Guest blog

Sounds of a City: ‘Antjie in Berlin’ at the Market

Elevator music it is not: a collaborative soundscape that is, quite literally, a musical translation of Antjie Krog’s letters to her mother from Berlin. A change of tongue, indeed. And it works.

The writer is sitting with pianist Jill Richards at a sun-dappled sidewalk café in the bright, warm Johannesburg springtime. It’s e e cummings-style, “just-spring” weather this morning. About the only thing missing is the poet’s famous “goat-footed balloon man” in a world suddenly gone puddle-wonderful. It is still early morning but Richards is energised to speak about almost everything and anything. Her imagination grabs hold of an idea, a thought, and a possibility as she delights in sharing enthusiasms for modern, atonal, electronic, experimental, improvisational, mixed media music and performance – or for the great Mozart piano sonatas and the keyboard music of Bach.

When the writer mentions he loves this kind of clanging, jangling modern music too, “You know, the kind that sounds like someone has started to torment the cat”, Richards seizes on that remark to propose a new contemporary chamber music ensemble to be named, fittingly enough perhaps, “Fire in a Pet Shop!” Over poached eggs and coffee, a plot is hatched for a future evening of avant-garde music that would allow the author to achieve his lifetime ambition to be the impressive but silent pianist for John Cage’s “4’33”” – that notorious high-concept work written for a totally soundless piano. And Richards just might make such a concert series work, too – she has that kind of drive, energy and focus. And she has an infectious laugh that makes even an idea like this seem reasonable when she starts to explore the possibilities of this utterly implausible project.

Much more than just an experimental musician, Jill Richards is a highly trained pianist with an extraordinary sense of musicality, who can draw on awesome technical skills as well as an infectious desire to lead her audiences into a more knowledgeable contemplation of the inner workings of such music – no matter how weird it may seem at first hearing. To watch and listen to her perform the shimmering piano music of South African composer Kevin Volans, or works by Karl-Heinz Stockhausen – one of the twentieth century’s most important modern composers – is to encounter a performer totally dedicated to wringing all the meaning and beauty possible from the most experimental – and seemingly inaccessible – of piano music. Richards trained at the University of Cape Town, in London at the Royal College of Music and in the US at the University of Kansas; she has an impressive list of premiere works, recordings and performances around the world; but she remains one of Johannesburg’s preeminent musical fixtures, whenever and wherever new music is performed.

The last time the writer saw Richards in performance, she was furiously performing at the piano – surrounded by a disconcerting assortment of dancers, jugglers, tuba players, phantasmagorical machines of uncertain purpose, as well as the work’s artist-creator, William Kentridge, dancing with choreographer Dada Masilo – and all of them performing to the music of Philip Miller. Over the years, Miller has been one of Kentridge’s frequent creative partners on stage and with film.

This time around, Richards is in the midst of preparing for performances of Antjie in Berlin by Rudiger Meyer at the Market Theatre, a work that received its world premiere – and critical acclaim – at this year’s Grahamstown National Arts Festival a few months earlier. Antjie in Berlin is a work for piano, ambient cityscape sounds and pre-recorded quotations extracted from the text of letters written by Antjie Krog during her stay in Berlin – and that were later incorporated into her recent book, Begging to be Black. The work’s programme notes explain that Meyer has transformed the speech melodies, tempi and rhythms of Antjie Krog’s distinctive language into piano music and that the larger sound environment has been drawn from actualities recorded in Berlin and played through a complex installation of loudspeakers to recreate something of the layout of Berlin.

South African-born composer, Rudiger Meyer, now working in Europe, created the overall work, while the electronic soundscape is guided on stage amidst a tangle of electronic gear and cables by sound technician Shaughn Maccrae. Krog, of course, is the well-known South African journalist-poet-essayist; a writer who has become known as something of the poet laureate of political angst. Meyer used letters originally written by Krog to her mother while she was staying in Germany during a recent writer-in-residence stint. These letters by Krog cover everything from quotidian descriptions of everyday life in a foreign city to the kinds of reflections on global and moral issues and literary value that have become something of an Antjie Krog trademark.

In fact, in a recent essay on the continuing social importance of literature, Krog argues that “literature inflects the anguish of reality in a way that theoretical discussions of the same issues cannot achieve, making possible a kind of understanding not accessible by other means”, even as she laments the lack of any serious interest in the arts by the current South African government to help it grapple with such concerns. For Krog, this has become especially painful because “South Africa has [had] a history, even during Apartheid, of political literary engagement – a fact that proved crucial for later resistance by writers and singers. Its literature must continue to be read by government, for it inflects the anguish of reality.”

The first half of the concert is a distinctive counterpoint to this more cerebral work of Antjie in Berlin in the form of an improvisational collaboration, Without Time and Place. Together with artist Marcus Neustetter, Richards creates musical landscapes that Neustetter turns into visual textures that in turn influence the sounds Richards produces – back and forth and all unscripted.

This is not comfortable, elevator music. Maybe there will be little to hum on the way home. But, instead, it challenges listeners – and viewers – to contemplate how music, art and electronics continue to erase those seemingly sacrosanct boundaries between genres, increasingly coming together in what art critic Robert Hughes once called “the shock of the new”.

  • Antjie in Berlin and Without Time and Place will be performed at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg; 04 -14 October; Tuesdays – Saturdays at 20:15 and Sundays at 15:15.

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