Category Archives: Music Criticism

New Music Forum Debut: Embarking on a journey

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

End notes:

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.

A small surprise

Piano recital, Fismer Hall, Stellenbosch Conservatorium, 4 September 2012-

The audience attending Michael Blake’s tribute concert to John Cage for his 100th birthday, was treated to a special surprise. The programme noted that Blake would be performing two of his works composed for Shirley Hoffman in the early 1980s, Gang o’ Notes and hand full of keys, but instead there was a last minute change of plans.

This change took the form of a première of a work that Blake had been working on, with the intention to perform it in a Cage concert. Thus there could be no more fitting an occasion than a birth centenary concert. The audience was treated not only to the particularly rare (in South Africa) occurrence of a concert of prepared piano works, but also to a celebration of the birth of a work by one of our country’s foremost composers.

The work was 100 (which turned out to be 101) voicings of the so-called “CAGE” chord. This chord was presented to the audience in all its inversions and a great variety of placements within the registral scope of the piano. Repeating one chord 101 times in such a compelling way is no mean feat. This said, it should be noted that minimalist and experimental aesthetics are often aligned with Blake’s compositional style and thus one sonority such as C-A-G-E would seem appropriate and ample material for this composer to work with.

The various voicings were presented as a succession of chords at a slow tempo, deviating from the set rhythm only to include (very sparsely) passing notes and appoggiaturas. There seemed to be an overarching structure, even though this is hard to rationalise, and microstructures dictated by subtly shifting tension in the harmonic playground.

What does a member of the audience make of this? Firstly, the programme that preceded the piece should, I think, be taken into account. Before the première we were treated to a performance of Henry Cowell’s Aeolian Harp and The Banshee. These pieces were then followed by Cage’s A Valentine out of Season and Music for Marcel Duchamp.

With both these works for prepared piano one might not imagine setting a scene of an entranced wash of dreamlike colours. The shift, however, was routed with the screening of the Duchamp sequence in Hans Richter’s Dreams that Money Can Buy for which Music for Marcel Duchamp was originally written. This would-be hypnotic film placed against the percussive sounds of the prepared piano, I felt, prepared me in some sense for the waves of harmonic tension and release of the 100 voicings.

The phrase “less is more” might seem a cliché here but I think it holds great importance to understanding the work. Is this really more or less “less is more”? When listening to the piece and reflecting on it afterward, it dawned on me that the work and its implications suggested rich meanings. Firstly, the idea that a four-letter surname (and not the first in the history of music) can hold such power in altering how we think about art so that 100 years after the birth of the person it refers to in North America we celebrate it (and him) at the tip of Africa, seems oddly significant.

This influence is then brought forth in Blake’s music in the most transparent manner, which lends the surname voice long after its owner had passed on.

I was also deeply conscious of the fact that the C-A-G-E chord manifested in Blake’s work as chordal successions. This reminded me of the endless chord progressions we as students write to refine our skills in voice leading and other theoretical and compositional exercises.

This idea led me to realise the fact that we can see Cage as a teacher and that we (in some respects) will always be able to learn from him. This is a part of his influence that I find extremely important as it represents one relatively logical conclusion as to why one would be remembered and celebrated 100 years after one’s birth.

And if Cage is the teacher here, then Blake was not just regurgitating his artistic voice but instead emulating a fine homage.  I say “emulating” as the influence of Cage’s aesthetic is prevalent in the work but as we can learn from history these influences can aid in the creation of the next generation’s masters. “Emulation” in this case also denotes the surpassing of Cage’s work in its confidence and ease.

This is, however, the “more”. The “less” can then be seen in the extreme economy of carrying out such an idea. Cage is voiced one hundred (and one) times. We cannot escape the thoughts that are carried with each utterance. The work allows for ample time to process and reorientate one’s thoughts. You are led along a subjective journey into your own mind and left to dwell while being at ease with what is going on around you. This is due to the minimal means that needs no great instrumental forces to produce affect. Blake’s 100 voicings delivers a message in its most dapper form by striping all excess couture from the music.

All in all I believe the work does capture the spirit of Cage and is, in fact, a wonderful tribute to one of the great heroes of the twentieth century. Furthermore, I firmly believe that the work is more or less “less is more” with a great deal of philosophical content delivered to the audience in a beautifully economic manner. Finally, I would proclaim that the concert, which was then concluded with a wonderful performance of Cage’s The Perilous Night followed by 4’33”,was a great success despite the slightly unruly audience and a stage assistant who was not familiar enough with the piano preparations. The concert also served to whet my own appetite for Blake’s recent CD release featuring a selection of his chamber music.

– William Fourie  

Frauenliebe und Leben

I am giving a recital of this celebrated cycle on the 11th Sept in the Odeion Concert Hall in Bloemfontein, and thought I would share the programme note I wrote for it here. We are discussing the articles I refer to below in a postgraduate research seminar group this Friday.

Robert Schumann se befaamde siklus Frauenliebe und Leben is in 1840 gekomponeer. Hierdie uiters produktiewe jaar (soms sy “Liederjaar” genoem) waaruit die meeste van sy groot en bekende siklusse insluitende ook Dichterliebe dateer, was die jaar dat hy en Clara Wieck uiteindelik met mekaar kon trou, ná ’n uitgerekte hofsaak teen haar pa.

Die teks van Frauenliebe und Leben is ’n stel gedigte deur Adelbert von Chamisso wat in 1830 gepubliseer is. Hierdie gedigte probeer die lewensloop en veral die innerlike of verbeeldingslewe van ’n vrou vasvang, maar die stereotipe wat hierdie tekste uitbeeld van ’n vrou wat haar identiteit en lewensin vind in haar rol as onderdanige eggenoot en moeder, het selfs so vroeg as die 1870s kritiek uitgelok (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Robert Schumann, Wort und Musik: Das Vokalwerk (Stuttgart, 1981), 87).

’n Belangrike feministiese aanslag op die teks én musiek het in 1992 uit die pen van Ruth Solie verskyn (Whose life? The gendered self in Schumann’s Frauenliebe songs in Scher (red.) Music and text: critical inquiries). Sy voel veral ongemaklik daarmee dat Chamisso en Schumann, as mans, die onderwerping aan die man en haar selfopgawe in moederskap as die vrou se hoogste ekstase voorstel, in die teks en (besonder effektief) in die musiek. Sy verstaan dus die sg. “cultural work” wat deur die siklus verrig word as ’n aktiewe bevordering van die onregverdige stereotipe, eerder as ’n onskuldige uitbeelding van die destydse sosiale werklikheid.

Daar het egter in die afgelope dekade ’n nuwe wending in musikologiese beskouings van die siklus ingetree, waarin skrywers registreer dat sangers, ten spyte van die ongemaklike en vir sommige aanstootlike stereotipe, steeds genoeg estetiese waarde uit die siklus put om dit herhaaldelik uit te voer:

To judge by the remarkable number of new recordings over the last decades, however, singers’ interest in the songs has not diminished with the feminist critique – even if this viewpoint has dominated the accompanying program notes. Performers have evidently found it possible to draw from these songs something that continues to appeal to them and to put it forth persuasively (Muxfeldt, K. 2001. Frauenliebe Now and Then, in 19th-century music 25:1, 28-29).

In die artikel wat ek hierbo aanhaal, onderneem Muxfeldt dus ‘n tipe “rehabilitasie” van die siklus deur verby die geslagstereotipe na die res van die estetiese inhoud van die kunswerk te kyk. Een van die antwoorde wat sy aanbied, is ook die een wat dit vir die huidige uitvoerder moontlik gemaak het om die siklus op ‘n outentieke wyse te interpreteer, naamlik die klem op die tipies Romantiese verbeeldingsin en emosionele fynbesnaardheid wat die hoofkarakter in die siklus het:

Frauenliebe und Leben is a paradox. Even as its more concrete subject matter has died out in the world, the intensity of Schumann’s engagement with the figure of this woman remains deeply affecting. To my mind, it is precisely the uninhibited imagination of Schumann’s act of empathy, his remarkable effort to portray his character’s process of mind, which stands to account for the work’s continued effectiveness in the present – against all shifting social odds (Muxfeldt, K. 2001. Frauenliebe Now and Then, in 19th-century music 25:1, 48).

(Matildie Thom Wium)