Huba de Graaff (Amsterdam, 1959) is one of the most original composers in the Netherlands. In her idiosyncratic music theatre shows, she brings speakers to life (Lautsprecher Arnolt, 2003), explores the common ground between Flemish polyphony and monkey song (Apera, 2013), bases a libretto on the lustful moans of a copulating couple (Pornopera, 2015) or takes a close look at a national trauma (De Lamp, 2020).
In her latest production, the ‘rock performance’ FF: And here I am, a lonely woman, she focuses on the Persian poet and filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad (1935–1967). Due to limited seating capacity, the premiere in Theater Kikker Utrecht has been divided over two evenings: Tuesday 15 and Wednesday 16 February 2022. As in much of her work, electronics and music go hand in hand in FF. I interviewed De Graaff about her inspiration and musical development.
MUSICAL (GREAT) GRANDFATHER
Huba de Graaff stems from a musical family. Her great grandfather Isaac Mossel (1870–1923) played the cello in the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Concertgebouworkest; her grandfather Cok de Graaff (1904–1988) studied the violin at the Amsterdam Conservatoire. He played the banjo in The Indian Jazz Band of Mossel’s son Hans, and married his daughter Gretel. As a child Huba de Graaff often improvised on the violin with her grandfather: ‘But at that time he was no longer a professional musician, he had switched to photography.’
TAKING APART BALLPOINTS
That Huba de Graaff has her artistry and musicality from no strangers seems obvious. ‘As a child, I was always tinkering – soldering, knitting, carpentry, all kinds of things. In primary school I wrote my first musical, for which I organised the cast and a performance myself. – Pretty much what I still do today.’ Her later love of technology and computers was also instilled at an early age: ‘According to my parents, I could already take a biro apart when I was one and a half years old.’
In the 1970–80s, she played violin, vocals and keyboards in bands like The Dutch, Transister and The Tapes, while simultaneously studying violin at the Sweelinck Conservatoire. ‘Well, that study didn’t amount to much’, she says. I was in the first batch of the improvisation course, but they didn’t have a violin teacher yet… I actually learned everything from the Transister boys in the field of solfeggio, stage presentation, studio work and suchlike. Especially from their front man Robert Jan Stips, one of the nicest Dutch pop musicians I know.’
While she was raising hell on stage, dressed in miniskirt and a reddish wig, she studied electronic music at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht and composition at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. One of her teachers was Dick Raaijmakers, the godfather of electronic music in the Netherlands. But the self–willed, freedom–loving Huba de Graaff clashed with Raaijmakers’ somewhat dogmatic approach.
EVERYTHING AT ONCE
‘While I wanted to do everything at once, he kept trying to dissuade me from this. You had to come to the core: bare, stripped down. This is this and that is that: the Method. More than Louis Andriessen, he embodied what became known as ‘The Hague School’. In his approach to music Raaijmakers was quite strict and Calvinistic. Above all, you shouldn’t mix everything up. But I wanted both rotating speakers, and loud singing in a tin dress, and piezo grids, and computer violin, and mini–televisions, and a PA above the audience, and whee-whoo carts driving around.’
Huba de Graaff: ‘My ideas spring from the need to hear something specific, to try something out, the need for a new experiment.’Tweet
De Graaff is referring here to her ground–breaking performance/installation Corenicken from 1991. In it, those present are treated to an immense range of sounds, from a dizzying array of sources arranged above, below and around them. In the centre, 32 miniature television screens emit animated patterns, while scattering around different voices of the composition through their speakers. Dressed in her ‘Japon Fuzz’, a tin dress fitted with electronics that react to her movements, De Graaff generates alienating fuzz and feedback sounds. For Corenicken she developed her own software. ‘Those computers weren’t all too complex, 8–bits, 6502 machine language, that sort of thing,’ she says carelessly.
A striking constant in her work is the combination of electronics and the human voice. Where does this fascination come from? ‘Our hearing is primarily focused on perceiving the Other: another voice.’ She gives an example: ‘Sometimes you are listening to music, becoming completely absorbed in another world; transcending the earthly babble. But then suddenly someone starts singing – and at once you are distracted.’
‘So when I started working with moving sound, I realised that it would have the greatest effect in combination with voice. Of course, the shrill sounds of a whee-whoo train passing by attract attention. But a singing choir, all of its speaker heads pointing at you and singing: ‘crawl into me, come into me, come into us’ (Lautsprecher Arnolt) works better. Then, as a listener, you register the movement of the sound more clearly.’
‘In the 70s and 80s, when I was studying sonology, electronic music mainly came out of loudspeakers. So you were sitting in a concert hall listening to a bunch of speakers on a stage. So static and so non–musical! But all sounds produced by humans or animals originate from movement. Music – organised sound to quote Varèse – arises from the expression of a physical emotion. From a gesture, a movement. That’s why I thought: if those loudspeakers could also move while “singing”, then you would again arrive at a “natural” sound.’
‘Moreover, I often find opera singing terribly ugly. That is why I started experimenting with other forms of using the voice. In Pornopera, I investigated where our “classical” way of singing comes from, while Apera zooms in on the question of why everyone is talking so much, instead of singing.’
In her performances, De Graaff deals with the most diverse themes, both topical and controversial. In The Death of Poppaea (2006) and Pulchalchiajev (2019), for example, she addresses the pitfalls of social media. In The Naked Shit Songs, based on a transcribed interview of Theo van Gogh with the artists Gilbert & George (2017), she zooms in on the discomfort we experience when someone vents their politically incorrect opinions. How does she conceive her compositions?
‘Usually, my ideas spring from the need to hear something specific, to try something out, the need for a new experiment. These experiments often have a conceptual and social starting point. In one of my last productions, De Lamp (The Lamp) I tried to compose as “Dutch” and nationalistic as possible. This resulted in dreadful harmonies and super–dry music. The challenge for me then was: how long would I be able to keep this up?’
‘In Pulchalchiajev, about an successful influencer who loses her footing when she is accused of deception and culpable homicide, I experimented with instability. No fixed tones, no fixed assumptions, no truths, but a world full of lies.’ To be socially committed is a matter of course for De Graaff: ‘How could it be otherwise? I live and compose in the here and now, and relate to the world, as I think any artist should.’
FOROUGH FARROKHZAD: REBEL WITH A CAUSE
Her new production FF: And here I am, a lonely woman, a tribute to the Persian artist Forough Farrokhzad, has a personal component. De Graaff feels an affinity with the liberated poet, filmmaker and feminist whose work was long banned in Iran, and is still viewed with suspicion by the current regime: ‘As a person, she is a symbol of the independent (Iranian) woman: a rebel, someone who breaks taboos and frees herself from her traditional role.’
Because of her self–confident attitude to life and her unwavering championship of the female voice, Farrokhzad led a rather isolated existence. Just as Huba de Graaff operates somewhat in the margins of Dutch music life with her provocative productions.
She discovered Farrokhzad through The Naked Shit Songs. ‘For this opera I had managed to engage Selim Doğru’s Re–Art World Music Choir. Imra Dinçer was one of the singers, and afterwards she approached me for a collaborative project.’
‘I hardly knew Dinçer, but decided to be open-minded and see where this would lead us. I visited her performance Ulrike about Ulrike Meinhof and then we started talking about what we would like to make together. It was soon clear: something about strong women. Then Dinçer came along with a book of poetry by Forough Farrokhzad, in which she had written a nice dedication:
“From Imra to Huba on behalf of all women daring to sin at least once in their lifetime.
Long live rebels!”
‘I was like: Forough who?? As so many Western-bubble people, I had never heard of this Persian poet. Yet she turned out to be insanely famous. Not so much in our parts, but worldwide she is still the “Iranian equivalent of a rock star” as the Washington Post once wrote.’
De Graaff recognizes herself in Farrokhzad and quotes approvingly from an interview:
“Of course we compose poetry out of personal need, an irresistible calling… but what happens after we commit our poems to the page? We must be judged and feel that we have made a difference, made a connection, and that we are responsible. […] In this field, an artist’s work is private and individualistic. How long can he or she survive this isolation, conversing only with the door and the four walls? […] The only way to survive is that one should reach such a state of detachment and maturity that he or she can become both a builder of and a mouthpiece for her world, both an observer and a judge.”
LIFE STOPS AT PREGNANCY
As a starting point for FF, De Graaff and Dinçer chose the poem Let us believe in the beginning of the cold season, published posthumously in 1965. It is one of Farrokhzad’s longest and most reflective poems: ‘In it, a woman’s life stops the moment she becomes pregnant. At least, that’s how I interpret it, but at every rehearsal we end up discussing the interpretation. The subtitle of our show, “And here I am / A lonely woman”, quotes two verses from this poem.’
How did De Graaff translate Farrokhzad’s poetry into music? ‘Of course, this has been done many times before, but usually the music is rather Persian-oriented. And then a voice starts declaiming in Farsi… I wanted her poems to appeal to a Western audience as well, so I was inspired by protest songs. Take her poem Sin, which we will play as an encore – this is inspired by The People United will never be defeated, in the version by my wonderful teacher Fredric Rzewski.’
That ties in nicely with the idea of a rock performance, in which De Graaff herself signs for electric violin and noise: ‘It is a kind of retro–experience for me: back to my pop–band past. I suddenly felt a strong urge to make LIVE music once again, in a carefree way. I am on stage with great musicians and I love electronic sounds and amplified instruments.’
UNWANTED AND UNHEARD
What can we expect musically? ‘Fine, catchy stuff that takes you through a rather unfathomable poem. I use many sound samples and images from her award-winning documentary The House is Black, about a group of outcasts in a leper colony. Afterwards, we play the film in full, because to me, FF is also about being open to the invisible, the excluded, the unheard. For me that includes noise, the frayed edges, the pimples and the “unwanted” by-noises. Perfection is boring and inhumane!’
‘All in all, it will be a forty–minute epic pop–ballad, culminating in a gigantic electronic rock apotheosis. Topped off with an encore of the world-famous and infamous poem Sin, which celebrates female sexuality, in the guise of a protest song. We hope everyone will sing along at the top of their lungs!’
Though her regular partners Erik-Ward Geerlings (director/librettist) and Marien Jongewaard (actor) helped realize FF, in fact the whole production is now carried by women. ‘It’s an all–female cast indeed. But I never wanted to present myself as a WOMAN composer. What the fuck. I’m just a woman and these musicians are TOP.’
After the interview however, she sends me an e-mail about how she has struggled with her womanhood. ‘My new performance is partly about feminism. It is a subject that I have never dared or wanted to tackle until now. I am not a victim! But now that I am getting older, I notice how important it is to name injustice. Not so much for myself, but for all the younger women of today. If only life were fair for all women and girls around the globe.’
‘I have always done what I wanted. At least I was convinced I had, but people sometimes said: “women can’t compose”. In the backward, ultra–patriarchal Dutch society I naturally looked for ways to survive. So I cheerfully declared: OK, so women can’t compose, then I’ll do something completely different, with experiments and electronics…! Maybe, if I had not been pushed aside by that male gaze, I would have become a different type of composer.’
Huba de Graaff: ‘To this day Forough Farrohkzad inspires countless girls and young women who feel the need to break away from imposed rules, standards and morals. She was a paragon of rebellion.’Tweet
‘Yes, I make music that creates a different perspective on a text, on a poem. And always: outside the established disciplines, boxes and conventions. I turn an interview into an opera, singing monkeys into a performance, I transform city sounds into literature, I let the GPS in the car sing the direction. Experimenting with the conversion of one ‘form’ into another, in order to arrive at something new. From an open mind, amazement, and with cheerful and loving attention to every sound detail.’
‘Forough Farrokhzad still inspires countless girls and young women who feel the need to break away from imposed rules, standards and morals. She was a paragon of rebellion and zest for life. Determined to study, not letting herself be limited by conservative husbands and/or surroundings. She is a heroine for all those girls who fight for their own lives. Rebel-girls who quarrel with their parents, teachers, the state, politicians. If only we had more of these.’
She once more quotes Forough:“If my poems have an aspect of femininity, it is of course quite natural. After all, fortunately I am a woman.”
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