On Fire: out of control

Thulani Mgidi in On Fire. Photograph by Manuel Osterholt.
Thulani Mgidi in On Fire. Photograph by Manuel Osterholt.

When you watch a piece as catastrophically chaotic as Constanza Macras’s On Fire choreographed for the gala opening of this year’s Dance Umbrella, you might be tempted to question what exactly a choreographer does. Unlike the previous works we have seen by this choreographer and her company, there is a catch all moment in the work where it seems anything goes and you in the audience are being subject to Macras’s version of pot luck. Did she run out of editing stamina in creating this piece?

Had it been well produced and carefully constructed, you might have been of the opinion that the performers should be allowed to die after the work had been completed: they had done so much with such fervent diversity during the work’s complicated duration. But nay: you cannot say this: there is just simply too much, most of which is crying out for editing snips: The work is too long. The colonialist message is carried across with clarity and even beauty, the first time. But then it is broadcast again and again. And again. With proverbial sledgehammers, considerable narrative sloppiness and extreme loudness. And again some more: to the point where you want to shout ‘enough, already!’

It’s also a misguided message that leaves you, as a South African audience cold: we’ve been through the colonialist discourse a million times. We’ve lived through it. It’s ours. While On Fire has potential and the skill of its cast is simply breath-taking, the work lacks an underbelly of meaningful context and doesn’t give local audiences anything new. Instead, the tired rehashing of apartheid values and a poorly constructed spoof of a soap opera hurts the Dance Umbrella and your personal expectations. It feels arrogant and self indulgent.

They’re words which don’t come lightly. The first half of this work contains heart-stoppingly fine moments which bring the colonial practice of tennis and golf playing and tea drinking onto a strip of veld from which the Hillbrow Tower is visible. In another part, a sheet of paper on the floor and an astonishingly fine dancer convey a sense of not fire, but water, at the work’s outset. The dancers articulate the curious formality of colonialist photography with a wisdom and a level of input that is unique and sophisticated. There’s a give and take with traditional African song that sparkles with engagement.

But then, the work seems to lose its way, and there is too much text and weak story-telling. Too much thrusting about and making horrible noises. Too much time and energy spent in bringing everything from soap opera story lines to Credo Mutwa and Fitzcarraldo’s sound track into the mix. So much so that you could even overlook the collaborative energy that videographer Dean Hutton and photographer Ayana V Jackson have put into the work. Their contribution feels brushed over and disregarded.

Ultimately, you leave with the awareness that this potjie hasn’t been cooked long enough and the disparate parts don’t meld in a way that is convincing. Instead, you might feel a bit insulted by the manner in which these performers who are not from this country mangle and mock us. And above all, disappointed: Macras’s reputation for exceptionally good work just hasn’t been honoured here.

  • On Fire by Constanza Macras | Dorky Park is choreographed and directed by Constanza Macras and features performances by Louis Becker, Emil Bordás, Lucky Kele, Jelena Kujic, Diile Lebeko, Mandla Mathonsi, Thulani Mgidi, Melusi Mkhwanjana, Felix Saalmann, Fana Tshabalal, John Sithole. It is designed by Carmen Mehnert (dramaturge); Ayana Jackon (visual art); Dean Hutton (video); Constanza Macras and Noluthando Lobese (costumes); Jelena Kuljic and Abigail Thatcher (music and sound) and Catalina Fernandez (lighting) and performs at the Dance Factory in Newtown until February 27.

The evolution of a polished beast of a dance

Sunnyboy Motau. Photograph by Thabo Sebatlelo.
Sunnyboy Motau. Photograph by Thabo Sebatlelo.

Arguably one of Dance Umbrella’s more exciting collaborations is that between Moving Into Dance Mophatong’s Sunnyboy Motau (28) and independent Tel Aviv-based choreographer Rachel Erdos (36). They grin as they refer to their piece fight, flight, feathers, f***ers as a “beast”. They spoke to My View a week after they had started developing the work which enjoys its world premier in a mixed bill on March 3 and 4 at the Dance Factory.

Erdos was in South Africa in 2010, for Crossings, a choreographic initiative coaxed into life under the aegis of the French Institute and hosted in Johannesburg. “This work is the first ‘baby’ in South Africa built on the connections Crossings established,” said Erdos. “Sunnyboy – associated  with MIDM since 2008 – and I have been in dialogue for five years.

On paper, this year’s Dance Umbrella seems to thematically embrace masculinity: several works are choreographed by women on male dancers: but Motau and Erdos shake their heads: “This was not commissioned with a theme. After we met in 2010, we started exchanging ideas.

Rachel Erdos. Photograph courtesy www.rachelerdos.com
Rachel Erdos. Photograph courtesy www.rachelerdos.com

“We gravitated naturally towards issues relating to masculinity. In Europe and Israel, there are much less male dancers than there are female. Here it is the opposite. When Sunnyboy said ‘you can work with the company: there are five guys and two girls’ … it wasn’t an even number. So it became: ‘let’s explore the issues of identity relating to men only.’”

Born in the north of England, Erdos moved to Israel 13 years ago, armed with a degree in dance from Rohampton Institute and a masters in choreography from London’s Laban Centre. “I was brought to Israel by a whole range of forces, including upbringing” – with a Hungarian father and an English mother, she was aware of being the only Jewish child at her high school and was curious about living and working in Israel – “but the reasons I went and the reasons I stayed are completely different.

“The Israeli contemporary dance scene is pumping: Some of the best dancers in the world are coming out of there. And I have found loads of opportunities. I think Tel Aviv is an amazing city to live and choreograph in. It has a great vibe.”

She has a repertory of dancers and her diary is rich with opportunities to create work. “I am in the middle of making a piece at the moment for Kolben Dance, a Jerusalem-based company, under Amir Kolben who has been running his company for 25 years. It will be shown in different festivals through the summer. But I had to take a hiatus from the project when I knew I was coming to South Africa!”

Motau always knew he wanted to lead a creative life. “Growing up in Alexandra township, I was involved with a community group doing acting, poetry and traditional dance. But when I was exposed to the genre of Afro-fusion whilst in grade 12, something clicked. I fell in love with it.”

His dreams to study film were thwarted financially “so I joined a musical company, where we did everything from Afro-fusion to gumboot. It toured to Hong Kong in that year.” Also during that year, 2007, he was exposed for the first time to MIDM dancers, Muzi Shili and Thabo Rapoo. His life changed forever. “I developed a great thirst to study further and realised I needed to find a company that would enable me to grow. Three years down the line, I was there with Musi and Thabo. It was unbelievable,” he grins.

“Unlike Sunnyboy I never wanted to be a dancer,” says Erdos. “From the age of 12, I wanted to be a choreographer. Whilst I was in junior high school, a dance company came to our school and did a workshop, involving creating movement from interpretations of a picture.  It was the first time in my life anyone had asked me to express an emotion through dance and this was a real life changer.

“But it’s not so easy to say at the age of 15 you want to be a choreographer. It’s hard enough saying you want to be a dancer, especially where how you are going to earn money is a major concern, so it took a long time until I had the confidence to say that’s what I wanted to do.

“Eventually I settled for dance therapy. It seemed a respectable way of combining dance with a conventional job. I used that to convince my parents to support me through a degree in dance. In the middle, I realised I was trying to convince myself something other than what my heart wanted and I decided I need to try what I really want to do…”

“We’re hoping for it to be soft and violent, aggressive and emotional,” says Erdos about the new work being developed.

“Bringing in input from each of the dancers has made it richer. And we have to go there, enabling the dancers to take ownership of the work,” says Motau.

“I’m not a 5… 6… 7… 8…  choreographer,” Erdos smiles. “Neither of us are.  I am fascinated with the dancers’ personalities on stage. And I want to do something that represents them, but something they could not have done without us.

“I love working with these guys. On the first day, we asked them questions about how males are perceived in society, exploring the difference between animals and man. Each day, we get to do more and see what comes out. For me that’s one of the best parts of the job: getting to work with people who you don’t know. You have to have real trust. As do they. You hope that that work will take us to a place none of us would attempt by ourselves.

Is there life for the piece after Dance Umbrella? “We really hope so,” they concur. “That is the plan. We want it to tour and develop. It goes into both our companies’ repertoires. We can’t wait to see it, ourselves!”

  • Visit www.danceforumsouthafrica.co.za for details of Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg, February 26-March 15.

And now for something completely nostalgic

Never can say goodbyeMichael de Pinna, Annabel Linder and Keith Smith. Photograph courtesy Foxwood Theatre.
Never can say goodbyeMichael de Pinna, Annabel Linder and Keith Smith. Photograph courtesy Foxwood Theatre.

What happens when you put four song and dance and jazz veterans together with some timeless classics from the American Song Book, a bit of Bessie Smith and a smattering of Joan Rivers, to say nothing of the Communards’ delicious Never Can Say Goodbye? In simple terms, a little bit of magic.

This is Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd, a modest and completely unapologetically nostalgic evening with Michael de Pinna, Keith Smith, Annabel Linder and Sam Sklair on clarinet – a man who, in his nineties, still exudes sex appeal. These performers, collectively onstage and doing their thing for more than 100 years, have amazingly, never shared a show of this nature until now. They also really know how it’s done: They know the nuts and bolts and terrors and traumas of this industry well. And they have nothing to prove or to lose, which makes the show feel light and effortless, and enables an unadulterated sense of happiness to infiltrate the space.

Perhaps with the eye of a director, it would have been tightened a tad, but your inner register of happiness as you unashamedly drink up the beauty of songs from Gershwin and Bacharach, Dreamgirls and Chicago, the 1950s and the 1970s and more, simply doesn’t care. Being in the audience of this show makes you feel like you are a house guest in an environment that loves you.

Foxwood is not your slickest of theatre venues in this city. And the show is structurally rough, featuring at times competition between the piped music and the live instrument but the ethos of warmth is such that everything is forgiven; you emerge with your heart buzzing, as it should. How privileged we are to experience the performances of each of these stalwarts.

  • Two’s Company, Three’s a Show features Michael de Pinna, Annabel Linder and Keith Smith, accompanied by Sam Sklair on clarinet. It performs on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons at the Foxwood Theatre, 13-Fifth Street, Houghton Johannesburg, until March 8 (011)486-0935

Taking on giants: a play that could wow the world

Photograph by Sanmari Marais.
Photograph by Sanmari Marais.

If you’re seeking fine excuses to go to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year, seek no further: Jenine Collocott and Nick Warren have once again been putting their very fine heads together, and this time have yielded a theatrical essay on Mandela’s childhood which soars with all those good values of clean narrative lines, superb physical theatre and humour mingled with pathos.

Making Mandela recently enjoyed a short season, aimed primarily at school children, staged at the State Theatre in Pretoria. The work was a little rough in terms of an unresolved-feeling ending, but the conveying of the meat of the narrative is held with a firm hand and a trusty heart by Jaques de Silva, Mlindeli Zondi – whose body language and mien resonate so strongly with that of a young Mandela you will do a double take – and Barileng Malebye.

There is the kind of implicit trust and muscular give and take between performers that you would anticipate in a trapeze act in the circus: the three click so powerfully and so well together that as they toss and manipulate the story between them, skirting age, geography, personalities and time, it never loses its momentum or sparkle. If anything, it feels too short and you wish that the whole tale of Mandela’s life, in close detail could be handled by this supremely talented cast.

And of course, there are the masks. Collocott and Warren have evolved a signature mask-making approach to grand narratives involving many characters and few cast members that draws impeccably from old masked theatre traditions. Their masks are potent and wise, witty and sinister, yet irrevocably human, and your eye is held as your heart judders to a halt around the values being articulated by individual characters.

You fall in love with the conveying of Mandela’s aged mother, widowed and alone as she leaves her son to be raised by clan royalty and you weep with gladness at the interface between the testosterone-filled young Mandela bursting with enthusiasm for life, and his ‘brother’ Justice, the son of the Thembu chief.

You don’t get a more potent narrative than Mandela’s life story. Charmed from its goat-herding roots in the village of Mvezo in the eastern Cape to the man’s peaceful demise surrounded by loved ones in his own bed, well into his 90s, it’s a story which has people into funding a horrible opera that was staged last year and is a major draw-card and a very steep – virtually paralysing – challenge in several respects for any serious creative practitioner.

Collocott and Warren have kneaded this story between them over some years, highlighting some aspects and casting others into shadow as they must, and here lies the rub in the work. If you have been living for the last several years on another planet and see this work without an internal knowledge of who Mandela grew into, a lot of the piece’s nuances might escape you.

The piece needs more development from a narrative perspective, but if this team get it right, they have the intellectual and skills-based wherewithal to develop an embrace of this story that is so big and so direct that it will wow not only Grahamstown festivalgoers, but the world.

  • Making Mandela is written by Nick Warren and Jenine Collocott and directed by Jenine Collocott. It stars Jaques de Silva, Mlindeli Zondi and Barileng Malebya, with scenography by Duncan Gibbon and sound design by Peter Cornell. It will be performed at this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

Touching many curious bases with this Double Bass

Me and my fiddle: The Double Bass and its performer, Pieter Bosch Botha. Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.
Me and my fiddle: The Double Bass and its performer, Pieter Bosch Botha. Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

Have you ever looked at an orchestra and pondered the back story behind the more monstrous and dramatic of its components? Or even the not-so-monstrous, but instruments which might be completely bizarre to the average Joe.  And I’m not talking about the ordinary violin or sedate flute.

What of the chap who plays the triangle? Do you think he had a calling to do so? Do you think the French horn player ever tires of those relentless, intestine-like coils? What about the tuba?

While American entertainer with no equal, Danny Kaye brought immortal life to the lonely persona of the tuba in the sad little sweet narrative song Tubby the Tuba written by Paul Tripp and composed by George Kleinsinger in 1945, Patrick Süskind does something similar for the double bass, in this eponymous one-hander, directed by Alan Swerdlow. Only it’s not for littlies and doesn’t necessarily have feel-good closure.

While the work is long and wordy, with Swerdlow’s nifty treatment of it, and Pieter Bosch Botha’s impeccable performance as a strictly flawed and sad double bassist, it sees a lot of bases getting touched, from sexual innuendo to the hilarity of a love-hate relationship with a really big musical instrument, and there is not one dull moment in this bizarre story.

You may be pushed a little to think of Man Ray’s extraordinary photographs reflecting on the analogy of a ‘cello and a woman’s body, but this, contrary to the image on the programme is a tale less about delicate nuances, than the extremely human act of performing music. It’s also about Brahms and Mozart, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, and noise and quietude.

Who composed seriously for the double bass in the classical tradition? What’s the sex appeal of the guy standing upright behind his huge instrument, positioned in a kind of a blind space in the natural sequence of the orchestral layout? Is it incestuous? There’s a foray into Freudian hilarity as there is a reflection on the artisanal nature of a musician who plays the work of others.

The Double Bass is a production which will not be everyone’s cup of tea – given its unashamed and unapologetic focus on European classical music traditions, but it brings together a thoughtful pared down level of style with pragmatics and humour that will make you laugh and cry, at times. We get a taste of the history of the instrument; of the history of music around it and of the socio-cultural nexus in which this hapless performer exists, but the production is never allowed to skitter into the dull terrain of a lecture.

Bosch Botha’s performance is direct, slightly crude and not a tad pretentious. You realise the pathological predicament of the poor character and cannot help but collapse into peals of empathetic laughter at the monstrosity of the thing, which, like a giant violin unrelentingly dominates the space, listening and judging everything that transpires, even with its ‘face’ turned to the wall.

  • The Double Bass is written by Patrick Süskind, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It is performed by Pieter Bosch Botha, with set and lighting by Denis Hutchinson and is at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until March 14: 011-883-8606, www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Melvyn Tan: Music to change your life

Melvyn Tan. Photograph courtesy www.melvyntan.com
Melvyn Tan. Photograph courtesy www.melvyntan.com

Witnessing concert pianist Melvyn Tan perform — either with the Buskaid Soweto String orchestra or alone on stage for the Johannesburg Musical Society — as he did on the weekend, is the kind of experience that will makesyou believe there is a God, after all. Tan has a magical relationship with the music and his piano that seduces his audience.  He holds the notes in his hand as though they were sacred water, and he caresses his piano keys and touches you with his music in a way that you will never forget.

A relatively regular visitor to South Africa, Singapore-born London resident Tan was another of this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival’s unequivocal draw-cards. He spoke to My View, a few days before his concert, focusing on the blessed education he received in London, the value of giving back and the infinity of Schubert and Messiaen.

His concerts in Johannesburg were immensely special: “This is my first time to perform with Buskaid; it’s the first time Buskaid, founded by Rosemary Nalden in 1997, performs with a pianist. I’ve known Rosemary for 30 years. She played with the London Classical Players, under Roger Norrington, with whom I did all my EMI recordings of Beethoven.  When she first started to come to South Africa to run Buskaid, we remained huge admirers of her project.  A few years ago, my partner Paul Boucher, research director of the Montagu Music Collection at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, brought  them to England for some concerts he was organising; it started the ball rolling.

“Since then, they’ve done really well. Last year they came to England and we discussed the idea of a piano concerto. I said, why not? I’ve heard them perform a lot; they don’t often play Mozart: I wasn’t sure what to expect in our first rehearsal, but it was wonderful. They’re such lovely kids, and their performance gets better and better. Last year, in England, they played a suite by Rameau and if I closed my eyes I could have sworn it was a professional orchestra. We were gobsmacked.”

Tan also has a professional passion for piano history. Most of his older recordings were performed on period pianos – from Mozart’s time and Beethoven’s. “The fortepiano is what the piano was, before it developed into the modern instrument, which dates from 1860s. Mozart’s piano was much smaller than the piano you or I would recognise as such. It’s a five octave instrument; wooden in construction, so the action is much lighter and therefore the way you play is very different. I did a lot of my EMI recordings on the fortepiano, which is not to be confused with the harpsichord, an instrument which originates from the 17th century and which is plucked, rather than struck.

“But since then, I have gone back to playing modern piano and repertory, because every artist likes to feel stretched artistically.”

Baulking at the moniker ‘prodigy’ Tan explains that he started piano as a five-year-old in Singapore. “I came to England when I was about 11 and was offered a place at London’s prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School of Music, and basically I stayed there: I have never gone back to Singapore to live. But I do go back now to teach and coach students and also to perform. I didn’t come from a particularly musical family, but my sister who is much older than me played the piano, so I kind of followed. That was how I started to play.

“I wasn’t encouraged to be an independent child, but I was, actually, very independent. When the chance came for me to go to the Menuhin school, I recognised it as a chance in a lifetime. Most of my teachers were French. One was a pupil of Debussy, another, a pupil of Ravel… The wonder of those roots and that education has never left me. Being at the school, it was like we were all part of a family. That ethos still exists – even though Yehudi has died. It’s not a competitive environment: that’s not what you’re taught. Instead, you’re taught to make chamber music and how to listen to everyone else.

“That’s the crux of music making. And it’s lovely. Yehudi was the most wonderful man. He taught us that there’s no such thing as being just a musician. You have to be a person, a human being, first.”

Tan ponders the idea of a favourite composer. “It’s difficult: It would be Schubert. Or Mozart. No, Schubert. If there’s one composer I want to play until I drop dead, it is Schubert. The music has that feeling of eternity about it. It comes from nowhere and it goes to infinity. You could go on playing that music forever.”

But he continues on a stream of consciousness to another love: twentieth century composer Olivier Messiaen, recognised for – amongst other things – transcribing birdsong.

“Messiaen changed my life when I performed his Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus – the twenty gazes of Christ. It’s a cycle based on various writings from the bible, as well as Messiaen’s personal  views of Christ and Catholicism. He started writing it when he was interred in a prisoner of war camp in Nazi-controlled France, in 1943. He wrote it for Yvonne Loriod, whom he married in 1961 and who was the first person who performed it. It was only in the 1960s that the work was recorded and people began to see it as a monument of twentieth century piano music.

On the idea of playing two performances in one day, which he did yesterday, he grins: “Everyone thinks I’m crazy; it was the only way I could do it. I have had worse days: The worst is flying in and doing a concert, on the same day, with jetlag. Funnily enough when you are tired, you play best: you don’t have time to worry about nerves or memory… you just get on and do it. There is no other distraction in your brain. God takes over.”

In love with the San people’s harmony of being in the world: meet Peter Klatzow

Peter Klatzow with Japanese Marimbist Kunihiko Komori at a festival in 2011. Photograph courtesy blog.livedoor.jp
Peter Klatzow at work with Japanese marimbist Kunihiko Komori at a festival in Tokyo in 2011. Photograph courtesy blog.livedoor.jp

If you’ve been at any of this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, you may have had your proverbial envelope of expectations stretched wide. Arguably, the festival’s pièce de résistance is still to come – on February 8, when this year’s festival’s composer-in-residence Peter Klatzow debuts a work Johannesburg audiences haven’t experienced. Klatzow spoke to My View about the lost years of his youth, San harmony and how he learned African music through his feet.

Klatzow – who turns 70 this year – trained at the Royal College of Music in England, from 1964. “The seed was always there,” he quips, speaking of his upbringing in Brakpan, east of Johannesburg. “There were lots of people who tried to pull that seed it out,” he guffaws. “But they failed!

“My piano teacher wanted me to study with Lamar Crowson at London’s Royal College of Music. When I arrived, he said he’d love to have me as a student, but he was on his way to Cape Town! I studied instead with a wonderful lady called Kathleen Long – amongst others.” Klatzow’s and Crowson’s paths crossed again in 1973 in Cape Town. “We developed a close artistic friendship, which included playing bridge,” Klatzow learnt the game from his grandmother, a cherished woman who taught him more than card games.

“I am a practising Anglican; I come of curious family roots.” Born to a Jewish father and a Christian mother, Klatzow and his brother David – today the eminent forensic scientist—were not considered Jewish by religious law. “My parents fought about many things in their tumultuous, long marriage. The one thing they agreed on was for their children to be Jewish. But the rabbi said no.”

The two Klatzow boys slipped into a limbo devoid of religious ritual until Peter was four and his maternal grandmother “took us to church. The rest,” he grins, “is history. I still remember being baptised!” Klatzow’s considerable body of compositions includes many significant forays into church music and religious paradigms, from masses to requiems, beatitudes to carols.

Speaking of the composer-in-residence title at the Mozart Festival, he recognises his own value: “I’m delighted with the honour; but I bring a lot of work with me. It’s important for a festival’s profile to have a composer-in-residence with international recognition.”

International recognition he has. But do we, as a listenership, know him? There’s a trend in South African radio to not play the music of contemporary local composers.  “Composers are downplayed in South Africa. There are very clear stipulations for local radio stations to play local music: any work has a composer, a recording and a performer. Some works have lyrics. If the person behind two of these categories in a work is South African, the work is considered South African. Obviously, the most important one is the composer.

“But they skip past it,” he speaks of, for instance, a situation where  the leader of an orchestra is South African born, but resident elsewhere, and the music gets punted as South African. “For me that’s cheating.” It’s a cheat not only for Klatzow’s image, but for South Africans’ awareness. “My work is known better overseas than here. We live in a cultureless society that doesn’t look after its artists. So that’s why it is so important that we have a composer-in-residence in this festival and that Richard Cock and Florian Uhlig, JIMF’s directors do make sure our works get played.”

Klatzow’s taste and palette of influences is rich and diverse. He admires the work of 20th century British composer Benjamin Britten as well as the dynamics of African traditional music. Recognised for his use of the marimba, he also works with choirs. Explaining the difference between the concert marimba and the African marimba, he adds, “It is very difficult to combine an African instrument with a concert instrument: the intonation is different. I have a relationship with both western and African instruments. When I wrote Prayers and Dances of Praise from Africa (1996), the sound I had for the two marimbas in that piece was more African.

His love for African music grew from the bottom up: “While I taught at Cape Town’s College of Music, the Kirby Collection – a pre-urbanisation collection of South Africa’s musical heritage – was housed in the room under mine. Those instruments were played, taught and made. So I learnt African music through my feet. I could hear it through the floor.

“Percival Kirby was a minor composer, an internationally acknowledged musicologist and a very decent man. He was also the collector of any instrument that caught his fancy and this enabled him to leave a lasting and proud legacy. There are harps there and pianos, and African instruments. The collection which was started in the 1930s originally belonged to Wits, but is now housed in UCT’s College of Music.

“My one and only instrument is the piano,” he continues. “It’s wonderful for composing: you quickly develop a sense of harmony. If you play an instrument like the flute or the violin, you don’t develop a sense of harmony easily. In fact, I’ve noticed this with students I have had to teach who only play a monophonic instrument. They write contrapuntally with ease; when it comes to chords or harmony, they’re deficient. They cannot put down ten notes at once and hear what it sounds like. Pianists can.

“Most composers begin life as pianists. Like Beethoven. It was only much later that people said ‘Hey! This guy can write music too, what do you know!?’ In those days, everybody read music. Making music was family participation. They wrote string quartets together. It was the parlour thing to do.

In the thick of a rich annual Mozart Festival – the seventh, since its inception – there has been several opportunities to hear Klatzow’s music. But February 8, the final day of the festival, sees the performance of a Klatzow debut: All people become spirit people when they die.

“This piece has evolved over many years, when I was asked by the British a capella group The King’s Singers (founded in 1968) to write them a work for them to be accompanied by Evelyn Glennie on marimba in 1997. It was a very good commission: it was recorded by RCA on their gold label series. I looked around for texts and came across a wonderful little book by Stephen Watson, called Return of the Moon (1991).

“The book’s most moving aspect is its introduction to the San people’s history. The San were here before anyone else; I am so attracted to these people who harmonised so beautifully with nature … and I wrote a piece about them called Return of the Moon, which ends with a movement called The Broken String which talks about their alienation once they lost their land and sense of belonging.

“This performance you will hear next Sunday evening is a rearrangement of the work for a full choir. It’s a new combination for me: choir, piano played by a fabulous pianist – Florian Uhlig – and marimba played by beloved percussionist Magda de Vries. The piece isn’t just a setting of the text. It’s a landscape offering that open barren countryside during daytime and at night.

  • Klatzow’s Vivace, the third movement from his 2010 Cello Sonata will be performed as part of the Mozart Festival in a Chamber concert at Northwards House, Parktown on February 5 at 19:30
  • His All People Become Spirit People When They Die, a world prémiere of this work for choir, piano and orchestra and his Lightscapes for marimba and five instruments will be performed in of the final concert of the Mozart Festival, at the Linder Auditorium, Parktown on February 8 at 15:00.
  • His The Healing Melody will be performed by the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra later this year.
  • In May, the Soweto Opera Company performs his opera Words from a Broken String.

Something old, something new and something borrowed in fiery marriage of art and music

Pied Piper by Lebohang Kganye.
Pied Piper by Lebohang Kganye.

The room you enter is crushingly ordinary. As the lights are dimmed and the instruments are fired up, magic erupts. Listening to the Image, an event which forced you to listen to a visual artwork with more than just your ears, not only presented four splinteringly fine new voices; it also gave wing to a cross-disciplinary understanding of what happens at the cleavage of art and music.

As an idea, it’s not brand new: The Italian Futurists tinkered with performance in 1908 or so. As did the Feminists in America in the 1970s, to say nothing of women dadaists. Artists have been painting to poems since time immemorial and masterminding ballet costumes and opera sets. Illustration and poetry have been melded, pushing letters into image-bearing curiosities.

But the project mooted Listening to the Image, bringing together four young professionals under the mantel and support of heavy weight composers, one of this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival events, enabled an important exchange of values to flourish last Saturday afternoon.

In coercing diverse mediums into dialogue, and in allowing audience access to the work to be dictated by those who created it, something astonishing happened, bringing echoes of the voice of Henri Bergson, who experimented with time and staticity at the turn of the twentieth century, but it also felt like it was 1990, before technology thrust its overall and bland path into art making, where the ‘what if’ factor was given voice and your sensibilities were allowed to be challenged and opened.

Facilitated by well established contemporary South African composers, Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph and Peter Klatzow – this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival’s composer-in-residence – and curated by Mika Conradie, the piece showcased the skills of graduate student composers Matthew Dennis (Cape Town), Antoni Schonken (Stellenbosch) and Diale Peter-Daniel Mabitsela (Johannesburg) in response to the photographic work of Lebohang Kganye, currently enrolled at the University of Johannesburg.

Kganye’s work, given the celebrated nod in 2012 by the Tierney Fellowship, whilst she was studying at the Market Photo Laboratory, was not created specifically for this project. Entitled Ke Lefa Laka, the work engages with loss and displacement on several levels quite personal to the artist. In forging musical response to the works, the literal meaning of the pieces was not exploded: rather their presence was probed: some of the works are photo montages; others play with ghosting and shadows. The music created in response to this woman looking at herself in a mirror, this man holding a baby, this family on a pilgrimage of sorts to the big city, was extraordinary.

Like contemporary dance, contemporary music is not always accommodating to the outsider. You might not know what a composer means by this trill or that digital sampling or this nuance and that repetition. As a non-music person, you access the folds and splays of the language as you must, with ears and a soul: when you are presented with an image, something else becomes part of the mix and you draw on other experiences to give it voice in your head and heart and history.

Played by a quintet, comprising violin (Carmelia Onea), cello (Carel Henn), flute (Anna Marie Muller), bassoon (Paul Rodgers) and percussion (Magda de Vries), the three pieces, entitled Polyphony: 1080kHz: Visions (Dennis), Hearing the Image (Schonken) and Iconography (Mabitsela), respectively engaged with the dynamics established by the darkness in the venue, the use of the images and the presence of the musicians. Schonken arranged the players all over the room, forcing audience involvement in a ‘quintaphonic’ way which would effectively have resulted in each audience member having a different experience, depending on their position in the room. His simple musical narrative quotes eastern tradition as well as western and is mesmerising. Dennis’ work manifests a sense of humour in how the instruments converse and how elements like the ticking of a clock and the ringing of a phone are present. Mabitsela engages the notion of Johannesburg with forthrightness and a jazzy palette. Each composer clearly has an exciting future ahead of him.

Also to the exercise’s immense credit was a structural decision taken in its programme. The audience succumbed naked, as it were, to the experience, at the outset. No explanations were offered. Then, after each of the three pieces had been performed, a panel discussion, chaired by Klatzow and featuring Conradie and the three composers, was hosted, enabling audience members to ask questions and the composers to speak about their work. And then, the audience got to hear the work again: this lovely device enabled deeper engagement; giving the images their chance to shimmer in cohesion with the music leaving unforgettable impressions.

The auditorium in the Goethe Institut in Parkwood is an oblong space with a tilted ceiling, more conducive to traditional lectures than something as unusual as this; with the use of projection, choreographic co-ordination between image and sound, something extraordinary happened here.

A curious flaw involving bright lights and bright colours – a green screen and a red one, which were too bold and sudden a graphic counterpart to Kganye’s pieces, and a bright white screen or two upset the focus of the work: there didn’t seem to be a logical resonance between the repetitions of images in co-ordination with the music itself. This is all forgivable, though, with the premise or the promise that other cross-dynamics of specialist skills of this nature can happen in South Africa.