White Man Sleeps: Composer’s Statement

I wrote White Man Sleeps in 1982 in Durban. It is the third in a series of pieces in which I hoped, perhaps somewhat naively, to reconcile African and European aesthetics. I wanted to reflect in the music an image of a multicultural society – one in which the traditions of different cultures are represented, honoured and, above all, shared – no more ‘separate development’! In order to achieve this I planned a series of pieces which were graded (as a learning curve) from pure transcription (in the manner of Bach), through paraphrase (as in Liszt), quotation as objet trouve (Charles Ives), assimilation (in the tradition of Stravinsky and Bartok) to what was then called an ‘invented folklore’ – what I thought of as a new music of southern Africa, or music for a new South Africa. Thus the series began with Mbira (1981) (now withdrawn) which involved traditional patterns, some newly composed patterns and a non-traditional coda, Matepe (1982), which is largely nontraditional in style, and where the music is expanded to encompass the wider range of the harpsichord, through to She Who Sleeps With A Small Blanket (1985), in which only the title is African. In White Man Sleeps Venda, San, Basotho, Nyungwe, Baroque and contemporary Western music are all represented in roughly equal measure, all played in a tuning system derived from Shona Mbira music (and modified to suit the harpsichords).

In writing these pieces I set myself some ground rules. In particular I saw no point in westernising African music – the popular music industry had already done that. I wanted to achieve the reverse. By introducing some strictly non-Western aspects of African music into the European concert repertoire I hoped to gently set up an African colonisation of Western music and instruments and thus preserve some unique qualities, albeit in a new form. It was a bit like introducing an African computer virus into the heart of Western contemporary music. Thus I concentrated on the anti-hierarchic nature of traditional African music, the interlocking techniques, shifting downbeats, the largely non-functional harmony, the open forms, the extremely fast tempi of some music, the non-developmental use of repetition, contrasting and irregular patterning, the tone colour, the energy and the joy (so absent in Western music of the 70s and 80s).

My desire to explore the differences between African and European music was in stark contrast to that of the previous generation of New Music composers, who in their quest for a ‘world music’ in the 1960s, succeeded in integrating the music of many cultures into one (usually electronic) Western music. I and my Cologne-based colleagues in the 70s were interested in cross-fertilising techniques of different musical traditions to arrive at a new musical perception – one that went beyond Eurocentricity on the one hand and ‘hands off’ ethnomusicology on the other. Above all, we wished to avoid ‘local colour’ – the essence of airport art. It was for this reason we all avoided the facile nature of electronic music, and in particular were careful not to introduce exotic instruments into Western music. We stuck to a Western instrumentarium on which we could explore new aesthetics, new techniques and (equally importantly) new colour.

The choice of instruments was vital. Firstly, there is the obvious point that throughout the 20th century timbre has increasingly taken on the burden of musical import – from Debussy, Varese, Schoenberg, through Yves Klein’s Symphonie Monochrome (1948), and the work of La Monte Young and Feldman, to name a few, tone colour (and by that I include tuning as well as timbre) has gradually become not only inseparable from the other parameters of music (pitch, tempo, dynamics, register) in terms of formal structure, but has gained pre-eminence in terms of the meaning of the music.

New Music was very much concerned with new sound, not merely for the sake of technical innovation, but because new sounds brought new (emotional) experiences with them. Colour is as much a matter of period, as pitch organisation or formal structure. (This is as true in painting as in music – particular colours seem to belong to particular periods). The choice of materials, which includes the choice of colour, determines the difference between pastiche and original work. Colour alone can imply time and space, and something more difficult to define which one can call cultural value.

It was obvious to me, that by re-casting the source material onto new instruments, it stripped it of its original significance, and gave it a new one. (However accurately transcribed, a folk tune played by a symphony orchestra is no longer a folk tune.) This does not imply, however, that one is free to do anything. What would be the point of working with original source material, if one did not wish to translate some of the values implicit in it? By working with the right instruments, in the right register, at the right dynamic, one can infer a world foreign, or rather new, to the traditional world of the instruments themselves.

The inflexible and standardised sound of the modern, industrialised piano and orchestra seemed totally inappropriate for African music. Too bland, too inflexibly Western. The easily re-tuned, somewhat percussive and unique sound of handmade harpsichords seemed ideal. In the first performances we used copies of 18th Century Flemish and 17th Century Italian instruments. The whooping, nasal sound of the viola da gamba (when the player is encouraged to bow ‘badly’) also seemed to fit, along with discreet and minimal percussion. This was very much a work of the Cologne school of the early 80s (despite being written in South Africa), where the emergence of Musica Antiqua Koeln and Sequentia (the medieval group) had had such an influence on composers in the late 70s.

In 1984 I was asked by the Kronos Quartet to re-work the piece for string quartet. I resisted the idea for over a year. I couldn’t see how the quartet version could either play in quasi-African tuning, or compensate for the loss of unique colour brought about by equal temperament. However, I was tempted, because the string quartet encapsulated the very heart of Western classical music. I began work, using as many open strings as possible (partially because of my inexperience in writing for strings). I was delighted with the result. The open strings gave the piece a distinctly recognisable sound, and whereas the first version hovered between a Baroque suite and a set of African dances, some passages of the later version hinted at Schubert and the Biedermeier world of the early 19th Century.

White Man Sleeps for 2 re-tuned harpsichords, viola da gamba, and percussion (1982)

[and White Man Sleeps for string quartet (1986)]

The first movement consists of transcriptions of 6 Venda panpipe pieces, played in a staggering Baroque rhythm (to compensate for the change of tone colour from the panpipe to the harpsichord), with the addition of some western rattles. Professor Christopher Ballantine of the University of Natal whom I consulted a number of times while writing the piece, particularly on matters of ethics and credits, had recorded and transcribed these dances. Like myself, he felt the music was more usefully performed than studied in a book. I dropped this movement in the string quartet version of the piece.

The second movement begins with rough transcriptions of 3 San hunting bow renditions of animal gaits (recorded by Tony Traill of the University of the Witwatersrand) followed by a loose re-working of a lesiba piece I recorded in Lesotho. [This is the 3rd movement of the string quartet version].

The third movement is based entirely on Nyungwe music played by Makina Chirenje and his Nyanga panpipe group at Nsava, Tete valley, Mozambique, which was recorded and transcribed by Andrew Tracey (to be found in an article entitled “The nyanga panpipe dance” in African Music, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1971). Andrew came to give a workshop on this music in Durban, getting us to try and play the music on the original instruments (without, alas, a great deal of success). The original music is filtered, re-cast into patterns suitable for the two harpsichords and presented in two contrasting tempi. In the string quartet version of the piece, I further re-worked the material to create the fourth movement, filtering it down to a single line and slowing the tempo by 4 time octaves. I also added a freely composed viola line in the second section.

The fourth movement is an original composition that started out as a piece inspired by hyena running, as performed in San bow music. As this wasn’t working out, I developed my own rhythms and patterns, consisting mainly of an interlocking pattern in three’s, re-cast for a solo instrument. [Fifth movement, string quartet]

The fifth movement was inspired by the 2 alternating chords (in/out) that seemed to form the basis of all Basotho concertina music. I was entertained by the idea of a movement consisting only of 2 chords, but in fact added 2 minor variations. The rhythm is 13/4, which, as far as I know is not found in African music. I “re-Africanised” the alternating chords by setting them as two interlocking patterns for the harpsichords – in effect the reverse of the previous movement. In the string quartet version of the piece, I decided to place this movement first, as I felt it was the weakest. Ironically it became the piece for which I am best known.

The South African musical establishment responded in the early 80s with fierce criticism of these pieces: “Black music is for Black people” “cultural banditry” “cultural appropriation” “I no more wish to hear mbira music played on the harpsichord, than Mozart played on the mbira” etc.- all of which smacked of separate development to me, and strengthened my determination to continue. I came to regard the work as my small contribution to the struggle against apartheid. In 1985 I was awarded a D. Mus. by the University of Natal at the instigation of Chris Ballantine.

Now the South African Music Rights Organisation requests a cross-cultural element (however superficial) in all its new commissions. This is not unreasonable if inappropriate for a commissioning body, who should not attempt to influence content. One cannot create a new multi-cultural society without a great deal of borrowing, lending and sharing. And no doubt plenty of mistakes will be made on the way.

However, since 1988 (with the exception of re-workings of older pieces and my opera, which is partly set in Ethiopia) I have avoided any direct reference to African music in my composition. For me, the moment for this kind of work has passed, along with the apartheid State.