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South Africa Concert Article Fosters Debate

In the October Journal, New Juilliard Ensemble founder Joel Sachs, a member of the Juilliard faculty, previewed a concert the group gave as part of Carnegie Hall’s Ubuntu Festival. A number of readers with quite different opinions about the article submitted comments online; excerpts of them and of Sachs’s response appear below.

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On behalf of the board of directors of the SAMRO Foundation and the SAMRO Group, we object to your article as it unfairly portrays our organization. Not only are many statements made by Sachs—which we understand were based on what was told to him—factually incorrect, but he also failed to contact anyone at our organization to verify the content and alleged comments by the composers. We have heard good reviews of the concert; however, the article does our organization and country a disservice in that it contravenes the basic principles of journalistic ethics, which are “truth and accuracy” and “fairness and independence.” SAMRO has since 1962 supported the arts and the development of music in multiple ways. For more information refer to our electronic prospectus on samrofoundation.org.za.
     One of the very few facts Sachs did get right is his admission of his “own ignorance about South Africa’s compositional world.” Six of the seven South African composers mentioned in the article have benefitted enormously from the work of the SAMRO Foundation over many years; the possible exception is Kevin Volans, who is not a SAMRO member. But each of the following composers [whose work was heard in the concert] have received between five and 10 SAMRO commissions: Michael Blake, Robert Fokkens, Paul Hanmer, Andile Khumalo, Bongani Ndodana-Breen, and Clare Loveday.  
     We take particular issue with the following statement: “Most of them dismissed SAMRO, the South African musical rights organization and one of the sole sources of commissions, as in-grown: a poor relationship with a board member more or less guarantees rejection of commission projects.” This sentence constitutes slander and is rejected by the SAMRO Foundation board outright. We have objective criteria which apply to the granting of commissions, and each commission request is carefully considered prior to making any decision. It may be true that there are not many other organizations in South Africa that grant commissions for the composition of new musical works (as the article correctly states), but this can hardly be laid at the door of SAMRO.
     SAMRO is on good terms with most of the composers mentioned in the article, and should one of them have voiced frustration with the South African composition and music scene, then the general comment “Most of them dismissed SAMRO” is misleading, incorrect, and damaging to our reputation. Thus far three of the composers mentioned have distanced themselves from the article. With regard to music education, the SAMRO Foundation works closely with the South African universities with music schools or departments, and the feedback we receive—also from independent sources—is that the standard of music education at these institutions is generally high.—Leon van Wyk, Chairman of SAMRO Foundation

I am considerably taken aback by Joel Sachs’s selection of composers, who to my eye mostly belong to a small clique of pseudo avant-gardists whose work doesn’t merit much attention in South Africa. If Sachs had done a little further research (rather than relying on information provided by a single composer) by soliciting views from the major performing organizations (including the denigrated South African Music Rights Organization), he might have received a very different picture. SAMRO itself has done more than any of these to promote and encourage the work of young composers, and South African composers owe a considerable debt to that organization. Why not ask the South African orchestras whose work they perform? I am sure that the Cape Town Philharmonic, the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra and the Natal Philharmonic would have painted a more realistic picture of the musical landscape in South Africa.— Peter Klatzow

As the currently reigning chair of NewMusicSA, the South African section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (I.S.C.M.) so maligned in the article, there are a few comments that I feel must be made. “The South African section of the International Society for Contemporary Music is barely functional and does not embrace new ideas.” In fact, NewMusicSA has over the past six or seven years flourished under new management. In the last year alone, we’ve commissioned new works from young, active composers. We’ve rejoined the I.S.C.M. as full members. Our annual Unyazi Electronic Music Festival, curated by composers Cameron Harris and Carl Stone, was an absolute feast of out-there, inspired, and inspirational concerts, talks, and workshops. “Barely functional” and “not-embracing-new-ideas” are descriptions by someone who clearly wasn’t there. Incidentally, we’ve had the pleasure of performing a fair amount of music by some of the composers in the article.     “There are no groups like the New Juilliard Ensemble.” It’s certainly true that there are not many such groups. But in 2013, NewMusicSA launched the South African New Music Ensemble, a chamber group of varying size and instrumentation specifically created with the intention of performing new music.It is run by volunteers who are committed to promoting not just their own music but the entire South African new-music scene. It’s sad to see all this work casually and unfairly dismissed on the basis of ignorance or misinformation. We’d like to invite readers to explore South Africa’s new music scene. A search for “newmusicsa” will find us, along with our contact details and information about the projects and people I’ve mentioned.—Chris Jeffery
 
Contrary to the vitriol spouted by some in this comment section, I absolutely commend  Sachs’s choice of composers; all those whose works were showcased are in my opinion fantastic creators whose works I feel honored to play (and I have performed works by all but two of them). It is often difficult to find support for new music in South Africa, but it is also exciting to be facing these challenges in a transforming country. The composers identified by Sachs are all meeting these challenges with enthusiasm, grace and a big amount of chutzpah.— Mareli Stolp

I cannot believe what I’ve just read. This article “proclaims” a very one-sided, one dimensional and pathetic view on South Africa and its composers. It is slanderous to say the least! How can this be published with such evident lack of objective research and factual content? The “seven selected South African composers” are not remotely representative of the diverse, skillful, innovative and celebrated composers in South Africa. This article is a disgrace!—André van der Merwe

It was perhaps inevitable that Carnegie’s Ubuntu Festival should have evoked strong opinions. As Sachs points out, for a single concert it’s necessary to select carefully from among a good deal of possible items—not least in terms of what is practically performable by the available ensemble. Some pieces are chosen, others are excluded. But this is not to gainsay that the selection is indeed, in his words, a “sampling of what is going on in South Africa.”
     Some have overreacted to this particular selection; we all have our likes and dislikes, so that in itself in no way invalidates Sachs’s choices. To claim, as Peter Klatzow does, that the composers selected “mostly belong to a small clique of pseudo avant-gardists whose work doesn’t merit much attention in South Africa” suggests a measure of personal resentment. All of these composers are performed both internationally and within the borders of South Africa (as is Klatzow).
     To my mind, Chris Jeffery offers the most balanced, informed critique. As a member of NewMusicSA I can vouch for the immense amount of effort that has been put into the organization and its not inconsiderable achievements in bringing new South African art music to the fore. Nevertheless, the public in South Africa is not in the slightest bit interested in very much written after the First World War—which is not to deny that efforts to promote local contemporary art music should not continue. On the other hand, André van der Merwe’s spluttering rant is devoid of any critical insight. It is precisely the seven composers Sachs programmed who figure (though not exclusively) among the most diverse, skillful, innovative, and celebrated composers in South Africa. Congratulations to Julliard for having undertaken this project and for offering a springboard for current South African composers. One can hope that there will be further opportunities for the American public to hear contemporary South African art music.—George King

Joel Sachs responds:

My hope for this concert was to perform a sampling of what is going on in South Africa, no more, no less. To do so, I looked at music by a good number of composers who might have pieces of the right size and instrumentation and also help our student performers reinforce their skills with nontraditional instruments. In the end, the range was quite broad, and fine music had to be left out. I hope the concert made a really strong case for the need to hear more South African music.
The comments about institutions in South Africa were summarized from the responses of the composers to my questions about the state of music there; I do not have personal opinions because I do not know the institutions. In response to Chris Jeffery’s comment, clearly the composers who responded were a little out of date. After the concert, Lukas Ligeti told me that the International Society for Contemporary Music chapter has gone through a real renaissance very recently. I could not be more delighted to hear that. A true support system for composers—especially, I imagine, younger people—is exactly what is needed. My heartiest congratulations!

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