November 29, 2014

composer michael blake on art music in south africa today

Filed under: michael blake,music,six questions — ABRAXAS @ 11:51 am

1. Do you think art music can be didactic in a good way?

When I first thought about the uses of art music – years ago – two things occurred to me: 1. perhaps music could (indirectly) affect listeners’ thinking by doing unexpected things, by getting inside someone’s head and shifting a few things around, and then seeing what happened; 2. art music in South Africa could make people aware of their own (indigenous traditions), instead of only looking to/redoing Europe, and we could create our own indigenous art music as the Americans so brilliantly did with the American experimental tradition. There are some good things to have come out of the USA.

Art music’s problem is that it now occupies a space far away from these idea(l)s; it is now often about reinforcing comfort zones. So you get it on the radio (CockFM in Johannesburg, Fine Music Radio in Cape Town), in the symphony seasons, the movie soundtracks, the student composer concerts, the professional composer concerts, and so on. In order for music to be didactic in any way, the (listeners’) channels have to be open; you can’t avoid a dissonant interval or chord because it makes someone uncomfortable or doesn’t blend with the bland furnishings in their middle class houses. And the problem with my second idea(l) is that composers have used the genre as a holdall for any kind of kitsch combination of Western and African music; most composers don’t question what they are doing, they just deliver more and more music on request. And young composers have no interest in indigenous music; in fact they are often more reactionary than their teachers.

2. What is this “need to document”? Of what use is it?

Of course music needs to be performed live in the first instance (unless it is purely electronic, but even then it needs the focus and ambience of a performance rather than just a private hearing on headphones). But in the difficult economic times in which we find ourselves and the possibility that works may never get a second performance – or not for a long time – the recorded medium is a means of disseminating the music to new listeners and of making it accessible for researchers. Then of course the CD and the internet has made it viable for most composers and performers to get their CDs out, as part of their merchandise. The person who initiated this “need to document” was Stravinsky, the only composer born in the 19th century who actually did this. You can for example get his complete recordings of his own music on 22 CDs (including the ones he supervised with Craft conducting) in a box set (I got it for £21(!) a few years back). And now of course you can get the complete Varèse (on 2 discs), complete Stockhausen, Boulez, Ligeti, Glass etc etc. Vanity plays a role, but I think it’s also about having your stuff out there in the market place, on the net – elbowing your way in, in an age when the market is flooded with music. And record companies love packaging complete outputs – it’s a strong selling point. But the most important think is having a composer’s complete works or a representative selection so that you can get a strong picture of, a feeling for that particular creative mind. One used to wait with bated breath for an Ives or a Schoenberg or a Cage or a Nono work to appear on record, and acquiring and handling those LPs carried a certain reverence with it, and that’s not so much the case anymore – we just focus on the music now, not the packaging. Finally this whole documentation process is often fetishistic, but I guess that’s not a bad thing. There is no excuse anymore for young composers not to have heard most music of the present as well as the past, and to have heard it repeatedly.

3. Can art music be a means of historical elucidation, an apparatus for constructing truth?

What other use would it have? But it has to have TEETH, which so much art music today lacks. All the great composers had teeth: Machaut, Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, Bruckner, Debussy, Ives, Webern, Stravinsky – just to mention a few – and it’s the teeth from which modern day composers can learn a thing or two. Countless listeners are taken in by fake art music, such as the output of Karl Jenkins or Eric Whiteacre or John Rutter or that Italian bloke whatsisname (and Paul McCartney unwisely also made some forays into this field). This music appeals purely by its fake sentimentality, cheap tunes and ‘catchy’ rhythms, and perhaps constructs a fake truth. Doing it with integrity is so much more difficult that many lesser talented and faint hearted composers would steer clear of it completely ad settle for writing ‘nice’ music rather than worrying about historical elucidation or constructing truth. Composing with texts is perhaps the most powerful and direct way to elucidate history, as for example the St Matthew Passion or the Choral Symphony or the music dramas of Wagner or dramatic works of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and many texts (Faust, Shakespeare, Bible) that have been reworked by various composers over the centuries continue to be a means of constructing truth in music, because the issues usually don’t change, only the contexts.

Which is not to say that historical elucidation is not possible without a text, because there may be a hidden text, but instrumental music can also work subliminally – it has its own (non) narratives time-scales. And many of the composers I mentioned before – Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, Bruckner, Debussy, Ives, Webern, Stravinsky – achieved this. In fact I would perhaps go so far as to say that music which is not text-dependent may even have stronger teeth, or better, different kinds of teeth. This is a tough question (needing good teeth), so my answer is needs a bit vague.

IL STRATEGIO DEL RAGNO from Stephanus Muller on Vimeo.

4. Is South Africa a productive field for art music today? In what way? How would you describe the art music scene here?

Is there an art music scene here? Give me an address! No seriously we have seen a volte face in the so-called South African art music scene, following the so-called end of apartheid and the emergence of so-called democracy. The chosen few – chosen by former SABC head of serious music, broederbonder Anton Hartman – had a good thing going during the apartheid years including the apparatus of a pretty good radio orchestra, broadcasting network and commissioning opportunities at their disposal. Of course it was all white but avant-gardism was not considered decadent (unlike Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia). Then European music was the lingua franca, but as you know in the late 1970s/1980s many people jumped on the ‘African elements’ bandwagon, serious composers and opportunists alike; the former have honed and sublimated their ‘African elements’, while the latter have conveniently jumped off the bandwagon, or in some cases fell off. Jean-Pierre de la Porte spoke at a conference recently about artistic issues during the so-called Second South African Republic (1948-1994) and the fact that subversive composers (which I think includes myself and only a few others) were undermined by the fact that they couldn’t attack the political system in the obvious musical way because the avant-garde had been hijacked by the very supporters of the system. That is probably why we turned to American experimental music to formulate our response.

So that’s the background in five and a half lines. Now we have a new generation of young composers with little or no interest in the concerns of their teachers and mentors. They want to be sexy, but sexy has a short lifespan, and few of them have the technique or even the anti-technique to know what to do next. So we are seeing two reactionary musics: the old apartheid guys have gone retro and are expressing themselves without teeth (maybe they’ve just rotted and fallen out) in musical languages that had currency and potency a hundred years ago, and the youngsters – often their musical offspring – are opting for any language or style that is accessible, easy-going, sentimental, soft-centred and fairly short in duration. Hey man, the Sonatina still rules!

When the composers who have some teeth represent our art music scene internationally, all hell breaks loose because the reactionaries were not on the programme. There was a recent incident in New York at the Juilliard School of Music, a concert given as part of the Ubuntu Festival last month. Seven composers were programmed by the conductor, including Kevin Volans, myself, a former student of mine, and so on. The conductor Joel Sachs asked for our opinions on a range of topics about being an art music composer in SA which he wrote up in an article in the Juilliard Magazine. It opened a small can of worms, which seems to be fizzling out now but makes for quite interesting reading and helps to put some perspective on the art music scene here: http://www.juilliard.edu/journal/1410/nje-south-africa

In short, the scene is provincial, factional (as in many places), very short on resources and hence competitive for the few handouts that are available. Most of the old guys (and gal) are in some way attached to a tertiary institution – themselves all very conservative – and in those hallowed halls their music is presented to half a dozen (mostly) white audience members. They can be assured that all six will applaud vigorously at the end for at least a minute, and somebody might even write a nice little report in the last remaining daily. The young reactionary composers are setting up their own performances in equally miserable surroundings for equally appreciative audiences, and the rest of us do our thing in London, Paris, Vienna, New York, etc – and get our CDs out.

NOTES ON MELANCHOLY from Stephanus Muller on Vimeo.

5. What is the role of music in film?

The role of music has changed since the early days of film scoring; I think to say it has evolved is too nuanced and gives the current crop of untalented note-stringers too much credit. If you think of the great scores that Prokofiev wrote for Eisenstein, with the detailed planning and working out that they did together, and you look at your average Hollywood blockbuster now as well as the films which Philip Glass scores, we’re talking about efforts that are worlds apart. I think music should contribute to film at a subliminal level; and even the absence of music as we heard for example in The White Rose not so long ago works at a subliminal level. (That film was also blessed with the absence of sound design, a deliberate return to the way films were made with viewers needing to ‘work’ in the cinema, and before every detail of reception was manipulated so viewers were completely spoonfed.) One of the better composers for film working right now is Jonny Greenwood, who brings a terse neo-modernist language to his scores rather than the diarrheal arpeggiation of Philip Glass (or more likely his assistants, doing the film scores) and all those shards who replicate same.

Well that’s the context, and the role that I see for music in film is something that needs to be rethought. One of the problems is that the wrong people are doing it: the wrong ‘composers’, the wrong editors, the wrong directors. So there is no chance for a whole string of great movies with great soundtracks, but we can create some models for doing it well, and that will inevitably influence a few people working in the field. There are a huge number of academics in American and British universities who have invented a new research field called ‘Film Music Studies’ (to keep ‘Film Studies’ company), and amidst much theorising about the relationship between music and image, there are some useful pointers for would-be film composers. But it is important for a film composer to be a composer first and foremost, just as Wagner, Verdi and Puccini were before they devoted themselves to the opera house.

Marikana Sarabande – Computer from Stephanus Muller on Vimeo.

6. What can art music tell us about Marikana? What can art music do with Marikana? With “democracy” after Marikana?

This perhaps implies an explicitly political music, something which South African composers have never really embraced. But actually explicitly political art music elsewhere – Cardew, Christian Wolff, Fred Rzewski and so on – has always run up against the problem of audience/reception, because the so-called working class for whom the music is intended don’t get to hear it since the venues in which it is played are bourgeois venues. Its purpose has mainly been to create/retain awareness of the working class. I think art music could play a decent role if the listening public, however small, was not so musically numbed or brainwashed by popular music and the watered down jazz and neo-traditional music that inhabits the airwaves and the record stores and the internet, and which are considered the musical genres of the working class and previously the ‘struggle’. These musics tend to have a sentimental impact, dealing with memories in a very straightforward, unnuanced way. I think this could be a good moment for art music to deal with/comment on real issues such as Marikana or democracy or the many problems (corruption, racism, poverty) that confront South Africa today, and because I am in the middle of composing a new large-scale work I don’t want to elaborate yet on how I might be dealing with these issues myself (but watch this space). I tentatively approached some of these in my 2008 work ‘Rural Arias’ which just had its American premiere in New York (see question 4).

2 Responses to “composer michael blake on art music in south africa today”

  1. Fart Music Says:

    It must suck to see the world through a snob’s eyes.

  2. Fart Music Says:

    *or rather to hear it through a snob’s ears.