Michael Blake and the local invisibility of South African concert music

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Composers South Africa’s Michael Blake and Tanzania’s Justinian Tamusuza on a panel at Stellenbosch in February 2019

The shameful local media neglect of South African jazz is something I’ve discussed too often before. There are no reviews, and no previews of anything but the most commercial of events, which can be monetised by selling advertising alongside. Even the upcoming Joy of Jazz – a huge event with an interesting line-up featuring local innovators and international stars – has been dealt with largely through truncated reprints of its own press releases. But at least that’s something. The profile of jazz doesn’t fare too badly when you compare it with the invisibility of some other genres – in particular, South African concert music.

I’m deliberately not using the term “classical”. That term is freighted with way too much baggage. “Classical” music is, strictly, the stuff written by European men in powdered wigs, brocade waistcoats and knee-britches between 1750 and 1830. In popular usage it’s been extended to cover music written by variously-attired European men up to around the end of the Nineteenth Century. (Ignore that Mozart and Mendelssohn both had esteemed musician sisters see https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/sep/08/lost-genius-the-other-mozart-sister-nannerl. Ignore that composers George Bridgetower and Samuel Coleridge Taylor were black see https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/who-was-samuel-coleridge-taylor-what-famous-for/ . Ignore that analogous ‘classical’ settings of court patronage and paradigms for composition and performance also existed elsewhere, for example in the historic kingdoms of East Africa, see https://www.swp-records.com/music/008/royal-court-music-from-uganda )

‘Concert’ or ‘recital’ music are far more useful terms, because they also don’t relegate the genre to a past historical era, but are informative about the contexts where it is played and heard.

There’s far more contemporary South African-composed concert music around than you might suspect. Pianist Paul Hanmer’s https://paulhanmer.wordpress.com/works/ website for example (which hasn’t even been updated for a while), lists more than a score of compositions for that, rather than his jazz context. Another composer, Clare Loveday  creates workhttp://clareloveday.co.za/compositions.html that, like Hanmer’s, , is now performed worldwide.

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Hanmer and other black concert composers such as Samora Ntsebenza, Lloyd Prince and Sibusiso Njeza might not have grown in that direction without work at the early editions of South Africa’s New Music Indaba in Makhanda, whose architect was another internationally feted South African composer, Cape Town-born Michael Blake http://www.michaelblake.co.za/biography. Blake himself, currently a member of the Africa Open Institute at Stellenbosch University, released a new recording recently: The Philosophy of Composition, with cellist Freidrich Gowerky and pianist Dean Vandewalle https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8432734–michael-blake-the-philosophy-of-composition .

Follow the links to compositions by Blake, Loveday, Hanmer or others and you’ll rapidly realise that contemporary concert music has an astonishingly broad sound palette: acoustic and electronic, melodic and atonal, lush and arid – or bits of all of these. Somewhere, you’ll probably find music you like. For example, Blake’s track A Fractured Landscape (in memoriam Edward Said) recalls the African roots of some piano-precursor keyed instruments with its interlocking introductory patterns. By the end, it feels as if it’s referencing the Romantic composer Brahms, in allusion to Said’s book On Late Style. But, comments sleeve-note writer Stephanus Muller, the tensions in the music give neither element a comfortable home: “It is a music of exile”, just as Said’s life as a Palestinian-American was. The closing track Seventh Must Fall has the musical motif of a falling seventh, but an inescapable, implicit subtext about the possibilities for beauty-in-change that open when things (a musical idiom, fees, Rhodes…) fall.

Nobody knows what they’ll like until they get the chance to hear it, and prophets are rarely honoured in their own country. The point of this post was not only to share news of a recording of South African music that I enjoyed greatly, but to ask why access to this kind of music – and even to news about it – is so limited. Isn’t that the kind of responsibility that the SABC, our national broadcaster, due shortly to receive more wads of rescue cash, should be accepting? Couldn’t covering every area of South African music be one of the conditions for those wads of cash?

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