Tag Archives: Michael Blake

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)

Concert To invite-press (1)-page-001


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  

Michael Blake CD release

John Cage 100th Birthday Concert: Recital by Michael Blake


Fragments in the Form of a Serial

On 10 May Mareli Stolp will be performing the world premiere of Fragments in the Form of a Serial for piano and film, with music by Michael Blake and film by Aryan Kaganof. This performance project forms part of her PhD study, and was designed to interrogate issues of intermediality, improvisation, collaboration and creativity between different types of creators and performers.

The performance begins at 18:00, and will include a short lecture and discussion. Entrance is free.

In light of discussions about ‘Practice-based Research’ and the ‘integrated PhD’, this is an opportunity to engage with a specific instance of this kind of research and to use this blog as a forum for discussion.