Featured: Top of Home Page

African Diminuendo of a Classic Sound

Robyn Sassen

I predicted that 10 years down the line, not only would this audience not be with us any longer, but neither would the music that they hear: not in Africa, at least.

This September, the Aviv String Quartet, four young and extremely competent classical musicians from Israel, toured South Africa. They were booked on a busy tour that embraced audiences countrywide. I saw them on their first appearance in Johannesburg, and indeed, their shining reputation is well founded. They play beautifully, and they interpret the work with grace and emotional integrity.

On the programme at this event were Beethoven, Shostakovich and Brahms � the work of European men with a specific kind of formal approach and training. They are classisists who were focused on creating a specific kind of sound for a specific kind of audience � not necessarily this audience. Amidst the enjoyment I felt for this music, I glanced around the auditorium.

The majority of the heads were hoary. People brought their sticks, if not their life partners, to lean upon for balance. Their old heads nodded in time to the music, and some, as they drifted off, nodded as they were lulled into a sense of security by these beautiful European sounds. There were no black people in this audience at all. And among those in the audience, not many were young.

The performers, are all in their 20s, have the glow of an exciting career ahead of them. This is reflected in their clear complexions and the unadulterated joy they articulate in producing top class work. Their platform in the world is as wide as their future is bright. But the question I need to raise is whether there is indeed a future in South Africa for European culture of this nature.

This is a troubling question for me. The youngest sister of a sibling who once aspired to be a concert pianist, I grew up with the sounds of piano practice constantly in my life. The music was beautiful and meaningful in an abstract and comforting manner. At that time, the sound wasn't about gestures feeding into political ideologies or identity-based frills, as the presence of the Aviv String Quartet in South Africa now implies, but rather it was something about aesthetics and discipline, it was about virtuosity and a sense of one-upmanship, maybe.

I never learned how to play music, nor was I privileged enough to see live performances as I grew up, but I cut my teeth as I perambulated the shelves of LPs in our local municipality-run music library. It remained a wonderful and important sanctuary for me when I was in my late teens and unhappily attending secretarial college, which fortune would have it, was just a few blocks from the music library. Classical music served many respects as a guiding light of culture in many white people's lives in South Africa in the '70s and '80s.

With the crumbling of apartheid, the whole institution of classical music was recognised for the bastion of European and rather privileged values that it was. As I looked around me in the darkened auditorium while the Aviv String Quartet played so beautifully, I predicted that ten years down the line, not only would this audience not be with us any longer, but neither would the music that they hear: not in Africa, at least.

Classical music is one of the casualties of a multi-cultural awareness, and I say this not to bash local culture or contemporary critical trends, but rather to mourn an ideology that has become defunct because of how it is reflected within another more modern set of cultural values. We have beautiful local music, and jazz always has stature in Africa and probably always will, but the audiences that the classical European discipline of music has drawn over the centuries are no longer part of the real South African aesthetic landscape.

These developments began happening during the '90s at the major universities. Music departments were losing students, and staff was being retrenched. The writing was on the wall, and some of it was in musical notation. Suddenly, changing these educational facilities toward a focused repertoire of jazz improvisation (away from classical music) lent an injection of credibility to the universities and the overall cultural creative ethic. And with credibility comes money and standing and relevance, and all of those important values.

At the end of their sterling performance, the Aviv String Quartet greeted their capacity audience and its standing ovation with delight. South African audiences are generally known for their ability to recognize quality. They are also known for their friendliness and sincerity. As I joined in the standing ovation I realized that the thrill of a succession of magnificent sounds emitting sonorously from a complicated, compact instrument like a violin, has never quite ceased to enchant me. I hoped to see many more performances like this. I hoped the next generation of audience members will also experience such delights. But feared that I might need to cut my cultural teeth again and properly, in an industry that rests more convincingly on ideological relevance. And political soundness.





How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?


The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.


'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.


Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.


Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.


Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.