Getting to know percussionist Jack Van Geem


Percussionist Jack Van Geem is the featured performer in the March 11 concert at the Green Room of the Veterans’ building. On February 23, 2016 Composers, Inc. board member Mike Reese spoke with him by telephone. Here is their conversation:

Mike Reese: How did you begin playing percussion?

Jack Van Geem: I was fascinated with music in general, and thought I wanted to play the trumpet. I bothered my mother every day (she claims) asking if this is the day I could start playing trumpet. After my fourth birthday she called the music store and they said I was too young for the trumpet, but they said “Bring him down and we’ll find him something,” and what they showed me was a marimba.

MR: Did you do any studies in jazz or Latin, or other popular styles?

JvG: Oh yeah. Marimba led to the piano, actually. I taught myself piano from the marimba keyboard and was drawn to jazz. I still play jazz piano. In fact I just taught intro to jazz improv at the Conservatory.

MR: You’ve done so many wonderful performances with Composers Inc.! You’ve got a lot of experience with new music. How did it first come about?

JvG: That would have been in college, at Cal State Hayward, with Jerry Neff as my teacher. It was a discovery of a world of percussion that wasn’t just holding a triangle or hitting a snare drum. The first big piece I played was Zyklus by Stockhausen. I didn’t play it as well as I eventually learned to play it. Then I did a performance of Boulez’s Le Marteau Sans Maitre at U.C. under Ed Dugger. It was on the strength of my love of contemporary music and percussion that I got a grant to go study with Christoph Caskel, percussionist to Stockhausen who had done the recording of Zyklus.

MR: In those early years of playing new music do you have a memorable experience, something that always sticks with you?

JvG: That performance of the Boulez in Berkeley was one of the more exciting contemporary performances that I’ve been involved with. There have been many more since then like in the [S. F.] Symphony. They have a pretty good dedication to contemporary music, and I got to work with Charles Wuorinen, some world premieres of his, very challenging pieces. There’s a piano concerto he wrote that begins with about a five-minute drum solo, which was me. That was exciting!

MR: Eventually you auditioned for the San Francisco Symphony and became their principal percussionist.

JvG: Head banger, I like to say! (chuckles)… I think there were 180 applicants for the job and it happened to be my day. You know, you have to have some luck with you.

MR: How do you prepare for your audition?

JvG: You prepare by playing a lot of excerpts, difficult excerpts, a whole list of them that you practice, and the trick is to try and convince the committee first of all that you can play it accurately and musically, but (second) that it’s what they expect it to sound like within the orchestra. That’s how I got the job. Before that I had been the percussionist with the San Francisco ballet, which gave me some experience playing in an ensemble. Without that time I had studying with Caskel I would not have been able to get into the Symphony. He saw right away that I needed a lot of work on my snare drum playing. He had this remarkable facility and ease of playing, and he inspired me to try and achieve that. So that by the time the Symphony audition came around, I was ready to play the snare drum to the standard that they required.

MR: It’s interesting that the timpani player is always considered a timpanist as opposed to a percussionist––a sort of standout position.

JvG: I think some of that is just the tradition of the orchestra. As you know, the history of the orchestra is that it was originally strings, then the brass managed to get in, and not too long after that timpani. Slowly the bass drum, cymbals and triangle worked their way in. They were part of the aural history of Europe: the Turkish invaders had at the front of their armies these janissaries, the fiercest fighters, I guess, of the army, but they also announced themselves with the bass drum, cymbals and a sistrum, which turned into a triangle. Those three were the janissary instruments. Mozart uses them in the Abduction from the Seraglio. Beethoven uses them in the Ninth Symphony. But they were considered specialty items, while the timpani were a standard of the orchestra. Eventually we get the xylophones and the glockenspiels and the vibraphones and the 50-gallon oil drums and the typewriters and everything else. When I was in the orchestra I was assistant timpanist, so I got to enjoy both worlds, and it made the job much more exciting.
The timpani is technically an easier instrument than the others. There’s no tricks, you just hit the drum it bounces back, you hit it soft, you hit it hard, you roll which is just fast attacks. But it’s the instrument that takes the longest time to really learn how to play well. You have to learn when to blend with the brass, when to blend with the basses. You have to know when it’s a solo and you come out a little more, how long do you let the note ring. None of this is indicated.

MR: We’ve been talking about orchestral playing. You’ve done a lot of small ensemble work. Can you talk about the differences between the two, the challenges and maybe even a little about which you might like more?

JvG: There is a difference between the intimacy of the chamber group and the more corporate mindset of the larger group. In a chamber group there’s more a sense of co-discovery of what you’re doing. When you have a conductor there’s a certain medieval quality of dictatorial rule. It has evolved that way to make the process more efficient. The process created the conductor-as-artist, where before the person to conduct would be the first chair violin, using his bow to indicate beginnings and endings. As forces got larger, more instruments were added, you got the miscasts in the percussion department, and it required somebody solely dedicated to steadying time, setting balances, and all the other things that go into good conducting.
That’s the primary difference––that and volume. You have to play much louder in an orchestra. If I had to pick, I would probably want to spend more time in that chamber setting. But if you asked me to play Beethoven Nine I’ll be right there on timpani.

MR: You talk about being in a smaller group and where there’s more a sense of camaraderie, working intimately with each other and relying on each other. Does that change if you’re working with just percussionists as opposed to a mixed ensemble with non-percussionists?

JvG: That’s a wonderful question and, yes, it is different. When you have a setting of percussionists, there is a natural understanding among you of qualities of sound, qualities of attack, you can be more instinctive about balances. But often it means you have to be even more exact with rhythms and attacks, because the attack of most percussion instruments is unforgiving: you can’t, like a violin, sneak in, or even a trumpet or flute where you can have a soft attack. When you hit a triangle, it’s hit; when you hit cymbals, they’re hit. There’s a more demanding sense of ensemble when you have all these dedicated moments of attack.
The other thing that’s different is discovering the timbres that match the non-percussion instruments, choosing sticks that give presence to your marimba with a violin but don’t interfere with the violin.

MR: You do a lot of teaching as well. Is there something fundamental that you tell your students repeatedly?

JvG: Oh, yeah. The biggest one is, “Don’t forget it’s a musical instrument. We’re trying to play music, listen for the phrase.” They can turn into exercise equipment very quickly.

MR: Phrasing––that’s a familiar term with musicians. How do percussionists understand phrasing?

JvG Some don’t…(laughs) Honestly. I have colleagues in major orchestras that believe your job is to reproduce exactly what you see on the page. If it says mezzo forte, every single note needs to be mezzo forte. Whether it’s a downbeat, or grace note or whatever and it’s brutal. But the way we learn to understand phrasing is to be able to extend some physical activity that we do, or connect to some physical activity that we do in the same way that a violin, or a cello, or viola player any string player learns to connect to their bow. And we can sense a connection physically between breath and this activity. For example, if I play a scale on a marimba, I don’t want to think of how discrete the individual notes are. I want them to somehow feel like I’m sweeping across them with my arm. The arm then becomes like a bow.

MR: You’ve done a lot of new music. Can you talk a little bit about how percussion parts have changed over the time you’ve playing new music?

JvG: It surprises me that contemporary percussion pieces look less and less contemporary. I think back to Zyklus. It’s a fascinating piece, because at the point where more and more elements were being serialized, Stockhausen and other composers were trying to bring back the necessity of the human touch, the urgency of music-making in the moment. Zyklus was designed to provide the percussionist with an increasing level of choices that would allow them to actually do some of the construction of the piece. You can start on any note, then you play through the entire piece and you can end on that note. It’s designed so that there’s really no fixed beginning, but the beginning determines the end. That’s one of the ‘circles”––Zyklus means circle. When you get to the first page that allows for choice, you pick one or another box. On the next page you can actually change the order that’s in the boxes. You go to another page and there’s again more options. When you get to the final options you’re actually selecting from a set of notes and you can put them in any order and create any rhythm you want. It’s a pretty contemporary conception. If I contrast the pieces I see now with that, usually they’re rhythmicized, the pitches are all determined.

MR: You gave the opposite answer of what I thought I would get! That things seemed to have changed radically at an earlier time, and then settled in.
Do you feel that new music has pushed forward the evolution of percussion and techniques over the time that you’ve been playing new music?

JvG: Not so much. There are subtle changes. The one thing that has changed would be bow technique. The use of a cello bow or bass bow on instruments has evolved over time. Bob Greenberg wrote a piece called “Anything you can do…”. He had me at one point using a bow in each hand on vibraphone, and two mallets! That was something I had to learn to do, nobody had done that before.
By the way, I love it! I love the increase in sound material. Found instruments. And I’m a tinkerer. I love that aspect of having to figure out how to do it. We did a piece of Mason Bates a few years ago. He wanted a 50-gallon oil drum. But with the other things I had to do at the same time, which included a typewriter, I couldn’t get a beater into my hand and give a good sound on the 50-gallon drum. What I finally thought to do was to get a bass drum pedal beater and lay the thing on its side.

MR: Do you have any advice for composers about writing for percussion?

JvG: I think, write whatever you hear, but then talk to a percussionist. (laughs)

MR: And conversely, do you find composers are helpful in rehearsals of their music?

JvG: My first instinct is to say… mostly yes. But the composers who get in the way are the ones that won’t let go of a single note until we get it just the way they want it. I have worked with people where you don’t even get out of the first measure for 10 minutes. And they don’t understand that you don’t paint by numbers. Once you understand the intent and you get a larger sense of what’s going on, then you can learn to re-create it in the image. But it has to generate from your brain in a natural, analog way, and not this discrete, “No, that was too loud,” “No that was too soft”….

MR: Kind of makes everybody gun shy, doesn’t it?

JvG: Exactly.

MR: Is there one particular performance that you think you’ll look back on as a hallmark of the Jack van Geem legacy? Or one particular student you have trained?

JvG: I feel very fortunate to say there are many, many performances that I feel honored to be a part of, and feel I held my end up. I remember my final European performance with the S.F. Symphony. It was Mahler’s second. With that piece I always think of a dear friend—a timpanist–that I lost in the AIDS epidemic years ago. I always channel him when I play. It’s called the Resurrection Symphony. It was one of the most technically challenging performances of that piece in my career because of the weather. We were playing on calf heads. And I had to nurse these calf heads through two halves of a performance, one of which required the drums to be a little bit dry, the other half required them to be a little bit wet so I could keep my pitches. So I was busy, I was using everything I knew about the drums. This last performance turned out to be just glorious from the whole orchestra. That will stick out.
The other one is a performance I just recently did of all new marimba solo music in Rutgers at a marimba festival, and I felt like that’s the best solo performance I’d ever played.
And students––almost every student I have taught has gone on to do something that makes me proud that I had a chance to be in their lives. Some are in music, some have gone outside of music. I’ll get a note from them saying, “I’m having a great life, thank you for what you taught me, but now I’m an executive with Apple.” (laughs)
It’s really been a great life as a musician, and I’m looking forward to a lot more chamber stuff. I’m loving the fact that I can spend more time doing that, and more solo stuff.

MR: I want to thank you for the time you’ve given us for this interview, and we look forward to seeing you at the next Composers, Inc. Concert.

JvG: It was a pleasure talking to you, Mike.

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