The Universe in a Musical Chord

interviewneomuyanga

OH, the things you can do with a keyboard: Johannesburg Mozart Festival’s Composer in Residence for 2017, Neo Muyanga. Photograph courtesy panafricanspacestation.org.za

MUSIC WASN’T THE first life choice of this year’s Composer in Residence for the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival. It was physics. Indeed, Neo Muyanga (b. 1974), calls music the mistress he serves under duress. He told My View about music’s grammar, 14th century madrigals and what ‘folk’ means, as well as his two works which debut in Johannesburg on February 5.

“I generally wanted to think outside of boxes that were on offer to me …” he describes the trajectory of his life, spiced by his bravery to experiment and hunger to learn, and punctuated with his ability to listen to silence. During the 1990s, he worked as a journalist for Radio 702. At the time, in collaboration with Masauko Chipembere, he formed BLK Sonshine, an acoustic duo. “It was a huge stress relief because in the daytime, I would spend my time covering protest marches or being shot at; at night I would work it all out through harmony and be back the next day for more bullets.”

Born in Soweto, Muyanga grew up singing in choirs. He elected to study madrigals at a college in Trieste, Italy; his career path was never predictable. “I started learning music theory with someone who was my history teacher in high school; I spoke to her the other day and she referred to me as ‘self taught’,” he remembers how this teacher opened doors for him that he didn’t know existed.

He learnt music theory on the piano, but not how to play it. “In Italy, I joined an avant-garde rock band – a strange place for a Soweto boy to be – and there was an amazing guitarist in it, who was also a talented economist. At some point, he decided he wasn’t going to make it as a guitarist, so he gave up the guitar and went with economics. I was so upset about this, I decided I would never ever need a guitarist in my life again. So I started playing guitar myself. I practiced like a demon for some months and became good, quickly.”

Muyanga describes his gravitation toward playing the piano as the fruit of a dream. After leaving journalism, he worked in production, where he developed his chops as a sound splicer. In the transition between reel-to-reel and digital, there was much to learn.

“While I was doing that, at some point, I dreamt I could play the piano. The next morning, on the keyboard, I thought ‘Let me just try this …’ It worked.” A miracle? “No,” he says. “I understood how chords work. Something in that dream connected what I had as chord theory with a melodic impulse I was developing as a song writer. That’s the thing about music’s language: it contains the whole universe. Once you learn the grammar, you can apply it and learn other languages by applying your linguistic skills.”

Being composer in residence for this festival doesn’t bring Muyanga to self-consciously self-identify as such. “I think I’m always becoming, and I will remain, I hope, ever young. I am always a beginner at whatever I try to put my mind to. I don’t think one can be taught composition,” he adds. “You can be taught music theory. You can be taught about taste and proportion, but you become a composer through life experience … it doesn’t just happen because you’re a genius,” he laughs quietly.

In being composer in residence, he is “stretching the confines of this conversation about folk music,” he refers to the theme of this year’s festival ‘That’s All Folk(s)’. “In Europe and the west, ‘folk’ talks to Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger … there’s a particular kind of activism, rhetoric and personality that belongs there. We don’t have that as a comfortable space in southern Africa. And I work from the premise of Soweto, which gave me voice, which gives me perspective, constantly.

“Even though I don’t think what I write is ‘Sowetan’, I happen to be from there. It is my lens. And I like to look at what this peri-urban modernity, hipness under duress means over the colonial period.”

This year’s festival closes on a high, with Mozart to Muyanga, a concert featuring Tata and Qukezwa by Muyanga.

Based on Hade Tata, a work he developed with pianist Renee Reznek, which enjoyed its world debut at the festival in 2015, Tata “started out as an orchestration of a piano work but it got the better of me and I started recomposing. So it’s a different piece to the Hade Tata Renee performed, but it relates to the conversation I had with her; it developed out of a commission from Sandra de Villiers at Opera Africa, to write an opera based on the life of Nelson Mandela, using Themba Msimang’s libretto, a dramatisation of A Long Walk to Freedom. I refused: there seemed little reason for me to replicate it. The movie was out. The book was in the world.

“I was more interested in replicating a platform to explore Mandela’s psychological terrain. So, the piece is not specifically to do with the man; it’s about who he was in society and history.”

Qukezwa is based Muyanga’s opera which is based on Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness and first saw light of day in 2015 at the Fugard Theatre. A revised version of it is on this year’s Grahamstown National Arts Festival – Muyanga is this year’s featured artist for that festival, too.

“In Qukezwa, I’m trying to understand what opera can be in a South African voice. South Africa is the world’s premier training ground for opera singers. We train young black singers from marginalised communities. Everywhere else, opera is a preoccupation of the elite, but in South Africa, it’s the beloved thing to do for the poorest; something about that speaks volumes about South Africanness. I’m trying to find where this particular voice relates to our colonial contingency and how it might have valuable things to say to South Africa and to the world about making community.”

“Mozart to Muyanga” is on February 5 at 3pm at The Edge, Waverly. Performed by Muyanga (piano), Florian Uhlig (piano), Miseka Gaqa (soprano), Noluxolo Jebe (alto), Vusumuzi Nhlapo (tenor), Joshua Pule (bass), and the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra, it comprises Mozart’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major (K 452), Muyanga’s Tata and Qukezwa and Beethoven’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major (Op 16). Visit www.join-mozart-festival.org

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