It was a wintry, gray London morning when Stanley fetched me at Waterloo station to take me to his home in Weigall Road. I had written to him, sending him the introduction of my thesis on South African music and asking for an interview. He consented at the 11th hour, a week before I was due to return to South Africa. Even before we arrived at his home, it became clear that he had much to talk about. Asking questions was not going to be easy.
SG: When I read your writing, it’s almost an Afrikaner writing as opposed to a South African.
SM: Yes it is. Very much so.
SG: And maybe that is what you want to do. Yours is a concern that I understand very well. But Afrikaner intellectuals are inclined to be elitist, even to their own Afrikaans people. They are so disciplined and conscious and intelligent and they work and they take a problem and they sort it out and their writing is very good. But how many of them have got black friends? Have you got any black friends?
SG: You see, here you are talking about things and you don’t even know one black guy you can discuss your ideas with. That is a problem. I am a very strong nationalist, but my nationalism is entirely inclusive. I am proud of the rich mix that you get in South Africa, which gives a certain character and strength. I feel that in many ways South Africans are more characterful than Australians, or New Zealanders or Canadians. Culturally I regard ourselves, potentially at least, as richer than these countries. We’ve got a lot to be proud of with the South African set-up.
SM: Can you expand on this idea of an inclusive nationalism?
SG: Nationalism is very important to a people. One of the big musics of the world is jazz. How many bloody American composers have infused jazz into their classical works? A few Europeans played around with it. There was Milhaud. And then there is Bernstein and perhaps one or two other examples, but jazz is full of the most fascinating things. If you take folk music and transmute it as Bartók did or perhaps some of the Russians have done, it enriches classical music. The Americans haven’t done anything like it for decades. You get a guy like Copland and they make a big fuss of him. Billy the Kid and Rodeo and the Mexican this and that. It’s skimming the surface. Folk music always enriches classical music, and in this regard twentieth-century music has failed. Composers in the twentieth-century have tried to show that they are technically and intellectually competent like their counterparts in the natural sciences. So you get guys taking up twelve tone writing and they throw a whole lot of things belonging to music out of the window. ‘Cesspool music’, that’s what one critic called it. I have tried to show that serial technique could go beyond what the practitioners of the Second Viennese School devised. I took a little six note African scale, got a friend of mine to write light little verses and I treated that six note scale very strictly according to serial rules. And they were light pieces! I am saying that technique doesn’t necessarily have to serve the purpose it had when it was developed. And now I come back to culture and inclusive nationalism. There are all sorts of infusions into a culture. Take Byrd, Palestrina and Victoria. All Catholics, all beholden to their faith. But when you listen to their music: Victoria is Spanish, Palestrina is Italian, Byrd is English. They’re using the same devices, the same words of the mass. But they haven’t lost their culture. There is always an element around which is essentially culture specific. That is what I think we could do in South Africa. There could be cross-fertilization. In the case of art music we could produce some wonderful works in the future, feeding new things into West-European classical music, refreshing it. The ethno-classical element in South Africa is full of promise, because you have the opportunity to produce a transmutation that can ultimately produce a new sound. In my music I often use a major third, E-C, let’s say, to a major fourth, D-A. Now that’s especially to be found in Nguni source music. And it is sunshine to me. Now let us go back to Afrikaans composers. What Afrikaans composers have taken ‘vastrap’ and worked that into their classical music? You see, it’s below them. Vastrap is not classical music. Bartók, who ranged all around the North-African perimeter and the Balkans was an Hungarian composer. It’s what he did with his stuff that counts. The Americans are in the best position to transmute jazz elements into classical music and they have not done so sufficiently. I feel we can do that in South Africa. That is what I’ve tried to do. I have a sense of private superiority about South Africa over dozens of other countries. When I am up in heaven playing my mbira, looking down, I want to sea Southern Africa like a European Union. We can become one of the power houses of the world.
SM: Do you thing there is down-side to writing ethno-classical stuff?
SG: Yes, of course. An example. Hans Roosenschoon is a very good composer. When he was doing a year or two at the RAM we performed a brass quintet of his at Goldsmiths. Excellent! Excellent! It had Zulu sounds in it, overtones, which even I can’t grasp. Excellent piece of music. The audience of lecturers and students didn’t know Zulu music from Adam, but they thought it a terrific piece of music. Momentarily, I feel, Hans let his hair down. It is one of his most original pieces. But when Hans wants to show himself, understandably, to be on a level with the leading composing schools whether it is in France or England or Europe or America, he is writing European music for South Africa, instead of writing South African music for Europe.
SM: Now that is interesting, I …
SG: Wait, I’m coming to the down-side of writing ethno-classical stuff. It is a question of attitude. He did another work some years later for a chamber orchestra and chopi record, recorded by Hugh Tracey in Mozambique, and he timed his music so that you put on the tape of the original chopi stuff to fit in and out with the chamber orchestra. Ingenious. But it was superficial. Technically very good, but superficial. So once when he came over to London we had coffee together and I asked him why he didn’t go and do some research. He answered that one didn’t need research, as everything had been recorded. Now you can’t just listen to records, that’s not the way to get to know music. You’ve got to be at the coal face and you’ve got to see what goes on. There are all sorts of things that you pick up.
SM: So do you think that ‘writing South African music for Europe’ will only happen when you do research?
SG: Yes …
SM: Composers have got to search for ethnic stuff?
SG: Yes, but you’re doing it out of desire as opposed to a duty. If you have no desire you mustn’t do it. I will do it, but you [Afrikaners] must do it as well. Go to a vastrap evening in Nelspruit or wherever and see what you can do with it. And see what it means, the dancing, the life, it’s all part of the music. If there’s a dance in Nelspruit on a Saturday night and all the farmers are coming in and the locals are coming in and there is a Boereorkes. Where are you guys? Do you ever roll up to that sort of thing? No.
SM: So you are advocating a flattening of the stubborn boundaries between musicologist, ethnomusicologist, composer? Is that what we are talking about?
SG: Look, composers in the previous century became too intellectual. When Schoenberg was heard to remark that he would like the butcher boy to whistle the main theme from his violin concerto – what utter tosh! What utter rubbish! Perhaps he meant that sincerely, but he was living in cloud cuckoo land! I mean, what happened to melody and rhythm, which is an essential part of music, during a lot of twentieth-century composition? If you take Schoenberg, Hindemith, Stravinsky and Bartók: who are the composers who are alive? It’s the less sophisticated ones: Stravinsky and Bartók. The more intellectualized composers are fodder for musicologists. Why don’t we ‘analyze’ Rachmaninoff rather than Tchaikovsky? Because the teachers find it difficult to pigeon-hole what Rachmaninoff does. In Schoenberg you’ve got note row, you’ve models on the Baroque Suite and this and that. Teachers can teach that, it’s easy. But can you teach something that is more spread-eagled and can’t be explained entirely? The academic world is to blame a lot for certain attitudes that their charges develop.
SM: So were the conceits of serialism a myth?
SG: Serialism had a very good function. Every piece of music has a role to play. The importance of serial technique was to put an end to outdated functional harmony. Important harmonists like Chopin began to expand and by the time you got to Wagner, you could go anywhere you like with regard to tonality! You could go from C to C flat, you could go from C to F sharp with a bit of chromatic twisting. That’s why I can’t stand Wagnerian music, because it’s a twilight, it goes on and on and on. But the Twelve-Tonalists spiked this bloody chromaticism, which just wafts off into orbit. And then, happily, the Minimalists came along and spiked the Twelve-Tonalists! And that’s wonderful! They did a very good job and a very good service to music. Today we are listening to musics, whether you like it or not. We are in a great mix, which is confusing and nevertheless also very gratifying, because it means all the more that we South Africans can pursue our own thing.
SM: I want to return to this thing about the ‘correct’ or the ‘wrong’ way to appropriate ethnic material …
SG: Look, South Africa is my love. I love it. I love the vastrap, I love a Zulu dance team, I love the topography of my country, I love all the different people. That’s what makes me do it.
SM: So if you get a composer living in white suburbia somewhere in Constantia or Bishopscourt and he does not write music with ‘African’ flavours. Is that a legitimate activity?
SG: Yes, it is. For him. It hurts me that he’s doing it, but he must write what he wants to write. He decides what he wants to write because of his history. My history is different from the composer who only wants to write West-European music modeled on Boulez, Stockhausen, Lutoslawski or Ligeti. If he wants to do that he must do that. In the end, if there is a composer from South Africa who becomes an outstanding ‘European composer’, that’s fine. But he would be unique. What about all of us, what about all the students, all the performers, the lesser composers – they’ve got to come from somewhere. And their cultural background determines what they will do. The chap who only writes European music feels that his surround is unimportant to him and that what is to be desired is what is ‘over there’.
SM: Well, if you look at white suburban South Africa your immediate surround still is very white, it is more American than African. Don’t you think, given our history of racial segregation, that you will find most composers writing with that sense of West-European orientation?
SG: Look, let us take Stefans. Stefans Grové is the most human of what I call the ‘five’ South African composers: four Capies and one Transvaler. The Transvaler is me and the other four are Arnold van Wyk, John Joubert, Hubert du Plessis and Stefans Grové. They were all Cape orientated and they didn’t have as much to do with black culture because of their environment. There have been attempts to do something with Cape Coloured stuff. But there’s been very little effort. Now suddenly, Stefans, who is the most humanistic and has the best sense of humour – a delightful chap with a lovely sarcastic twist in his humour – he is suddenly coming out with African stuff! Why didn’t he do that before? What has caused him to do that now? Because around him it has changed. It’s always getting onto the bandwagon. It’s the same with European composers. They’re now beginning to use folk music. Why weren’t they doing this twenty or thirty years ago? So it’s coming from outside, not from the inside. That’s the point.
SM: That’s the point then where politics intrudes into music, isn’t it?
SG: Yes, it is. But what I am also saying is that the composer today is looking over the wall outside classical music. I think that’s good thing. You’ve got to write music that people will like. I don’t want to use the word ‘responsibility’, because as soon as you use the word ‘responsibility’ it means it is a decision of the mind rather than a decision of feeling. It would not be to a composer’s advantage to say: ‘I’m now going to study black music’.
SM: What happens if there is black sensitivity about the appropriation of ethnic material by white composers for their own ends?
SG: I get your point. Well, I suppose what I am proposing is that one has to take that resentment on board, and fight it. I know that every time I have gone back to South Africa things have changed more and more. A lot of what I’ve been saying is a wish, an idealism. Now you’ve got to try to put that into practice and very often you might fail. I’ve never felt when I deal with Blacks or Coloureds that they resent what I’m doing. That might be because of what I say or what my history is or the way I deal with things. What you’ve underlined is very important and it is a difficult problem. I cannot give a well-defined solution or method of dealing with it. All I can say is one’s got to go for it, all the time. It has to do with projects, to my mind. There have got to be projects that everybody agrees to work on. What I call the ‘togetherness’. I can see that there are huge problems and of course I’ve have been out of the country in terms of living there for quite a few decades now. When I go back I am returning to my home as a visitor, so to speak, but on the other hand, no one will take away my attachment. If a Black or Coloured resents what I do, too bloody bad. My conscience is clear, you see, I have no guilt feelings. My temperament, my nature, believes in the mix.