At 20:00 on the evening of 24 April, in the Music Library of Stellenbosch University I presented the debut performance/discussion of the New Music Forum. This is a forum solely focused on the performance and discussion of New Music as aimed at, and presented predominantly by, undergraduate students. Not only music students are welcome, instead, the forum is open to all at the university. The intention is to create exposure of New Music within the Conserve but also to engage in collaborative projects which will see the inclusion of students from other departments. That these objectives were achieved could be seen in the audience who attended the debut performance. They included students from the Drama, Fine Arts, and Music departments (as far as I could recognise them). Invitations were also extended to students at the philosophy department.
The programme for this concert included Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together and Attica. These works were performed by an ensemble consisting of Sulayman Human (piano), Ernst Van Tonder (e-flat and b-flat clarinets), Arthur Feder (alto saxophone), Le-Nique Brand (tuba), David Bester (violin), and Thuthuka Sibisi (voice). After the performance there was a brief interval and the audience reconvened for a discussion.
What follows is a manifesto for the works that were performed:
There are two points of departure for this project:
One: the project had to overcome the practical concern which is the specificity of instrumentation of New Music scores. I had to choose a piece that was written for players that I knew would be willing and committed to making such a project come to life but that also allowed for choice in terms of timbre that was artistically sought.
Two: the project sought to create commentary on a broader social concern.
I decided that Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together and Attica would be the best works for the job as it addressed both these problems.
These works meet the first point of departure in that they are open-score works. Besides for the need to have the base line sounded and a voice to perform the text, the score only mentions that an ensemble of any size (and instrumentation) can be used. Later in the performance procedure it does, however, require a differentiation between high and low instruments. Nonetheless, the open score format led me and Lise Morrison (co-producer of this project) to decide on the instrumentation as stated because we knew we could not only rely on these players but that three composition students could be incorporated, aiding with the strong improvisation aspect of the work. Furthermore, it created an unconventional instrumentation which was aesthetically very attractive.
In addressing the second point of departure, we should look more closely at the works themselves. The first part of the work sees the reading of a letter that was written by Samuel Melville during his detention in Attica prison. The American prison system, quite rightly, limited his freedom. But with freedom comes the individual’s capacity unto himself. When freedom is taken away, so is this capacity. This might not seem like such a bad thing but it does leave the individual reliant on the institution’s decision as to his fate. This becomes extremely dangerous when a question of survival is at stake.
Attica prison took away Melville’s capacity unto himself. They created a cage in which he had very limited means to defend himself during a prison riot that he instigated. Subsequently, he and 28 other prisoners were shot dead by New York State police, New York National Guard and former correctional officers. The phenomenon of misuse of power is not only reserved for the USA and this is where the project finds contextualisation in South Africa. As we speak there is a commission of enquiry running to examine the happenings of what has been referred to as the worst single case of lethal force used by South African security forces since the Sharpville massacre(1) . This incident is, of course, the Marikana mine workers tragedy. In a similar sense the mine workers found themselves at the mercy of an institution which took away their capabilities to defend themselves.
On 16 August 2012 34 people were killed and 78 wounded when the South African Police Service opened fire on the protesters. The institution here does not only include the SAPS. The National Union of Mineworkers (or NUM) also had a role to play. Corrupt leadership opened fire on its own members when they called for a strike. This forced the miners belonging to this union to take wildcat strike action. However, the combination of the abandonment by the NUM and the calling in of the cavalry led to the subsequent loss of life.
One can easily get lost in the blame game but what we can see by this incident is that the miners who gave up their capacity of freedom and their power unto themselves to the institutions of the NUM and the SAPS fell victim to violence.
This is, however, not an isolated incident in South Africa. Since 2010 the SAPS has incurred R334-million in legal fees due to civil claims with 5090 incidents between 2011 and 2012(2) alone. These are cases of police brutality, wrongful arrests and unlawful detention, to name but a few. It should be said that this is an institution we do not have a choice in joining other than having the choice to leave the country or to change the system.
It is upon this notion of institutional dangers that this works delivers commentary. We are subject to it but so few of us are aware of the dangers that come with it.
The question of change lies in the second part of the work. The utterance “Attica is in front of me” was made by inmate Richard Clark to a reporter when he was released. The statement was provoked by the question “how does it feel to leave Attica behind you?” Does what happened ever lie behind us when it has happened or will it always be in front of us, an object that we can confront, chase and catch, grappling with it for the change that is required(3)?
So what we have is then an artistic production that comments on the dangers of the institution. This is achieved by a re-contextualisation of commentary that is delivered on institutions in the USA into a South African setting that is faced with similar problems. The practical problem of performance of New Music has been addressed by the use of an open- score work in this performance but, of course, the question of artistic commentary on societal change still remains open.
It is hard to judge exactly how long the discussion that ensued from the reading of this manifesto lasted, but if I were to guess I would say between 20 and 30 minutes. Important points were raised including: the notion of actually having such an interpretation read after the performance and whether it should not happen before the concert. Further comments related to the content of the work and its powerful representation of institutional dangers. I am glad to report that the debut was a success, purely taken on the fact that there was a bigger audience than there were chairs (and wine glasses, a problem that will have to be addressed urgently) and by the fact that the library-cum-concertising space was still full for the discussion after the interval.
Of course such a platform, the work presented and the future of such an endeavour still requires critical engagement and this is where I urge you as reader of this post to respond, regardless of whether you were there on the evening or not.
-William Fourie, 3rd year BMus Stellenbosch University
1. Richard Stupart (16 August 2012). The Night Before Lomnin’s Explanations. African Scène [Online] http://www.africanscene.co.za/2012/08/the-night-before-lonmins-explanation/. Retrieved 20 April 2013.
2. This statistic was taken from Sarah Evan’s recent article on the Mail & Guardian website [found at: http://mg.co.za/article/2013-04-14-police-brutality-study-cops-cases-sued]: Police brutality: No silver bullet for costly concerns (15 April 2013).
3. This was attempted in the performance by manically warping the voice part at first and gradually changing it to sung voice.