Thoughts on being a South African composer

If there is one thing living in the UK has taught me, it is that I am South African – proudly South African. The culture shock was unexpected, slightly unnerving, yet rewarding. It has, to use a terrible cliché, enabled me to ‘find’ myself. My identity is now firmly South African, but to what extent do I exhibit this, or reflect it. For me this is especially relevant to my composition: how, can, should I use my national identity as an influence in my writing. I don’t intend to provide answers. These are simply a series of questions as to how I can improve my writing, and maybe address in the future.

Firstly, it is important to establish my place within an incredibly diverse nation (an aspect I find particularly lacking in my new domicile). I am white, middle-class, and of Dutch and British descent. This has afforded me many opportunities not available to the vast majority of South Africans. In my skin colour I have directly benefitted from the inequality generated by the Apartheid regime.

However, I will not apologise for this, nor feel ashamed. I believe a strength of mine is that I have embraced the opportunities afforded to me – I know many of my peers with equal or more opportunities who seemingly go through life with deliberate apathy. Secondly, I was born in 1995, over a year after my country’s first democratic election. I am part of a new generation of ‘free’ South Africans. I am exceedingly proud of this, and see in this potential to liberate myself in technique and aesthetic from a Eurocentric compositional style in which I currently write.

Now for the tricky question: what is South African music? Can it be a sound? My friend, former teacher, and fellow composer Kevin Kraak, upon premiering a set of songs in the US was told that it didn’t sound African. Yet I challenge anyone to define this African sound. Can we consider a European sound fused with stereotypically African elements truly African?

Let us, for example, take the all too common trope of taking a Zulu (insert here the prejudicial word ‘native’) song and orchestrating it – not only a fault of South African composers, but also a seemingly universal device used to make composers seem more ‘worldly’. Putting aside that orchestration is an old fashioned practice at best, this is simply combining a Western idea with a sound that has roots in forcing church music and Western temperament on a people through a colonial process. It creates nothing new, nothing positive. Maybe we can go even more stereotypical. International audiences would certainly recognise a syncopated djembe rhythm with a mbira melody. However, this would be borderline racist for me to write as a white person. Even for anyone of any colour to write like this only reinforces homogenous stereotypes of such a diverse continent.

An opinion I have firmly held for years is that the impetus behind a composition is as, if not more, important than the sound or technical elements. This is an idea which I have derived from Dadaism and conceptual art. Whether or not one thinks of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain as aesthetically attractive, one cannot ignore the statement it makes, or that it is certainly the most influential art work of the 20th century. This position is simultaneously indefensible and unchallengeable, and I will attempt neither here. So: how can I use this to make a statement as a South African composer? To be honest, I am not entirely sure. However, my aim over the coming year is to begin reflecting on my place in South Africa, as well as my favourite parts of my home, and how I can discuss this aurally.

Although I believe I have found a vague hypothetical solution, the next question I have to ask is whether this is actually possible. Is it at all worthwhile pursuing this line of inquiry into a South African ‘concept’? For me thhe answer is obviously a resounding ‘yes’, evidenced by two remarkable composers of the 20th and 21st centuries – although I by no means insert myself into this category. Firstly, Louis Andriessen, arguably one of the greatest composers with regards to the integration of social issues into music – in my opinion, not a master of technique, but of concept. South African discourse, for better or for worse, is dominated by social issues. An analytical look into his aesthetics, and attempting incorporating them with research on South African sociology could be a way forward. This might not work. Perhaps a very different look at these issues is required.

The second composer I feel has mastered a national identity is Toru Takemitsu. Undoubtedly influenced by Western music, and an excellent orchestrator, his music is nevertheless unmistakeably Japanese – I don’t know how, but this is a general impression. His music often uses an incorporation of the Western orchestra, and gagaku techniques and instruments. Perhaps there is a way to successfully combine two cultures in a more literal way. Again, as a white person I have doubts about my ability to do this without appearing prejudiced, as well as my continued scepticism regarding most ‘fusion’ music.

Finally, three possible, specifically South African solutions: two of the things I a most proud of as a South African are our range of beautiful languages, and our natural environment, which I consider to be the best in the world. Languages are easy to incorporate into music, but like the example of a Zulu orchestration, this would inevitably result in an irreconcilable and ugly combination, producing nothing compelling – in this instance consider a German-style art song with isiXhosa lyrics unthinkingly inserted. Perhaps a more abstract incorporation of language could provide the solution? The natural environment is difficult to incorporate without extreme levels of abstraction – to what extent does this fall into the modernist aesthetic as art for art’s sake? Finally, something I would love to research is that of Khoi music – arguably the ‘original’ South African music, predating Bantu and European immigration. In this sense it is a music that can belong to all South Africans, used with a basis of Western art music as Takemitsu uses gagaku music.

Again, I am not attempting to provide answers, but simply asking questions. Perhaps I’ll come divine solutions. Perhaps they’ll only apply to me. Perhaps I’ll only come back with more questions. In any case, this is only the start of this route of inquiry.

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