Sapphires and serpents: In Search of Graham Newcater
Leonard Street, about 20 minutes’ drive south of the city centre of Johannesburg, is a 1.4 km stretch of residential housing, small flats, corner shops. Located in Kenilworth between Turffontein to the west and Rosettenville to the east, it ends to the north in Turf Club Street next to the Turffontein Racecourse, established by the Johannesburg Turf Club in 1887. If you continue driving westwards on Turf Club Street, it turns into Alamein Road that takes you to Gold Reef City and the Apartheid Museum.
30 Leonard Street is a red brick, square corner house with a green corrugated iron roof and a low brick garden fence, upon which newer black painted stainless steel spiked palisades discourage intruders. The garden gate leads to a small porch flanked by two black ornamental pillars. It was here where I first met Graham Newcater, and where his family lived when he was born on 3 September 1941. I quote from an interview I conducted with the composer in 2008, in his home:
In 1941 we lived here (my grandmother owned this house then) and there was a nursing home just down the road, about ten blocks from here. (Now it’s a parking lot for a supermarket). I was born there, so you can say, these days, that I was born in a parking lot. I had my early schooling here in Johannesburg. My father was in mechanical engineering, a metallurgist – a specialist in metals – who worked as a foundryman. We went down to Durban where he worked in one of the big shipping firms there. That was in 1948. I had most of my schooling in Durban, first at Addington Primary School, and then later at the Natal Technical College where I studied mechanical engineering for two years because the Newcaters were traditionally all in engineering. My grandfather and his brother came from Scotland, Glasgow, to work here, first of all on the Duncan docks in Cape Town, and then up here to work on the Randfontein gold mines. So my father was insistent that I study engineering and get a degree in that and only pursue music as a sideline.
It was not easy ‘finding’ Graham Newcater. Among my personal files that I perused in preparing this talk, I came upon an incomplete article I had written on the composer on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday in 2001. It is entitled: ‘Wat het geword van Graham Newcater?’ – ‘What has become of Graham Newcater?’. The first sentence reads: ‘Graham Newcater het verdwyn.’ – ‘Graham Newcater has disappeared’. I started looking for Newcater in 2001 as part of my research on Arnold van Wyk. I phoned Mr. Michael Levy, then Head of what was called Serious Music at SAMRO, in an attempt to get contact details. Levy informed me that he had lost all contact with Newcater, but that SAMRO still payed royalties into a bank account. Newcater therefore had to be alive, but the address that SAMRO provided to me, proved to be dated. I corresponded with Dr. Mary Rörich, who published important research on Newcater, but she informed me that she hadn’t seen him in years and would appreciate it if I could let her know if my search was successful. I researched telephone directories, where I found one Newcater who, it turned out, knew nothing about the composer. I vaguely recall that I then wrote letters to a number of addresses previously associated with the composer, but I did not document the process.
One day, in February 2003, a letter arrived in the post from Graham Newcater, 30 Leonard Street, Kenilworth, Johannesburg, 2190. It thanked me for my own letter of 27 November 2002, and apologized for the delay in replying to me, citing ‘the disruptive effect of the festive season’. In the letter he documented his memories of Arnold van Wyk, ending by writing:
The last time I saw Nols was at a concert in the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand on the 30th of January, 1981 at which was performed his Symphony No. 1 and my Third Symphony. We sat next to each other and he asked me whether I thought his symphony sounded too much like Sibelius, and at the end of my work he turned to me and said, ‘I like music with a tune to it, but the Coda is very beautiful!’
After that, I exchanged a few letters with Newcater, and also passed his address on to Professor Chris Walton, then the Head of Music at Pretoria University. Chris subsequently visited Newcater, and was instrumental in sparking an interest in his music by two young students, Olga Leonard and Amoré Steyn, both of whom went on to produce MMus dissertations on Newcater’s music. My next contact with Newcater happened in 2007, when I approached him to ask if he would donate his literary estate to the Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS) at Stellenbosch University. With the financial aid of the Music Library, DOMUS was able to pay for the on site ordering and sorting of this collection, which I flew back to Cape Town, carrying the manuscripts and other documents with me on two separate occasions after visits to 30 Leonard Street.
And then, in 2011, when Newcater turned 70, he was awarded a Parnassus Award by the Music Department. He flew down to Cape Town – where he had last visited in the early 1970s when he conducted his ballet, The Rain Queen. It was his first visit to Stellenbosch, and he came to receive the award, but also to attend a small performance of his work in the Fismer Hall. This was organized by a young doctoral student in the Music Department, Mareli Stolp. At that event we dimmed the lights of the hall and listened to a recorded performance of Newcater’s First Symphony of 1962-64. I asked the audience to reflect on the fact that we were gathered in a concert hall dedicated to live performance in order to listen to a decades-old recording of a milestone symphonic work in the South African repertoire. The means of production that gave rise to this work and its initial performance, I said, no longer exist in South Africa. At the end of the concert, Olga Leonard played the world premiere of a short piano piece, From the Garden of Forever.
That event, I’d like to think, together with the commission Newcater received from the SAMRO Endowment for the National Arts to compose a piano work for the 12th Unisa International Piano Competition, sparked renewed compositional activity at 30 Leonard street. Since 2011, Newcater has written eight new piano works, of which two have been performed tonight for the first time.
In responding briefly to what we have heard tonight, I should like to invite you to think with me about two words.
The first word is: ‘Always’.
Fundamental to this word, is the notion of music being ‘in good order’. In our 2008 interview, Newcater said the following:
I love mechanical engineering, as I’ve said to people over the years. I often think of the composing of music in terms of engineering. It’s all a matter of balance, proportion, stresses and strains, energy and its harnessing to create power. These are all engineering principles.
The music we have heard tonight, comes from a place of being ‘in good order’ understood as a function of operational integrity, as it were. My invocation of ‘always’ derives from the same metaphorical principle that connects the chronometer to the notion of time, and eternity: not the thing itself, but the measure of the thing. Considering ‘always’ in this way takes us to a sense of aesthetics understood as ‘running smoothly’ as a result of ‘being well maintained’. The ‘always’ to which I would like to direct our attention is therefore not the one beloved by Greek astronomy, or Christian mysticism, or 19th century German idealism. It is always embedded in the task of man to attend to the musical order of things.
The second word is: ‘Because’.
I register this word as concurrently allowing us to think of a lack, and an imperative. Because of its syntactical function of allowing us to provide reasons, and at a further push to infer causality, the word in relation to the music is of negative relevance – i.e. relevant precisely because the music is not demonstrably important in current political, economic and academic contexts. The ‘because’ I want to evoke is the ‘because’ of an answer that will not provide reasons for actions undertaken and refuses, for whatever reasons, the artful deception of the ex post facto explanation for those who demand it. This ‘because’ resists efforts to coerce ‘always’ into linguistic and material rationality. But ‘because’ in this sense is also sovereign and – to use the better Afrikaans word – ‘vanselfsprekend’, a thing that speaks for itself. Such is the music we heard tonight: unbowed and proud.
Both Aryan Kaganof and Mareli Stolp embarked on a search for Graham Newcater. Aryan’s film Of Fictalopes and Jictologies has found him at 30 Leonard Street where, in a sense, he has always lived but not always been, composing music that is ‘just music’. It has suggested that we not think of Newcater’s music in in relation to a real world anterior to the sounding structures, but to imagine instead that this music precedes the real in a way that challenges its order.
Mareli’s performance engaged the complex interlocking worlds embedded in the scores of Fountains, Chromatic Serpent and the Sapphire Sonata. She has through hours of work and study of the beautiful calligraphy of the composer – a task of the modern performer comparable to the medieval scholastic isolation and dedication to faithful text reproduction – proposed a Graham Newcater of equally monastic immersion in the construction of musical structures that speak strangely, compellingly, of the order of things and of history. Combined, both have confronted us with art that changes how we regard the real.
The above text was delivered at the Graham Newcater concert in the Stellenbosch Art Gallery on 25 January 2018 at 7.pm, as a response to a film by Aryan Kaganof and piano performance by Mareli Stolp.You can download the brochure made for this event here.