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AOI Honorary Professor Michael Blake releases new CD


The Philosophy of Composition, Michael Blake’s works for cello and piano, performed by Friedrich Gauwerky (cello) and Daan Vandewalle (piano). Read Stephanus Muller’s liner notes here.

Michael Blake, born in 1951 in Cape Town, is South African composition’s most important link to the American and British experimental traditions of the second half of the twentieth century. It is a connection that derives as much from the composer’s temperament and aesthetic sensibility, as from more conscious decisions relating to the socio-political positioning of composition. As regards the former, Blake’s affinity with composers like Charles Ives and John Cage precedes his mature engagements with these composers through an embrace of certain qualities of openness relating to musical structure and material that can be heard throughout the works recorded on this CD. As for the latter, unlike many of his white South African contemporaries, Blake (who left South Africa for London in 1977 after working in relative isolation as a self-taught composer) never developed a compositional aesthetic paranoically indifferent to socio-political concerns. He already started exploring African aesthetics and composition techniquesin 1976, and although he doesn’t write political music like, say, Mauricio Kagel (another of his important influences), the music supports a permeable boundary with the socio-political sphere that is enabling of aesthetic iterativeness to broader complexity. After his return to South Africa in 1998, this embrace of contingency was expressed not only aesthetically, but also in establishing structures that helped to promote South African new music internationally. Bounded openness pertains to the works brought together on this CD through considerations of form and structure, manipulation of musical parameters, broadly promiscuous referentiality involving eclectic repertoires and the implicit acceptance that the aesthetic is contingent.


The earliest work presented on the CD, song without words (track 7), a student work for cello and piano composed in 1975 and premiered by the composer (piano) and its dedicatee Kálmán Richter (cello) at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1977, references this openness through a deconstruction of musical foreground and background, a playful discovery of melodic inventiveness in fragments of accompaniment, a finely calibrated automised movement subjected to Ivesian chordal shards and rhythmic splutterings, and ironic references of a nineteenth century repertoire scattered like little sculptures in an open musical space. A response of sorts to Mauricio Kagel’s Programm: Gespräche mit Kammermusik, song without words demonstrates deconstruction, playfulness, irregularity (rhythmically and in other musical parameters), irony and a postmodern referential sensibility. It is significant that these aesthetic elements are already clearly in evidence in the work of the twenty-four year old composer, who was yet to be confirmed in his tastes by a thorough knowledge of musical developments elsewhere in the world.


Apart from song without words, the seven other works recorded on this CD date from between 2008 and 2016, a period of mature compositional activity book-ended by the composer’s retirement to the village of Hout Bay near Cape Town late in 2008, and relocation to France in 2015. Connectivity (2008, track 2), still composed in Johannesburg before his relocation to the Cape, is a contemplative miniature dedicated to Mark Troop and composed for the New Music Indaba (a New Music festival founded by Blake in 2000) Messiaen centenary. The sonorities in the piece are derived from the chords of Louange à l’éternité de Jésus, the fifth movement of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, recombined in original ways. It is not difficult to hear the evocation of the French composer’s religious mysticism in the piano’s bell-like chords and meditative approach to time, but the minimalist means (widely spaced chords with open octaves in the high register, melodic s constricted by scalar movement, ascetic coloration of sonorities, small-scale form) is closer to Morton Feldman than Messiaen. The open form, for Blake, also concerns the creation of musical fields where the activities of listening back and listening together are enabled not as narrative, but as something akin to inhabiting sound fields reflexively. In Connectivity the extremely sparing use of all musical materials – pitch, rhythm, colour – is characteristic of much of the composer’s work of smaller scale.


The Philosophy of Composition (track 1), which borrows its title from a 1846 essay by Edgar Allan Poe, suggests a musical process interested only in the process itself, more particularly the integrity of the musical thought process as one unconcerned with political or aesthetic outcome. Composed in 2009 for the South African performers Berthina van Schoor (cello) and Albie van Schalkwyk (piano) and performed by them for the first time that same year in the Miriam Makeba Hall in Pretoria, The Philosophy of Composition indulges the composer’s interest in compositional process as an intensively choreographed response to material. The possibilities of both cello and piano are considered philosophically as an enquiry in and of itself without consideration for utilitarian or teleological consequences. This making of work that consigns ‘work-like properties’ (like development, repetition, structural coherence and ultimately formal enclosement) to a secondary status relational to sound observations, is what The Philosophy of Composition seems to profess. Ending such a process of sound-centred thinking is as arbitrary as the pp to ppp pizzicato chords of the last bars of the piece, interspersed with the piano’s musings on the (un)importance of E (F flat) or E flat as the appropriate point to allow the musical exploration to rejoin the world. Except that the composer seems to have started composing the work from the end, making the ending the portal to the discovery of the work. The Philosophy of Composition is dedicated to the poet Don Maclennan, a close friend of the composer who died while the work was being composed.


There are four solo pieces on this CD (two for piano, two for cello), of which track 4, A Fractured Landscape (in memoriam Edward Said), is the first. The first four bars reference African compositional technique in the interlocking rhythmic patterns (the score specifies ‘Weaving’ as character designation). The sound is not unlike nostalgic Nancarrow-like piano roll automation, and it revels in a level of piano percussiveness and angularity that is, at the same time, not abrasively modernist. A Fractured Landscape (composed in 2010) alternates between fragments of such apparent auto-propulsion, violently imposed chordal sonorities and pensively distanced static chords that draw on wide spacing and extreme registral placement as canvas for immobile sonorities. The musical fragment as fracture is presented in this piece as a site for commemoration of the Palestinian intellectual-writer who did probably more than any other to raise consciousness about the plight of the Palestinian people, about the invidious continuity of orientalist patterns of thinking in contemporary Western policies towards the Middle-East and the redemptive qualities and horizons of possibility he believed music to have. Something of this generally humanist belief in art is heard in the Brahmsian pianistic flourish close to the end of the work, confirming Blake’s affection with various aspects of nineteenth century aesthetics and referencing Adorno’s ‘late style’ Beethoven writings that Said had commented on in illuminating reflections contained in his book On Late Style. At the end of A Fractured Landscape, the Brahmsian reference constitutes an endearing gesture, precisely because it cannot be believed. In the fractured landscape of displacement, the fragment provides no home. The music remains suspended, out of place. It is a music of exile.


Inasmuch as Blake’s collaboration with pianist Daan Vandewalle enabled him to conceive of pianistic possibilities beyond his own capacity (nowhere better illustrated than in the Piano Sonata (choral) of 2008), it was his writing of the solo cello work Pentimenti (track 3) for Friedrich Gauwerky in 2013 during a residency at the Nirox Sculpture Park close to Johannesburg, that enabled him fully to explore the expressive breadth of the cello. Dedicated to the composer’s wife, the esteemed music scholar Christine Lucia, the work was first performed by Gauwerky during a South African tour in 2013. Gauwerky’s virtuosity enabled Blake to develop the ambition for the work in the direction of a systematic exploration of extended techniques for the instrument, resulting an austere succession of challenges for the cellist that creates a choreographed artisanal laboratory of elemental sounds (a project not unrelated to the fact that the music was intended to mark the 29 May 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps). The title, Pentimenti, is supposed to refer to the remnants of an earlier composition for cello and small ensemble in this solo work, pushing the limits of solo cello playing to exhausting physical extremes with constant alternation between arco and pizzicato. The ‘imagined accompaniment’ of the earlier version (the work is for solo cello and imagined accompaniment) presents itself in once case as extended passages of fiendishly difficult left hand pizzicati interspersed with single bowed notes. At nearly 15 minutes, Pentimenti is a radical manifestation of Blake’s lifelong interest in writing music for specific performers. More than any other work on the CD, it shows his how open form results from an uninhibited response to the virtuosic capabilities of the performer as determining factor for privileging ‘technical alterations’ as the goal of – rather than the means to – composition.


Blake’s cello duo partner from his student days, Kálmán Richter, is the dedicatee of the richter scale, composed in Bellagio in 2015 (track 5) In this small work for solo cello, the very opposite in emotional tenor to Pentimenti, the composer uses the musical letters of his friend’s name (A-C-H-E) in a miniature reflection on friendship and memory in all sorts of permutations of these pitches. Blake is a superb miniaturist, a technique and aesthetic not confined to the use of short forms, but encompassing an ability to present musical material that could almost be described as ‘naturalist filigree’ in highly refined forms. the richter scale is a prime example of this.


The Sonata for cello and piano (‘Hours with the Masters’) (track 8) is the longest work on this CD and also the only one composed specifically for these two performers and their collaborative recording project of Blake’s music. This four movement work, composed between 2015 and 2016 in Cape Town and the composer’s home in Saint-Léger Magnazeix, provides a more mature and sophisticated take on deconstruction as composition than does song without words, composed forty years earlier. Both works are intimately concerned with deconstruction as compositional technique. But whereas Mendelssohn’s music is subjected to relatively little intervention in song without words, the cello sonatas of a range of nineteenth-century composers – Beethoven in particular – and the hymns of Christian Xhosa prophet and composer Ntsikana Gaba (c. 1760-1821) are thoroughly taken apart and recomposed into the new work. If Pentimenti foregrounded experimentation with extended techniques, Sonata for cello and piano (‘Hours with the Masters’) settles into a less probing approach regarding performance technique and projects its interest towards an interrogation of music history. The first movement trawls through Reger, Weber, Brahms and Beethoven (amongst others) in rhythmic, harmonic and melodic hints and fragments. Trills, contrapuntal passages and fleeting effects evoke the Adornian image of remnants illuminated by the departing subjectivity of their maker. The second movement is a conventional Scherzo ghosting Beethoven’s op. 69. It is lively, witty and brief, with much of its character depending on a texture comprised predominantly of pizzicato and staccatos. Ntsikana’s so-called ‘Great Hymn’ –regal, exhuberent, processional – is announced in the third movement through descending glissandi on the cello surrounded by mbira-patterned high bell sounds that persist in the high register of the piano throughout the movement. Ntsikana’s hymns reappear from time to time as sweeping cantabile melodies, while the use of arco col legno evokes another Xhosa musical trope favoured by Blake, the sound of a stick beating the string of a mouth bow, or uhadi. Beethoven and Ntsikana co-habit this movement, before the last references to a European musical past disappear in the last movement, which is an impossibly tender rendition of something beyond music. The pianist is asked to stop the strings he plays, then strike the key before letting go of the string, releasing barely perceptible harmonics. At the same time the cello descends on partials, from time to time coloured radiantly when the pianist performs a line of single notes without the damping of strings. Evoking the haunting music of Xhosa bow player Nofinishi Dywili, the last movement is an x-ray revealing a bone structure of a past almost beyond the possibility of reclamation.


Seventh must Fall for solo piano (track 6) is a miniature from Blake’s ever expanding Afrikosmos Book 4. It references the South Africa student protests of 2015 and 2016, during which a first generation of so-called born-free students (those born after the political end of apartheid), took to campuses nationwide to demand free, decolonized education under the hashtag Feesmustfall. In writing a persistently falling seventh above an open fifth organum, the seventh abstracted from its semi-tonal desire to rise, falls naturally, persistently, ultimately to a major sonority. It is an appropriate metaphor for the openness that permeates this curated body of work; of how things can change for the better by falling, how beautiful falling can be and what aesthetic riches can be called forth when we open our ears to the future.


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