J. BROOKS SPECTOR spends the morning with composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen and poet/librettist Brent Meersman, to get beyond the hype of their new composition, the oratorio Credo, composed to mark the 140th anniversary of the founding of the University of South Africa, as well as in honour of Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday.
A hundred and twenty years ago, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was living in New York City, having become director of the National Conservatory of Music. Dvorak was a vigorous proponent of expressing a nationalist impulse through his compositions as a leader of a broader European movement designed to mine the rich reservoir of the continent’s folk music traditions as the raw material for a new musical culture. During his time in America, he told his American composition students to go beyond a Germanic-inspired academic internationalism influence and to look, instead, to the real authenticity of the “native” musics of America – the country’s African-American spirituals and rhythms of the country’s Native Americans.
But what is it like for a South African composer seeking to deliver the authentic voice of South African contemporary classical music? Speaking with Cape Town-based composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen and writer Brent Meersman, on the morning of the premiere of their new work, Credo, the key word that comes up repeatedly during our talk about this new work is its “aspirational” quality. That the Freedom Charter itself – the inspiration and foundation for this new choral/orchestral work – is a vividly aspirational document is an obvious starting point – from the words about the country belonging to all who live in it, and then on to its ringing litany of what the nation’s people shall finally gain access to, after their years of second-class citizenship or worse.
But Ndodana-Breen’s musical approach is profoundly aspirational as well. As we speak, it becomes increasingly clear he has taken on this task – setting Meersman’s poem to his music (the poem was inspired by and draws ideas from the Charter) – in support of Ndodana-Breen’s goal of crafting a still-elusive South African contemporary classical musical repertoire and language.
But this national classical music language business is a tricky thing, however. America’s distinctive modern classical music only really came into its own – in contrast to most of what had been composed earlier – when the full impact of the musical ideas of an iconoclast like Charles Ives came together with two other divergent streams. The first of those was the unique sound of composers such as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein (with their own common thread of being musically well-trained, assimilated, big city, Jewish Americans), and the second, the African American jazz and spiritual traditions.
And so in speaking with Bongani and Brent, the first question is what, exactly, have they created with this work? What do they think they are crafting? Is it a, or the, new South African music? Why, in fact, even call it an oratorio if it is not about religion? Isn’t that a term used for music on Biblical subjects?
Meersman argues that this work is a statement of belief (even if it isn’t of formal religious beliefs). It is a summons to people to become better than they have been. Bongani chimes in that its musical shape isn’t precisely that of a cantata either, like Bach’s “Coffee Cantata,” and so maybe it is something unique. Then he adds, on the other hand, there is all that Chinese revolutionary music as a possible model. “Agitprop music?” he is asked. Well, no, not exactly. “No government official was sitting there with a ‘gun’ at our heads.” Like Madame Mao’s followers did, perhaps, to Chinese composers. “But when I saw the poem [‘Credo’, the actual basis for this oratorio] sitting on Brent’s desk, I was intrigued. We both saw a better country. And I was intrigued that a white South African was so inspired by the Freedom Charter.”
Meersman says that more and more, he thinks his fellow white South Africans are finding less and less reason to go back to the touchstone of the Freedom Charter. Bongani adds that people don’t seem to him to want to be reminded of the past. When he did his opera, Winnie, for example, people told him, ‘Who wants to tell that story?’ – despite the obvious operatic quality of The Mother of the Nation’s life story. In fact, he adds, “there is little in the classical musical world that talks about South Africa at all. Many of my colleagues find their musical reality somewhere else; many would rather be somewhere else.” He says that not only was he pleased with the diversity of those audiences for “Winnie”, he was delighted that the audience sometimes even joined in song where he had made use of recognised “struggle” songs as part of the work.
The conversation turns to consideration of another recent South African work that takes a somewhat similar approach – Philip Miller’s Rewind, a work based on transcriptions from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Bongani agrees that Rewind is a heart-wrenching work, although he says it is smaller in scale than the work to be performed later that day at the University of South Africa’s ZK Matthews Hall. The work was commissioned to celebrate UNISA’s 140th anniversary – and, now, since it opens on 18 July, Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday as well. (And, of course, black academic ZK Matthews was himself closely involved in the drafting of the Freedom Charter back in 1955.)
For this Credo, they have assembled a musical army – “an army, an army!” – Bongani shouts – of around a hundred or so people, a full orchestra, a large choir, soloists and a major technical crew for the performances. And then “Andrew [Black] and his team had to go all over the country to get the video footage. I don’t know why we do this to ourselves,” he jokes.
But how were the men’s music and text brought together into one coherent whole? Bongani smiles as if to laugh at some inner joke and says, “It’s not unknown that librettists and composers fight, but I’m sensitive that Brent was sensitive over certain words…. There’s Brent’s poem, but then we felt we should also add original parts from the Freedom Charter as well.”
Brent adds that he once heard the entire Communist Manifesto, in Swedish, performed in Yugoslavia. “I saw the limitations in that approach and one can’t do that,” he says. Meersman’s original poem is about five hundred words, but for the final text he restructured the order of the poem for the composer’s musical purposes, divided it into four acts, and then imported some of the actual text from the Charter into the final libretto.
Bongani, describing the actual composing process says that in the case of one aria he has composed for Sibongile Khumalo – one of three soloists – he knew that the music for “Around the Stone Fountain” would be right for her, right from the start. And even as he was beginning the composition process, he already had a sense of which kinds of voices and which singers he wanted for this work – Sibongile Khumalo, Monika Wassung and Otto Maidi. Speaking further of Sibongile’s vocal timbre, Bongani explains, for example, how the words, “a family with meaning, the children sleep gently” became to him a perfect union with the tone quality of the singer’s voice.
In this work, bass-baritone Otto Maidi’s role is something of the equivalent of the typical role of the Evangelist in those great Bach oratorios. The composer jokes, “he [Maidi] gets all the boring stuff like ‘monopoly industries shall be broken up,’ and ‘the banks, the industries…’ It has to be dramatic. A higher voice would be trite or shrill”. The composer jokes that maybe he’s even composed something like an anthem for Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters because it speaks so clearly of nationalisation. On the other hand, using too much of the direct text of the Charter might have sounded like lawyers singing the tax code to children.
Asked how much music from South Africa he has quoted directly, Bongani says listeners “won’t directly hear the 80s, but there is South African, the township experience, it is South African music. But yes, it is [structurally] an oratorio – there are chorales, arias and recitatives.” He adds, “there is also a truncated version of the national anthem but I’ll leave it to the audience to figure it out.”
Ndodana-Breen is known for his fondness for Beethoven, and that leads to a discussion about that earlier composer’s sense of triumphalism, or, perhaps, the feeling of inevitability in so much of his music. And that takes us to whether a work about the Freedom Charter borders on the same thing. His conclusion is that it is “triumphal idealism, a sense that we’re not going to rest until we win this thing. It’s bold… and naïve?” Brent finishes the thought saying the same word is in his poem as well. Bongani replies that it is actually more a sense of being on “the right side of history. Is it determination more than triumphalism?” he asks.
Were there many difficulties in bringing this large project to fruition? Bongani replies that of course money had to be found, especially since it was a multi-million rand project. In part this was because the creative team was determined to be involved in projects in South Africa in which people are properly compensated, rather than making them worry about their next rand.
And in musical terms, was it hard to find just the right texture? Bongani says, “I do what I want, but what helps me is memory. I grew up hearing things and they seep into the score.” He adds that like South Africa’s other younger black composers who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, he’s taken up a quality of modernist lyricism, in contrast with an older, more severe music that seems to have drawn its inspirations from the Dutch Reform Church.
At the same time, the two insist this work is an affirmative statement of belief, rather than just pure music. They are hoping the work will influence people and remind them of the core democratic values of the Freedom Charter, as Bongani says, “in a broader democratic way that we are invested in.” In comparison to the country’s constitution, a much harder document to sell via a musical composition, the Charter is an aspirational call to arms.” Meersman adds that it represents a kind of “glue, beyond race, gender, or socio-economic status. We are doing this now, we are South African; we, South Africans.”
About his music itself, Bongani explains it begins softly with an A-flat drone underpinning the words “we the people” as the music becomes a slow accumulation of voices. The temptation might have been to be bombastic, North Korean style, but the composer is convinced it was much better the other way.
Then it is time to wind things up as the two men must go to Pretoria for some final preparations, and so the last question is what comes after this work. While the composer and librettist won’t say for sure, there are still some contractual arrangements pending, we are told it will be set in South Africa’s distant past, hundreds of years ago, well before van Riebeck’s ships have set sail for the Cape; and it will be big, epic, choreographed theatrical piece – with singers, dancers and an orchestra, and set to premiere on Heritage Day 2014.
And, that first night’s performance? The audience included both South Africa’s president and deputy president; there were the obligatory speeches upon speeches, the television cameras were there to broadcast it live; and the performance included those many video images projected across the entire wall of ZK Matthews Hall. Listening carefully, one did hear those distinctive South African rhythms and melodic fragments; but there is also the clear influence of composers like Aaron Copland, Carl Orff, John Adams, and even Ralph Vaughan Williams and a bit of Richard Wagner. It is a work one would want to hear again without all the pomp and ceremony of that evening. Then one will truly be able to judge just how well all those orchestral resources work together with those vocal ones in delivering Meersman’s poetry and South Africa’s premier statement of hope and secular faith. DM
Photo: Rehearsal moments – Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Jonas Alber. Photos courtesy of Credo Production – Jonathan Andrews
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