A summer afternoon started with the informal visit to the distinguished South African composer, Peter Klatzow at his rose-bed-ensconced home in the university-active suburb of Rondebosch, his lounge riddled with towers of stacked music scores and books spread across the intellectually cultivated landscape of his 1970s Kawai piano; An impression of the bustling skyline of downtown Cape Town itself, in miniature form. Peter was busy in the role of chef with equal delicacy, balance and attention to detail that his compositions are known for. He was making a Russian chicken pie which prompted me to prod the composers on his interest in the Franco-Russian school of the early 20th century.
As Peter’s delightful tales took unexpected turns through quaint South African fishing villages; European pilgrimages that soared above the vestigial monuments of Egypt’s empire; found quiet solace in the cool, hallowed sanctuaries of Italy’s Roman Cathedrals, and pondered the constituent geological make-up of one curious rock that surfaced in the soil of his rose garden, the composer recounted one humorous story from his early career at the South African Broadcasting Company, in which a then young Stockhausen, not particular to the quixotic rhetoric of politics, made allegorical, though assumingly unintentional, criticisms on music that had an ostensibly consequential political association to the apartheid establishment.
Of what I can only paraphrase as a secondary statement, Stockhausen posited that he was not concerned with purity in itself as much as he was concerned with two sources of purity intermixing to give birth to a hybrid of an amalgamation of culturally mixed tendency; the incipiency of a new style.
As usual, I enjoyed and valued the wisdom and humor imparted by Peter, but as evening crept forward and the chicken pie sumptuously beckoned its culinary curator, I was pressed to leave for a night of music by the renowned and critically praised Vox choir in downtown Cape Town, headed under the enlightening and passionate baton of conductor John Woodland; a former protege of Klatzow’s.
It had been a few weeks since I entered the mini-millennial chapel known as “Young Blood” on the ever-lively clubbing and bar scene of Bree Street. Immediately noticeable was the new gallery exhibition prominently displayed flanking either side of the improvised auditorium; Interjecting portraits of lascivious young women, evocatively posed with minimal covering against the smirking grin of lowrider-plated skulls; A juxtaposition that evoked both the frivolous and fatal, the eternally young and eternally restful, the temptation and testament of life. As Woodland would poignantly quip to me after the show, ‘Memento Mori.’ For the concert about to unveil, it had an unexpected extra-musical intention to the ‘Evolution’ of Woodland’s envisioning of religiously inspired choral music across the span of two millennia.
In his opening remarks, Woodland regarded the theater as a type of ‘modern cathedral’, and if so, one could assume a reappropriated purpose of those painted sirens and macabre death portraits as a ‘type’ of the stained glass narratives presiding over the nave of this ‘new cathedral.’ A new ethically appropriate mythos, sex and death, biology and the cosmos, would allow its light through the prism of this most sensuously post-interpretive dichotomy.
But the crux of the irony itself, is not in the diachronic evolution of the religious psyche itself that the programmatic title suggests, but more accurately that there would be no light to pass through any such physical structures of illumination because the concert itself was completely ‘In the Dark.’
The brainchild of Magdeline Minnaar, director, and proprietor of Biblioteek productions, In the Dark is a series that began in 2010 to critical acclaim. Of course, it was Wagner who first suggested that the audience should be enshrouded in darkness so that the attention of the psyche was aimed only at the unfolding narrative on stage. When the stage itself is engulfed in darkness, the only narrative to follow is that of the internal psychological discovery of self. How delightfully appropriate to music who’s subject matter seeks to dissipate the physical realms of materialism for the internal kingdom of spiritual awakening.
Most of this music is familiar to us, even if not intimately. The concert began with the 10th century Kyrie whose authorship is unknown though its beauty is as familiar and common as that of a noble and ancient Oak. The ensemble hovered above the auditorium from a second level platform that extended thinly from the narrow brick walls. A faint seraphic halo projected against the upper ceiling while the silhouette of Woodland’s hands moved in choreographed waves of motion that brought gentle poetry to the flowering counterpoint of the music.
Descending into the heart of the auditorium is a totemic figure posed in a dive toward the audience; A permanent feature of the theater and not thematic to the concert itself, it none the less played on the religious mysteries of ecclesiastical sacramentals in the transformative darkness. I was particularly in awe of how powerfully vibrational the parallel fifths of the organum of the plainchant felt in the room, or how the fauxbourdon of the Dufay’s Ave Maria Stella beautifully captured the sense of a ‘false bass’ floating beneath the attached melodies that permeated the theater, like frankincense in a sanctuary. It was during the Dufay that an equally pleasing juxtaposition became apparent. An entire theater of people sits in the darkness, vacantly staring at a wall; A curious sight for the inebriated patrons of Bree street on a Friday night. While inside, invocations and hymns beatified the ocean-bound mother of G-d, outside a morbidly curious and notably confused tipsy celebrant explodes into expletive obscenities warranting the attention of his friend to the cult-like scene frozen behind glass before them.
Thomas Tallis rightfully made an appearance with his wonderful strands of interweaving chromatic lines that wrap around its own structure like the microscopic nucleotides of DNA, while Palestrina sat as the crowned jewel of the evening as well as the form and style of the literature encompassing the corpus’ liturgical ‘end’ until the tonal era lead under the auspices of Bachian counterpoint.
A very strange and harsh augmented octave announced itself in three times in John Sheppard’s In Mannus Tuas, which Woodland tells me is known as an English Cadence, that has since been sanitized from the 16th-century scores included this evening for authenticity to the source.
And authenticity to its source was the question of essence, or rather its origin, for the final piece, which saw its continental premiere the evening before; Gregory Brown’s Missa Charles Darwin. Brown is the brother of famed Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, and the piece contained some element of intrigue that might be expected from the associations. Set to the text of Origin of Species, the Mass for Charles Darwin sanctifies the new state-approved religion of atheism and traces the evolution of G-d from the chiseled relief or idol to the אין סוף (No-thing-ness in Hebrew) of the beautiful interrelations of somatic entities as the cosmology of molecules to mankind invites us to reinterpret the age of consciousness and what it might mean to be a creator who is not known or may not know itself. The piece was not arbitrarily constructed to parody the style also; Apparently Brown assigns pitch classes to the genetic codes of the finches found on the Galápagos and thus creates his own biological strands of plainchant melody; Deus Ex Machina.
As a riveting concert should do, the source of its program left me with some observations not explicit or intentional in its vision. Thinking of Jung or Neitzsche’s approach to religion as a cultural, governmental, and spiritual body and thinking from the standpoint of a Jew who is very much curious and enamored with the psychology and mythology of all religions,
Religion is good in as much that it can act as a frame of reference that stands on the outside of the physical world and so helps to evaluate and abnegate the absurdity of the social paradigm of politics and the artifice of state; i.e. it is good to seek wisdom from an authority that is opposed to “the world.” If one is only subject to statistical reality, such as that of the atheist, then only one “truth” exists and therefore that person shall function as a label of the state. Free choice, judgment, and decision are all fictional impossibilities for such a person. So then the spiritual world is of utmost importance.
Conversely, when one gets so enamored with scripture as to replace its rhetorical and representational narrative, of which the purpose is beneficial to better life, and instead makes vital a literal, superficial or uninspired reading of the text, all of the spirituality and wisdom evaporates to reveal a mirrored contrast of what it opposes; Engendering personal responsibilities to supernatural entities. Whether it’s “angels and demons” or “politicians and terrorists’, the reality is suspended and subjugated to a hypostatized, quasi-animated camouflage for those proprietors who know how to manipulate it. It is such literalism that makes the truths of the scriptures so radically, and rightfully unreliable and unbelievable. So then the scientific world of logic, divorced from the spiritual is equally of utmost importance.
As Peter Klatzow imparted to me just hours before through the elucidations of the Stockhausen story, Purity in itself is not the least interesting until it has an opposing force by which to have a reason to exist; The universe gives birth to molecules which give birth to cells, which give birth to synapsis which eventually give birth to thought and consciousness, and so the creator and the creation exist as a hybrid amalgamation of conscious tendency; a new style of the ever-present cellular materials, in the hands of an artist, be it composer, chef, conductor, musician, author, or scientist, emanates the verisimilitude of religious verities.
For that observation, I thank Vox and Woodland for the wonderfully rich and enlightening program and look forward to their next installment