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.
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