Tag Archives: new music

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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)

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

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.