Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mokale Koapeng: 'Whenever I talk of classical composers of African descent, people are surprised'

[Mokale Koapeng]

On Dec. 20, 2010 AfriClassical posted: “Mokale Koapeng Among composers of Nightingale String Quartet CD 'The Bow Project.'” Today we post the conclusion of our interview with this prominent South African composer, choral director and teacher:

One topic I wanted to ask you about, you wrote an article for The Sowetan newspaper in 2009 about the fact that Blacks have been part of classical music for a very long time. In fact, you mentioned all the way back to Saint-Georges?
That was September of 2009. You said: “Blacks have been a big part of classical music for centuries”?
Is there anything else you'd like to say about that?
The context of that article was when one civil servant, working within the Office of the President, made a public statement on national radio that classical music is White man's music. Trying to explain the irrelevance of classical music in South Africa. All I did was actually correct this perception, indicating that we are not necessarily “intruders” in that state. We have been significant contributors. We might not necessarily have been the originators, but we have been significant role-players. Inasmuch as we cannot deny the contribution that Europe and Whites made in the development of jazz. Basically I was just correcting a perception that our politicians conveniently state whenever they get confronted with certain development issues or issues of identity. That was the context of that article.
One very different thing I wonder if I could ask you to comment on; your participation in the Karlheinz Stockhausen Project?
How did you get involved in that?
Well, this is a universal problem, aversion to modern music.
Especially compositions by people like Stockhausen, Schoenberg, Stravinsky to some extent and all those. So we formed a small group of people, I think about four of us, in Johannesburg, created a space for the promotion of that kind of music. But with Mantra, I actually used it as a launch pad or a platform to introduce Black South African composers, largely of choral music, because the majority operate within the choral music space. Actually in a country of about 42 million Blacks, a total population of about 50 million, it's absurd that there are only less than 10 Black composers who can write for an orchestra or include an orchestra in their compositions.
Is that right?
Yes, I used Mantra as a way of introducing Black composers to the piano as a medium. So we had a brilliant pianist who was actually playing the Mantra, who was part of a duet playing the Mantra, just to explore...
Is that Jill Richards?
Jill Richards, yes. So I basically used that and the one fascinating thing is that they really appreciated even the compositional techniques that Stockhausen used. I mean those very notes that formed the set of notes that he based the composition on, they really appreciated that! And that actually planted a seed for the development of composition work in South Africa. So basically Mantra was a launch pad for composers' education in South Africa, because most of our composers don't have a composition-specific education. Most of them compose because they have access to a choir, they are forced to arrange or they actually might discover ability to compose as soon as they get into that space. We don't have a tradition, particularly for Black composers, where people go to Music school, go to university to study composition and ply their trade in that field. I'm one of the few privileged who have had that opportunity. So all I was still doing is to help Black composers. I'm the Composer-in-`Residence for the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival.
That's right! That's in January, isn't it?
It is in January and one of the things that I will be doing is to have a Composers Workshop. It is a continuation of what we did for the Mantra. But for this one, composers are expected to bring a minimum of two minutes of piano trio – piano, violin and cello – because at the Workshop we will be having a piano trio. So we have extended it from a piano, and included violin and cello. It's an ongoing process. One reason I am conductor of that project is I've had a number of composers asking me to do the orchestration of their works.
And I insist that no, having to do an orchestration of a work is like imposing my aesthetic values of compositional language on top of their music. We have had examples of prominent Black composers employing White orchestrators, and you can actually even hear that didn't work well. Rather than doing the orchestration I will say look, I don't mind teaching you for free techniques of orchestration, actually even starting them with instrumentation just to have an idea of getting into that craft.
Do the other composers in South Africa listen to the music of William Grant Still and the other composers of African descent in the classical genre?
Bill, you'll be shocked that whenever I talk of classical composers of African descent, people are surprised that we have that kind of leaders! Even Michael Mosoeu Moerane himself, most Black choral practitioners don't even know his only orchestral piece, Fatse la heso, which was recorded by the BBC Orchestra in 1944! So there is a serious, serious absence of in-depth intellectual engagement. The only recordings I have are Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges Violin Concertos and the Violin Concerto of Coleridge-Taylor.
Oh yes!
I am still struggling with the recordings of William Grant Still. I want the scores, I want all sorts of things...
You know his daughter has a music company, his daughter Judith Anne Still. It's called William Grant Still Music; it's at
Okay, do you have contact with her?
Oh yes!
If you could just forward my contact details to her, I would love to engage her, because I am really committed to promoting works by composers of African descent. As I said, the only problem is the availability of scores and recordings. It's something that I really want to do! Because I actually found that's the best way to teach young people, to teach young composers, of the history of Blacks in the area of classical music.
Is there any way I could increase awareness of AfriClassical and in South Africa?
I see that you have sent a link to NewMusicSA. That is one you can target. Another one is, send it to the universities. Because I find it odd that South African universities don't even have a module on this subject. Wherever I have an opportunity to tell people about I do that. Yes, I will appreciate any effort that you can make promoting that. I went to university in my undergraduate years in the 1980s. I never knew that there were Black composers until 2003! I feel very bad that our universities are not doing anything regarding this.
Two South African professors were maintaining a Dictionary of African Composers, but I lost touch with them. One was Alexander Johnson...
And Chris Walton.
Are you still in touch with them?
Yes, I just renewed my friendship with Chris Walton via Facebook. He has relocated. I think he went back to Switzerland.
Alexander Johnson is at the University of Pretoria. I met him when I was still conducting a choir there. I was at the University of Pretoria for 5 years. I wonder if the Dictionary is still active? I am not sure about that.
It introduced me to Prof. Meki Nzewi, before it disappeared.
I contacted him and he was very grateful that I put his picture and a brief description of his career on the blog.
Is there any final comment you have, before concluding our interview?
It is actually to compliment you on the work that you are doing! I've learned so much from it and actually has become a very, very useful, valuable resource for me. I tried to connect with Dominique-René de Lerma...
He's my principal advisor! He was sick for some time, but he is available now. He changed his email address. I can send it to you.
Yes, I will appreciate that. I also sent emails to people like Akin Euba. I would like to compliment you, and keep on doing that great job! The South African environment is very, very difficult. AfriClassical has really helped in terms of realigning certain intellectual engagement. I will be talking to my Head of Department in terms of doing work in this area.
I want to thank you very much!
Thank you very much, Bill!
Goodbye now.

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