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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.

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