Not entirely omniscient
20 March 2018 15:43 (South Africa)
Life, etc

Portrait of an Artist as a Composer-in-Residence

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Life, etc

The Daily Maverick’s J. BROOKS SPECTOR spoke with Clare Loveday, Composer-in-Residence for the annual Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, a few days before the debut of her newest work, a concerto for piano and chamber ensemble. Loveday speaks passionately about her obssessions with composing, and what drives her to do this most mysterious of art forms.

Clare Loveday is talking with us as we relax over coffee in a sunny Johannesburg garden, just a few days before her specially commissioned concerto for piano and chamber orchestra for the sixth Johannesburg International Mozart Festival has its first public performance. In this wide-ranging conversation, we begin with an understanding of just how difficult it is for a contemporay serious music composer to actually make a living as a composer – as opposed to being a university professor who finds time to compose in between teaching duties. Our starting point is word we have heard that yet another leading South African composer had just received the European royalties for performances of one of his major compositions - in the princely sum of nine euros and some change.

With that as a sobering introduction, the question on the table is how does a composer actually make a living? Loveday’s short answer is, “You can’t”, that is, unless you have a second source of income or a rich spouse. As a result, university teaching keeps the field going, but that has dangerous implications too. Composers who are resident in universities often find themselves being challenged to justifiy the importance of such work.

That leads to the question of how contemporary composers will ever be able to expand the audience for contemporary classical or serious music in a place like South Africa, beyond its aging base of support? How does one gather a newer, younger, hipper, more representative audience more like this country? “You just have to work harder and attract people by telling them what this music is about,” she says. “I don’t mean this in a patronising way. This ‘teaching’ is in the way of drawing people into how something like this is exciting; this is why I do this, it is wonderful and exciting -  to draw them into the conceptual thinking.” Loveday’s comments hark back to the astonishing way conductor Leonard Bernstein had so famously used his special presence in the US on television. Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, on live TV, his musical explorations had drawn on Beethoven’s own noteboooks to show how the composer had kept editing, changing, adding and subtracting the content of the music in one of his symphonies until he got it just right.

But returning to the difficulties of locating universities as the centre for new serious music, Loveday says that composers find that they have to “puff up what they do. It has to be mysterious. There is a real reluctance to show people what you do, in case they understand what you do isn’t so erudite.”  We speak about the connections between the avant garde in classical music and jazz composition and she adds, “Sometimes people want composition to be more mysterious than it really is.”

So what gets her started when she begins one of her compositions? It is “a blank page and a lot of swearing,” she jokes. More seriously, she says, “I look for something that hooks me into the piece. I look for a way into the piece and it is usually an outside idea, or a little musicial gesture, a little five-note something.” Like that famous musical phrase, for example, in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” that is the key to communicating with the aliens, I ask. “Uh, no, not really but, I look for something that makes me think, ‘That’s nice! There is that little tingle, but then maybe it doesn’t go anywhere, and that’s where the swearing starts.’ ” Her eyes light up thinking of the wonders of the compositional process.

Loveday now writes a significant number of her compositions for the saxophone. “Really? The saxophone?” she is asked. Perhaps thinking about her new commission, Loveday explains it is really hard to write a piano concerto these days because, “there are so many of them already and they are so good, and what on earth can I add to this…. I love the classical saxophone, it doesn’t go back centuries. The thing about the saxophone is, I love its jazz associations and its intrigue…. And there is a whole lot of space in-between the constraints and structures for wonderful things to happen.”

She adds that after twenty years of composing, she says that sometimes she’ll think she’s finally over her love affair with the saxophone, and then she hears the sounds of the sax yet again, and it is love all over again. We laugh as the question seems to come up naturally, what would have happened, for example, if Chopin had had the saxophone to write for? Chopin’s own live performances on the piano were legendary, of course. Whenever and wherever he performed his magic on the keyboard, impressionable young women would throw their undergarments onto the stage in appreciation. Now, if he had composed for the sax as well, “They would have thrown themselves onto the stage”, Loveday laughs and says.

We turn to her process of composition. What goes on in her head as she creates, and how does she gather all those instrumental voices and then get them down on the musical page? “Do you hear all the sounds at the same time?” she is asked. Loveday responds by saying, “I tend to do it all at once  - sometimes it comes one measure at a time, it depends on the day. I tried once to write [compositions] for the piano and then arrange the music, but it didn’t make sense to me. I need to hear the whole chamber ensemble if I am writing for a chamber ensemble. You have to hear it in your head. The music I write is very textured, so I want the different instruments doing different things.”

And about this Mozart festival and her role in it? “The theme for the festival is ‘Un’ aura amorosa: Love’s delights and dilemmas’. It comes from a Mozart opera. As for the composer-in-residence, they commission a piano concerto. That’s your main job; but they also wanted a contribution of an interdisciplinary work. Florian [Uhlig, the German pianist who is the festival’s artistic director] is very keen to take the festival into more interdisciplinary work like the concert at the Goethe Institut,” scheduled towards the end of the festival.

She says, “What’s been so nice for me is working with an existing support structure like the Goethe. They put the installation up and they give technical assistance, and they built the scaffolding. I like things to evolve organically and Nandipha [Mntambo, the co-creator of the work] and I work the same way.” Mntambo had originally broken through to public acclaim with her evocative use of cowhide as the canvas and springboard for her works.

Returning to some background on her new concerto, Loveday says, jokingly, “They wanted the work to be for a small ensemble…rather than that people think the Mozart festival ran out of money so that they didn’t double the strings. They told me the theme was about love, but I needed to find something a little ‘scratchier’, and so I worked from some photographs by a Colombian photographer. And so the whole concerto structure is around themes of intimacy. Quite a lot of thinking went into it. The first thing I did was listen to every single piano concerto I could lay my hands on, starting with Bach! But I thought about it a lot, and I was looking for that ‘hook in’ to the work.”

And how does she create a path for herself so she can begin her composing work? “I prestik notes of all my thinking on the bookshelf above my desk, musical ideas and words both. I would write, ‘first movement, joyful interweaving, playful’ and then some musical notes.” “And do you compose, at a keyboard, a computer, both?” she is asked. Loveday replies, “I have an L-shape with my piano and my desk, with the computer and manuscript paper on it. Always it’s the paper.”

As for how she gets started, she recalls that a Viennese friend once advised her “Give it a title,” to get started on a new work. And as for how she organises it so that she meshes the notes she has put on the manuscript paper and into the computer? “It’s all in there (pointing to her head), but I get grouchy. I shut the door.” But, “I always finish on time. It takes a lot of time to do parts [for the various instruments]. In theory the computer program does it for you, but you have to check and check and check.

As we converse, we speak about the interviewer’s own Walter Mitty-style daydream to perform on stage with that infamous John Cage work, “4’33” ” – the piece where the pianist sits poised in front of the keyboard and doesn’t make a single sound for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  She laughs and promises to see what she can do. The interviewer is extremely happy with even the possibility of performing the one piano work he knows totally by memory.

We return to the topic of how gets people to attend the more experimental kind of concert. Loveday muses that it could need “Masses and masses of advertising, drawing people in.” And then telling potential audience members, “You don’t have understand it, but try it. Maybe advertise the intrigue.” But she recalls that she once did a work for an actual wrecked car, together with visual and installation artist Gerhard Marx. “He attached strings onto the wreck and we played it.” In response to this experimental effort, Loveday says, however, some people severely criticised it, saying, “Why did you do that? Now, isn’t that extraordinary?”

Contemporary, experimental, avant garde performances can go strangely wrong, too, she notes. Loveday describes the experience she had while she was in Australia. She attended a performance built around the actual burning of a piano on the beach, but Australian health and safety regulations were such that the audience was forced to keep far enough away from the actual performance that it was unable to experience the actual burning piano. “I found it hysterically funny, but nobody else was laughing.”

Now, with the debut of her new piano concerto about to happen, she says she is worried no one will attend the concert. That, in turn, leads her to ponder what one has to do to attract audiences. Thinking about it further, she says, it is not a uniquely South African challenge. “You take it out there and find places to have work performed. Europe also struggles to get audiences for this kind of music.” And so, “Why do I do this?” She admits she has to do it, “otherwise I might turn into a serial killer,” she jokes.

Our conversation turns to the undoubted success of Kevin Volans, the man who is South Africa’s most widely known serious music composer. Volans has managed to forge a real career and a living for himself internationally via his music. Strangely, “Some people here don’t like it,” she says. And why is that? “They’re jealous”, she whispers.

Circling back to the business of making a living out of composing, and asked if she also struggles with getting paid, she is asked, “Do you get cheques for your royalties? Is there a problem with your royalties?” Loveday answers that the SA Music Rights Organisation, Samro, “is desperately inefficient, but they claim composers are not submitting for their payments.” And in terms of commissioning, she adds, “I am now at the point where I won’t work for nothing.” However, she notes she really isn’t ready to start doing film work, saying, “I’m not set up for it. I do sometimes do it, but I’m not set up for a whole movie and I don’t want to go through that whole learning curve. After my doctorate, no more studying ever. Ever!”

And as for her advice to a young composer starting out in this field: “Get a backup skill, like bookkeeping, so you can earn money on the side to support your habit. Don’t suffer any illusions you are going to make a living at it, like Philip Miller [who qualified as an attorney before becoming a composer]. Without a backup skill, you’ll end up teaching. And teaching and creativity come from the same place, and you will be too tired to compose. One of the things I did was that I used to be a copywriter and I earned enough money to pay off my first house and I’m debt free.” The rest of us should be that lucky!

Finally, we have to ask the question that has been asked of every composer throughout history. Who are her favourite composers? From among living composers, the instant answer is Kevin Volans. And among earlier ones, no question, JS Bach of course. Of course. DM

The Johannesburg International Mozart Festival runs from 25 January to 9 February in venues throughout the city. It includes orchestral concerts, recitals, experimental musical events, lectures, and masterclasses. Artistic director is pianist Florian Uhlig and the festival has been organised by the Apollo Music Trust and Richard Cock Music Enterprises. See the full schedule and further information on participating artists and performances.

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Life, etc

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