Maverick Life

HOW DO WE KEEP THE MUSIC PLAYING

Can you hear the silence? Keeping the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera alive

Performing 'Cwaka. The Silence'. Photography: ©SydelleWillowSmith

In early December, the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera launched a powerful campaign to highlight the struggles they have faced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, calling to us, the people, for support, as they released an album, ‘Cwaka. The Silence’.

The arts are too often one of the most undermined sites of expression and humanity. In fact, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us found some peace, hope, a balm to one’s loneliness in the arts. We read books, listened to music, and watched television; how to forget, too, those who took their instruments, opened their windows, went outside and shared music from their balconies to soothe their neighbour’s angst, solitude and fears.

The arts are a necessity to the world as they enable us to connect and identify, and unite us as a collective.

And yet, across the world, the arts are suffering. In a statement shared in early December 2021, the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and the Cape Town Opera noted: “Covid, conflict, censorship, and even climate change are turning the volume down on one of humanity’s driving forces: creative expression.”

Both organisations were forced to either stop performing to live audiences, or to perform to significantly smaller crowds, resulting in what seemed like considerable losses in their earnings. In response, they gave “a voice back to the arts, using the very thing that has been forced upon them: silence”, they say.

Their latest album, Cwaka: The Silence, features silent recordings of some of their well-known pieces of music, as well as a new silent single, the aim being to illustrate what life would be like should they – musicians, players of melodic harmonies – be silenced for good.

The album, essentially a protracted period of silence, is available to stream on Spotify, and more information is available on their website.

Watching silence when there should be music, hearing nothing when there should be notes waltzing in the air, is nothing short of unsettling. There is immense sadness at the very idea, now hovering like Damocles’ sword, that singers could stop singing, musicians could stop playing, conductors could lay down their baton and never lift it again; a lump in the throat slowly forms watching a stage where musicians are about to play, instruments in hand, violins and archers suspended and yet, no sound comes; opera singers are standing, limbs immobile, voices warm and yet, no music comes out.

What do we do, when the music stops?

Yet, when listening to Cwaka: The Silence, you do not hear “nothing” – Cwaka means  “silence” in isiXhosa. Listening to the album, you hear life suspended, waiting to explode, you hear movements that don’t happen but are only held by a breath, you hear togetherness even if it is invisible, you hear hope.

Performing ‘Cwaka. The Silence’. Photography: ©SydelleWillowSmith
Performing ‘Cwaka. The Silence’. Photography: ©SydelleWillowSmith
Performing ‘Cwaka. The Silence’. Photography: ©SydelleWillowSmith
Pumza Mxinwa performing ‘Cwaka. The Silence’. Photography: ©SydelleWillowSmith
Pumza Mxinwa performing ‘Cwaka. The Silence’. Photography: ©SydelleWillowSmith
Performing ‘Cwaka. The Silence’. Photography: ©SydelleWillowSmith

Marvin Kernelle, the chorus master of the Cape Town Opera, explains the power of such declaration of silence: “When we as an audience sit in the auditorium, and we’re expecting a specific note to come from a singer, and that singer decides that they’re not going to sing that note – that’s usually profound.”

Indeed, silence here is a signifier, a symbol, as Louis Heyneman, the artistic director of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, notes: “The silence is a symbol of what we’ve lost over the last 18 months of the pandemic. We have sheets of paper on the music stands with absolutely no music printed on them, but they have music lines. So the possibility exists. We are still here, so the potential is still there.” Pumza Mxinwa, a soprano with the Cape Town Opera, adds that “Even if it’s silent, it says something, it means something. That we are still here, we are standing and we are ready.”

Artists have had a hard time in the pandemic, in contending with both a loss of income and a loss of purpose, and many have experienced the mental toll of the shutting down of their livelihood.

Mezzo-soprano Nonhlanhla Yende describes the Cape Town Opera as her “lifeline… Cape Town Opera means a lot to me, to be able to provide for my daughter as a single parent. When Cape Town Opera arrived in my life, that was a time when I was able to change the way I thought about myself, about my voice, about my gift, and I started my journey with them in 2010. And during that time I have grown as a person, I have grown as a young black woman in this country as an artist. Why I’m saying it’s my lifeline is because I literally felt my voice die when it was silenced.”

Every time Cwaka: The Silence is played, royalties will be added to a dedicated fund for the orchestra and opera, at no additional cost to the listener. This is a simple way in which South Africans are able to support the cause, while giving us the opportunity to listen to silence – and reflect, together, on the year that was, the world around us and what life would be without music, dance, and all the other arts that are so critical to the human experience. DM/ ML

Visit Cwaka: The Silence to learn more about the project and listen to the album.

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  • It’s a bit like the old days when you could put your money in the juke box to buy a couple of minutes of silence. Sad but true with what is happening to orchestras. Weren’t these organisations supported out of rate payer funds in the past? I guess our past has been stolen along with our future.