A few days before the event, I was invited to the sixth edition of the Purpur Festival for Transgressive Arts by one of its founding members, the Cape Town-based avant-garde composer, Pierre-Henri Wicomb . Not an axiomatic title for a felicitous feline fraternity, the event itself was a cogent if syncretistic ennobling of a patently taut coterie of artistic talents.
Ensconced between the bumbling drunkisms of the perennial city-life and the majestic vestiges of fog draped mountain-sides presides that sacrosanct ground-zero for the arts over the past few years, Youngblood gallery. An asymmetrical neo-temple for what might be eponymously realized as transgressive.
As the sunset over a busy Bree street, attendees were escorted to the second floor where the evening began with two films set to sounds. Meryl van Noie’s Emancipation for music and visuals inaugurated ceremonies as a dose of delicate decibels occupied the aural senses with delectable decompression. The amplified and punctuated sounds of pens scribbling, corrugated metal slapping, airstreams, and other surfaces engaged by various means layered a stratum of textures of indefinite pitch in isorhythmic contrapuntal coherence. The continuous loop of film featuring scenes of choreographed ballet in metropolitan subway stations, celestial meteor showers, and septuagenarian Native-American basket weavers helped to orient listeners to the transformative variations underpinning the score; sound mass swelled, blended, doubled, refracted and dropped out entirely as if an orchestra under the control of a careful conductor. The piece tickled and prodded in all the right areas, leaving the impression that your brain had just been treated to a massage.
The collaborative work of Jaco Bouwer and Pierre Henri Wicomb’s This Country is Lonely was a purposely obfuscated reimagining of the overly-sexualized and brutally self-destructive ‘individualism’ of social-media culture. The text, set against Wicomb’s experimental sound-collage is an academic term paper about the aesthetic of rat bites in South Africa. Certain words such as ‘abrasions’ are highlighted by Wicomb’s encapsulating sonic pallet, and descriptions of the imaginative and colorful beauty of bruises, blood, and swelling is packaged in romanticized verse while the eerily cold, disconnected, and disturbing video juxtaposes the obsession of the subject. The score eventually blooms into a subterranean anthem reminiscent of the seedy underground alleys of a Ridley Scott imagined dystopian night club perfectly complimenting the florescent lighting exposure of pale skin, cold sweat, and dehydration.
After a brief intermission, the Japanese Duo X[iksa] performed some truly breathtaking and masterful music by Yukari Yoshizawa and Toshio Hosokawa. Comprised of violinist Yasutaka Hemmi and harpist Takayo Matsumura, the duo was beautifully choreographed through every balanced nuance, dynamic, and temporal shift. Both Yoshizawa’s Shio and Hosokawa’s Arc Song were romantic in scope, poetic in form, spacious, nocturnal, wonderfully capturing the disciplined calligraphy, spiritual-awareness and frothy sea waves of its country of origin. The group also performed a very brief introductory piece by Samora Ntsebeza that treated harp and violin as percussive instruments and later in the evening Antithesis by Monthati Masebe and Khanyi Petersons’ On Time, a short minimalist score evoking nature, set to snapshots of the local vegetation. Wicomb’s One out of two: Trees A & B was an unearthly and spectral score set to spectral fragments of earthly scenes; at both times unsettling and deeply comforting. The score, set to a film segment that slowly proceeds through a forest, is synchronized between glitchy film that recasts the images in different saturation levels, and various execution movements of the bowing mechanism of the violin.
Liza Joubert along with colleague Alex Beaven treated audiences to a lovely recalling of the advent of pre-Hollywood fantasy with french dadaist Réne Clair’s film suite that focused on the normality of life from novel perspectives like that of a buoyant funeral procession in ebullient slow-motion, rollercoasters in reversal, and the human anatomy in moments of graceful ballet poses as they converged above the camera, angled below a flooring of glass panel. The music itself was a four-hand reduction of Eric Satie’s Entr-acte prepared by Darius Milhaud. As is always the case with Satie, audience exposure should come with a warning label as the 22-minute duration is mostly made up of a repeating appoggiatura over a colored dominant waiting for resolution. None-the-less it was delightful and dynamic in the hands of Joubert and Beaven. Interestingly, I had not correlated how French Stravinsky’s ‘Russian Dance’ from Petrushka is, in actuality, until the persistent entrance of Satie’s score. Joubert rounded out her set with Two Piano Pieces by the American Composer and Theorist Henry Cowell. Aeolian Harp utilized the piano’s strings as a plectrum instrument giving the whimsical sense of a harp tuning mid-phrase. A remarkable sensation of splashing and settling could be felt as the overtones washed over and settled against their aural frames while a go-pro displayed her eloquent strumming inside the piano frame for audience observation. The second piece, The Tides of Manaunaun was an entirely moving piece recounting the creation story through a darkened lens of Irish mythology. The piece exhibited the epitome of dualism, darkness and light, departing from one another until the climax of the piece securely held both chaos and order in each hand in an act of gentle despotism.
Michael Blake began the evening as curator of John Cage’s Music for Marcel Duchamp where he performed prepared piano to accompany scenes from the surrealist film Dreams That Money Can Buy. Sexy and provocative, the scores 7 note pitch collection spins out a melodic vertigo for the senses while the scenes stylized presence instantly incants 1960’s noir classics.
Blake was then self-promoted to narrator for the silent Swedish film Nattliga Toner (night music), an apparent favorite of Ingmar Bergman. The film is set to Blakes out recomposition of Arnold Schöenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film Scene, opus 34. The mood was respectively vague and tense, muted, subtle and wonderfully conjuring. It was so perfect in fact, I do not think I could watch the film without feeling at a loss without Blake’s score.
The evening rounded out with Blakes’ Standing Stone Circle for Harp and Peripatetic Violinist. The piece was originally written while Blake and X[iska] shared a joint residency at the Nirox Foundation. Poetically pagan, majestically meditative, the piece calls for the violinist to move further away from the harpist with each unfolding variation. Though Mr. Blakes’ bio reads that he is concerned with ‘a feeling for material, rather than the method of composition’ his pieces exhibited a masterful skill of longterm development with small constituent cells subjecting them to an ever-evolving process of metamorphosis.
While certainly not last, nor least, the final mention goes to the eponymous ensemble of which the festival receives its ennobling name. The Purpur ensemble made up of Piet De Beer, Liam Burden, John Pringle and lead by Pierre-Henri Wicomb presented the ‘collective composition’ of Jürgen Bräuninger and Ulrich Süße Anywhere Far for instrument and tape. Using material from a text excerpt presented at the first KwaZulu-Natal Cultural Congress held in Durban in 1991 and what looked to be an aleatoric score, the piece was a swirling, evocative hurricane of sounds, with elements of tribal percussion and jazz-like improvisatory gestures. The sounds of nature acted as a sort of nocturne to the impending collision of political protest that brought the piece to a close.
The festival was one of the most enjoyable things I have experienced since arriving in South Africa in 2015. It is only a shame that such a vibrant and codified musical culture is largely unknown outside of the elective retinue of its patrons and fans. I look forward to the 7th installment of the festival and am hopeful for an expansion in interest, participation and funding for the music of South African Arts and Culture in the future.