August 15, 2017

Liam Burden reviews the Bow Project cd

Filed under: michael blake,music — ABRAXAS @ 4:51 pm


July 21, 2017

Rootsworld reviews The Bow Project

Filed under: michael blake,music — ABRAXAS @ 10:04 am


first published here: http://www.rootsworld.com/reviews/bow-17.shtml

October 25, 2015

Michael Blake with Aryan Kaganof: Ringtones for violin, cellphone and video (2006)

Filed under: michael blake — ABRAXAS @ 12:07 pm

October 10, 2015

lamentation/klaaglied selected for idfa paradocs festival

Filed under: 2015- Lamentation/Klaaglied,christo doherty,michael blake — ABRAXAS @ 7:48 am


more informtion here: https://www.idfa.nl/industry/festival/program-sections-awards/paradocs.aspx

July 16, 2015

bos (pentaquark)

Filed under: christo doherty,kaganof short films,michael blake — ABRAXAS @ 11:11 am


a film by christo doherty and aryan kaganof based on photographs by christo doherty
camera eran tahor
music michael blake

Dear Christo and Eran,

At first my documentary filmmaker’s instincts attempted to grapple with each photo on the level of narrative content and the build up of dramatic tension, ad hoc, shot by shot.

I realised that this would produce a work that was stylistically inchoate, a work neither documentary nor art and entirely out of keeping with the rigour that is the hallmark of Christo’s work.

So the switch in my mind was a switch from the discourse of narrative documentary to the discourse of Fine Art.

I then decided that the plotting of the route must be consistent from photo to photo, and more than that must be rigorously executed, must follow orders exactly, thereby visually embracing the military theme.

The symbol I have chosen for the mapping of the route belongs to the insignia of the SADF. Soldiers wore this insignia and it was under the aegis of this symbol that they performed what they performed.

For each of Christo’s photos please make a track that begins on the top point of the Pentaquark and moves in a clockwise direction the full 360 degrees.

Important is never to allow the frame of the photos to come into view; in other words, the route must be located close enough to the centre of the photo that the camera can travel comfortably without revealing the photo’s external margin.

For each photo I would also please like a full frame static shot of the scene which I would like to use as an hauntological echo of the movement you’re tracing.

This use of a rigid, unchanging, consistent camera movement, regardless of the “content” (the narrative drama) of each shot works conceptually to speak both of the behaviour of the soldier within the military (the roboticized following of orders) as well as the formalistic reduction that occurs in fine art where meaning is sacrificed to abstraction.

If you think of the above as a film SCORE rather than a film SCRIPT then the interpretative possibilities for Eran as a musician pertain primarily to TEMPO – having the route planned as exactly the same for each shot does not mean that they must be performed at the same speed nor, indeed, that the speed of the movement must be internally consistent within one shot. This element of each movement to be determined by Eran based both on his experience as a Director of Photography, but also, and perhaps even more importantly in this particular film, his experience as a SOLDIER FOLLOWING ORDERS OUT IN THE BATTLEFIELD.

While researching the many various SADF insignias I was stuck between various shapes, some of which would be much easier to film, to track, for Eran, but yesterday, upon reading about the discovery at the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, of the Pentaquark – the existence of which had been first theorised about in 1964, the year of my birth – it was obvious that this particular shape was the only possible choice. In this way the micro informs the big picture and also echoes Christo’s earlier photographic series title Small Worlds.


March 24, 2015

on michael blake’s Tombeau de Mosoeu Moerane for birbyne and tape

Filed under: michael blake — ABRAXAS @ 10:52 am

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March 9, 2015

a letter from michael blake

Filed under: kaganof short films,michael blake — ABRAXAS @ 10:55 am

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February 28, 2015

a slap in the face for peter klatzow

Filed under: michael blake,music — ABRAXAS @ 9:06 am


February 24, 2015

the opportunist

Filed under: michael blake — ABRAXAS @ 12:53 pm

“The opportunist, by his very nature, tends to avoid a definite and final solution of a question; he is always seeking for alternatives; he writhes like an eel between mutually exclusive points of view; he tries to ‘be in agreement’ with all sides, but expresses his disagreements in amendments, doubts, pious and innocent wishes, etc. etc.”
V.I. Lenin — One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, 1904

December 10, 2014

BOS – African bush war, memory and trauma.

Filed under: christo doherty,kaganof short films,michael blake — ABRAXAS @ 11:05 am

Duration: 14:00 min

This rigorously formal but poignant meditation on the memory of the South African war in Namibia/Angola is based on the constructed photographic images of Christo Doherty’s controversial exhibition. The film however is not a documentation of the exhibition but is a transcendent reworking of the main themes of the photographic images that builds a precise choreography of rostrum camera movements that work both within and against the formal strictures of the soundtrack music. Co-directed by leading South African avant-garde filmmaker, Aryan Kaganof together with Christo Doherty, and with soundtrack music by the renowned South African contemporary composer Michael Blake.


Christo Doherty is currently Head of Digital Arts and Associate Professor in the Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

His most recent solo exhibition, Bos: Constructed Images and the Memory of the South African “Bush War”, was shown in Johannesburg, Stellenbosch, Grahamstown and at the 3rd Apartheid Archive Conference in Johannesburg in 2011. His other solo exhibitions, Small Worlds: Rail Technology, Nostalgia, and South African Landscape, a solo exhibition of photographs and video art; and Armed Response: A Typology of South African Urban Fear, have been shown in Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Germany. He has participated in the group exhibitions, SAartsEmerging in 2005; Armed Response II; Islands+Ghettos in 2006; and Not My War in 2012.

Aryan Kaganof is a project of the African Noise Foundation. In April 2014 a retrospective profile of 13 of his short films was screened in Oberhausen. In the same year he has had retrospectives and screenings in Athens Avant Garde Festival, Columbia University, Oxford University, Sheffield Hallam University, Royal Holloway University.

Kaganof has long been an admirer of Doherty’s photography and looks forward to this opportunity to collaborate with the pioneer of the South African digital arts community.

Michael Blake:

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).

May 9, 2012

mareli stolp on The Aesthetics of Collaboration: Fragments for Piano and Film by Michael Blake and Aryan Kaganof

Filed under: kaganof short films,michael blake,music — ABRAXAS @ 2:42 pm

It is difficult to identify the exact moment when an idea is born, and impossible to predict the journey that such an idea might make.

In May of 2010, I had met and collaborated with Aryan Kaganof on a screening and live performance of ‘The Exhibition of Vandalizim’, where the musicians Zim Ngqawana and Kyle Shepherd performed in a scrapyard outside of Stellenbosch. The experience was inspirational, to say the least, not only because of the integrity and professionalism of the musicians, but also because of the visual impact and power of Kaganof’s film. In the aftermath of that experience – with which I was involved both creatively and in terms of organization – I began thinking about other ways in which to combine film and music in creative processes, and my first ideas for tonight’s performance began to take shape.
On 5 May 2010, I wrote the following email to Aryan Kaganof:

Dear Aryan,
I had a thought this morning, and I’m wondering what you would think about it.

How about (yet another) collaboration idea: I commission a series of ‘miniatures’ or short pieces for piano, something like 5 or 6 pieces of about 5 minutes each. Each ‘miniature’ should portray a specific atmosphere, emotion or psychological situation. Then I commission 5 (or 6) short films from you to fit with the ‘miniatures’ soundtracks.

Or perhaps it can go both ways – you make films based on compositions, and the composer writes three miniatures based on film material provided by you. We then pre-record the music – for the ‘performance’, I have an idea which might be logistically impossible, but potentially very cool. We find a huge space, and we place six monitors in succession, far enough apart so that the sounds of each recording can be heard, but so that the recording next to which the audience member finds themselves is the most prominent. We play the film with the compositions, and audience members are asked to walk from installation to installation, to experience each ‘production’ separately.

Does this sound like something you would be interested in?
kind regards

Luckily Aryan was interested, and the project was born, raised and is ultimately performed this evening. Of course, what is being presented to you tonight is a far cry from the initial concept, and I would like to spend some time tracing the intellectual and creative development of the idea from its inception to how it came to exist in its current form.

Originally, my primary interest was in the ways in which different types of material or media could influence and cross-pollinate each other; intermediality, therefore, was the main focus. Intermediality occurs in works that are created across the boundaries of different media and disciplines. ‘Media’ refers here to the material or form used by an artist, composer, or writer, and can apply to artistic practices such as music, dance, theatre, film, installation and written text. In intermedial works, different media are combined, fused or productively co-related.

In the initial conceptualization of tonight’s performance, the media involved included the materials of film and musical composition. I soon began to theorize ways in which this initial conceptual model could be expanded to include live performance, rather than being limited to pre-recorded material. This would necessitate a reconsideration of the roles of the composer and performer. At first, I had envisioned myself as a performer, recording the composed music, which is then presented with the film material in a way similar to an art exhibition: static and pre-fabricated. It became clear that, in order for me to be an active participant in this performance, I would have to be able to respond musically in ‘real time’ to the film material being presented.


This could happen in several ways. I considered the possibility of simply having a composer write music for film material provided by Kaganof, which I could perform while the film was being shown. I soon discarded this idea, though. There are several precedents for compositions for piano and film – Dutch composer Michel van der Aa is an example – and I wanted to explore possibilities that move conceptually beyond this model.

Another option would be for me to improvise on the piano while viewing the film. I have, however, scant experience with improvisation, and felt the need for a more structured approach. Without training in or familiarity with improvisation, I was worried that I would not be able to react satisfactorily to the film material upon first viewing. I did feel, however, that I would be able to give some form of real-time response, if I had pre-composed material to work with.

The issue of the ‘hierarchy’ of creative material also needed to be considered. If music is composed to supplement an already existing film, the musical material can be seen as subordinate to the film, an accompaniment to the visual material or a reinforcement of the film’s message. The opposite could also be true if the musical composition would precede the manufacturing of the film material. My next step was therefore to try to conceptualize something which could facilitate the active participation of the performer, and present a challenge to the hierarchy of created material.

Aryan Kaganof was my creative collaborator throughout the conceptualization process. The model that we finally came up with would function in the following way: a film created by Aryan would be given to a composer, who would write music in response to the visual material. The brief to the composer would be to write music that could be performed in ‘fragments’; in other words, musical material that would allow the performer to respond to the film by ‘sampling’ sections from the composition in response to the visual content. The performer would not see the film beforehand, allowing for a quasi-improvisational, real-time response during the performance, without being required to engage with free improvisation. I felt satisfied that this model could be used to interrogate most of the above-mentioned issues. Aryan suggested involving composer Michael Blake, with whom he had collaborated in the past. Fortunately, Michael was willing to join our experimental project, and in February of 2012 I received the score for 20 Fragments in the Form of a Serial.

In this conceptualisation, the performance could engage with several issues simultaneously. The intermediality would apply to the materials used – film and composed music – as well as to the form that is employed for the performance. The form in which the film- and musical materials are presented is the result of the creative and practical decisions that were made during the process of conceptualizing the project. Not only does the form require the interpretation of musical material, it also requires an emotive response to visual material. The performer engages with the musical medium as well as the visual medium, and interprets both: in the preparation for the performance, the musical material is first interpreted without visual stimuli, while in performance the material is interpreted both intuitively and emotively as a real-time response. The interlocking, overlapping agencies of film, composition, improvisation and musical performance therefore provide the formal structure for the performance.

Intermediality in this performance extends to three aesthetic perspectives: the filmmaker, composer and the performer. In this model, the performer interprets two types of medium – the film as well as the musical composition – and presents the material in the form of a real-time response. It would also have been possible for me to have pre-viewed the film, and there is an argument to be made that this could have provided a more cohesive performance scenario. But, tonight’s performances are experiments, and were designed to test, among other things, my capabilities to give immediate responses to media other than composed musical material. Presenting two or more performances tonight therefore provides the opportunity to test both my musical responses upon first viewing and subsequent reactions after becoming familiarized with the film.

Michael Blake composed a single work, which he then divided into twenty fragments of varying lengths, one fragment to a page. At my initial reading of the text I was not aware that the composer had conceived of the music in one individual structure, but I did immediately become aware of a strong interconnectivity in the musical material. I did not receive the music in its original sequence however, and the musical journey during which I discovered the several musical links added to the level of the experience. I was intrigued by the fact that one piece of music could be equally coherent both in a through-composed form and when heard in a fragmented way. It is possible that one of the major strengths of this work lies in the fact that Michael Blake is a master of the miniature form and could, in the conceptual framework provided for this composition, engage with macro- and micro-forms simultaneously. The conceptual framework within which this work was conceived provided part of the creative input of this composition. This suggests to me that creative collaborations between different types of artists could facilitate and encourage new work, an idea which I find enormously exciting.


I began studying the musical score in a way similar to my usual methods for assimilating new music, beginning with a basic reading of the text, identifying potential technical issues and trying to gain an understanding of the musical language. I also decided to memorise the music, to free me up as much as possible to respond to the film. I came to the conclusion early on that the music that Blake had composed was coherent, innovative, and actually strong enough to exist completely independently from the film, a point which I will return to presently.

Studying and assimilating the musical text opened up from the outset interesting issues for me as a pianist and performer. Whereas the ‘narrative’ of the work or the sequence of musical events would normally guide my process of learning the music, I here had to resist creating any form of linear narrative, or risk being unable to break free of the sequence established in my mind when eventually responding to the film material. In terms of memorizing music, I generally find it much simpler to commit music to memory when there is an identifiable narrative structure or sequence of musical events, for in such a case each section of music is suggested by the material preceding it. In the case of Blake’s Fragments, however, I could not rely on macro-structure to aid my memory. The way Blake structured the music was, of course, exactly what I had wanted for the piece, and being confronted with complications such as those I just mentioned lent the entire project a feeling of being an organic process, which I enjoyed and struggled with in almost equal measure.

Each of the fragments has, however, a very specific character, another indication of Michael’s skill and insight into the requirements of this project: the composer realised that my reactions to the film will be driven by emotive responses, which means an easily identifiable character association with each fragment would aid the process enormously. In addition, I found that Blake’s composition is written in a way that the inner structure of each individual fragment could, without the trigger of visual material, also suggest a larger musical sequence. Several chord structures occur in more than one fragment; sometimes, these chord structures are written out to form a melody, and the chord is disguised. There are recurring melodic and rhythmic sections, sometimes reoccurring with only an alteration in tempo but remaining the same both rhythmically and in terms of register. Sometimes, sectional material is transformed in terms of character so that it becomes barely recognisable. These factors attest to a strong musical coherence in these Fragments in the Form of a Serial, and I experimented with performing them without visual stimuli, using the inner structures and materials of each fragment to create a unique version of the composition, a process similar to that followed by Stockhausen in his Klavierstück XI.

Eventually I came to the realization that, for this performance at least, I would have to approach the fragments as individual character pieces, rather than try to imagine them as a purely musical aggregate. At the time of writing this text, I had not seen Aryan Kaganof’s film, but I felt secure in assuming that the material he provided the composer to work with had to at least match the substance of the music that was created in response to it. Because I had no idea what the film material would be like, and because Aryan did not know what to expect from the music, we were both required to engage with a new level of creativity and creative response.

I would like to, at this point, say a few words on collaboration. According to the dictionary definition, to ‘collaborate’ is to ‘work jointly on an activity or project’. Its roots are in Latin: to labour together. According to this definition, therefore, tonight’s performances should not be viewed as the result of collaboration per se. While the three role-players in tonight’s performance event all had some level of interaction with each other, each created and interpreted materials individually, and without necessarily consulting or including the others. Aryan Kaganof and I were conceptual collaborators on this project, because the idea ultimately came to exist in its current form as a result of our joined creative efforts in conceptualising it. We did not, however, collaborate on the conceptualising and creation of the film itself. While Blake and Kaganof have a history of collaboration, in this instance they had little or no interaction, and before this evening Kaganof did not hear the music that Blake had composed. I had the opportunity to work with Michael on the Fragments and he made several suggestions, some of which I have incorporated, and some of which I have ignored because they were contrary to my own creative and musical instincts and some performative decisions I had made. Michael and I could not collaborate on the interpretation of the Fragments on a larger scale or intermedial level, of course: an essential feature of this concept was that I would not see the film or know what it contains, which meant the discussions we could have in terms of interpretation were limited.

There is also the question of personal dynamics in a collaborative project. The expertise and specializations that each individual brings to the table in such a project comes with specific personality traits, work methods and creative approaches. The negotiation of different media and creative processes go together with a negotiation of different personalities, artistic impulses, approaches and aesthetics. All these must be negotiated on some level by the collaborators. My instinct throughout this project was to allow as much personal and artistic freedom for each of the role-players as possible, and to try not to exercise too much control over the individual creative processes. Departing from the knowledge that the choice of individuals to participate in this project was a creative decision as much as a practical one, I felt secure in the knowledge that the result of the collaboration would be artistically viable, perhaps even more so if each creative personality was allowed maximum freedom.

I would suggest that Kaganof, Blake and I indeed laboured together to create tonight’s performance; it could only have existed in its current form with the presence of these specific collaborators, their specific skills and also personalities. It is my belief that the question of ‘ownership’, a recurring issue with collaborations in music and art, is circumvented in this project: all the creative material is substantial enough to exist on its own, even though it forms a coherent whole in performance. I would posit, therefore, that tonight’s performance is the one moment where the essential collaborative aspect of this conceptual performance project is revealed.

The performance you just heard, and the one which will be presented to you following this presentation, could therefore be seen as experiments in collaboration, as well as a venture into the as yet uncommon territory of conceptual music.
Contrary to the term ‘conceptual art’ which has been pervasive in art discourse since the 1960’s, conceptual music has as yet not been clearly defined, nor do many examples of this type of music exist. Conceptual art can be loosely defined as art in which the concept or idea that underwrites the work takes precedence over traditional aesthetic norms and practices. Sol LeWitt, an important early exponent of the conceptual art movement, wrote in 1967 that ‘in conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art’ (LeWitt 1967).

I would argue that in conceptual music, contrary to conceptual art, the execution is not a ‘perfunctory affair’ but rather an essential part of the final product; while the conceptual decisions and planning is done beforehand, the concept only fully comes to fruition in the performance of the music. A feature of conceptual music, in my view, is that new music is created and performed as a result of a process of rational argument first and perhaps even foremost, and creative engagement and artistic imagination second. The idea or concept drives the creative process, leading to a performative result. The field of conceptual music is as yet still wide open and, I believe, ripe for exploration.

The process of conceptualising this project, assimilating the music and ultimately presenting it in performance has opened up many questions about my own processes of engaging with music, performance, different media and creative response. These issues will be elaborated on in my PhD thesis. I thank you for joining me this evening for this experiment – it is any artist’s dream to have an interested audience available willing to be subjected to her experiments, follies and fantasies.

April 17, 2012

a message from michael blake

Filed under: kaganof short films,michael blake — ABRAXAS @ 1:21 pm

July 29, 2011

trio fibonacci premiere michael blake’s carpet of memory

Filed under: michael blake,music,reviews — ABRAXAS @ 2:44 pm


keep reading this review on www.mahala.co.za

July 26, 2011

carpet of memory: a composition by michael blake inspired by a painting by paul klee

Filed under: art,michael blake,music — ABRAXAS @ 1:45 pm


I Started thinking about “Carpet of Memory” in December 1994 on a visit to the Tunisian coastal town of Hammamet where Paul Klee, August Macke and Louis Moilliet had spent time in 1914 a few months before the outbreak of World War I. It was after this visit that Klee painted “Teppich der Erinnerung”, a dirty ochre ground applied to untreated cotton that prompted art historian Susanna Partsch to suggest we might read the picture “like an ancient carpet on which mysterious signs recall past ages and cultures”. Similarly I got stuck into my commission soon after I returned from North Africa to Brighton, where I was living at the time.

What had struck Klee so much about Tunisia was the landscape, the architecture, the southern light and the colours, and my own experiences of these are what I brought to the music, while remembering also that Klee had been a fine violinist and keen chamber music player.

“Carpet of Memory” was originally commissioned by the Arts Council of England for Trio Basiliensis, with an instrumentation of recorder, viola da gamba and harpsichord, and after several interruptions (including moving back to Africa) I completed the piece in 1998 when a concert of South Africa with this work was planned, but never materialised. Trio Basiliensis disbanded in the late 1990s and so the piece lay unperformed for several years until I reworked it for the more standard piano trio, completing it in 2006 at the instigation of Darragh Morgan of the Fidelio Trio. It is dedicated to Marianne Mezger and Paul Simmonds, and lasts about 13 minutes.

The music

I probably fall in the materialist rather than conceptualist composers’ camp, simply because I always start by searching out material for a new piece and letting it lead the way, rather than pre-planning the piece. There are no tunes as such in this piece, there is no thematic development, there is no traditional harmony, there is no teleology, there is no narrative – these absences are characteristics shared with composers like Morton Feldman, Walter Zimmermann, Christopher Fox, Howard Skempton and others whose work interests me.

But there are patterns or shapes which appear and change when they are repeated, like at the very opening, and then something else happens. Sometimes things return but I remember them differently, and that in a way relates to the subject of the painting itself. And then something else happens. Stravinsky was already working like this in his own way, which is why Kyle Gann calls him an image composer and Schoenberg a language composer. (Image composers write memorable music, language composers less so. Image composers are difficult to imitate, language composers not.)

The piece has a key-signature of 3 flats, changing to 2 flats and finally to 1 flat, but is not really in any of those keys, though there are tonal centres at certain points. For at least the first half of the piece it operates around two harmonic areas, the opening A flat 9th chord with its related G a semitone below; and a chord built on D. The second half of the piece revolves around F (major?) and finally D (minor?).

These harmonic areas which are just chords in fact are articulated with tremolos in the piano and broken chords in the cello, while the violin – perhaps representing Klee himself (artist as violinist) – explores some of the lessons found in his Pedagogical Sketchbook. Every artist knows this treatise, along with the Klee Sketchbooks, but every composer – let alone composition teacher – should also consult it. It expounds on line, rhythm, dimension, the horizontal and vertical, balance and so on – all the things that composition textbooks don’t.

In a way the violin material, the extended line, the scale figures could be related to Klee’s opening statement: An active line on a walk, freely moving, with out goal. A walk for walk’s sake. Or: The same line, accompanied by complementary forms. Or: The same line, circumscribing itself. The music is not intended as an illustration of the Pedagogical Sketchbook, but Klee’s principles are very likely at play.

Sometimes the violin and cello join the piano in articulating chords, sometime the cello duets with the violin in its presentation of lines, so roles are not necessarily fixed. About halfway through the piece (as it so happens when the music adopts a key-signature of two flats), the instruments start hocketing in different combinations: violin with cello, strings with piano, violin and piano LH with cello and piano RH, and so on. The coda is just for the two strings: violin accompanied by cello, and finally just the violin alone.

I started working on Carpet of Memory not long after an early version of my Piano Concerto (Rain Dancing), and not surprisingly they do share some material. I also appropriated some of the music (but using the original instrumentation) for the pilot of a documentary film on the abstract artist Bill Ainslie, which was never made.

Michael Blake

July 12, 2011

reverie 30

Filed under: kaganof short films,michael blake — ABRAXAS @ 12:15 pm

March 4, 2011

michael blake

Filed under: michael blake,music — ABRAXAS @ 12:12 am

October 16, 2010

a message from michael blake

Filed under: michael blake — ABRAXAS @ 9:42 am

September 29, 2010

re-imagining mozart

Filed under: kaganof,michael blake,music — ABRAXAS @ 5:17 am

September 25, 2010

dr. michael blake on the anahat

Filed under: kagavox,michael blake,music — ABRAXAS @ 10:19 am

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aryan kaganof’s composition anahat is a radical remix and reworking of material from michael blake’s string quartet #3. the composition is available as part of the double cd package: the bow project and can be ordered directly from michael blake: michaelblake@telkomsa.net
Price R120 inc. p&p

August 27, 2010

deon skade reviews michael blake’s complete works for solo piano

Filed under: deon skade,michael blake,music,reviews — ABRAXAS @ 8:33 pm

this review first appeared here

May 13, 2010

jean-pierre de la porte on the kaganof-blake collaborations

Filed under: jean-pierre de la porte,kaganof short films,michael blake — ABRAXAS @ 5:13 pm


February 19, 2010

jean-pierre de la porte on the heidegger-blake-kaganof collaboration

every good metaphor is a literal falsehood: saying somebody is like an asshole is stupid and meaningless – saying they are an asshole is mindbendingly apt.

blake writes this complicated gloss on david dargie and all the xhosa music he likes . you come and say it’s a transcription of a sketch for sein und zeit . you make your point with something very heideggerian – the Holzwege and the cars which are so nicely de-entifying.

the time fundamental is shot along by your cutting and the murmuring movements and zooms of the cam – just enough to stop anybody thinking it’s a poetic bunch of stills. the vertigo in the middle is fantastic as is the little window of clouds/ goosefeathers /blossoms – who knows and who cares because your point is not to culminate anything by anything else – so we see the big heidegger deal of 1925 – time is equiprimordial with being.

my son commented- unusually tender for blake – but blake in non-heidegger mode does not sound tende r- you have tenderised him.

it happens that mary rorich and i are making a sort of survey of western philosophy and western music together; we sit and present to each other – off the cuff but in some kind of sequence – the cross-play between music as an invention and philosophy as an invention. today we talked about heidegger and were struck by the way he straddles two avantgardes – he’s the peak of expressionism in 1927 and then he resurrects in 51 as the cool objectivity on everybody’s lips – from stockhausen to sartre.

what can i say? i prefer your sheer false assertion of heidegger in blake to blake’s assertion of dargie/xhosa and to my assertion that hes using the whole occasion to pay debts to debussy. now he has a debut piece to MTV too.

December 29, 2009

michael blake by michael blake

Filed under: michael blake,music — ABRAXAS @ 10:30 pm

Composer Michael Blake has been described by musicologist Stephanus Muller as “the most important and most influential South African art music composer to have worked in South Africa since the advent of democracy” (introduction to a Colloquium, 21 September 2009, Stellenbosch University). “Yet his biggest contribution”, Muller goes on to say, “is his probing and highly original aesthetic, setting a standard of creative daring, musical refinement and conceptual interest that, inasmuch as it is still relatively unknown, will almost certainly be recognized as a major contribution to South African cultural life in future”. At about the same time, film director Aryan Kaganof hailed Blake as “South Africa’s most famous unknown contemporary composer” (Art South Africa, Summer 2009). Famous (or unknown) to whom? and influential and perhaps even infamous to whom?

Michael Blake was born in Cape Town in 1951. He took piano lessons at the South African College of Music from the age of 9, and began composing soon afterwards. He studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (BMus, 1970), afterwards attending summer courses in Darmstadt and Dartington with Mauricio Kagel, György Ligeti and Peter Maxwell Davies (1976). In 1977, he launched the first New Music concert series at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg with his ensemble Moonchild. His first works attracted the attention of veteran South African composer Arthur Wegelin, who described him, prophetically, as “a musician with talent and initiative and the potential to become a prominent composer in South Africa’s musical life.” That potential was however soon forestalled by his departure for Europe (the spectre of active military service drove many white males abroad), where, at the invitation of another South African composer, Stanley Glasser, Blake studied music theory and analysis at the University of London Goldsmiths College (MMus, 1977).

Blake spent twenty years in London (1977 to 1997), as a freelance composer, pianist and teacher. He was part-time lecturer at Goldsmiths College, where he founded and conducted the Goldsmiths Contemporary Music Ensemble. From 1979 to 1986 he was the keyboard player in the electroacoustic group Metanoia, and its co-director. In 1986 he founded the ensemble London New Music for the performance of experimental music, and the group gave regular concerts at the South Bank, Institute for Contemporary Arts and elsewhere. LNM undertook British Council-sponsored tours in Europe, and broadcast regularly for BBC Radio 3 and European radio stations, premiering new work commissioned by Blake from his contemporaries — Gerald Barry, Matteo Fargion, Christopher Fox, Chris Newman, Howard Skempton, Kevin Volans — as well as playing non-mainstream (‘downtown’) composers he considered important — Cowell, Crawford Seeger, Ives, Wolpe, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Bunita Marcus, Barbara Monk, Christian Wolff and Walter Zimmermann.

Described in the Musical Times as “one of the two leading protagonists [along with Kevin Volans] of the South African art music scene”, Blake has divided his time between composing, teaching, and promoting the work of fellow composers. At the beginning of 1998, he moved back to South Africa and settled in Grahamstown where he taught composition at Rhodes University and established the (now) annual contemporary music festival, the New Music Indaba. Blake was its director from 2000 to 2006. At the 1999 meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Music held in Bucharest, Blake made a successful bid for South Africa’s re-entry into the ISCM after an absence of nearly four decades, and was President of the ISCM South African Section, NewMusicSA, for six years. In this capacity he has represented South African new music at a number of festivals and meetings worldwide. It is this double life as an ‘influential’ entrepreneur that perhaps elicited Muller’s comment, and by the same token, has kept knowledge of his work as a composer somewhat out of the public eye, as Kaganof notes.

It was the former quality that enabled colleague Grant Olwage to single Blake out as “one of the ideas-men of the South African music scene” (in the Preface to the book Composing Apartheid): Blake’s vision for the New Music Indaba was to have the widest possible audience listening to the most challenging music of our time, and discussing it critically. As a teacher of composition, he believes that the ability to compose is innate in everyone and just needs to be cultivated: through exposure as much as by teaching. Always interested in young composers, Blake was struck after his return to South Africa in 1998 by the lack of opportunities for young black composers in the education system. He therefore established a “Growing Composers” project within the New Music Indaba in 2000, inviting some of the most distinguished composers and cutting-edge ensembles from Europe, America and Africa — many of whom were personal friends — to give classes annually in Grahamstown. The success of these events has elicited praise from both the academy and South African government, and the fruits of it in the form of new works by for example Sibusiso Njeza and Lloyd Prince have been heard as far afield as Amsterdam and New York.

Some of these “growing” composers have gone on to receive commissions for subsequent Indabas and have contributed to festival projects. Most notable among these is “The Bow Project” (2002-5), a concert series over four years where works were commissioned as responses to traditional African bow music — still performed in South Africa by a few (rare) players. Music by these players, as well as recorded performances, were transcribed by seventeen composers, who then wrote short string quartets based on the transcriptions: traditional bow meets new bow. Commissions also went out for projects like the bicentennial “Reimagining Mozart” (2006) — eleven new works provided responses to, and were programmed alongside, classics by Mozart. These projects saw established jazz composers and improvisers such as Carlo Mombelli and Paul Hanmer encouraged to ‘cross over’ into the world of classical chamber music.


An improvising musician himself, Blake has made guest appearances with Dutch saxophonist Luc Houtkamp (at the Unyazi Electronic Music Festival, another project of NewMusicSA, launched in October 2005) and with jazz pianist Nishlyn Ramanna. He has also been commissioned, by Trevor Steele Taylor, to create live improvised scores to ‘classic’ silent films screened at the Grahamstown Film Festival.

From the mid-1970s onwards Blake’s musical language was partly the result of an immersion in the materials and playing techniques of African music, and he composed a series of pieces loosely collected in what he calls his “African Notebook”. These explored mbira music for example, and sometimes produced new variations or mapped the figuration onto arrangements of music by Bach and Purcell. By the time he settled in London, this had become a more substantial “African Journal” to which more than 24 different pieces (and numerous alternative versions) were added over the next two decades until he returned home in 1998. Several of these have become his most performed pieces, in particular Let us run out of the rain (1986) and French Suite (1994). Martin Scherzinger, in the Cambridge History of Twentieth-century Music has described these as “understated translations of African music into Western idioms [that] deftly negotiate the borderline between quotation and abstraction, and, in the process, interrogate the opposition between the two” (609).


When Blake completed his doctoral composition portfolio at Rhodes University in 2000, one of the external examiners was the distinguished African scholar and composer J.H. Kwabena Nketia. Nketia begins to marry the idea of Blake’s influence as an agent of compositional influence with the idea that he embodies that change, in his remark that the compositions in the portfolio (which included representative works from the period 1986 to 1999) were “particularly valuable both as models that can be explored by African students of composition and as an approach to the creative dimensions of sounds and structures in African music”.

Since 2000, Michael Blake’s work has revealed a previously unknown depth and postmodern sensibility. As he puts it: “when I woke up in the new millenium I knew I wanted to do things differently”. This watershed in Blake’s life is exemplified in two works: String Quartet No 1, written for his long-standing friends and collaborators the Fitzwilliam String Quartet in 2001 and premiered in Cambridge for Blake’s 50th birthday celebrations, and Ways to put in the salt, an uncompromisingly stark interpretation of African bow harmonics written in 2002 for John Tilbury. In these and other works that followed, an African sensibility is subsumed into the fractured narratives that have become a feature of his recent work. His Piano Concerto (2007) is one such work, and it is notable that even in the cultural climate of the new South Africa where ‘challenging new composition’ is met with even more of a deafening silence than it is in the cash-strapped north, the premiere was seen by critics as a major event on the South African musical scene and a resounding success with audiences.

A passion for unusual timbres and instrumental combinations saw the realisation of two more commissioned works in 2007: Shoowa Panel for vibraphone and marimba (premiered in South Africa) and Rural Arias for singing saw and eleven players (premiered in Vienna). A composer who thinks on his feet and perhaps more than anyone approaches Adorno’s notion of a ‘musique informelle’, Blake draws as much on the visual arts of Africa and the West — African weaving, abstract painting, undergound cinema, silent films — as he does on African musics and American and English experimental music aesthetics. He is “a cool wrangler of the disparate” to quote Jean-Pierre de la Porte, who suggests that Blake is South Africa’s Jasper Johns. Martin Scherzinger points to the same quality when he says, “In Blake’s late musical style, one might say, a breezy mobility thus mingles with filmic montage.”

Since 2003, Blake has been collaborating with independent South African film-maker Aryan Kaganof. The fruits of this relationship so far include short ‘visual realisations’ (in the spirit, but not the style, of Kenneth Anger) of Blake’s Reverie (Kaganof’s Reverie), D.S.I.M.L. (The Hermeneutic Traffic Circle), Ways to Put in the Salt (Martin Heidegger’s Prologomena to a History of the Concept of Time Transcribed for Solo Piano by Michael Blake and Executed by Jill Richards), French Suite — First Dance (Il Strategio del Ragno — The spider’s stratagem), and Three Toys No 2 (Notes on Melancholy). The two have also collaborated on the original score for the first cellphone feature film, SMS Sugar Man, and two documentaries about Blake’s work: Untitled: A Portrait and String Quartet #3.

Blake has now produced work in every medium — stage, orchestral, chamber, keyboard, instrumental, vocal, and choral. He has worked in film (including original scores for ‘silents’ by Gustav Machaty and Maya Deren) and dance and in 2009 he completed the draft of an Afrikaans digital opera in seven scenes, Searching for Salome, based on Etienne Leroux’s 1962 novel Sewe Dae by die Silbersteins — Seven Days at the Silbersteins.

An ongoing concern with providing uncompromising repertoire for young or amateur players has over the years seen Blake create works for the major grade examination boards (Trinity College, Associated Board, University of South Africa), pieces for youth choirs and orchestras such as the Soweto Buskaid String Orchestra, and, most recently, Postcolonial Song, an ‘open score’ commissioned for the groundbreaking network of ensembles in the UK called CoMA (Contemporary Music for Amateurs).

Blake’s compositional output of well over 100 works to date has been performed widely in Europe, North and South America, Australia, and Asia, including New Music festivals in the UK, Belgium, Slovakia, Germany, Austria, Cuba, Argentina, Australia and South Africa. Many works have been recorded for radio and television, and several CDs including Blake’s work have been released, among them the complete solo piano works 1994-2004 played by Jill Richards (2008). He has collaborated with many well-known European ensembles and soloists including the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, Trio Basiliensis, Musica Aeterna, Ensemble Bash, Ixion, the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet, Stuttgart Kammerorchester, John Tilbury, Daan Vandewalle, Antony Gray, Lesley Schatzberger, Yasutaka Hemmi, Darragh Morgan, and Mary Dullea. Since his return to South Africa in 1997, Blake has worked closely with Jill Richards, Robert Pickup, Magda de Vries, and Musa Nkuna. In recent years, he has received commissions from the Arts Council of England, the National Arts Council of South Africa and the Southern African Music Rights Organisation.

Michael Blake has given solo and (often with Jill Richards) piano duo recitals throughout Europe and the Americas and, since his return to South Africa, at universities around the country; he has particularly championed music by South African, American and British experimental composers. In 2007 he formed the Michael Blake Ensemble for the performance of his own work by the best South Africa players. He has been a guest lecturer at universities in South Africa, the Janacek Academy in Brno, the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires, the University of Toronto, Goldsmiths College, and a visiting composer at Bucknell University, USA. He was lecturer and composer-in-residence at the University of South Africa in 2007-2009.

Courting controversy since his student days, when he organised a week of performances of Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen to celebrate Wits University’s golden jubilee, Michael Blake at once inspires and irritates, forcing listeners out of their comfort zones and debunking the mysteries of composition. A mover and shaker, and a composer with “nothing to prove and plenty to say”, as critic Mary Jordan put it after Rural Arias was performed at the Arnold Schoenberg Centre in Vienna, Blake is now shifting his focus much more towards composition, and away from his entrepeneurial role.

A recent major work, the thirty-minute 2008 Piano Sonata (subtitled the ‘Choral’) sets up a series of interlocutions between two disparate twentieth century traditions — Southern African choralism and American experimentalism, in particular Charles Ives’ monumental Concord Sonata. As the latest manifestation of a project that started ten years ago when Blake began working with local choirs at the New Music Indaba, the ‘Choral’ Sonata pays tribute to the founding fathers of a tradition often overlooked in wider music and intellectual circles. Composed at the request of Flemish virtuoso Daan Vandewalle, who considers it “the first big sonata of importance in the 21st century”, this work is set to be heard in South Africa, Ireland and more countries in 2010, and recorded for CD release.

New works and premieres in 2010 include Marimba Etudes (for Magda de Vries), Horn Sonata (for Shannon Armer), more pieces in the piano series Fractured Landscapes (for Antony Gray) and String Quartet No 4 (for the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s fortieth birthday collection). Meanwhile tune into Johannesburg radio station Classic FM during drive time where you are as likely to hear Michael Blake’s music, as at New Music festivals and in concert halls on all five continents.

michael blake, composer

September 24, 2009

nishlyn ramanna on the bantustans of culture

Filed under: michael blake,music — ABRAXAS @ 1:49 am


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