This interview was first published in NewMusicSABulletin, Second Issue, 2002/3. It is re-published in herri with kind permission of NewMusicSA. Special thanks to Ignacio Priego.
The focus of this interview is on aspects of the composition, Yinkosi Yeziziba, co-composed in 2002 by University of Natal professor in composition and music technology, Jürgen Bräuninger, and UN PhD-student and musician-composer Sazi Dlamini. Yinkosi Yeziziba was commissioned by the Südwestrundfunk in Germany and was written for umrhube and udloko bows, percussion, vocals (performed by Sazi Dlamini) and electroacoustic sounds (realized at Gerald Lapierre Electronic Music Studio, University of Natal, Durban) with the recorded voices of Tandeka Mazibuko and the children Ella, Hannah, Liesbeth, Lilli, Siphindile, Tania, and Zwelisha.
The composers’ note describes the piece as follows:
This piece is loosely based on a Zulu folk tale and musically retold in a fairly abstract way. In our version of the story, Nkombose, a maiden girl, is beaten to death by her mother for being disobedient and her body is thrown into a pond. While the mamba argues for her to be eaten, the pleading of the python turns Nkombose instead into the king of the deep pond (Yinkosi Yeziziba). Nkombose’s sister finds out about her sibling’s fate when, one day, she comes to the pond to fetch some water and evokes Nkombose to surface to help her lift the heavy water drum onto her head. While Nkombose is singing to her sister “uthi klengu klengu nonyoko ntombi yamatshitshi, awuboni ngabulawa” (you cry with your mother maiden girl, don’t you know that I was killed), the parents who were hiding in the reeds grab Nkombose and carry her home. The next day, the serpent Nkanyambe (he who rides the tornado) takes terrible revenge on the homestead.
The story is recounted primarily by employing three grammatical devices of isiZulu: ideophones (words describing a predicate, qualificative, or adverb in respect to manner, colour, sound, etc.), words derived from ideophones, and onomatopoeia. The pacing resembles that of praise-singing rather than story-telling. The first melody (accompanied by percussion alone) is the original, ancient melody of the tale. The second melody improvises on the text of the former and is rendered in the style of the oldest known Zulu ceremonial song: amahubo. The udloko is not used typically in imitation of the amahubo-derived melody, but is employed as a drone in support of the cyclical structure of the generic scalar melody. The electro-acoustic sounds are mainly composed with and around the overtone structure of the musical bows and the vocal ideophones. Throughout the piece vocal sounds are transformed into bow sounds and water sounds into percussion sounds and vice versa. While drawing a great deal from forms such as praise-singing and bow songs and at the same time employing electronic techniques such as granular synthesis and morphing we hope to give all of the above a new perspective.
The interview was conducted by e-mail from 22 February 2003 until 2 May 2003.
Stephanus Muller: Was Yinkosi Yeziziba your first collaboration?
Jürgen Bräuninger & Sazi Dlamini: We have known each other for a very long time and in the past have worked together on various projects in various different functions (e.g. the UN Conference Against Racism closing ceremony, the CD dUrban Noise and scraps Works, See Claremont GSE AM31. the Culture and Working Life Project, some live improvisations) but this is the first time that we have had the opportunity to co-compose a piece.
SM: Do you think this has worked, and how do you see it developing in the future?
JB & SD: We think the collaboration worked extremely well and we are quite pleased with the result. If there is another opportunity we’ll certainly do another piece. We had to discard many good ideas in the process of composing Yinkosi Yeziziba, so there is plenty of material that could still be tackled. For example, Sazi also plays various types of flutes and guitars which he designs and constructs himself. Also, Ari Sitas has come up with a scenario for a music theatre piece which we might have a closer look at.
SM: Aligned with the previous question, do you view this as a ‘work’ or an ‘experiment’?
JB & SD: It’s a piece of music – okay, with a hint of theatrical elements.
JB: I always have a problem with both terms: ‘work’ (or worse, ‘opus’) and ‘experimental’ music. If you want to call it an experiment because it does not fit neatly into an existing category like kwaito, or isicathamiya, gospel or ‘adult contemporary’ (whatever that is), etc., fine, but otherwise it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
SD: We experimented quite a bit in the beginning and a lot of work went into it, but the finished product is a complete composition. We never thought of any specific category.
SM: Please could you expand on your note that ‘The story is recounted primarily by employing three grammatical devices of isiZulu’? Perhaps you could point to specific usages of ideophones, words derived from ideophones and onomatopoeia as narrative devices?
SD: Ideophones are words (often but not always onomatopoeic), which describe a predicate. In the story ideophones are used wherever and whenever possible, especially for their dramatic impact as well as for their percussive effect. Examples are ‘Ngqo!’ (meaning ‘facing directly’) or ‘Ngqa!’ (meaning ‘right at the beginning’). Examples of onomatopoeia would be ‘Gqi!’ (describing the sound of stepping forward) or ‘kli! kli!’ for choking sounds.
SM: Even though there is a strong sense of narrative direction in the music, the different narrative devices (concrete sounds, indigenous melody, electro-acoustic sounds, children’s voices) seem to retain their individual characters. Would you agree with this, and if so, how does this problematize/complement the theme of transformation underlying Yinkosi Yeziziba?
JB & SD: We would disagree on the micro level. There are only concrete sounds (mainly bows, voices, water, percussion, live and recorded) and processed concrete sounds (no electronic, i.e. ‘synthesised’ sounds whatsoever). The two main processing devices were ‘granulation’ (the term ‘Granular Synthesis’ is a bit misleading in this context) and ‘morphing’. In the latter case one could perhaps say that if in the middle of the morphing process the two morphed sounds do not succumb their individual characters, the process has failed. The best example is the first morphing section where sustained bow sounds are transformed into vocal sounds. Another spot would be more towards the end where a big splash turns into a low drum sound. But maybe this question refers much more to the macro level. Here we are ‘telling the story’ several times in various ways: izibongo (in song form), children relating snippets of the story, etc. These easily identifiable devises are kept fairly separate within distinct sections. One could perhaps even say that the narrative devices are used for their different inherent sound qualities? On the story level, the girl becomes the ‘King of the Deep Pond’, signifying transformation or perhaps even transfiguration.
SM: Thinking of the realist narrative strain of the music and the suggestions of material consciousness in the soundscape, how does aesthetic judgment interact with ‘mapping the messy reality’ in Yinkosi Yeziziba?
JB: To read a ‘mapping of the messy reality’ (as used in the LMJ introduction) See Leonardo Music Journal (LMJ), 10, CD Companion Introduction to Southern Cones: Music out of Africa and South America, curated by Jürgen Bräuninger, 2000. into Yinkosi Yeziziba all on its own could be a bit difficult. I would find it relatively easy to show the ‘mapping’ in dUrban Noise and scraps Works as a whole, but almost impossible in a single track all by itself.
SM: So can you expand on the ‘mapping process’ in dUrban Noise before we return to Yinkozi Yeziziba?
JB: I am not very good with words (that’s why I am trying to express these things with musical(ised) sounds rather than spoken language), but let me try: ‘Walking’ through our postcolonial/post-apartheid dUrban soundscape with our ears wide open, we hear – very often simultaneously – night-time insects turning into house alarms (or vice versa); a helicopter hovering low (good news or bad news? what year is this?); strains of toyi-toying, liberation/protest songs and slogans from the past (or future?); an ex-trade union praise poet now journalist meets a Dutch free jazz saxophonist above a layer of gumboot routines performed by a mixed double; Dolores Buthelezi about to withdraw one of her pieces; isicathamiya degraded to Musak; a disillusioned youth crooning while in the background a jews-harp turns itself into a friction bow; a kick drum which wants to play the melody; gun shots; an orchestra playing Dvořák quoting Beethoven ending up as (or disappearing in) low rumbling thunder; hadedas commenting; marabi going la bamba; mynahs ambience; we spot a mrdangam while waiting at the dolphin wings and chips take-away; a maskanda guitar getting hit by something heavy; the tourism industry in full swing; doo-wop; a TV talk-show host smiling loudly; surf; shrieks; the gravy train going splish-splosh; etc. etc. … only a rough sketch of a ‘map’ of our ‘marvellous dump’ (Ari Sitas) with its constantly ‘shifting spaces [in] tilting times’ (Jay Pather). Some areas are filled-in with more detail than others, boundaries not very clear, hazy horizons, ‘misty heritage’ (Andrew Tracey), endless possibilities, rich textures. In short, a big mix/mess – but this is us. Though, please don’t hire me as your tour guide, I am still struggling to make sense of this slowly evolving map myself. So much more to do.
SM: Back to Yinkozi Yeziziba, but keeping in mind what you have said about dUrban Noise. Are the sounds you use chosen for their aesthetic suitability or their narrative usefulness or their material authenticity?
SD: Certainly for both: their aesthetic suitability and for their narrative usefulness.
JB: What exactly do you mean by ‘material authenticity’ of the sounds?
SM: For me ‘material authenticity’ has something to do with your ‘mapping the messy reality’, i.e. it refers to what you have called ‘the sounds and concepts of our immediate environment’. For instance, I want to know if it is important to you to use an umrhube bow instead of a clarinet (to use an arbitrary example) in communicating specificity of the time and place?
JB: Yes, timbre/texture is extremely important, indeed for me it’s the most important parameter of them all. But more generally speaking the umrhube does not necessarily exclude the clarinet, or a string quartet for that matter, to say something about our here and now. I mean: we are working in and from an urban/peri-urban multi-cultural environment, but you just can’t put everything into one single piece (see for instance dUrban Noise).
SM: Turning to your Augenmusik, to what extent did the score come into existence before the music, or vice versa? One gets the idea that the two states of the work might have developed (and continues to exist) in symbiosis.
JB & SD: Yes, quite right, we made sketches while working, scribbling down ideas and possible structures. Later Jürgen took all those (that we kept) and fixed them more neatly in Photoshop. It helps you to remember things in performance, especially when you don’t play the piece every week. It’s just a mere visual version, another representation, of the composition, not a very detailed set of performance instructions. Those you could only get (aurally) from the recording of the piece.
Another, very secondary reason for the existence of the Augenmusik [JB: I like this term!], was a little footnote in the commissioning letter which stated that payment would be made only on receipt of ‘the score’ (which gives you a good idea of how some institutions still think about music: the music is the score).
SM: Looking at the score and listening to the sound sequences, would you say it is more accurate to talk of sound ‘choreography’ or sound ‘design’ than ‘composition’?
JB: There is a lot of sound design indeed (also in the construction of Sazi’s instruments and in his different vocal timbres), and we believe that sound design is a pre-requisite for any music making. If you only write notes on staves for pre-fab instruments, then that is only some of the possibilities ‘composed’. You are ‘choreographing’ notes, but not sound (which is what we all listen to in the end). At one stage, Sazi designed a double-string, double-gourd friction bow which we called ‘klengu’, but that design was not satisfactory, as it was much too cumbersome to play and one could not ‘mould’ the sounds well enough. So it had to be discarded, but it played some part in the compositional process.
SM: Isn’t the addition of a visual dimension to the performance an admission that the music is just not interesting enough on its own? Why did you decide to include a visual dimension?
JB & SD: Most live music performances have some visual elements; some more, some less. A composed visual element does not necessarily mean that you don’t trust the acoustic sonic events by themselves (see for example opera or dance with their gestures and costumes). We were just looking for another dimension/way to tell the story. But, we admit, the particular instruction: “video” did not work too well, so we have dropped that in the meantime. If a better idea comes up, though, we would probably re-introduce a much more visual element again around this area.
SM: There is a strong sense of the ‘domestication’ (children, pool sounds, intimate bowing) of the sound. Does this mean anything?
JB & SD: Well, not sure. Yes, the bows are very intimate instruments, the story begins in the children’s homestead, and the pool is obviously representative of the Deep Pond nearby. But otherwise we are not sure what you think it should mean. All musical sounds are in some way ‘domesticated’ sounds.
SM: What is the significance of the directions ‘stir water and cleansing motions’ occurring simultaneously with the children’s recorded voice fragments?
JB & SD: There are two spots were Sazi makes live water sounds in the pot/basin/pond. The first time he scoops the water with both hands and tries to get a continuous flow going. The second time we needed a slightly different live water sound. Initially we had intended to use stirring motions to produce ‘foam’ – this idea tied in well with the ritual medicinal practices of diviners (‘the kings of the deep ponds’) who regularly use foaming herbs to ritually cleanse themselves. Simulating this practice proved too difficult in live performance, so now it’s just an abstraction, gestural symbolism.
SM: This ‘domestication’ is a favourite colonial topos. Thinking of your rhetorical question, Jürgen, in the CD Companion Introduction to Southern Cones: ‘Unhoused, unbelonging?’, I want to ask: are you sounding-out a home-space? How does this action differ for you, Sazi, and you Jürgen? How important do you think this is in creative musical expression in South Africa today?
JB & SD: There is not much ‘home’ in this piece. If by ‘home-space’ you mean a secure, re-assuring place where children can grow up in safety, etc., then this piece is very far away from that. If you mean that we explore sounds and concepts of our immediate environment, then perhaps yes, but we have used them here to probe the more obscure, inaccessible spaces of our inherited folk imagery as these might well prove to be cornerstones of our more mature cultural bearings and perhaps this should indeed be much more important in creative musical expression in South Africa today than it is at the moment.
JB: I can’t give you a direct purely musical unhoused/unbelonging reference in Yinkosi Yeziziba, only a little anecdote from our domestic scene. I once responded to something my two daughters said to each other at the supper table. One of them then turned around and said: ‘What do you know, you are not even South African!’ My reply ‘but I’ve been living here for much longer than you have’, was shrugged of with a pre-teen ‘whatever …’. Not sure what that means, but for the recording of the children’s voices, we (Sazi, Sazi’s daughter, my daughters, their friends, me) were all happily sitting together in the studio, playing with the story.
SD: South African musical composition and performance are pretty much male-dominated spaces. Developments in this field which in any way acknowledge the existence/contribution of women and children are to be encouraged. It is rash and premature to encumber such positive developments with too cynical and ambiguous discursive prisms.
SM: Should one read/hear the combination of Western and African sounds as ‘musical reconciliation’, or inscription/celebration of difference? Perhaps an ‘overwriting’ of difference at the ‘seam’?
JB & SD: Which sounds do you hear as ‘Western’ – and which as ‘African’?
SM: I hear the isiZulu language-sounds as African and the English and Afrikaans language fragments as signifying ‘Western’. I also hear the bow sounds and the ululating as African and the sounds where the electronic manipulation (however it is done and I have very little understanding of how this works) becomes the salient feature of the sound, as Western, and specifically reminiscent of a very recognizable Western avant-garde aesthetic. I also find the work-concept, exemplified in the score, Western.
JB: You seem to be much more purist than we are. I don’t hear Afrikaans as Western but as an integral part of South African culture/texture and would like to claim the same for South African English.
In terms of music, I hear maskanda, for example, as something uniquely South African, even when performed on electric guitars. Now, a computer is much more ‘neutral’, less ‘loaded’ than, say, an electric guitar. Nothing is pre-set, it’s up to the user/player to ‘fill’ this instrument/tool first. Somewhat like a video camera – any comparison is problematic, I know – with which we can make African movies. Anyway, who said ‘those who look for aesthetic purity always find aesthetic death’? So to answer the question, I don’t think we are interested in reconciliation as proposed in the 80s (we should be past that), but rather in extension, in gathering all our stuff which we have collectively available and ‘moving forward’ (I wrote in LMJ: ‘the global[ized] Southern composers with laptop or “techno povre” and balafon or vocal chords communicate, interact, approach each other’s “othered other”, cooperate, cross-fertilize, transform, reconstruct, explore the possibilities of an ecologically just world, and … entertain’). LMJ, 72.
SM: Is this ‘ethical’ music?
JB & SD: How do ethics come into the picture in this context?
SM: Here I was thinking of you conclusion to your SAMUS article, ‘Gumboots to the Rescue’, Jürgen, where you stated that ‘in order to go beyond Hirschland’, ‘the essence of “the other”’ still needed to be explored ‘for the purpose of building and transcending’ (I am only quoting snippets, of course).See Jürgen Bräuninger’s ‘Gumboots to the Rescue’, SAMUS, 18 (1998), 1-16, esp. 14. This sounds like a moral or ethical imperative that can be achieved by the ‘collective compositional projects by composers of different musical backgrounds’ that you also write about. Yinkosi Yeziziba sounds and looks like such an exploration by both of you, an therefore also, in a certain sense, ‘ethical’ music. I am also thinking here of a recent article by David Hoenigsberg in which he writes that ‘It is, in fact, the insistent presence and use of Western compositional techniques that block the way to a generic African cultivated music’, again implying ethical choices for South African composers. See ‘Chamber Symphony 1998’, Current Musicology, 67 & 68 (2002), 139-56, esp. 142.
JB: I don’t think there is something like ‘ethical’ or ‘unethical music’ as such, but in the past I have come across one or the other – what I would consider – at best questionable and at worst unethical practice of music making; what Kevin Volans probably means by ‘mistakes’NewMusicSA Bulletin, 1st issue (2001/02), 7.. Yinkosi Yeziziba could certainly be seen as an example of a collective compositional project by composers of different musical backgrounds (how different these are is still something we have to figure out; I believe not that much, really. Kofi Agawu’s forthcoming book is probably going to shed some more light on this question). But since you brought up my little polemic, allow me four extremely short clarifying comments: Firstly, I was surprised to hear that this piece had more than the average 1.4 academic article readers. Secondly, the ironic slants throughout seemed to have escaped at least one of them. With respect to the tongue-in-cheek ‘the essence of “the other”’ – and without troubling Said/Spivak et al now – this obviously referred to musical grammar. And lastly, I like Kevin’s music very much (except for some of the pieces mentioned … which I also do like but which are not actually his).
The David Hoenigsberg quote is very interesting. I have not seen the article and thus the quote’s context, but would certainly agree with the gist of that statement. It reminds me of another one by Jean During which says something to the effect that ‘a thought can be translated into many languages, but if you transfer a melody into another idiom then it becomes a different music, the music of the others’. And this is what a lot of composers have done in the past.
SM: In general, how does Yinkosi Yeziziba differ from other African/Western sound-crossings (Volans, Roosenschoon, Grové)? I am again thinking of your ‘little polemic’, ‘Gumboots to the Rescue’, and the response it elicited.See Grant Olwage, ‘Who Needs Rescuing? A Reply to “Gumboots to the Rescue”’, SAMUS, 19/20 (1999/2000), 105-8.
JB & SD: Please don’t ask us to do this. You are the musicologist here, and thus much better equipped (and more objective) to do this.
SM: Yinkozi Yeziziba is a provocative social and cultural cipher. Yet it can only be so in the discourses of the academy. I mean, pace the alibis of classlessness and non-racialism, who do you envisage listening to this music? Or is this music by the academy for the academy, and therefore harmlessly ‘contained’ sound-theorizing? Do you believe that musical transformation somehow complements or influences material transformation?
SD: Yinkosi Yeziziba was a response to a specific brief, whose audience was perhaps already determined by its sponsorship. Depending on which radio station the work was aired, anybody stands a good chance of hearing it and making up their own minds about it.
JB: We can’t deny that we are for many hours each day academics/teachers. But I believe that what we do creatively influences very much at least some of our students (and colleagues) and a more general audience for that matter. It is quite interesting to see/hear – sometimes only after many years down the line – how something that you have said or done has been picked up by ex-students in their own work. Of course we must not overestimate the impact of a single piece like Yinkosi Yeziziba. I can’t see any South African radio station broadcasting it in a hurry (they are more or less all ‘format’ stations now and which ‘format’ would Yinkosi Yeziziba fit in?) I can’t see any of the record companies picking it up, and there won’t be a slot on MTV since we don’t have a video (and they would not air a 12 minute video anyway). Also, we still don’t have enough live platforms for music like this, although we are working on that. But we don’t see this piece as harmless sound-theorizing. It’s very much a practical approach and concrete example/proposal that has been heard by a good number of listeners.
As an aside, I find it interesting that the contemporary dance community never sees their work in that way. I mean, a great number of choreographers and dancers at, say, the Dance Umbrella are academics too, but how come that a contemporary dance audience demands new work (and appreciates music not heard before) going ‘boo’ if choreographers don’t seem to have anything new to say, while a music audience always seems to have problems with stuff that deviates somewhat from what they are familiar with? I don’t believe that music, or any art, can stop a war, but surely it can achieve slight shifts in mind-sets and thus – very indirectly – to the way people relate to each other.
SM: In your note to the music you write of a ‘new perspective’ you hope Yinkosi Yeziziba to open up. What is this perspective?
JB & SD: Mainly that ‘traditional’ African instruments (or their redesigned grandchildren) can still play a major role and still have much to offer even – if not especially – outside their ‘traditional’ context and that they can contribute greatly to 21st Century music in various (also unusual) combinations. We also hope that the piece engenders lively creative debate in the manner of its juxtaposition of musical forms and extra-musical elements and that younger musicians will find these ideas somewhat useful (if not inspiring) to their own creative endeavours. So the main thrust of the project lies perhaps in its potential to interrogate entrenched musical forms, perceptions, the canonical hold on musical creative response and the utilisation of available performance and compositional resources.
|See Claremont GSE AM31.
|See Leonardo Music Journal (LMJ), 10, CD Companion Introduction to Southern Cones: Music out of Africa and South America, curated by Jürgen Bräuninger, 2000.
|See Jürgen Bräuninger’s ‘Gumboots to the Rescue’, SAMUS, 18 (1998), 1-16, esp. 14.
|See ‘Chamber Symphony 1998’, Current Musicology, 67 & 68 (2002), 139-56, esp. 142.
|NewMusicSA Bulletin, 1st issue (2001/02), 7.
|See Grant Olwage, ‘Who Needs Rescuing? A Reply to “Gumboots to the Rescue”’, SAMUS, 19/20 (1999/2000), 105-8.