Interview with Jan Kleefstra
QCR: Hey Jan, thanks so much for answering some questions for us. We are huge fans so it is a real honor to host you. You are incredibly prolific with an immense amount of projects attached to your name, could you just give us a quick run-through of your current and past projects for those who may be unfamiliar.
JK: I will try to make it short. For me, it all began when I asked Rutger ‘Machinefabriek’ Zuydervelt by email if I was allowed to use some of his music for my poetry performances. He answered ‘why not make something new together’. So I set off one afternoon with my brother to Amsterdam where Rutger invited Mariska Baars also. We never met before, but spend one and a half-hour in a studio and the first Piiptsjilling was born. From that moment on I invited people I met or with whom I would like to make music to my home, organized a small tour and went in the studio in an old farmhouse nearby our home village. And almost 13 years later I find myself on a lot of releases with incredible musicians, like Greg Haines, Olga Wojcieckowska, Rutger Zuydervelt, Peter Broderick, Danny Saul, Gareth Davis, a.o., and above all my brother Romke.
I also organized (together with a local organization, called Popfabriek) and participated in a few projects to work a.o. with Icelandic, Japanese, Norwegian and Belgian musicians and filmmakers.
All these things brought me with my Frisian poetry on stages in Tokyo, Prague, Budapest, Krakow, London, Manchester, and other great places. We also played all the great festivals here in the Netherlands. And it still amazes me that my brother and I lived through this all. That our work is released and broadcasted all over the world and reviewed so well. It wonders me every time I watch the pile of releases in my room, but it also makes me grateful and proud.
QCR: Generally, I find it harder to listen to music with words. Since my first encounter with your records however, I have been drawn in by the mysteriousness of the language you speak. I find myself listening to it as another instrument & often hesitate to read the English translation for fear it will break the spell. How do you feel about this form of engagement with your poetry?
JK: I feel fine with that engagement of my poetry. For me the poetry stands not on its own, it is part of the whole and for me it should always be ancillary to the music or maybe at some moments at a same level. For me it is hard to listen to myself as you experience it, because I understand every word I say. So for me the experience of our own work can never be the same as people experience it while not understanding my language. But I know what you mean. I am for instance a great fan of the first few works of Es from Finland. He uses voice also and uses the Finnish language. I experience that also as part of the music as an instrument, because I don’t know what the voice is telling me. So I am fine with every experience.
Of course in the end I would like people to read my poetry also. That is why I put translations along. I am convinced I have a message to tell, especially in these days of climate change, loss of biodiversity, the harming of the earth and the unrest we create for the elements. That is what my poetry is about.
QCR: Tell us a little bit about the language you use when reciting your beautiful poetry on a release.
JK: I write in two languages, Dutch and Frisian. Frisian is a small minority language in the northern part of the Netherlands. It is a very old language and still spoken by a few hundred thousand of people. I grew up with that language. We used it at home and amongst friends. Therefore this language comes very close to me and comes closest to my soul and being and is for me also connected to the ground I was born on. So that language is my nature tongue, is very rich of sound and touches my emotions more than any other language. For me it is a natural thing to use that language in comparison with the music, because it has a good sound and sometimes it allows me to almost sing. Also the combination of my poetry with music lifts my poetry to an emotional level that cannot been reached without the music. For me the music represents the elements, that are the main subjects in my poetry.
Dutch is a language I learned. It allows me to write in a more abstract way, because it doesn’t come so close to the sentiment and my emotions. It is not a very soundful language, so I don’t use it on music. In Dutch I release more traditional collections of poems in books.
QCR: As mentioned earlier you (and your brother) are immensely prolific artists, I can count at least 25 titles spread across multiple decades that feature you. What are some of your favorite/most memorable pieces that you have worked on?
JK: That is a tricky question. I don’t have specific memorable pieces. In fact they all are. They all have their own stories. But there are two collaborations that I like the most. When I am part of that collaborations I feel I am in a sort of safe space in which I can come very close to my words and the senses of my words. There is all the confidence and safety to let go of my words. Though they are totally different. The first one is Piiptsjilling. That is mostly because of the ease to work with Rutger and the certainty that all we do will always be good and sincere. It always has a high quality and a sort of naturality, and that feels safe. And we always have a lot of fun, so never any arguing or things like that.
The second is the Alvaret Ensemble. That is because we work with such great gifted musicians, that every time for me that feels like an honor to be part of. And the performances are always of immense intensity, very fragile and very beautiful. It is not the easiest collaboration, but surely I wish we could be there forever.
QCR: The Alvaret Ensemble could easily be considered a supergroup with such luminaries as Greg Haines, Olga Wojciechowska (Strie), Peter Broderick, Martyn Heyne & Hillary Jeffery (TKDE & TMFDJC) and mastering by Nils Frahm & Taylor Deupree. How did the ensemble form & is it true that everything is improvised?
JK: We had a few small tours in England, Japan and the Netherlands with Greg Haines and Danny Saul as Liondialer. And we came together in the project Seeljocht with also Nils Frahm and Peter and Heather Broderick. There also Sytze Pruiksma joined and from that we came with the idea to make something with Greg and Sytze. I knew Greg his first solowork in which Olga also appeared, and for me that was almost the most beautiful music I ever heard. It was a strong wish for me to make something with them, because I am so impressed by his work. Because I thought that music was from another level, I first didn’t dare to ask him, but suddenly all was arranged. Greg was living in Berlin and he organized the Grünewald kirche and all the musicians that came along and the recording by Nils. It were amazing three days of recording. Olga also joined there. I am still very proud of that first album, because it brought me what I was hoping for.
After that we went to Iceland, with the four of us, to work with for Icelandic musicians and three videoguys and played for 8 days on a big festival with the Icelandic people in the Netherlands. From that we made the album Skeylja.
And now there is the third album, called ‘Ea’.
All the music is improvised. It always is, in every project we do. We arrange a place and someone to record and then create the right atmosphere to make music. The only thing we talk about is the mood or the note that the musicians are going to use. And most of the time nothing is said and the music arises by itself. I use poems, but I never know which one. I try to find the right words for the music they are playing. My poetry is not improvised but connects to the melody and mood of the music.
QCR: I saw a rare yet incredible performance from you guys back in 2013 at the Denovali Swingfest in Essen. At the tail end of the performance, Nils Frahm came out and started bashing the ivories next to Greg - it was truly a moment I will never forget. Afterward, you mentioned to me that Nil’s was present at Grunewald when you recorded the sessions but the group decided to leave his parts out of the final album. As an insane Frahm fan, I have to ask - will those sessions ever see the light of day?
JK: I am glad you enjoyed Nils on stage. I will say no more about that.
No, those sessions will never see the light of day. When you are in church for three long evenings and nights to record, the concentration and focus cannot be 100% all the time. You need moments to relax and play a bit. That is when Nils joined to have some fun or to have a break. It was no seriously being part of the recordings, but since he was there and there was a magnificent grand piano, he could not leave that untouched.
QCR: One curiosity about your first LP is the very interesting track titles - each consisting of three letters. What can you tell us about the idea behind naming the pieces in such a way.
JK: Well, it is always a question how to name improvised pieces. We almost all agree that pieces should not have a name at all, because that suggests some kind of idea, or atmosphere, or meaning, or whatsoever. There is only the music and the poetry and there should not be any distraction in listening by thoughts about a title. I never use titles for my poems, because I know people will read the poems mainly to find a connection between the poem and its title.
But for the mastering and for connecting people to your release, it is good to have some sort of name. Therefor we came up with the idea to make abstract titles with no meaning at all. I just found a few letters from my poems and combined them in no existing words or figures. I liked the abstract idea behind it. It starts people wondering. And that is what art should do. Start wondering. That is also what our music should do. But is also confuses. So for ‘Ea’ we decided to find words in the poems and connect the titles to the poems used in the pieces.
QCR: Six years on from the last Alvaret release we now have the amazing ‘EA’ to dive into. Tell us a little bit about the process of putting this together.
JK: I mostly listen to quiet, intense, sincere and minimal music. Therefor I still be able to listen to the first Alvaret release. I had this wish that we would once try and make an album that would be even more intense and quiet than the first album. That was my challenge to take off. And I just wanted to make a new Alvaret just to be together and because I like this collective so much. I got to know Joana Guerra through another project and I really would like her to join, so we could have violin and cello joining our sound.
But then came the challenge how to pay it all. The costs of recording, traveling, staying, and more. I got some support of the Popfabriek and I arranged a few performances the days before where we could gain a bit of money also. These performances lead us to the recording. We never played in this combination before, so we could try some things and we could get to know each other musically (and otherwise) during these performances. With that we went into the recordings.
I hired a church in Leeuwarden where it was allowed to record and then we were there for two days and a last day with a closing performance. All these hours of recordings went to Greg. He made a first choice and then everyone listened to it and took out there most favorite parts. Greg went on with the parts with the most likes and made a record out of it, that finally lead to ‘Ea’.
QCR: When I listen to the music put out by you and your brother I am always amazed at how perfectly your poetry wraps around the instrumentation. Do you have a particular method for pulling this off? Does the poetry come first and Romke experiments around it or is it the other way around?
JK: I have no idea how that works. Romke and me started to go to mostly open poetry stages, where we were the only ones to use music during the reciting. I think I learned a lot from these challenges and the way my poetry could connect to the sound of Romke. There is the poetry. I take a lot of poems to the recordings. The musicians just start making music and I try to connect with a poem that suits the melody and /or the atmosphere. Then I decide myself when to recite. I think it all depends on good listening and concentration and a connection with the music. Nothing is agreed upon. For me there are a few things important. One is that I am in the same room with the musicians during the recording. I can see everybody and see what they are doing. So the voice and the music are recorded at the same time and not spoken when the music is already there. It all has to be one performance, one organic whole. Second is that my voice is not above the music. I mean no louder than the music or so. My voice has to be part of the music as an instrument. It has to take part in the music and not stand on its own. During life performances it allows me to improvise with that even more. Because then I can speak softer or louder whenever it feels like it.
QCR: What is next for the Ensemble? Any tours on the horizon?
JK: I don’t know. Of course, we would like to play music live and be together again, but the thing is we have no promotor and we are hardly ever invited to come and play somewhere. So if we want to play, we have to arrange that ourselves. And I don’t know if anyone feels like it, to put a lot of energy in that. I did that for a long time, but I won’t anymore. So if nothing happens, than nothing happens.
The performances so far though were always amazing experiences. And sometimes people forget that they experience something unique. No performance will ever be the same. And for us that is the big challenge to always make new, beautiful music together and be part of something special.
The Alvaret Ensemble now consist out of Greg, Olga, Joana, Romke and me. So we have not much gear to carry with us. Travelling should be quite easy. But we are living far apart, so it takes some effort to get us together. Still I hope we can get together somewhere and play live again, because that is the most rewarding thing to do with people you like and admire for their skills.
And I hope sincerely that this wasn’t the last Alvaret album. But that is not sure either. We haven’t talked about that, simply because we haven’t seen each other for a couple of years now. It takes money to make it all happen. There might arise an opportunity next year to get ourselves together, but it is too soon to talk about it.
QCR: Thank you so much for answering our questions and for giving us some of the finest albums in our collection. One final question, who are you listening to these days? Any recommendations?
JK: Thank you for your interest and this opportunity. And your very nice words about our works.
I made a list of twelve pieces. Of course, a list is always just the feelings at this very moment, but for these pieces counts that I can listen to them every moment of the day and a few of them changed my way of listening and understanding music. So these are not all new music from these days, but I hope it gives a bit of an idea what music I like the most.
Check out Jan's twelve favorite pieces here.