Night Music 2: Nagmusiek
This project was conceived as a live performance celebrating the centenary of the birth of seminal South African composer, Arnold van Wyk, and his revered 1955 solo piano work, Nagmusiek. Based on the reception of that performance, it was decided to try and create a stand-alone sight-sound work inspired (visually) and supported (aurally) by van Wyk’s Nagmusiek.
The development of the piece was informed by four considerations: firstly by Stephanus Muller’s complex work on Arnold van Wyk, which is both biographical fiction and scholarly study, and suggested to me the possibility of applying a hybrid layering of visual orders; secondly by van Wyk’s intention in Nagmusiek to create a work portraying night, that is ‘essentially elegiac’ and ‘to speak of its beauty, mystery and fearfulness, and to show night as the prototype of love, sleep and death’ – which suggests some kind of engagement with conceptual (poetic) cinema, for which there is much precedent in the moving image.
The third consideration, and perhaps the one that weighed heaviest on me, was my intense dislike for the music video.
Despite it being such a prevalent form, the way I see it, a piece of music created autonomously (and not as an accompaniment to a film), exists ideally in a space uninterrupted by the onslaught of visual platitudes and superficial eﬀects, that the music video form mostly provides. If indeed one has to add visuals to a successful piece of music, then those visuals have to dance alongside the music, and together create a larger world, or provide the possibility of a portal into a new meaning, that cannot be heard in the music alone, or be seen in the visuals alone.
Finally, the consideration of what version of Nagmusiek to use? There are a few notable recordings to choose from, including a 1963 recording of the piece by Arnold van Wyk himself. The quality of this recording, although not as crisp, and perhaps not as polished a performance as subsequent recordings, opens up a particular aesthetic communion with the intent of the original work. It’s not how well the piece is played that matters in this case, but how invested the performance is in the author’s intrinsic vision. This invites a response to attempt a visual translation, rather than an interpretation, of the author’s vision – not to explain what you’re hearing, but to render it into moving image. Also, to my layman’s ears, no other performance of Nagmusiek quite captures the cataclysmic darkness encoded within van Wyk’s own recording.
So what do we have? We have the politics of poetry.
The dualistic function of all art – something that pushes and pulls, that caresses the one minute and is abrupt and furious the next. In trying to connect potential images, my students and I had to consider a broad palette of expression – a range of visual shades that had to remain distant, or abstract enough not to impose a specific narrative on the music.
Metaphor rather than sequential narrative, and where sequential narrative felt appropriate, to then keep it objective – long – wide.
Further, seduced by the formal experimentation of Stephanus Muller’s Nagmusiek, and a desire to strike up an oblique dialogue with that work, we wanted to find legitimate excuses that would allow us to explore the figurative and abstract in direct dialogue,
the visual tension between the graphic and the textural,
animation and live-action sitting alongside each other – moments of visual silence that coerce us towards the music, and moments of visual gasp that steal slightly from the music.
Armed with the themes of harmony (and disharmony) between nature and man, the symbolic relationship between night and day, and the struggle between the internal and external drama, students from the Open Window School of Film Arts created original animations and visuals that were tested, abandoned, reworked and incorporated in many diﬀerent permutations before the final version was arrived at.
I would be lying if I said there was a clear idea driving the process – we fumbled and we experimented, and we were disappointed and occasionally thrilled. From the outset, however, there was a clear desire that led us and hopefully that desire to communicate meaningfully across diﬀerent mediums and disciplines has gone some way into realising our lofty aspirations.