Composer at Large

Excerpts from ‘Composer at Large’ Diary-Memoir written 2007-2009

Stanwell, Thursday 10 July 2008    Symphony (excerpts)

I started writing my Symphony in July 1993 as my teaching career on the Cape Flats came slowly, almost imperceptibly to a close. I’d always wanted to write a symphony, but knew this wouldn’t be easy. For no apparent reason I decided that that July was the time to start writing it. I didn’t have a piano, at least to begin with, so I worked on the piece each evening at a small music institute where I’d practised piano as a boy. I sketched out my ideas and worked at them as best I could whenever time allowed. After a few months I had little to show, so I hired a Rippen upright with a modulator, which was delivered to my apartment at the top of a twenty story apartment block not far from the centre of Cape Town. I could now compose to my heart’s content as I looked up to Table Mountain, which rose each night like an unbelievable imagining from a fairy tale -just beyond the apartment’s heavy plate glass windows. Each night a buzz of lights would flicker on the mountain’s lower slopes and occasionally a mountain fire would break out adding an extra thrill to a night already charged with sensuality. If a southeaster swept across the city, the vague sounds from the streets below would vanish in the roar of wind engulfing my world at the top. Soon I’d sketched out a number of ideas for the first movement and began working them into short score.

Table Mountain, Cape Town

One night my work was interrupted by the arrival of a dark-haired woman at my door, who amongst other things was an aerobics enthusiast and linguist. She was terribly English, well over forty, and lived on the seventh floor of the apartment block with her posh old mother. A few months earlier she’d propositioned me in the shopping mall below, saying if I ever needed her ‘services’ I would know where to find them. I’d never taken up her offer (since I wasn’t sure what her ‘services’ entailed), which probably accounted for her arrival on my doorstep that night. Before I could utter a word, she swept me aside and pirouetted into the apartment until she reached the Rippen upright. As she placed a feather-light hand on its keys she began telling me in no uncertain terms that I was driving the old man directly below me nuts. What was I up to? Didn’t I have any regard for other people’s rights to privacy and a tranquil life? To not put too fine a point upon it, it seemed as if I didn’t play the piano terribly well since certain phrases were continually repeated, as were strange chords and harmonies which were unsatisfying to the ear and quite disturbing to say the very least. I listened to Olivia in gobsmacked wonderment, for such was her name, and asked her how she had come to know about all of this. It turned out that the old man downstairs was a close friend of hers (possibly a client). She visited him regularly, so she said.I suddenly saw her in my mind’s eye directly beneath me, gazing upwards as I composed the vibrant themes of the Symphony’s opening movement and realised she’d invaded my private space and stripped me naked. In a fit of pique I refused to tell her that a new symphony was unfolding in the very room she’d invaded so inconsiderately. It was becoming perfectly clear she was using her involvement with the man downstairs as a pretext for getting into my flat so as to extend her client base!

Far beyond my world of music the country was falling apart as internecine strife and murder spread amongst hostel dwellers on the Reef, with the massacring of passengers on commuter trains on the Rand and in Natal, and numerous deaths resulting from arbitrary attacks on churches, pubs, and a golf club in East London. The country was ablaze with rumours and questions, as well as answers as to who was behind it all. Was it APLA, the African People’s Liberation Army the papers demanded? (Perhaps) Was it far right wing Afrikaner groups? (Possibly) Could some sinister third force be trying to bring the country to its knees months before the first democratic elections? (Maybe) (The Secretary of the Communist Party, Chris Hani, had been shot to death only months before I’d started work on the Symphony.) Whatever it was, it was all terribly troubling, indeed terrifying.

In Cape Town, though, a profound sense of peace and harmony reigned supreme during the memorable months of October, November and December 1993,i as the centre of the city was lit for the last time by a spirit of fun and camaraderie that recalled happier, earlier times. I joined in the revelry and entertained every weekend, having a wild time as was my wont.

As the perfect weather continued unabated during that summer, I was unaware that the seminal year of 1994 would see the start of the negativity that would eventually destroy the non-racial camaraderie and bonhomie that had been hallmarks of the Cape Town I’d known and loved.

Happily, though, I couldn’t foresee this as I finished the Symphony’s first movement late on a Saturday afternoon in February 1994.

Havana, Friday 12 December 2008      Full Circle in Havana (excerpt)

I grew up beside the sea, and the sound of its tides and the calls of its birds have been in my ears from as far back as I can remember. I have stood ten thousand times beside its unceasing ebb and flow in search of comfort for my alienated spirit, and have felt its vast, ever-changing canvas giving my life a sense of proportion. It has taught me how insignificant and irrelevant my existence is, and has told me that my enemies are as nothing. And when I am separated from it, I become agitated and unhappy, because the greatest comfort I can possibly know has been taken from me. The most sublime feeling I know is when I am encircled by its tender embrace on a warm summer’s day; when it surrounds and supports my very existence with its firm, comforting swell; when its salt is in my eyes and on my skin, when its sand is on my lips. I realise then that everything is perfect; that nothing can be bettered. Yet the terror of drowning, of being swallowed by the sea, is deep inside me at the same moment. And the fear of being eaten or stung to death by some unimaginable sea monster is also there and rises deep inside me as the tide gently lifts and carries me out of my depth. It seems as if during this infinite moment perfection is counterbalanced by something negative. To experience perfection is clearly to know something of its counterbalance.

During my long years in Britain I seldom saw, or heard, or smelt, or felt the touch of the sea. I seldom experienced its consolation and benevolence -even in dream- or stood beside it, sensing its rhythms giving my thoughts perspective. All I kept remembering during those long years was the great concrete wall that held the Atlantic at bay in my favourite place, so that at times the sea grew mighty and angry and crashed over its top and swamped the lawns of our promenade with a deluge of brine and spume stippled with loppings of olive seaweed, which only moments earlier had been tossed into the air by an all-mastering, wild, frenzied cauldron. It was then that the icy, wet, cruel, unfeeling side of the Atlantic would cause me to feel intense dislike for it. Yet, days later, its anger spent, it would smile with blue benevolence on my erstwhile world as a new day dawned -and I would soften and miss it.

Malecón

I walk once more beside the ocean I’ve known since childhood: the Atlantic; but this time in a different setting. Each day I make my way along the entire length of the Malecón where I’m accosted by jineteros -usually when I’m least expecting it- but my resolve is firm and steadfast and I smile kindly at my potential new friend and exchange a few words in Spanish and continue on my way, for my life at present is one of devotion to the sea. Since my arrival in Havana, the Atlantic around the Straits of Florida has been angry and capricious, but I’ve developed an understanding and feeling for its bizarre humour, as it steals up and over the Malecón’s concrete walls, before exploding into a thousand and one fiery balls of splash that drench my clothes and stiffen my briny jeans and cause the dull laughter in my moribund heart to burst forth without restraint. I’m content, no, overjoyed whenever this happens and I head onwards with firmer, more resolute steps past the Hotel Nacional and into the Vedado, invariably turning around to look at el Morro with its Faro in the distance. This is when my heart skips a beat and sinks -for many were unjustly imprisoned and suffered in that fortress with its blinding eye. It was here in el Morro during the sixties and seventies that many a dissident, who had challenged the revolution’s excesses, was imprisoned as he awaited trial and sentencing. A few remained there far longer, enduring solitary confinement and months of interrogation, along with possible assassination at the hands of fellow inmates for having been a counter-revolutionary and, by inference, a CIA agent. At el Morro and in the notorious sugar plantations the youth of countless young men was thrown to the wind as though it were of no consequence. This happened at the time when Cuban writers such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante, José Lezama Lima, Virgilio Piñera and Reinaldo Arenas suffered ostracism and total censorship in Cuba. Their works were banned, just as the works of some South African authors were banned by the apartheid government. I cannot forget or ignore these Cuban writers, whom I never knew but for whom I feel profound empathy. They suffered persecution at the hands of the Castro regime for their intellectual honesty and desire for freedom in the way many South African writers and artists suffered similar ingratitude. They are all dead now, but their work will live on in the minds of those not yet born.

Let me continue onwards, towards el Río Almendares, and then into Miramar, where the rich and beautiful once lived, and where each house, as in the Vedado, has a story to tell, and where Avenida Quinta still retains something of its former splendour to remind one that Miramar was once the place where dreams were made. Afterwards I’ll return to Avenida 18, where I’m based, and I’ll continue writing this entry on the apartment’s first floor patio, while the neighbourhood youths play glorious footer in the avenida below.

i The Heidelberg Tavern Massacre at the end of December 1993 excepted.