The Unyazi Electronic Music Symposium and Festival was a first for Johannesburg, South Africa and, indeed, Africa. Amidst the urban hum of money coiffeurs and the greying wrecks of buildings not yet given the Blue IQ touch-up, there was a grungy element to the artists who collected at Wits from across the world. Staying in the university residences, this was no luxurious developing world holiday, but rather a meeting of ears, bodies aside.
Heading up the intellectual community were the white-mopped elders, Halim El-Dabh and Pauline Oliveros. Cairo-born El-Dabh is billed as “the father of electronic music” on the African continent having created one of the first electronic works in 1944, predating the French musique concrete school by a number of years. While having worked with musicians across the genre spectrum, his primary concern is the preservation of indigenous African instruments.
Oliveros, the founder of Deep Listening, is regarded as an important pioneer in American music. Her career spans more than four decades and ranges from collaborations with Argentinean metal group Reynols to New Yorkers DJ Spooky and Carl Hancock Rux. Oliveros displayed her expanded instrument system, a sound-processing programme she has been developing since the 1950s. Originally a bunch of hardware and tape-based delay systems, she can now fit it all neatly into her Apple laptop. Using this electronic instrument, she improvises live manipulations of fed sounds. She spoke openly and warmly during her workshops, inviting questions and play.
Contrasting Oliveros’s move to laptops, El-Dabh stuck to his roots. Initially he joined Pops Mohammed on African instruments and then took position behind his sine wave generator for the rest of the performance. With his flame of white hair set off by the sheer coloured backdrop of the stage and his veritable presence, there was a profound reverence in the air, despite the terrible trapeze artists who performed to his electronic drama Leiyla and the Poet (1959).
While their reputation and engaging attitude added veneration to their presence, the work of some of El-Dabh and Oliveros’s younger colleagues was more interesting. Yannis Kyriakides interviewed a number of people and drew his samples from the breaths in between the subjects’ words. The ultimate sound works were an abstract portrait of the people, intriguing for maintaining a sense of the subject’s personality. Brendan Bussy’s mandolin improvisations were commendable for their sheer beauty in the festival’s otherwise often ear-grating musical landscape. Warrick Sony’s layered lattices were the only examples of turntablism at the festival — a severe oversight. Zim Ngqwana offered an inspired integration of jazz, atmospheric sounds and electronic lagging, while George Lewis’s collaboration with El-Dabh left El-Dabh upstaged.
Lewis, who literally pulls his trombone to pieces while playing, also performed with free jazz drummer, Louis Moholo. A member of Chris McGregor’s pioneering ensemble, Brotherhood of Breath, Moholo sparred (more than interacted) with Lewis and his computer-driven, interactive virtual piano. The latter instrument was a key part of the performance, set to respond to the musicians by playing the same, something completely opposite or its own thing. The effect is remarkably authentic. For the duration of the performance I was under the impression that it was a piano backing track. Only afterwards did I learn about the digital ingenuity of the situation.
This “black box” quality of the computer as musical instrument did erase the thrilling monumental presence of performance. After all, watching a guy crouched over a laptop is not riveting. While this is understandable in that one wants to focus on the sound, it gave the venues a lack of focus. People such as Lewis, Moholo, Ngqwana, Mohammed and Bussy offered a more engaging performance due to the physicality of their instruments. Matthew Ostrowski tried to bring a physical presence to his computer by using an electronic glove that creates sound through its movements. However, the magnitude of the Wits Theatre space overwhelmed the slight twitches of the glove.
People such as Johannesburg-based electronic composers Chris Wood and Dimitri Voudouris, as well as Rodrigo Sigal, Kyriakides and Jürgen Bräuninger tried to compensate by supplementing the music with digital visuals. While Sigal and Wood’s visuals were both interesting, they at times snowed under the music. Bräuninger was praiseworthy, displaying a cartoon-like visual score for the music, which acted like visual hooks but never overwhelmed. It seems discordant that the creation of electronic music on computers has become very visual, but that the presentation has withdrawn into a non-entity. Oliveros, for instance, draws a shape on her screen between the speakers to create the output. Bussy’s CMYK is a colour spectrum within which he drags his mouse. However, this is only accessible to the artist.
Possibly, an alternative mode of dissemination for this type of music is required, rather than setting up the expectations of a formal concert. Nonetheless, the intellectual aural community that crawled out of the Johannesburg suburbs were not left unsatisfied due to the indulgence of the event.