Category Archives: Performances

Listening to heavy metal – “it’s like entering a completely different world”, by Vincent Varrie

Me: How often do you listen to music?

Rauvoun: (Jokingly responds) every 20 seconds. Every day of my life. How often am I awake?

Me: What effect does metal music have in your life?

Rauvoun: Keeps me calm when I’m calm, and makes me calm when I’m feeling everything else.[i]

Metal like all other music genres, has a rich history that includes pioneers, virtuosos and stalwarts.[ii] Musicians such as Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen, Judast Priest and Led Zeppelin shocked the world with their technicality, originality and aggressive attitude and stage performances. According to Robert Walser, heavy metal was transformed during the 1980s “from the moribund music of a fading subculture into the dominant genre of American music.” [iii] This is illustrated in the record sales – by 1989, 40% of all sound recordings sold in the United States were heavy metal records.[iv] Although not as popular as it once was, heavy metal music is still being performed and listened to all over the world.

As a “metalhead”, heavy metal music played an important part in my development as a musician. In order to better understand the influence of this genre on my own music making as well as that of some of its other listeners, I attended two concerts at the music club Gandalfs as a participant observer and interviewed individuals who regularly listens to heavy metal. Gandalfs is a club located in Cape Town with a live music venue, ROAR, upstairs, that is dedicated to heavy metal, black metal and indie rock performances.

To understand why “metalheads” are so passionate about this musical form, it is important to know where it all started.

Brief History

The term heavy metal, originally used to refer to toxic or poisonous metallic chemical elements, was adopted in the 1960s by William S. Burroughs in his book Nova Express (1964) to refer to one of his character as “the heavy metal kid.”[v] Subsequently, he is often credited for inspiring the genre. The characteristics that came to be associated with heavy metal namely power, loudness and aggression are all indebted to the historical circulation of images, qualities and metaphors that were prevalent during the 1960s when this genre gained its stylistic identity. [vi]

This identity can be traced back to the rise of African-American blues, with artists including Howlin Wolf, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Muddy Waters and later the man that revolutionized blues, Jimi Hendrix. Some of the stylistic elements of these musicians that influenced the heavy metal music genre include harmonic progressions, vocal lines and guitar improvisations on the pentatonic scales that are derived from blues music. Other pioneers such as Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath gave us the original metal sound as well as the “devils note” (the flat five) and the power chord.[vii] Interestingly, throughout heavy metal’s history, its most influential musicians have been guitarists who have studied classical music, such as Eddy van Halen, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Angus Young, Yngwie Malmsteen and Randy Rhoads.[viii]

The music

Walser states that an extremely distorted electric guitar is the most important aural sign of heavy metal or hard rock, stemming from the 1950s, where guitarists experimented with distortion through slashing their speaker cones.[ix] This also points to the relation with the vocal chords where distortion is evident when we scream or shout – a sign of extreme power and intense expression. This search for distortion and its link to chord voicings led to the development of power chords, which is an open fifth or fourth played on the lower strings. A brilliance and edge is added by the higher harmonics created by the distortion and a weight to the sound is created by the resultant tones produced by the interval combinations of the power chords.

The vocals sounds are similar in some ways to the style of guitar playing in metal, with vocalists deliberately distorting their voices, or singing long sustained notes to suggest intensity and power. The continued development of technology and equipment has also allowed metal music to develop a stronger dependence on volume, reverb, echo and overdubbing. Occasionally there are back up voices, usually during the chorus section of the song to enlarge the statements of the solo voice.[x] However the main solo instrument remains the guitar and the work of Eddie van Halen, for example, has inspired a generation of young guitar players towards greater technical competence. [xi]

Why we listen to heavy metal music?

When you first walk up the stairs to ROAR, which is on the second floor of Gandalfs where the live performances are, you walk under a black light. You immediately light up like a Christmas tree at night and at the end of the stairs you pay your entry fee and get a stamp. It is like entering a totally different world, because I completely forgot that it was raining until I felt the leak in the roof, but it was a refreshing feeling. The wall of sound on both floors and immense heat on the top floor makes you completely forget where you came from. [xii]

As noted in the previous section, heavy metal relies on loud volumes, distortion and reverb to establish a sense of power and disruption. Robert Walser also notes that “both the extreme volume and artificially produced aural indicators of space allow the music to transform the actual location of the listener”. [xiii] The volume and intensity of these concerts and the music, enables the listener to step into a different world.

During a performance on 29 August at Gandalf’s one of my favorite South African bands, “Oh God,” a progressive metal band that regularly changes time signatures, I saw everyone head banging to the constant changing of time signature and most people even staying in time. Some metal bands had painted faces and some went even further with chains, nooses, masks, and painted limbs resembling blood. I watched the guitarist of the band, “Devilspeak,” who performed before “Oh God”, De Wet Loots, changed his outfit from a mask with an inverted cross, to a gas mask and adding a noose to his attire. He rain danced to almost every band that played that night while bumping into everyone around him.

This is indicative of the space that heavy metal music has created outside of the struggles and constraints of daily life, where you can express yourself and where you have agency to choose to participate in the chaos that surrounds you through dancing and screeching along to the lyrics – and this sense of agency, as illustrated in the opening interview, allows its listeners to “stay calm when [we] feel everything else”. Kelly Schwartz has noted for example that heavy metal may not only “distract individuals through external stimulation,” but that it may also “serve as a social validation for what [listeners] think and feel about themselves, others, and society”. [xiv]

Metal music has given me, and so many of its listeners, a place to belong and a purpose in life. At Gandalfs you get drowned in everything heavy metal; smoking, alcohol, excessive swearing and a wall of distortion that completely sucks you in. The music lets you escape from the shackles of everyday life. Whereas I never dreamt of picking up an instrument, I am now blustering along learning the riffs to all my favourite songs and studying towards a degree in music.

[i] Interview done with Rauvoun Walker, 3 September 2015, Cape Town.

[ii] This is a version of an essay presented in partial fulfillment for the subject Academic Literacy as part of the Music Diploma Programme at the Music Department, Stellenbosch University.

[iii] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1993), p. 11.

[iv] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: p. 11.

[v] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: p. 8.

[vi] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: p. 1.

[vii] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: pp. 8-9.

[viii] Robert Walser, ‘Eruptions’: p. 263.

[ix] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: p. 41.

[x] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: p. 45.

[xi] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: pp. 50-51.

[xii] A fieldnote written on 15 August 2015 at Gandalfs in Cape Town.

[xiii] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: pp. 44-45.

[xiv] Kelly Schwarts, ‘Music preferences, personality, style and developmental issues of adolescents’, Journal of Youth Ministry, Vol. 3/1 (2004), p. 49.

 

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‘Nagmusiek’ by Stephanus Muller to be released in August

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Nagmusiek by Stephanus Muller

“Nagmusiek is a startling addition to contemporary South African fiction and biography. The book is both a scholarly study of the Afrikaans composer Arnold van Wyk and a work of fiction in which the author/biographer—who is and is not Stephanus Muller—highjacks his own literary undertaking. It is an extraordinary meditation on the art of biography, on South African classical music under the apartheid regime, and on the complicated relationship between life and fiction. Van Wyk’s musical composition, for which this book is named, is a ‘modernist poem of loss, of pain, of flickering memory, of dignified death’. Muller sets out to explore Van Wyk’s work and in the process creates an epic and genre-defying work of his own.

This is an important book, a profoundly scholarly undertaking that will be a vital contribution to the field of Van Wyk studies in South Africa, but at the same time a groundbreaking work of experimental fiction.” – Fourthwall Books, 2014.

——-

Launch dates and venues

Stellenbosch, Fismer Hall:
2 August, 7 pm
with a performance of Nagmusiek  by Daniel-Ben Pienaar

Cape Town:
5 August, 6 pm, venue TBC

Johannesburg:
7 August, 6 pm, Fourthwall Books, Braamfontein

Pretoria, Brooklyn Theatre:
9 August, 11 am
with a performance of Nagmusiek by Daniel-Ben Pienaar

——-

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Electronic Music in South Africa

A Very Short Overview of Electronic Music in South Africa, or
“How we got into electronic music, and how not to get out again”

Presented by Michael Blake at the Opening of ‘Concert To’
Sasol Museum, Stellenbosch, 25 May 2013

1. More than a century ago Thaddeus Cahill invented an electrical device for producing sound. In 1906 he brought the first electronic music, via his 200 ton Telharmonium which generated sounds from dynamos, before the public, transmitting them over telephone wires to citizens of New York. Busoni, in his classic essay Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music written in 1911, was clearly struck by this:

“[Thaddeus Cahill] has constructed a comprehensive apparatus which makes it possible to transform an electric current into a fixed and mathematically exact number of vibrations…the infinite gradation of the octave may be accomplished…Only a long and careful series of experiments, and a continued training of the ear, can render this unfamiliar material approachable and plastic for the coming generation, and for Art.

And what a vista of fair hopes and dreamlike fancies is thus opened for both! Who has not dreamt that he could float on air? And firmly believed his dream to be reality? Let us take thought, how music may be restored to its primitive, natural essence; let us free it from architectonic, acoustic and esthetic dogmas; let it be pure invention and sentiment, in harmonies, in forms, in tone-colours (for invention and sentiment are not the prerogative of melody alone); let it follow the line of the rainbow and vie with the clouds in breaking sunbeams…”

2. That was the 1900s.

  • Then in 1915 came Lee de Forest’s invention the valve oscillator, making it possible to produce pitched tones from electrical signals.
  • Since then we’ve had the Futurists intonarumori, in the 1920s instruments like the theremin, ondes martenot and trautonium, later electronic organs, and both analogue and digital synthesisers.
  • In the 1920s Varese believed “the natural extension of avant-garde music was into the use of electronics” and called for new instruments, acknowledging that “the composer and the electrician will have to labor together”.
  • 1939-42: Cage’s Imaginary Landscapes manipulated sounds on gramophone records using variable-speed turntables, which made him the first turntablist.
  • In 1935 the tape recorder was invented and was widely available by the 1950s.
  • In 1948 musique concrète, the forerunner of sampling, was developed at the Pierre Schaeffer studio in Paris. The major European composers of the day – Boulez, Stockhausen, Messiaen – worked there.
  • In the1950s Stockhausen took musique concrète as a point of departure and invented the new medium elektronische musik at the WDR studio in Cologne, utilising equipment such as oscillators left behind after World War 2 by American intelligence.
  • In the late 1940s the Columbia Studio in New York was established by Otto Luening, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was set up in London as a resource for radio productions, but was soon sought after by composers wanting to explore electronic music.
  • 1952: Cage’s Williams Mix used magnetic recordings as sound sources.
  • 1954: Varèse was the first to compose an orchestral work with electronic interpolations – Desérts – which caused an uproar along the lines of Le Sacre in 1913, but by 1948 Varèse’s Poéme Electronique, in the Phillips Pavilion at Brussels World Fair, had general acceptance.
  • Xenakis, who had worked with Varèse on the Phillips Pavilion, went on to develop his UPIC system which he completed in 1977 – used alike by composers as diverse as Jean-Claude Risset and Aphex Twin.
  • IRCAM, the brainchild of Boulez, opened in Paris in 1977.
  • Berio set up Tempo Reale in Italy in 1987, and so on and so on.
  • More at the margins – a bit like us here – Percy Grainger built his Free Music Machines in the 1950s, and one of the earliest electronic music experiments at the other end of our continent occurred in Egypt – Halim El-Dabh’s Wire Recorder Piece in 1944 – probably the first piece of musique concrète.
  • Since the 1970s we’ve had anything from electronic dance music to remixing, and the PC has brought a studio onto every composer’s desk.

The issues that arose in these early days in Europe and the USA, that is whether this “was music or not”, whether non-musical sounds could be admitted into composition, are really quite passé in most quarters – though maybe not in the Conserve yet.

3. A few key moments in South African electronic music: Stephanus Muller wrote in Die Burger in 2004: “Daar is ‘n beskeie en verbasend subversiewe geskiedenis van elektroniese musiek in Suid Afrika.” And he mentions Roelof Temmingh’s Selle (1980) as an example. If only… More importantly, Stockhausen visited South Africa in 1971, giving electronic music composition a bit of a kick-start. At Wits University June Schneider created electronic scores and multimedia works in the early 1970s, and the University of Natal, as it was then, established the first electronic music studio, which has been directed by a series of distinguished electronic composers – Ulrich Suesse, Gerald LaPierre, Jürgen Bräuninger. Theo Herbst played a key role in establishing a studio at Stellenbosch, and is now doing the same at UCT.

The rogue apartheid state saw a steady trickle of new electronic works, some of it acceptable, some of it poor, most of it ‘apartheid kitsch’. In 1958 Dutch composer (and rehabilitated Nazi collaborator) Henk Badings had been invited to contribute to the apartheid project with a radio opera Asterion, made in the studios of the SABC in collaboration NP van Wyk Louw. Away from all this Kevin Volans made several tape pieces in the WDR studio, using sounds recorded in KZN and Lesotho, as part of his series of African Paraphrases.

Post-apartheid we began to see a democratisation of resources and genres and in the 21st century electronic music has made good advances in this country. The blurring of disciplines with sound artists working in the electronic medium has contributed to that. As president of NewMusicSA I encouraged the establishment of the Unyazi festival in 2005 – an international event with composers and performers from around the world. So far festivals have taken place in Johannesburg (curated by Dimitri Voudouris), Cape Town/Stellenbosch (curated by James Webb) and Durban (curated by Jürgen Bräuninger).

The electronic medium seems such an obvious and natural platform for young creative musicians in South Africa, especially given the difficulties of getting music performed here. I’d like to suggest at least three reasons: so many people own or have access to laptops, so much software can be downloaded freely, and it is the medium where so-called popular and serious genres easily crossover. Stravinsky and Satie’s radical idea of mixing highbrow and lowbrow has come to inspire another generation of composers.

4. So today we are here for the opening of Concert To. I won’t say much about it because we’ll be hearing it in its entirety shortly. But I’d like to congratulate my good friend Pierre-Henri Wicomb, one of the brightest lights in South African composition that I’ve had the privilege to meet in recent years, on curating an excellent landmark project which I think will have repercusssions for some time to come, and – very importantly – in the spirit of the medium itself, for making it immediately available on CD, so you can buy a copy and continue to engage with it in your home.

5. I’d like to end by telling you about what is for me one of the most unique and thrilling examples of a relevant electronic music community – Cuba. I was fortunate to visit the country in 2008 to give the first performance of my own Ways to put in the salt for piano and tape, and to give a presentation on the Bow Project. Spring in Havana was established in 1981 by a visionary Cuban composer Juan Blanco, and continues to be directed by his son Enmanuel and an enthusiastic team of composers, musicians and support staff. The festival goes on every two years, in some of the most difficult economic conditions, but they have never missed one. They get very little money from the state, they put on two concerts a day for a week, and self-funded composers and performers come from around the world to be part of it.

Their headquarters, which I visited after the festival, is in a tiny house way out in the suburbs of Havana – there is a tiny admin office, a tiny studio with some very old apple macs, and a tiny room for lectures and classes. Before I’d opened my mouth on the first day, I was asked to curate a concert of South Africa electronic music at a future festival. That hasn’t happened yet because we haven’t found the resources here, but I think on the evidence of today’s concert, the three Unyazi festivals, and several other creative endeavours in South Africa, we wouldn’t have any trouble compiling half a dozen South African programmes.

But back to the present, and Concert To.

(Posted on behalf of Michael Blake)

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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.

Archery and cello playing – two sides of the same coin?

Colloquium presented at the Department of Music
Stellenbosch University
22 October 2012

The reason why I took up archery may need some explanation and in order to do this I have to go back in my history a bit.

As a young under graduate student I was often frustrated as tendonitis seemed to hound me through out my studies and cause me to seriously question my career choice. However, as is often the case in life, the choice of whether to continue or not, was made for me when I was awarded a UNISA Licentiate Overseas Scholarship after my final BMus year which caused me to land at the “Mozarteum” in Salzburg for the next 3 years studying cello performance.

It is now just about 35 years ago that my cello teacher in Salzburg gave me a little book to read which she thought could be helpful to me (all in German!). It was called “Zen and the art of Archery”, written by a German Philosopher by the name of Eugen Herrigel in 1953. It is a booklet about his experiences whilst studying Archery with a Zen Master in Japan for 6 years. It describes his struggles, both to understand the underlying Zen philosophy and those encountered within him during this process. This story and the description of his teacher’s teaching absolutely fascinated me as there were such clear similarities to that which I was confronted with in my cello studies, although of course from a completely different perspective and in a completely different discipline. The road that I was being led towards and coached about in an attempt to help me understand the underlying cause of my tendonitis, was an inner journey that I saw mirrored in Herrigel’s descriptions of his. It struck a sympathetic chord in me and I vowed: One day I am going to study archery! However, as is also often the case with good intentions, it took me a while to realize this one – all of 30 + years, but I can honestly say that I never really forgot about it – it was always lurking at the back of my mind.

What I learnt in Salzburg was to a great extent to completely change my approach to music and therefore also to cello playing. I came from a typical background where, for the outside world at least, external achievement was very important and I, unconsciously, also accepted that as proof of quality and of self worth. I felt good if I could say how many hours of practice I had put in and what level of perfection I thought I had achieved. It felt even better when I won something or achieved good marks in an exam. It was therefore quite a new experience for me when my teacher hardly commented on obvious imperfections in my playing and would be more interested in whether or not I felt comfortable when playing, or asked of me to rather think about what movements expressed the music best that trying to play a piece. She asked me to simulate playing – to “play” without sound, making only the movements, allowing my body to experience the music and allowing it to find the most natural way to move whilst playing. At first I was completely stressed because the first thing that happened was that the level of perfection in my playing took a real nose dive! I felt that I was loosing control – which of course I did – but that was exactly the point. I needed to give up trying to control everything. How often did I not hear the words: “do not play – let ”it” play! Or: “only play with honest energy – use emotional energy and not will power!” At first it sounded like Chinese to me!

I remember one very bad day when I stood in the middle of a foot bridge crossing the Salzach River which runs through the middle of Salzburg, after having had an hour long lesson on the first two notes of the Schumann cello concerto. I was totally exasperated with myself and my cello and thought “if I throw my cello in this river it will end up in the Black Sea and I need never ever play again!” Luckily I did not do it and I still play on the same instrument!

No wonder that I was struck by this sentence on the very first page of this little book that came into my hands – part of the preface written by a certain Mr. Suzuki. (nót the famous violin teacher!) I quote: “If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an ‘artless art’ growing of the Unconscious.” I was getting really excited about all of this!  And I read further “this state of unconsciousness is realized only when, completely empty and rid of self, the artist becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art.”  If stuff like this was written in a published book, then maybe my cello teacher is not completely mad. Maybe there is something to it!

Herrigel describes in his book how he came to Japan to teach philosophy at a university. Studying archery with a Zen Master was one of the things on his “bucket list” and he had been looking forward to pursuing this dream of his in Japan. He was thus very disappointed when at first he had great difficulty in convincing a Zen Master to teach him, a Westerner, archery. He was eventually only accepted as a student when a Japanese friend, who was also studying archery with the same teacher he had unsuccessfully approached, intervened on his behalf. Now follows his description of the 6 years of struggle and despondency and eventual growth.

In the first year he was only allowed to draw the bow string – not shoot. He describes how the teacher demonstrated this action, seemingly without any effort and then saying “Now you do it! Remember, archery is not meant to strengthen the muscles. When drawing the string, you should not exert the full strength of your body, but must learn to let only your two hands do the work, while your arm and shoulder muscles remain relaxed, as though they look on impassively.” Herrigle’s subsequent efforts, trying to achieve this, went on for a year – one during which he was eventually lead to discover the secret of breathing. As the Master then instructs: “through this breathing you will not only discover the source of all spiritual strength, but it will also cause this source to flow more abundantly and pour more easily through your limbs, the more relaxed you are.”

Reading about this again triggered a new approach in cello playing for me. No one had ever asked me before to observe my own breathing whilst playing, but my cello teacher did that often. She made me aware of it that I actually often held my breath when a difficult passage came up. I started to question myself. How do I breathe? Do I breathe at all!!? Where in my body do I breathe? How does my breathing affect my sound and phrasing? The liberation that this insight brought about was a highlight in my search for that hidden something that changed notes into magic.

In the second year of his studies, Herrigle was eventually allowed to work on the release of the bow string. His teacher said:” All that you have learnt hitherto was only a preparation for releasing the shot” When watching the Master, the release looked so simple and undemanding, that it might have been child’s play. This effortless smooth release of utmost tension however, continued to elude Herrigle. He was close to despair and said as much when the Master replied: ”The right art is purposeless and aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a ‘much too willful will’. You think that what you do not actually will yourself to do, does not happen.”

Then I had to remember my cello lessons again and the ever recurring directive; “don’t do it, let it happen!” Possibly the most difficult thing to learn is to give up control – even an assumed one!

I was always amazed by the fact that during my cello studies, every now and then, I seemed to “bump into” new insights on this subject. Such was the fact when I attended a cello master class by the renowned cellist of the previous century, Zara Nelsova, an American of Russian decent. One of the students was having great difficulty with hitting the notes spot on in the very difficult Walton cello concerto. She proceeded to explain that, given the huge distances one often has to move on the cello, you can only be sure to hit a remote note once you understand that each note is actually a specific state of mind and body and not primarily a geographical location on the fingerboard. Now that was a new thought to chew on! She explained further that practicing simply aiming for a remote “spot” will never truly solve the problem, as it will never contain the true meaning of the interval – even if you hit the note by accident after lots of practice, it will still be meaningless…

In the meantime I still followed Herrigle and his struggles. He is now already in his third year of study and still the teaching is about the technique only – no mention at all about actually shooting at something. In Zen terms: “Steep is the way to mastery. Often nothing keeps the pupil on the move but his faith in his teacher…..” That I can attest to! At times I felt I could identify with him when he confessed in his book: “I will not deny that I spent many gloomy hours wondering whether I could justify this waste of time, which seemed to bear no conceivable relationship to anything I had learnt and experienced so far.”

My cello studies in Salzburg came to a favorable conclusion after 3 years, and I landed up next in Geneva, Switzerland at the Conservatoire de Genéve for the next two years. My new French professor was known as a “sound Guru”. I quote him often to my own students as saying to me “You must become ze sound!” and further, “It is not ze notes that are important but, that which happens between them!”  By now I was luckily already fairly schooled in understanding what that might mean and it excited me to be working along the same lines still more.

It seemed to me that Mr. Herrigle had a more difficult time than I did though. At least I was allowed to play music through all this soul searching going on!

In his 5th year of study only was he eventually allowed to shoot at a target! The first obstacle for him to overcome was to get enough energy in his shots so that they would fly far enough. The Master explained: “It does not depend on the strength the bow, but on your presence of mind. In order to unleash this full force of awareness, you must perform the movements differently: rather as a good dancer dances. If you do this, your movements will spring from the centre, from the seat of right breathing. Instead of reeling off the ceremony (the technique of shooting) like something learnt by heart, it will then be as if you were creating it under the inspiration of the moment, so that the dance and the dancer are one and the same.”

Herrigle was still confronted with the typical Western worry about external success. “You worry unnecessarily” the Master comforted him. “Put the thought of hitting the target right out of your mind! You can be a Master even if every shot does not hit.”

I am happy to report that after 6 years of study Herrigle was finally pronounced to be a Zen Master of Archery. In his book he describes what it felt like: Bow, arrow, goal and ego. All melt into one another so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate them has gone. For as soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and so ridiculously simple…”

Back in South Africa I came into contact with the Alexander Technique and I have since been a keen enthusiast of this discipline. It comes from quite another angle, but concepts like: “beware of ‘end gaining’ and finding the ‘means whereby’”, struck familiar chords with me. A new and deeper understanding of how the human body can move within this state of “greatest advantage”, as the AT calls it, has been instrumental in shaping my ideas about teaching and playing the cello over many years. My French professor also often talked about playing “from the inside out” and not from the “outside in.” I found that working with an Alexander Technique teacher gave me new insight into this directive which, at the time I understood, but since it has taken on many more dimensions.

I think that this idea was further expounded for me through the words of the great cellist and teacher, William Pleeth, (he was the main teacher of Jaqueline du Prez) in his book: “Cello”.

“How can a physical action have a separate existence from the emotion which brought it into being and which it is to reflect?”

Later in the same chapter (Technique in Perspective) he says:

“The act of playing – physically and spiritually – must be one of relative balance and completeness in our whole being, for each aspect is carrying the other aspect and all must travel together along the same wavelength. Everything causes everything, everything gives birth to everything, everything feeds everything – the ‘oneness’ of you, your instrument and the music should be so perfect that all three marry into one entity in the end: one seamless whole in which one cannot see where the one part leaves off and the other begins.

Whatever you are conveying musically has to have this perfect unity, because it is only when one has this kind of completeness that one can become a complete creative being.”

Another aspect of the AT that I found fascinating was the obvious link between emotions and the physical body. We all know that if you say to someone: “Oh, I feel so depressed today” that we tend to give the words a physical reinforcement. I suppose the expression; “to read someone’s body language” comes from exactly that. We tend to physically “become” what we feel, but unfortunately mostly in the negative sense like the effect nervousness can have on one.

I experienced first hand how the exact opposite could also happen. I used to drive through from Stellenbosch to Mowbray for my AT lesson in between teaching classes. Often I would be slightly late and a bit stressed by the time I arrived there. Invariably I would notice that, on leaving my lesson (having been put physically “in order”), my senses would be so much more acute. I would suddenly smell the flowers, see the green leaves and hear the birds. All over I would feel better and more positive. I became more and more aware through teaching and playing how an ability to have a free, balanced and therefore relaxed body, allows the player (artist) to became the perfect vessel, bringing about exactly what Pleeth talks about and calls “oneness”, which enables him/her to convey true musical expression.

And so Cello playing, Alexander Technique and Zen seemed to me to merge more and more. Maybe it is not so strange then that, about three years ago I was eventually prompted to do something about the promise I made to myself as a student, way back in Salzburg – to finally take up archery.

In this area the traditional art of Japanese Zen Archery is not taught, as far as I could find out, so I had to settle for modern archery but since there is also a book written about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I suppose one could also practice Zen and the art of modern archery!

And so the circle was completed. When I practice archery I find that I draw a lot on my years of experience, playing and teaching the cello, and when I play the cello, I often have completely new insights that I have, sometimes totally unconsciously, gained through my efforts regarding archery. In a way “oneness” can be practiced where ever you go and in what ever you do and that is a lifelong work.

(Posted on behalf of Dalena Roux, cello lecturer at Stellenbosch University)

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  

John Cage 100th Birthday Concert: Recital by Michael Blake

 

Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg at Endler Hall, Stellenbosch

On 21 May 2011, the Endler Concert Series in association with KEMUS, will present a performance of Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg, in the Endler Hall at the University of Stellenbosch. This work, which is seldom performed in South Africa, is one of the most interesting and musically significant works composed in the 20th century, and this performance promises to be one not to be missed.

Pierrot Lunaire, composed in 1912, is one of the best examples of Schoenberg’s ‘atonal’ style, where the composer first experimented with what he termed ‘the emancipation of dissonance’. All traditional concepts of harmonic tension and release are discarded, all accepted ‘rules’ of tonality are broken, and the result is a listening experience that has a powerful emotional and intellectual impact. Pierrot Lunaire is often credited as being one of the most significant and revolutionary works of the 20th century, and few compositions that followed it could remain free from its influence.

The texts for Pierrot Lunaire are originally by Albert Giraud, translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben. The ‘Pierrot’ from the title is taken from the traditional commedia dell’arte – he is the sad clown, pining for the love of Colombine, his unfaithful wife, who often breaks his heart. In the course of the 21  poems, we meet several fantastical figures: Pierrot and Colombine, the ‘sick, pale moon’, Cassander, the Madonna, the Pale Washerwoman and others. Pierrot steers his boat across the ocean with the moonbeam as rudder, he tries to get rid of the ‘moonspot’ on his shoulder, he does his make-up like a dandy, he bores a hole in Cassander’s head to ash his cigar in, he finally makes his way home to Bergamo.

This is the last work of Schoenberg’s expressionist period : expressionism is generally defined as an art movement in which representation of nature is subordinated to expression of emotion, where artists aimed for as direct an expression of emotion as possible, using non-representational images to project these emotions directly, rather than looking towards the ‘outside world’ for inspiration.

The expressionist setting of the poems is inspired by the morbid and often macabre aspects of expressionist painting, and is combined with echoes of the satirical and often biting German cabaret,  with which Schoenberg was intimately familiar. Through these influences he brings the poems vividly to life. Schoenberg’s use of ‘sprechstimme’ is one of the most original features of the work: the vocal technique is a combination of singing and speech, with pitch approached with a level of freedom unprecedented in western vocal literature at the time. The part will be played by Vanessa Tait-Jones. The rest of the ensemble comprises piano (Mareli Stolp), violin (Tricia Theunissen), viola (Jan-Hendrik Harley), cello (Joachim Müller-Crepon), clarinet (doubling on bass clarinet) (Becky Stelzner) and flute (doubling on piccolo) (Liesl Stolz).

Tickets: R99 /R75 at Computicket or on 083 915 8000.
Box office at the Endler Hall will open at 19:00 on the night.
For further enquiries, please call the Endler Hall Concert Series on 021 808 2343 during office hours.

(Mareli Stolp)

The Uprising of Hangberg

The Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS)
presents a film screening, discussion and musical performance featuring

The Uprising of Hangberg is a film documentary by Dylan Valley and Aryan Kaganof, with original music score by Stellenbosch University music student Natasje van der Westhuizen. The documentary provides shocking footage and eyewitness accounts of the attempts by the Western Cape Provincial Administration and the City of Cape Town to evict residents from their homes in Hangberg, Hout Bay, in September this year (see Kagablog). The Rastafarian community in Hangberg is central to the narrative developed in the film, which also documents Rastafarian Nyabingi chanting and drumming (the traditional music of the Rastafarian religion) from Hangberg. The Uprising of Hangberg is a tour de force of activist documentary film making. It does not only succeed on artistic and technical levels, but also as a political intervention enabling a marginalized community to speak of their oppression and trauma.

In a gesture of support for the plight of the residents of Hangberg, the Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS) at Stellenbosch University screened The Uprising of Hangberg in Kayamandi on 2 December 2010. Stellenbosch is home to what is probably the most important community of Rastafari in South Africa, and DOMUS has arranged for the Stellenbosch Rastafarian community from Cloetesville to open proceedings at the screening with a performance of Nyabingi chanting and drumming. The screening was followed by a question and answer session with the film makers, after which the Hangberg reggae band BLAZE performed.

Die Dokumentasiesentrum vir Musiek (DOMUS)
bied aan
‘n filmvertoning, bespreking en musikale uitvoering oor


The Uprising of Hangberg is ‘n dokumentêre film deur Dylan Valley en Aryan Kaganof met oorspronklike klankbaan deur Natasje van der Westhuizen, ‘n musiekstudent aan die Universiteit van Stellenbosch. Die dokumentêr bevat skokkende beeldmateriaal en getuienis van slagoffers uit Hangberg, Houtbaai, oor die uitsetting en verwoesting van hulle huise deur die Wes-Kaapse Provinsiale Administrasie en die Stad Kaapstad in September vanjaar (sien Kagablog) . Die Rastafari gemeenskap in Hangberg staan sentraal in die narratief wat in die film ontwikkel word. Hierdie groep word onder andere verteenwoordig deur die dokumentering van Nyabingi dromspel en sang (die tradisionele musiek van die Rasta godsdiens). The Uprising of Hangberg is ‘n radikaal-aktivistiese dokumentêre film. Dit is nie net artistiek en tegnies virtuoos nie, maar slaag ook polities deurdat dit ‘n gemarginaliseerde gemeenskap bemagtig om te praat oor hulle onderdrukking en trauma.

In ‘n gebaar van ondersteuning vir die gemeenskap van Hangberg, het die Dokumentasiesentrum vir Musiek (DOMUS) ‘n vertoning van The Uprising of Hangberg in Kayamandi op 2 Desember 2010 georganiseer. Stellenbosch is die tuiste van waarskynlik die grootste gemeenskap Rastafari in Suid-Afrika, en die Rasta gemeenskap van Cloetesville het ingestem om die geleentheid te open met ‘n uitvoering van Nyabingi dromspel en sang. Die vertoning is gevolg deur ‘n vraag-en-antwoord sessie met die filmmakers, waarna die Hangberg reggae groep BLAZE optree het.

Arnold Bosman Commemorative Concert

ARNOLD BOSMAN Gedenkkonsert
6 Februarie 2010
Anglikaanse Katedraal (St. Georgesstraat)
19:00

Die UV Departement Musiek het op 6 Februarie 2010 ‘n spesiale gedenkkonsert ter ere van Arnold Bosman, bekende dirigent en pianis, aangebied.  Paslik is hierdie geleentheid aangebied ter herdenking van sy  dood ongeveer 5 jaar gelede op 4 Februarie 2005 in Italië.  Met hierdie geleentheid het sy vader, dr. Willem Bosman, Arnold se musikale nalatenskap aan die UV geskenk.  Arnold, ‘n gewese Suid-Afrikaner, het veral gedurende die laaste dekade van sy lewe tot ‘n veelsydige en vooraanstaande musikale figuur ontwikkel en het as beide uitvoerder en dirigent ‘n betekenisvolle bydrae tot musikale uitvoering en navorsing in Italië gelewer.

Die oogmerk van hierdie spesiale konsert was om sy statuur, bydrae en nagedagtenis na vore te bring en te eer.  Daarom is die konsert ook so saamgestel om op ‘n paslike wyse Arnold se musikale voorkeure en aktiwiteite te belig.

Die eerste helfte van die program het bestaan uit solo-komposisies en –liedere waarby ‘n replika van ‘n fortepiano (een van Arnold se gunsteling instrumente) gebruik is.  Kunstenaars wat opgetree het, sluit in Deirdré Blignaut (sopraan), Nicol Viljoen (fortepiano & orrel), John Reid Coulter (fortepiano), Human Coetzee (tjello), Lance Phillip (tenoor) en Willie Viljoen (kontratenoor).  Die tweede helfte van die program het bestaan uit die immergewilde Fauré Requiem, soos uitgevoer deur die Ars Nova Consort onder leiding van Lance Phillip met Jan Beukes as orrelis.

ARNOLD BOSMAN Commemorative Concert
6 February 2010
Anglican Cathedral (St. Georges Street)
19:00

On 6 Febraury 2010, the UFS Department of Music presented a special memorial concert in honour of Arnold Bosman, renowned conductor and pianist.  It was fitting to present this concert to commemmorate Arnold’s death 5 years ago on 4 February 2005 in Italy.  During this occassion, Arnold’s father, dr. Willem Bosman, donated his son’s musical inheritance to the UFS.  Arnold, a former South African, has developed, especially during the last decade of his life, as a diverse and prominent musical figure and as both performer and conductor he made a significant contribution to musical performance and research in Italy.

This special concert aimed at highlighting his stature, contribution and to commemorate his legacy.  Therefore it has been compiled in such a way as to fittingly elucidate Arnold’s musical preferences and activities.

The first half of the programme consisted of solo compositions and songs where a replica of a fortepiano (one of Arnold’s favourite instruments) was used.  Musicians who performed included Deirdré Blignaut (soprano), Nicol Viljoen (fortepiano & organ), John Reid Coulter (fortepiano), Human Coetzee (cello), Lance Phillip (tenor) and Willie Viljoen (countertenor).  In the second half of the programme, the ever popular Fauré Requiem was performed by the Ars Nova Consort under the leadership of Lance Phillip with organist Jan Beukes.

(Ninette Pretorius)