Ciao, Piazzolla; thanks for all the tango!

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FUN and tango and seeing what happens next: Nikolaj Abramson (clarinet), Jan Jachmann (accordion) and Arthur Hornig (‘cello). Photograph by Christoph Herpel.

WHAT DO YOU get when you toss some well-heeled classics together with an unusual kind of trio, an appetite for experimentation with symphonic rearrangement and a clear, fresh look at the future of music audiences? That’s easy: you will experience it all in Johannesburg next Sunday evening, courtesy of the Johannesburg Musical Society, played by Jan Jachmann (concert accordion), Nikolaj Abramson (clarinet) and Arthur Hornig (‘cello), collectively known as Trio NeuKlang. In South Africa for the first time, the trio took the time to chat to My View last week.

In 1998, it was the universe effectively, who put the trio together. Given their respective skills, Jachmann and Abramson were approached separately to premier a new work by contemporary German composer, Georg Katzer.

“We met each other in rehearsal,” remembers Berlin-born Jachmann (35). “Had we stayed within that framework, there would not have been much for us to do: the trio is an unusual combination of instruments; there are not many pieces composed for a clarinet, concert accordion and ‘cello.” But the premier went well and music organisers’ ears pricked up, the world over.

Their first international invitation as a result of this performance was to Japan. “We told the festival director in Japan that we only have the one piece and it is very modern,” Hornig takes the story’s reins. “He replied, ‘Yes, well. Japan is a very modern country. It will work out well.

“But a few weeks before the festival, he came to Berlin to find out what we were doing, and … well, he said Japan’s not that modern after all. And he asked us if we could play something ‘normal’ instead. And so this was the start of us arranging things, for our instruments. After a while, we added some jazz chords and tango rhythms, which is how we came to be where we are now.”

Says Abramson (40), who also rearranges the music: “The challenges of rearranging the work are not that difficult. The accordion is like a little orchestra all of its own. The ‘cello is the bass, and I have the solo in clarinet. It’s not that difficult. The left hand of the accordion is very near to the ‘cello, and the sound mixes very well.”

Born in Moscow, Abramson immigrated to Berlin as a child, with his parents. “It was a time when a lot of Russians were immigrating to Germany,” he says, which made it possible for him to experience the best of both worlds in terms of music education.

Both he and Kornig (30) were educated at the same professional music school, ten years apart. Born near Kassel, the son of an actor and an amateur musician, Hornig remembers moving around a lot as a small child. Berlin became his home when he was a teenager.

“My first ‘cello was like a viola with a stick,” he grins. He joined the trio in 2004.

Speaking of the trio’s unique sound, Jachmann says that it is “a bit more of symphonic than a conventional piano trio, because the sound of the accordion is closer to that of woodwinds.

“The novelty of our trio – NeuKlang means ‘new sound’ – was the combination of instruments; it’s all new. But it’s still developing. We can’t say what we will be doing in five years from now,” he grins.

You think of the idea of a German trio calling themselves NeuKlang and in your mind, you might conjure up an image of three proto-Dadaists of the teens of the twentieth century, wearing leder hosen, out to reinvent the world, armed with skills and beliefs.

You’d be only a little wrong: not that Jachmann, Hornig and Abramson are Dadaists, or that they wear trousers made of stiff leather, but rather because they’re deeply savvy as to the value of culture and how it conflates with music.

The accordion’s an unusual instrument, says Jachmann. “It’s not very loved, nor very popular, but there have been other developments over the last several decades with good accordion players who were keen to get it into the canon of serious instruments, so it’s no surprise we found each other playing contemporary music. Original compositions for this instrument all date back just 50 years.”

These days, the accordion has become something of an avant-garde trendsetter and the folksy instrument it was has been pushed and pulled into a variety of contemporary directions, but nothing’s that simple, Jachmann explains: “On the one hand you have this folk music thing. And on the other, you have this modern contemporary thing which wants to be serious and has nothing! To! Do! With! Folk! Music! At! All!” he shouts, emphasising the purists’ viewpoint, but not without irony.

“It also has nothing to do with money,” interjects Abramson, with not a little dollop of cynicism.

“If you compare German folk music to that of Italy or France,” Jachmann adds, speaking of how the Third Reich’s history sullied its reputation. “It’s less vivid. It’s rather a different kind of a thing, and it fits more into museums than on the street.

“In Germany you have serious music on the one hand and not-so-kosher volk music on the other. The accordion knows both worlds. Not only in Germany but in other countries too: from Russian to Argentina, it’s a part of popular culture, and fits neither in one world nor another. This is what we do: get two worlds in dialogue with one another, and see what happens.

“When you’re in the audience,” he adds, “You might not notice these things consciously. But listening to music is not about thinking. It’s about feeling something which you can say ‘oh! That spoke to me!’ and often you can’t explain why.” That’s the trio’s magic.

But what brings them to Africa? In short, a youtube video. Some time ago, the trio embarked on a project: a bit of a lark, but also a bit of a promotional exercise, it’s a four minute mash-up of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the tango, which you can see here.

In it, they take the weather indicated in the work to heart, playing in fountains and car washes, on fake snow and in direct sun. “Hermann van Niekerk, the promoter of the Sasolburg Theatre saw this video by chance on youtube,” says Hornig, “He’s loves the accordion. And one thing led to another.”

Technology today makes the world turn, Jachmann grins: “We’re living in a time of globalisation with all its effects. The music is a by-product of this interconnectivity and it is universal.”

The repertoire for the JMS concert draws from the trio’s second CD, entitled Goodbye Astor. It’s a tribute to the influence quintessential Argentinean tango composer Astor Piazzola (1921-1992) has had on their work, but it’s also testament to where that work is currently going.

“If you don’t want to just play stuff other people with other instruments have played before,” says Jachmann. “What do you do? We thought: what could be new? What could be interesting for us and the audience? It was a collaborative decision to blend classical music with tango lingo. We put it out there, and said ‘let’s see what will happen. Nikolaj started arranging and everything fell into place.”

Retrospectively, it feels obvious: if you have an accordion, it always seems to shout out Piazzolla! even before you take it out of its case.

Says Abramson: “We combined it a consideration of Piazzolla and how he influenced other classical music, and we got this feedback which said Piazzolla’s nice, but this is more. It’s our goodbye and thank you to Piazzolla for everything,” he laughs.

Goodbye Astor comprises arrangements by us,” adds Jachmann. “It’s still tango, but it’s also something else. Something I can’t describe in words.”

Each piece on the programme is dedicated to the composer from whom the music derives, says Hornig. “Schubert, Brahms, Bach … in a tango net.”

Jachmann laughs. “It’s a bit of a trial to see how South African audiences respond to it. In Germany, the very conservative audiences love us most, as they have knowledge and can recognise the classic originals. It’s then when the fun really starts.”

But this kind of mash-up is no joke, or self-indulgent trick. “It’s very easy to do a crossover thing with some melody,” he adds. “But if you want to take the music you are playing seriously, you must get into proper dialogue with it. We respect the music. We’re looking forward to playing for an audience, who does too.”

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Lessons of love and music

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WITS Trio at work: Malcolm Nay (on piano), Zanta Hofmeyr (on violin) and Maciej Lacny (on ‘cello). Photograph courtesy Maciej Zenon Lacny.

UNEQUIVOCALLY, IT IS the work of Schubert that violinist Zanta Hofmeyr gravitates toward, if she has to think of music that will last her a lifetime. Hofmeyr, a member of the Wits Trio, which comprises also pianist Malcolm Nay, who is also a professor of music at Wits, and ‘cellist Maciej Lacny, took some time last week to speak to My View. The trio performs its annual concert next Sunday at Wits University.

“Schubert is so precise. Even renowned piano teacher Pauline Nossel insists on teaching music from that era – for technique. That’s where you hone an artist. To really clean the playing. There is no room for unnecessary mannerisms. I’m also a big Brahms fan. And Beethoven. These composers are about extreme awareness of colour, of proportion, of phrasing, of precision and of intonation.”

The eldest of eight children, to a couple who were church organists and pianists in their spare time, Hofmeyr was born in 1962 and raised on Johannesburg’s West Rand. She speaks of the imperatives in place in her life as a child. “We all started with piano at the age of six or seven. And then after two years, we could decide whether we wanted to learn a second instrument.

“There was a violin at home; I chose it when I was 10. I never hated it, but I found it difficult to play. I still do. By nature, I’m a sucker for challenge; the instrument’s difficulty was what hooked me.”

Hofmeyr doesn’t stint in acknowledging the value of well-funded music centres in the schools when she was a child. “Being white in South Africa under apartheid, we had so much privilege. Our teachers were all people from the then SABC national orchestra.”

These included Czech teacher Eva Hescova and later, Vincent Frittelli, then the SABC’s concert master. “Eva really pulled the trigger for my whole career. She really inspired me.

“Vincent started me on open strings, scales and studies. He focused on technique. And he was taught by no less than Ivan Galamian – possibly the greatest strings teacher the world has ever known. Galamian also taught such performers as Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Heifetz; it was under Vincent’s tuition for five years that I developed as a performer.”

A scholarship at the age of 15 to the Interlocken Festival in Michigan over nine weeks, and time with the World Youth Orchestra opened her skills to rapidly learning new works from composers of the ilk of Béla Bartók, Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky and César Franck. During that year, she also played with the National Youth Orchestra.

“For the first time in my life,” she remembers, “I heard and played in a performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’s organ symphony. I was playing in the World Youth Orchestra in the first violin section and I just sat there and sobbed as I played. I was overwhelmed. I’d never heard anything like it before. It was so beautiful.

“It was also the first time in my life that I experienced doing music from 7 in the morning until 10 at night. Nothing else. When my father came to fetch me at the airport, my mind was made up. I said: ‘Papa, I am going to be a musician.’ That was all.”

Hofmeyr’s career developed rapidly after she finished school. On the advice of Frittelli, she applied for a scholarship at the Cleveland Institute. During that year, which was also her matric year, she entered and won several competitions, which enabled her to study in America; she speaks briefly of the value of the competition in the concert world.

“Nothing would make you practise as hard as a competition, so it lifts your level of performance. If you win, it opens up a lot of doors. If you don’t, you must accept it: but it’s good experience and you’re playing better than you otherwise would have.”

But it’s not a magic pill. “Even for competition winners, building a career depends on your own initiative. So in South Africa, we have this situation where we don’t have agents for classical musicians and even now, after a career of 40 years, each year, I have to apply to every person who has a concert series.”

But performing keeps you humble, she says. “It forces you to keep your feet flat on the ground.”

Speaking of humility, Hofmeyr flits understatedly over the five years she studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, from the age of 18. “It was my dream come true,” she adds gently.

Violin is one thing, piano’s another, and over the years, Hofmeyr kept up with her piano studies, learning with one Tannie Ria de Klerk in the West Rand before she switched to Peggy Haddon.

“I’m a more natural pianist than I am a violinist. I pick up piano quickly, but I have to practise violin a lot. If I don’t, I lose it like that,” she clicks her fingers. “The hard work is lonely. But it is worth it.”

Hofmeyr’s involvement in the Wits Trio goes back more than 20 years. In 1996, she began collaborating with Wits music professor, Malcolm Nay. The duo grew to a trio, soon after, when they welcomed ‘cellist Marion Lewin into their repertoire, and later ‘cellist Heleen du Plessis.

“Malcolm has been pivotal in this experience and the history of this trio,” she says commenting on Nay’s his strong musical personality and influence, as, she says often happens in a trio of this nature, where the pianist is central.

“About six years ago, Robert Brooks from MIAGI introduced us to Maciej Lacny, a Polish ‘cellist. He’s married to Khanyisile Mthethwa, the flautist. At first we didn’t know each other; our performance styles were different, but he’s a phenomenal ‘cellist. It’s been a very adventurous five years, during which time, we have become stylistically closer. I can best refer to the trio as dynamic: we each have strong personalities, which makes listening to our performances a very exciting experience.”

The trio’s repertoire includes all the Brahms trios, Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ trio, which Johannesburg Music Society audiences were privileged to hear earlier this year, some Beethoven trios … “The repertoire gets richer as we perform,” she says. “We’ve come closer to each other, stylistically, over the years. Chamber music is very stimulating for each individual in a trio. It’s a fantastic form of music as there are no hiding places and everyone has to be at their best.

“In the concert on Sunday, we play trios by Beethoven, Hendrik Hofmeyr and Schubert – that trio was written in the year before his death. They are huge works, very beautiful and mature.”

Hofmeyr is frank in acknowledging the overwhelming whiteness and increasing age of South African classical music audiences right now, but she doesn’t agree that it’s pervasive or eternal.

“I am a patron of the Thabang Kammino project hosted by St Matthew’s School in Soweto, but not a lot of publicity reaches them. St Matthew’s is a Catholic school, run by the Sisters of Mercy; the music project was started by one of the nuns, Sister Berchmans in 2000. She’s now a woman in her 80s, but she still feels that every child should be exposed to a musical education. She is like a snowball, rolling and gathering students. And she’s completely savvy that this music project is not about developing performers. It’s about planting seeds in young people’s sensibilities. And growing audiences.”

Books that redefine the universe

By Sinead Fletcher

  • Sinead Fletcher is a third year fine arts student at the University of Johannesburg who recently took part in the Arts Writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen.
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A man for all books: Professor Buzz Spector. Photograph by Sinead Fletcher.

“MAKE YOUR OWN book, Buzzy,” was the instruction that a three-year-old Buzz Spector remembers most clearly as the trigger that started his illustrious career as a book artist.  Arguably one of the superstars of the Booknesses Colloquium and Exhibition – currently on show in Johannesburg – Spector spoke to My View whilst he was in South Africa for the opening and conference hosted at the end of March.

His mother’s instruction came with his first 16-page, brown craft paper book that was sewn with red yarn. This was the paper in which his three-year-old’s sister’s diapers, freshly delivered from the laundry came wrapped in. Spector explains that this moment and this investment of a kind of creative autonomy, planted the seeds of interest which began his exploration and fascination with the book.

These days, armed with qualifications in the field from the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and the University of Chicago, Spector, who is currently a professor of art at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art at Washington University in St Louis, enjoys exploring the making of artists books by way of altering already established archival, record keeping encyclopaedias and almanacs, which boast graphically and typographically identical layouts. Working with great writing – philosophical or fiction – is a difficult process, he says,  as it requires him to explore and read the texts carefully and deeply.

Not every book that makes for great reading served his purposes though. Many do not “suit my method,” he says, explaining that he can go many years before finding books which are suitable for his forms of book alteration. The criteria which Spector follows to find his ideal book include the institutional nature of the text, the quality of paper that the text is printed on, the sturdiness of the binding, the physical properties of the dust jacket and the presence or absence of mould or mildew.

“All of these concerns, from root materiality to critical reading, have to be in play for the work to begin.”

Spector knows South African art making well. He considers Willem Boshoff, who he’s known since 1995 a “kindred spirit”. Articulating great admiration for the work of William Kentridge, Spector also mentioned that recently he has become more aware of books made by artists such as Stephen Hobbs and Stephan Erasmus.

Having worked at a few paper mills, over the years, including Dieu Donné in Brooklyn, New York, Spector says he has been “impoverished” with his selections of paper thus far and is now “looking for the buffet” after being exposed to the work of Mary Hark and other young South African artists.

Describing the Booknesses Colloquium as having had a quality of urgency that showed both in the enormous emotional investment of professionals associated with the University of Johannesburg people – David Paton especially – and in artist book collector Jack Ginsberg’s desire to enable the exhibit to spark a transformative social interest in South Africa, he said this urgency was reflected a sense of caring and desire which, within the international community, he explains, “promotes urgency in reawakening our interest to go out and promote our practise.”

Spector spoke of the multiple panels in the Colloquium, which focused on a rich mêlée of books-related issues, including the notion of the book’s relevance to culture as well as the problem of the book being exhibited as a stillness of form whose “meaning arises in motion.”

  • The Booknesses exhibition, comprising the collection of Jack Ginsberg and curated by David Paton, is on show at the FADA Gallery on the Bunting Road Campus of the University of Johannesburg and the UJ Gallery on the Kingsway Campus, until May 5. Contact David Paton on: dpaton@uj.ac.za or 082 888 4859. Or visit website: http://www.theartistsbook.org.za/

Journey to humanity’s heart, with a lens

By Israel Bansimba

  • Israel Bansimba is a third year fine art student at the University of Johannesburg, who took part in the arts writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen earlier this year.
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MAN with an eye for dance: Seasoned dance photographer, Denis Rion. Photograph courtesy youtube.com

THE MAGIC OF making a photograph work, according to Nantes-based veteran dance photographer Denis Rion (59), happens in the way in which it can capture light and movement. He was seduced by the medium at a young age and realised early on that this would be a lifelong affair. Rion was in South Africa for this year’s Dance Umbrella, as he collaborated with Gaby Saranouffi and Moeketsi Koena on their work Corps. He chatted to My View about his career behind the lens and in front of dancers.

“Dance is a fundamental element of the culture and identity of each country I have visited,” he says, speaking of how his career has taken him all over the world. He is interested in capturing gestures and movement and his work’s resonance with the dance world felt natural from the start. His work has been characterised by his desire to capture and reflect on the idea of ‘the other’.

Characteristic of Rion’s dance photography is the black background. He explains this, deeming that blackness as neutral: “If the background is the decor, there is the subject plus the decor, but I’m only interesting at the subject, that’s why I use the black background in general.”

On his website, he comments: “My photos offer a still picture of what is most live in us: flesh and emotions, materials and colour, which highlight the magnificent force of movement and gesture, the richness of the diversity of body expression, like a journey to the heart of humanity.”

  • Rion’s work can be seen this week with the performance of Corps, danced by Gaby Saranouffi and Moeketsi Koena in Infecting the City, April 5, 7 at Artscape, Cape Town. Visit infectingthecity.com/2017/

How to put on that tutu and dance, in spite of everything

By Assent Menwe

  • Assent Menwe is a third year fine arts student at the University of Johannesburg. She took part in the arts writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen.
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PAINTING and dance, courage and tutus: Tamara Osso. Photograph courtesy http://www.thatspace.co.za

TAMARA OSSO’S NEW work, Tutu, which debuted at the 29th Dance Umbrella earlier this month, is backed by a tale of escaping and reorganising social, cultural and personal structures and a focus on the complexity of the ease or difficulty with which the body moves. Osso spoke to My View about painting and dance, tutus and tradition, paralysis and movement earlier this month prior to the performance of her work at the Nunnery.

The work, choreographed by Shanell Winlock-Pailman and Laura Cameron is directed by Osso. It comprises four danced characters: the aloof woman, the busy lady, the man who doesn’t want to be seen and the unstable man. It is performed by Winlock-Painlman and Cameron as well as Nathan Botha and Kgotsofeleng Moshe.

Osso’s inspiration to write the story behind this piece came from her own practise in visual art and her love for movement: in addition to her dance credentials – she learnt classical ballet as a child and has been associated with several contemporary dance companies in South Africa, including Ballet Theatre Afrikan, Free Flight Dance Company, La Rosa Spanish Company and Moving Into Dance Mophatong – she graduated with a Fine Arts degree from Wits University in 2014. Blending her visual art with her dance-based endeavours, Osso is intent on creating a dance language which is fresh and unique.

Expressing frustration with her ideas that have often been forced to leap beyond the boundaries of being paintings, she says that some of her paintings were compromised because she felt an urgent need to express herself through bodily movement as well as with paint on canvas.

But this frustration and sense of urgency to use as much of her energy as possible in creating her work, rests also on her personal circumstances. The mother of a young boy with hemiplegia which is a condition that causes one side of the body to be paralysed, Osso focused Tutu specifically around not being able to move properly. Her gesture reaches from the personal into the universal: We can all relate to feeling physically limited or stuck; effectively our sense of stability in the world is one of the powerful factors that makes us relate to ourselves and how we experience life.

Under Osso’s directorial hand, Tutu describes how we all move differently; some faster and more slowly, based on our personal vulnerability.

Forever Bach

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A well-mannered clavier: Pianist Joanna MacGregor. Photograph courtesy youtube.com

HEAD OF PIANO at the Royal Academy of Music in London, Joanna MacGregor (b. 1959) knew from her early childhood that piano was her first love. Prior to her arrival in Johannesburg, she responded to questions from My View about the flamboyance and fierceness but also the humour of folk traditions, the magic of the mazurkas of Chopin and the inimitable brilliance of Bach. She performs a recital for the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival in partnership with the Johannesburg Musical Society, on February 4.

“I played all kinds of instruments when I was young – guitar, violin, recorder, percussion – but I always knew the piano is like a universe,” she says. “And that’s partly because it represents so many different styles of music: Classical, gospel and blues, jazz and contemporary music.”

Her mother taught her music when she was a very little girl, she won a scholarship to study at South Hampstead High School as an 11-year-old and went on to Cambridge and the Royal College of Music. But it was in accompanying people – engaged in everything from choral work to dance, cabaret to amateur performances of pop songs – that she was able to diversify her approach to music and develop her wide range of musical interests.

MacGregor is known as a teacher with a great sense of proactively making music fun for children, a composer of music for theatre, and a playwright. On a lark, she wrote a radio play about Parisian avant-garde 1920s composer Erik Satie in 1990, entitled Memoirs of an Amnesiac, which starred Jim Broadbent in the character of Satie, which went on to bag a Sony Award.

MacGregor is married to theatre director Richard Williams and she loves the tool of the written word almost as much as she loves that of the musical note. As a teenager, she earned an income writing music for theatre productions, which later developed into writing for film and television as well.

“Really, it was a way to earn money and space to practice,” she adds, referring obliquely to her diversity of skills which include conducting and curating festivals. “And once I started touring a lot, from my mid-20s onward, I stopped.”

One of the first artists chosen for the Young Concert Artist Trust in 1985, MacGregor has, over the prolific trajectory of her career, performed in more than 70 countries with the world’s best orchestras and conductors of the ilk of Pierre Boulez, Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Colin Davis, Michael Tilson Thomas and more. But her enthusiasm for the quirkiness of Satie has lingered as has her interest in the theatre. From Brian Eno to Mozart, oud performances and lute compositions to collaborations with electronica artists, MacGregor’s enthusiasm for all things that feed the rich fabric of music is boundless.

Awarded an OBE in 2012, MacGregor is a frequent British radio and television broadcaster. Currently she is working on the score of a ballet choreographed by Kim Brandstrup, alongside the writer Marina Warner.

Her repertoire in Saturday evening’s concert engages with the folk theme of the Mozart Festival. “The origins of dance connect across Piazzolla’s tangos and Chopin’s Mazurkas, as well as Satie’s Gnossiennes, Ligeti’s Opus 1 Music Ricercata tussles with all kinds of Hungarian folk music, in his inimitable way: funny and furious at the same time,” she says. But ultimately it is the jazziness of Bach that keeps her focused all the time.

“Bach is like the Godfather of the piano canon,” she says. “By playing him I can instantly hear other composers too, from Mozart and Piazzolla to Theolonius Monk and Arvo Pärt. And it’s so rewarding technically, musically and spiritually.”

MacGregor is celebrated for her Bach interpretations and recordings, particularly the famous Goldberg Variations, which she performed under invitation from Sir John Eliot Gardiner to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in 2013 and his Well-Tempered Clavier which she filmed for BBC television.

She speaks in her fabulous North England accent, allowing the words to thrill and sparkle over one another in her enthusiasm and knowledge of the intricacies of the music, but when she sits down to play, as the many YouTube videos online demonstrate, the notes simply take over.

The Universe in a Musical Chord

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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