Stacey/Juritz/Ravens/Keller: sounds of drought and water

Talk about ‘contemporary improvised music’ to your average South African editor and you’re likely to get, at best: “so… jazz you mean?’ If you then say: ‘Not quite…” and go on to explain that it’s music that can also be heard in recital rooms, that players of what are assumed to be ‘classical’ instruments may be involved, as well as electronics, that it’s often experimental and that – heaven forbid! – it may not feature catchy pop tunes, eyes will likely glaze over. Said editor will be remembering how today’s newsfeed algorithms hate the unfamiliar and the new, before regretfully saying “Sorry…our readers won’t be interested in that…”

Of course there are exceptions. But the old mission of arts pages, to bring to readers’ attention delightful things they might not already know, has been stomped at most titles by the iron heel of analytics favouring repeats of lowest-common-denominator clickbait formulae . (That’s why, of course, we have self-reinforcing online news hate-bubbles too.) The result is that showbiz gossip, lifestyle consumerism and personality profiles reign supreme.

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Cara Stacey understands that. She just thinks it’s ironic in a country that was “the place of the Blue Notes, the subsequent extensive work of Louis Moholo-Moholo, Garth Erasmus, Mpho Molikeng, Thokozani Mhlambi, Meryl van Noie, Nkosenathi Koena…” To which you could add fearless sonic explorers from other scenes, including Tumi Mogorosi, Gabisile Motuba, Malcolm Jiyane, TBMO, more… They all sound very different from one another; they all share an interest in the possibilities of sound outside conventional envelopes. 

Stacey’s discussing her latest album release, Like the Grass, a collaboration with harpist Antonia Ravens, violinist Galina Juritz, and composer/guitarist Beat Keller, as well as producers Tom Skinner (Hello Skinny, Sons of Kemet) and Michael Marshall (Object Agency).

At the core of Like the Grass is a 23+-minute live performance of the title track, plus various edits and remixes, both for radio, and reflecting the ears of those producers. The experience of listening is very much like watching a film, and then zooming in on stills and clips that arrest you towards unexpected aspects of the original.

Stacey did the work in Basel, where she had spent two months as a composer on a Pro Helvetia Studio Residency. She was also exploring the city’s improvised music scene, playing with a large ensemble at Jazzcampus Basel, working with Keller, encountering Ravens and reuniting with longtime collaborator Juritz.

The graphic score Stacey created had its genesis in Southern Africa, where the grass is often pretty dry. She grew up in eSwatini, and before Basel had been based in Cape Town. “We had been experiencing the worst of the drought there,” she says. “as I drove to the airport, the police and army were rehearsing security drills [for managing water collection points]. As I landed in Switzerland, the sound of running water followed me through every city I visited. I was nostalgic for home, but also thinking about themes of inequality, climate variation and destruction.”

Stripsody: a graphic score by composer Cathy Berberian

Stacey was using her residency to explore the possibilities of graphic scoring as a technique. A graphic score may completely ignore the language of staff notation in favour of images and other visual elements, or may blend the two: the musicians use what they see on the music sheet to structure and inspire the direction of their playing. Graphic scoring was first developed in the 1950s and was employed by modernists such as the American John Cage. As in improvised jazz, no two performances will sound the same. But every performance will be inspired by the same visual starting-points.  There’s a neat guide here:

The umsinsi tree

Every composer’s imagery reflects what they know and have seen, and Stacey’s score “was also a way for me to play with poetic ideas around rivers, birdcall, the bright umsinsi  (‘lucky bean’) tree that signals the dryness of my childhood winters in eSwatini.” The four players came together for her final concert in Basel, on a warm Swiss night, she says “improvising freely together.” Juritz and Stacey then worked on the shorter edits needed for radio play. But they also “loved the idea of having structured and free improvisation (from the graphic score and live set) …coupled with a flip side: where producers have sat with the material for months, mulled it over, let it marinate, and then assembled it whichever way appealed to them.” The album brings both together.

(l-r) Galina Juritz, Antonia Ravens, Cara Stacey, Beat Keller

The live performance alludes to the sounds of birdsong, cicada-strings and bubbling water – but it’s not programme music where each passage is chained forever to the thing it connotes.

Just as the graphic score expresses Stacey’s ideas and memories, so the sounds open further sensoria of memories for the listener: I remembered Botswana’s dryness, not eSwatini’s, through the vividly evoked sense of place.  The sounds themselves – pipes, thumb-pianos, guitar, harp and violin – offer textures you can almost feel with your fingertips. (How images sound and how sound looks is something Stacey is exploring further on another platform, with guitarist Keenan Ahrends and artist Mazwandile Buthelezi, in The Texture of Silence, first presented at the Makhanda National Arts Festival.) The patterning of sound that defines music is rich in Like the Grass: in pulse, shape and sonic colour. 

Stacey hopes the work of the producers – I particularly loved Skinner’s edgy contrasts – will serve as a route to “crossing genres and scenes”, where listeners to both improvised concert-hall music and electronic mixes can meet “with open ears.” The lockdown virtual concert hall is precisely the kind of place where such serendipitous meetings happen…Now I just have to get a few arts editors to listen. It’s a pity algorithms don’t have ears. 

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