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Ruben Naeff: Interview



I recently spoke with composer Ruben Naeff who is one of the winners of Wild Rumpus’ Commissioning Project, and whose piece Euphoria is being featured on our upcoming concert on May 11, 2013 at Salle Pianos in San Francisco. Ruben is a native of the Netherlands, but has lived for the last few years in New York City. He recently graduated with a Master’s degree from New York University, where he studied with Michael Gordon, and is currently working as a freelance composer and a math teacher. Our conversation ranged over a wide array of topics, from differences between the Dutch and American music scenes, to economics, to the various influences at work in his very evocative and engaging music. – Dan VanHassel

Dan VanHassel: You have a certain perspective on music that I think is a bit different than the typical contemporary music composer. You weren’t originally planning to be a musician correct?

Ruben Naeff: That’s true. I studied mathematics, I did a Master’s degree so I studied that for six years. But I had composition lessons all the time as well. Then I had a short break in composition lessons because I moved and didn’t have a piano, so that’s why I started studying musicology just so I would have something going on. After my graduation I went to the Conservatory at the Hague to study full time, but I didn’t like that at all, so I quit after half a year and became a business strategy consultant. I did that for about a year, and after that I worked as an economist at the anti-trust department. Breaking up monopolies and so forth. So I was a watchdog.

That was actually fun. I was doing economical research, scanning the markets to see which ones were vulnerable to these practices. Typically markets with high technicalities that are difficult for consumers to understand. I just did research, so I didn’t really deal with complaints. Well I did a little bit, I assisted with dawn raids, where you go early in the morning to a company and say “Everyone freeze!” and you go through the books. It’s kind of fun actually, you go with the police.

D: (laughs)

R: And you can do good work. I like working in business, but on the good side of business. Trying to make it fair.

D: So how does all of this relate to you as a composer? Does it relate?

R: Yeah…maybe it does actually. Everyone always asks me how mathematics relates to music, but now you’re asking me about…

D: I’m asking you how does anti-trust work relate to music.

R: (laughs) Yeah, well…not at all…maybe there are some things…

D: Was music just an escape for you? Just a totally different thing?

R: Well, both are true. Yes, it’s a different part of the brain. So if I work hard as an economist or a mathematician then I’m tired, but if I spend the next day composing it’s totally fine. It’s not like you’re tired so you can’t, because it’s a different part of the brain. And if you’re tired composing then you have more energy for doing the other things. So it was actually very productive.

Also, having that kind of job teaches you to be efficient. So your composing itself becomes more efficient.

D: Because you have limited time to work?

R: Yeah, but you also apply all of the things you learn at your job to your composing, like how to divide your time, what are the real problems you have to address, and so forth.

D: I remember when we spoke before you said something about how you felt that you didn’t identify with the musical status quo at the school you were at or in general in the Netherlands, in terms of the avant-garde, etc. Is this still what you think?

R: I must say that I have lost touch a bit with the music from Holland. But that’s one reason why I moved to the U.S. actually, because I think that the music here – and I know mostly New York, but I have a feeling it’s the same where you guys are, because I hear the same music – the music I hear here is more down to earth, as in it’s very clear what it is and what it wants to tell, and it is free of pretensions in that way. This is the answer you were looking for I think!

D: Well…I’m not necessarily looking for anything…

R: Hold on, because I’m going to answer it right now. In every field, but especially in consulting or economics, there are many people who are just talking BS, right? So they want to convince you of their point of view and they make arguments and sometimes they use very difficult words just to – well maybe it’s not on purpose – but the effect is that many people get intimidated by the difficult words and they think “Wow! This is a really smart consultant. I don’t really understand what he’s saying, but I don’t want to look stupid, and it sounds quite nice, so probably it’s true.” Something like that right? This happens more often than you think. And I think it happens in new music too. Not so much here, but in the Netherlands I hear people writing music that is just using difficult “words” – or notes, in that case.

D: Do you mean in terms of the way people talk about music? Or the music itself?

R: The music itself. And it’s emphasized by the way they talk about the music, because if you read the program notes it’s all very esoteric and floating away. And what I noticed is that if you listen to American music it is more direct, I think. More accessible, but that doesn’t make it easier.

Another difference is the following discussion, which I often had in Holland  – although I was also much younger, so maybe that helps – I would ask “How do you think the audience will get this?” and they would say “Why do you refer to something like an audience? Because if you want to write music that’s appealing for an audience you should write pop songs.” That’s the kind of discussion you would often have. It’s very black and white, and not very honest either, because they do want to have an audience also. Sometimes in Holland, I’m not sure about the other countries, because Europe is less homogeneous than Americans often think, but in Holland especially new music often is a kind of “sacred” thing. So there’s always this serious thing around it, which is not healthy for the art itself either, you know? We talk [in America] about a “piece” and there they talk about a “composition”, that’s already a big difference.

D: So who would you say your audience is? Who are you writing for?

R: I have actually thought about that. My audience is fictitious person, a person like me, not necessarily me myself. This is something I think of between composing, it’s not what I think of during composing. Why do I write music? Why do I write in this genre? Why do I not just write film music? Why do I write music that doesn’t sell? Right? This is actually the question?

D: Sure.

R: I think about someone who struggles with things in the world and in his life, and thinks about that and tries to seek answers to that, and also in a musical way. He tries to hear music that responds to things that he feels. It’s very abstract I realize…

D: So are you writing for other composers and other artists? Or more of a sort of general public? Or do you not think about that? Because, you’re saying people that want to experience music in this way, it sounds like that’s going to be primarily musicians who want to do that right?

R: Yeah, that’s true. But it’s a little bit broader, everyone who’s interested in music. I’m not writing for someone who gets scared easily. So I’m not avoiding difficult things – Ok, let me give you two different answers that are contradictory and both true. First let me say, I do adjust what I write if I know the audience is different. I noticed that, maybe not on purpose. One time I wrote for a general audience of scientists (De Bètacanon), and I knew it would be a book presentation, and I knew that the audience wouldn’t be scientists but more people with a general interest in science. That was the only thing I knew. And I had that audience in mind. It’s not that I dumbed down everything, but I talked to them, so you change your voice.

Listen to De Bètacanon[audio:|titles=De Betacanon|artists=Ruben Naeff]

D: So how did you change what you did for them? What does that mean? Does that mean you simplified things, or you used a different type of musical language?

R: Well, I wanted to set their “Bètacanon” to music, so I made that very clear. I started with words they can relate to and it’s very clear what is going on. And in a piece that’s written for a new music ensemble in New York, you can go crazy right away, because people will right away understand that. So the context makes it a little bit different. It’s not like you have some idea and you think “oh they won’t understand, so let’s make it easy”. That’s not how it works but it’s that I have something else to tell. I always hated it if somebody wants to explain something to you but they don’t really explain it because they are afraid they will lose you. So he’s making it easier, but then also a little harder. So I’d rather think, maybe this is too hard, but they will get it if they listen ten times. So I’m not diluting the music I want to write.

D: In your music I hear a lot of different influences. I’m curious what you see as your major influences.

R: Stravinsky, of course. But, world music often helps me.

D: Oh yeah? What kind?

R: Often, Latin music. This was very important in Fill the Present Day with Joy actually. It has a sort of groove, and there are often claves in my music.

It differs a little bit though, in De Bètacanon I used this song in the middle that I thought was very inspired by a Dutch cabaret song. Often stand up comedians have a sort of song that is very simple, but effective, and this sounded much like that. There is a kind of potpourri of all kinds of genres.

I’m interested in living things…what are other people now playing, what are other people now dancing to, what do other people love now, and I want to dive into that.

Listen to Fill the Present Day with Joy:
[audio:|titles=Fill the Present Day with Joy|artists=Ruben Naeff]

D: So what is your relationship to pop music?

R: I tune in and out every now and then. I’m not super thrilled actually, because often it’s just a trick, or just the same music, like Amy Winehouse, for example, is just the same music with a different filter over it.

D: The same music as what?

R: As the blues. Often popular music I don’t find very interesting. But for example, sometimes I pick something out that I think I should know, or get into. So I’ve listened to a ton of Radiohead and Coldplay. Like in Fill the Present Day with Joy, the entire intro is a Radiohead kind of intro.

D: Oh, that’s the part I though sounded like Philip Glass, but it’s Radiohead actually!

R: Here’s the thing. You write music, you look for what you think is beautiful and after a few pieces you ask yourself, what on earth have I been doing? And what is it that I want to write? I think I am looking for something, but I’m not sure what, so I’m trying to figure out what I’m looking for. So now if I look back on my last few pieces after De Bètacanon, I thought I should find new harmonies, so that’s why I started playing with twelve-tone rows.

D: So what about the piece you wrote for Wild Rumpus, Euphoria? I didn’t notice any twelve-tone stuff in there. Are you using tone rows in this one?

R: Yes, but it’s very distinct. I started with a progression using all twelve tones, and I started playing with that. The piece grows, but not all of the twelve tones grew as big. So there are actually basically four chords in the entire pieces, and the other chords crop up somewhere.  So with a microscope you might be able to find them.

D: So you started with twelve chords, but then they kind of grew at different rates, so some of them got a little obscured?

R: Yes, but I also did some mirror stuff, so other chords come in that are not part of the row. But it was a departure point. Because I’m not trying to use the row to construct something like in serialism, I’m just trying to break out of something that I am always doing. It also brings you different rhythms if you have a twelve-tone melody, and you have chords under that. They will dictate rhythms, so you get this kind of meter automatically. But when I look back on my last few pieces, including the piece I wrote for Wild Rumpus, they are very busy and I think they represent that life is busy, and there’s a lot of information thrown at us, and we have to do something with that and be happy with it.

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