Cataclysm (noun): 1. A great and general flood of water, a deluge; esp. the Noachian deluge, the Flood; 2. Figurative; esp. a political or social upheaval which sweeps away the old order of things.The Oxford English Dictionary
Cataclysm (1980), ‘an early musique concrète work’Hans Roosenschoon, ‘Tape loops: Cataclysm’, herri#04. by Hans Roosenschoon, is conceived around two basic ideas, an initial drone figure on E, and the opening three notes of Beethoven’s C minor fifth symphony, op 67. Both ideas recur throughout the piece. The drone tone introduces and ends proceedings and reappears intermittently; the Beethoven material makes a first appearance at around 0min 44sec, with recurring appearances as timbral evocations, sped up repetitions, direct quotations, contextual symphonic sounds, etc. The piece can be heard as a linear unfolding of a playful interaction between these two basic ideas, and perhaps three or four differently generated and constructed sets of sounds – most probably in some way or other related to the two main ideas – circulating as variated timbres or musical gestures either alone or in combination with one or both of the two main ideas. In his notes for ‘Africa Synthesized’ to which this writing is a response, the composer provides an abbreviated description of the techniques he used in making the piece. These can be augmented by consulting the academic theses of Sara Jacobs (1987)Sara J. Jacobs, Die komposisies van Hans Roosenschoon, Unisa, MMus thesis, 1988. and Melissa Jane Fraser (2013).Melissa Jane Fraser, Exploring Pluralism and Musical Meaning in the Compositions of Hans Roosenschoon,Stellenbosch University, MMus thesis, 2013, esp. 104-14.
In his text accompanying his submission of Cataclysm to ‘Africa Synthesized’, Roosenschoon makes a number of statements that I will identify here as ‘immune-systemic effective space creations’, relying on Peter Sloterdijk’s use of this formulation to describe how spheres come into being as interior, disclosed, shared, realms inhabited by humans.Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres, vol. 1, ‘Bubbles’, tr. Wieland Hoban, (Semiotext(e) 2011). I hypothesize that apartheid South Africa was such a sphere or shared interior space for white people, a unifying system of delusion in which certain creative processes (including academic musical composition and rituals of Western concert performance), could advance in an individuated way. These processes, identified here with academic music composition, I wish to postulate as processes of spectacle. ‘Spectacle’ is used not in its generic form as referring to a visually (aurally) striking form of display, or an event or scene regarded in terms of its visual/aural impact, but in the Debordian sense as a concentrated form constituting ‘an image of harmony set amidst desolation and dread, at the still center of misfortune’,Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, tr. Donal Nicholson-Smith (Zone Books 1995), 41. an incomparably beautiful description of aesthetic contemplation unfolding amidst human rights abuses. Making compositions in twentieth-century South Africa, in this view of things, indicates both ‘the power to decide and the leisure to consume’ of naturalized processes.Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 39. In other words, to compose Cataclysm in 1980 in the SABC M1 studio in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, with the help of a sound technician, using a 36 multi-track mixing console and four tape recorders,Fraser, Exploring Pluralism, 104. means that the composer at the time possessed the power of access to a composing apparatus, and acted from the empowered position of exercising a choice to enact this power. He also had in mind a context of reception that implied the leisure (in this case perhaps no more than an elite professional class, like a commissioning body, in which such an endeavor would generate some form of capital) to consume his work. I am proposing that certain phrases or topoi I identify below in Roosenschoon’s 2020 companion text to Cataclysm, written for ‘Africa Synthesized’, are traces of ‘immune-systemic effective space creations’, ways of thinking that allowed academic composition during the various stages of apartheid, and, significantly the postapartheid,See Remains of the Social: Desiring the Postapartheid, ed. Maurits van Bever Donker, Ross Truscott, Gary Minkley, Premesh Lalu (Wits UP 2017). The postapartheid is understood not just as a time named by an adjective, but as a signifier for a particular condition; p. 7. to flourish as spectacle. These ‘immune-systemic effective space creations’ front the technological conditions of creation pertaining to works like Cataclysm, as well as such works themselves, as neutral discourse and fetishistic appearance, in other words as spectacle.Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 19.
This understanding of composing activity as image creation has significant implications for thinking about the idea of an avant-garde in South Africa, or how academic composition interfaced with Euro-American ideas of an avant-garde or a compositional mainstream during the second half of the twentieth century. This idea seems to me a plausible hypothesis to think about the relationship of composed settler and neo-colonial aurality as an ‘accumulation of spectacles’, and its relationship to the real as understood through ideas of tradition, canon, discipline or practice. In this response this idea will function to conceptualize how the two ideas, Sloterdijk’s ‘immune-systemic effective space creations’ and Debord’s society of the spectacle, can function together. I propose the following connection: Academic composition in apartheid South Africa (and its discursive alibis) constitutes in itself an immune-systemic effective space creation, in that it contributes to the possibility of imagining white normativity as a spherical system of existence. The very fact that it is constitutive of a bubble, means that its claims to functioning as a genealogical off-shoot of a Northern tradition derived from the spherical rupture of colonialism, are historically intuitive, but aesthetically spurious. In its manifestation as something called academic composition that derives its historical and aesthetic meaning from a European referent, it answers to Debord’s notion of spectacle, i.e. the production of image (aural) objects that are essentially tautological (in the sense that its means and its ends are identical).Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 15. In this sense, Sloterdijk’s bubble thinking seems a particularly appropriate decolonial plug-in to understanding the society of the spectacle that was apartheid, and its spectacular (in the Debordian sense) constructs of aurality.
Three immune-systemic effective space creations and their interrelationships, from ‘Tape loops: Cataclysm’ by Hans Roosenschoon
Immune-systemic effective space creation (a): 1. ‘what I can do to reflect the cultural uniqueness of South Africa in my music’ works together with 2. ‘the cyclical sound result of my tape loops was very similar to the impression made on me by some of the field recordings of indigenous South African music I had access to’
The first phrase is evoked by the composer not only as ‘the premise for [his] electro electroacoustic works composed between 1979 and 2008’, but his entire oeuvre; the second pertains to Cataclysm in particular. Both can be understood in the context of the crisis of legitimacy of academic composition in the second half of the twentieth century in South Africa, but predated by the use of ‘Africa’ in some of the earliest twentieth-century South African settler articulations of ‘composition’. Often, in these attempts at cultural uniqueness, Africa became a magical ‘Other’ carrying the promise of a uniquely South African idiom charged with the responsibility of delivering a unique expression for individual composers. I have argued elsewhere that such early concerns with ‘Africa’ referenced ‘a kind of totemic African auditory referentialism’ in which ‘Africa was never taken seriously as source of musical creative expression, but was merely enlisted into a politics of personal creative expression, or sometimes broadened into a kind of contestation of white identity politics.’Stephanus Muller, ‘How is South African art music (not) African art music?’, unpublished paper presented at the International Symposium and Concert in Honor of Akin Euba, Lagos, Nigeria, 16 to 18 January 2019. Both phrases trace the attempts at constructing what Sloterdijk calls ‘the evasive underworld of the inner world’ that unfolds ‘like a map in sound, woven entirely from resonances and suspended matter’.Sloterdijk, Spheres, vol. 1, 63. It is concerned with the creation of an aesthetic immunology allowing the gesture of separation from tradition while keeping it alive, to settle into the spectacle a representational act grounded in control and use of the Other.
Immune-systemic effective space creation (a) interlinks with Immune systemic space creations (b) and (c)
Immune-systemic effective space creation (b): 1. I can tell a story about how Cataclysm came to be in 1980. However, for various reasons I doubt the relevance of it now works together with 2. Afrikaans poet N. P. van Wyk Louw works together with 3. Beethoven
Three characters inhabit immune-systemic effective space creation (b): Bantu Stephen Biko (1946-1977), Nicolaas Petrus van Wyk Louw (1906-1970) and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). The way in which they don’t interact is significant for what I have called earlier the aesthetically spurious claims of academic composition in apartheid South Africa and the bubble logic of white supremacy. Melissa Jane Fraser recounts the story that sets Biko up as an immune-systemic effective space creation in anti-apartheid London in 1977:
‘In some of the early programmes notes about Kataklisme, Roosenschoon refers to the activist Steve Biko. This stems from his time in London when he and his wife, Linda-Louise, lived there while he was studying at the Royal Academy of Music. The reception from his hosts in London was not as warm as he had hoped. He said that there were many instance where he and his wife were made to feel personally responsible for the apartheid government’s decisions back in South Africa. Initially, Roosenschoon wanted the title of the work to refer to Biko in some way, but later decided on the more universal title of Kataklisme.’Fraser, Exploring Pluralism, 104-5. The information was obtained from a conversation Fraser had with Roosenschoon on 2 November 2009.
It is therefore exactly right that Roosenschoon expresses doubts about the relevance of the story of how Cataclysm came to be, as the relevance of this story pertains to particular immune-systemic effective space creation required in the bubble which was the capital of British imperialism and anti-apartheid sentiment in which the young South African composer had to develop an immune constitution to moral outrage impinging on aesthetic production. Back in South Africa, a different immune response to different atmospheric conditions was required. Louw and Beethoven provide this immune-systemic response in a lacing together of a poetics celebrating the proof that Afrikaners and Beethoven belong together in one bubble, sharing a system of ‘ritual and meaning’ in what Sloterdijk calls a ‘constitutive deleria’Sloterdijk, Spheres, Vol. 1, 84., and Debord calls ‘spectacle’. There is an intimacy shared by Louw and Beethoven that depends on Biko as a specific supplement (functioning differently in 1980 and 2020), but functioning nevertheless as what Sloterdijk calls the ‘main trick’ of God’s creative act: the counterbreath, or ‘the intimate ability to communicate in a primary dual’.Sloterdijk, Spheres, vol. 1, 40-1. This is how:
Immune-systemic effective space creation (b) interlinks with Immune-systemic space creation (a).
Immune-systemic effective space creation (c): 1. ‘I came to realize that what a piece means depends to a great extent on the context of its reception’ works together with2. ‘Would it therefore be opportunistic and insensitive to suggest we listen to my work Cataclysm now?’
The two phrases hint at the historical reception of Cataclysm, and its contemporary reception. In 1980, the context of reception for Roosenschoon’s work was one in which academic music composition had an unambiguous function. It was commissioned by the SABC for the Prix Italia competition, Fraser, Exploring Pluralism, 104. and made in the SABC studios. As an institutional piece, it was meant for a competition, i.e. finding its original function in the generic understanding of the word ‘spectacle’ as a (aural) form intended for an event. But its outwardly-directed institutionality (made in Johannesburg, meant for Rome) also means that it functioned in a Debordian sense of spectacle: a world view transformed into an objective force.Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 13. It represented an outcome: the successful assertion of white South African aesthetics beyond the concerns of Immune-systemic effective space creation (a). As a ‘musical problem’, Cataclysm was meant to express to the outside word, the world beyond the bubble, the particular economic and social formation of its creation as, in Debord’s words, ‘that formation’s agenda’. Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 15. Sloterdijk might describe this agenda as a sonic confirmation of the ‘continuum of ethnospheric climate techniques’,Sloterdijk, Spheres, vol. 1, 57. connecting the ethnosphere of white South Africa to the great amniotic rupture of the colonial birth. This was, arguably, the agenda of all academic composition during apartheid, regardless of how individuals viewed their own work. If this is accepted, phrase 2 in this immune-systemic effective space creation, the rhetorical question, becomes less puzzling. Pivoting on the title, ‘Cataclysm’, a title that is completely incidental to the function of the work when viewed historically, the contemporary context of a devastating pandemic and a global outrage against white racism is invoked to reposition the composition within contemporary reception. The question to consider, therefore, is whether the rupture of the ethnosphere that nurtured Cataclysm, allows the exclusivity of its lyric African motif of immune-systemic effective space creation (a) to bleed back into the epic orb of a global crisis,Sloterdijk, Spheres, vol. 1, 67. or whether this bursting of a carefully crafted interior in which Cataclysm made sense, can only ever mean that it now washes up as debris in the foam of the post-apartheid, surrounded by the professional disillusioners of academic beachcombers. The only thing that remains constant, regardless, is the spectacular (in the Debordian sense) character of the work: It remains, as an immune-systemic effective space creation of the bubble, or a piece of flotsam on the unstable current of foam swept along by a great deluge, a curious witness to separateness.
|1.||Hans Roosenschoon, ‘Tape loops: Cataclysm’, herri#04.|
|2.||Sara J. Jacobs, Die komposisies van Hans Roosenschoon, Unisa, MMus thesis, 1988.|
|3.||Melissa Jane Fraser, Exploring Pluralism and Musical Meaning in the Compositions of Hans Roosenschoon,Stellenbosch University, MMus thesis, 2013, esp. 104-14.|
|4.||Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres, vol. 1, ‘Bubbles’, tr. Wieland Hoban, (Semiotext(e) 2011).|
|5.||Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, tr. Donal Nicholson-Smith (Zone Books 1995), 41.|
|6.||Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 39.|
|7.||Fraser, Exploring Pluralism, 104.|
|8.||See Remains of the Social: Desiring the Postapartheid, ed. Maurits van Bever Donker, Ross Truscott, Gary Minkley, Premesh Lalu (Wits UP 2017). The postapartheid is understood not just as a time named by an adjective, but as a signifier for a particular condition; p. 7.|
|9.||Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 19.|
|10.||Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 15.|
|11.||Stephanus Muller, ‘How is South African art music (not) African art music?’, unpublished paper presented at the International Symposium and Concert in Honor of Akin Euba, Lagos, Nigeria, 16 to 18 January 2019.|
|12.||Sloterdijk, Spheres, vol. 1, 63.|
|13.||Fraser, Exploring Pluralism, 104-5. The information was obtained from a conversation Fraser had with Roosenschoon on 2 November 2009.|
|14.||Sloterdijk, Spheres, Vol. 1, 84.|
|15.||Sloterdijk, Spheres, vol. 1, 40-1.|
|16.||Fraser, Exploring Pluralism, 104.|
|17.||Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 13.|
|18.||Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 15.|
|19.||Sloterdijk, Spheres, vol. 1, 57.|
|20.||Sloterdijk, Spheres, vol. 1, 67.|