, I studied with Ursula Oppens at Northwestern (Chicago) for almost a year. It was a wonderful period to which I think back very often. I was invited to be a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center during two consecutive years at that time as well, and I would love to visit those places again, sniff the atmosphere (perhaps this is a Dutch expression) and see all my friends. During several holidays, I have been to California, Nevada, Arizona and New York, and also thsoe places grabbed me especially because of their natural beauty – the vastness of everything is unknown to us Dutchmen, and it would be something I would like to see and especially feel again. It seems to me that the works by someone as John Adams could only have been created in such environments; in a small, measured, rainy place such as The Netherlands, the mind simply seems not to have enough space to think of such a music style. But I have never been to Florida or Texas, for example, so there are still many places to discover.

Concerning my dream of a concert venue: of course there are many big halls in the US that any musician dreams of. I have attended a lot of concerts at Chicago’s Symphony Center during my studies, so this has a special place in my heart. But often, my mind has wandered to other thoughts. For example, wouldn’t it be great to perform Charles Ives’ legendary Concord Sonata at Walden Pond, in Henry David Thoreau’s cottage? The atmosphere, perhaps even the ‘vibes’ in such a place would certainly beat even the best concert hall in the world, even though the acoustics would probably not be the best ever. And when I let my thoughts go further, I could dream of playing Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux Étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars), for piano and chamber orchestra, in the place where the composer found his inspiration: right inbetween the canyons of Bryce Canyon, at sunrise for example….A concert inbetween the half-constructed airplanes at Boeing Hall in Everett, Washington, is an even weirder phantasy, to which I would not say ‘no’…

Collin: What music do you buy? Do you have any current favorite recording right now?

Ralph: Sometimes I doubt whether I have a normal musical mind, as there are just so many types of music that I like. I have never understood why there is such a big ‘gap’ between what they call classical, contemporary, pop, world and jazz music. At the moment there is a CD of Coldplay in my car stereo – I must admit that I do not know pop music so well, but many contemporary composers mentioned it to me, and indeed it is good music. At the same time, I am again in a ‘minimal’ period. With me, my music interests go in recurring waves – few months ago I had one of those Scriabin periods, in which I listened to his music any time I was not practising myself. Now, there is Steve Reich in my CD-player in the living room. For some reason I always feel drawn to his music whenever I go travelling. My holidays are nearing quickly, and perhaps the pulse of his music sets my mind to the pulse of the many hours on the highway to come. Other music which is always close by is from Debussy and Keith Jarrett, to name a few. I have not so long ago discovered music by the German composer Hans Otte (1926-2007), who was a piano student of Walter Gieseking and a composition student of Paul Hindemith. He was absorbed by new music, but in his own music you always hear the sensuality of Gieseking’s hallmark: Debussy. In an original and haunting combination, you hear an almost perfect world of impressionism, minimalism, Eastern influences and even some hints of Romantic music.

….to be continued????

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Artist Profile: Pianist Ralph van Raat

This will be the first of a sereis of email conversations I’ll be having with pianist (and Naxos recording artist) Ralph van Raat. After contacting Ralph about this project we quickly become friends and found ourselves chatting about more than the music. Here is the first round of questions I had / have for Mr. van Raat. enjoy!

-What do you have going on this summer musically?

Usually, I spend my holidays mostly by learning a lot of new repertoire for the coming concert season. I deliberately (and almost traditionally) reserve a period of several weeks in this period without any concerts or other engagements, to fully concentrate myself at making a good start with all those new works. Obviously, the process of learning new works continues throughout the whole year, but then all the attention has to be divided between many things, such as concertizing, lecturing, and practising. It always turns out to be an absolutely amazing and enjoyable experience to put aside these things for a while and just plunge into all those exciting new projects! Another exciting thing is the recording of two new CD’s for Naxos, right at the end of summer, which I am greatly looking forward to.

-Where will you be taking your Holiday?

Holidays will take me this year to a rather quiet place in southern France – a very small village near Avignon – where there is, in fact, no piano or whatsoever. I used not to take holidays and continue to work for many years, however, retreating into silence, quietness and into your own world of thought for a while, with many books and good food, turns out to be very inspiring and refreshing, too…

-You’re a Pilot? When did aviation start to interest you and how did this interst develop?

It is almost hard to remember when aviation started to interest me, as my interest (like with music) started before I was born (at least – that is the way it feels!!). It had always been a dilemma for me in what area to try and pursue a career – aviation or music. At 14, I took a glider flying course. I was at high school, and mostly had time for my interests (playing the piano and flying) during the weekends. I noticed that, despite my enthusiasm for flying, the passion for music won more often. Unfortunately I had to make a decision how to spend my time, and after two years I chose to spend as much time as I could on a music career. However, the dream of flying never let go of me. Once I studied at the conservatory, I was happy to win some competitions not only because it helped my career, but also because I thought that it would bring the prospect of being able to fly more close: at least as a passenger, travelling to foreign concert venues, but perhaps even for private flying, some day….And sometime ago I decided to make that dream come true and plunge into a PPL course.

I can say, that it is the best of life, combining the worlds of music and aviation. I mutually learn from them: music has to do with a lot of mental and practical preparation; with finding a balance between reason and emotion (i.e. taking passion into control); and with the final performance as a critical moment where all knowledge comes together at once. With flying, I recognize many of the same issues and processes. You prepare your flight carefully, the route, the circumstances such as weather, your fuel etc. Then the flight itself can be seen as the performance, where it comes down to passion, skills and knowledge, like in a concert. During a flight, you have to take many things into account in order to arrive where you want to arrive, such as the action of wind. That is very similar to adjusting your musical performance to the acoustics of the concert hall and the ‘mood’ of the audience, in order to shape the ‘destination’ (or goals) of your concert performance. So in fact, flying for an hour does not feel much different that playing the piano for an hour!

-Do you look at very much art? Do you have any favorites in the world of the Visual Arts?

In fact, I have always been very inspired by the analogies between visual arts and music especially from the end of the 19th century up till and including today. To me it seems that in any period of time in history, there never has been a closer correlation between those two. In fact, especially more “difficult” abstract music (such as the compositions by Webern and Schoenberg) can be much better understood by looking at the visual interpretations of very similar artistic views in works by painters such as Kandinsky. Personally, I am very fascinated by post-impressionism, which is characterized by painters such as Cézanne. They were especially interested in the different emotions and effects of colour, something that interests me in music a lot. Also, they tried (with pointillist techniques) to create a larger whole by using minute streaks of paint. In music, one also strives to make one coherent story of seemingly loose entities, which are the individual notes, until something recognizable appears. It is especially in this perspective that I find ideas for playing and interpreting music in visual arts.

To Be continued…..

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New Releases from Naxos in June

Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat has wowed critics since his first recording for Naxos, which featured music by John Adams. Gramophone named him “one to watch” in 2006, and Jed Distler recently reviewed his performance of Rzewski’s The People United … Read More →


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