Composer Michael Blake has been described by musicologist Stephanus Muller as "the most important and most influential South African art music composer to have worked in South Africa since the advent of democracy" (introduction to a Colloquium, 21 September 2009, Stellenbosch University). "Yet his biggest contribution", Muller goes on to say, "is his probing and highly original aesthetic, setting a standard of creative daring, musical refinement and conceptual interest that, inasmuch as it is still relatively unknown, will almost certainly be recognized as a major contribution to South African cultural life in future". At about the same time, film director Aryan Kaganof hailed Blake as "South Africa's most famous unknown contemporary composer" (Art South Africa, Summer 2009). Famous (or unknown) to whom? and influential and perhaps even infamous to whom?
Michael Blake was born in Cape Town in 1951. He took piano lessons at the South African College of Music from the age of 9, and began composing soon afterwards. He studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (BMus, 1970), afterwards attending summer courses in Darmstadt and Dartington with Mauricio Kagel, György Ligeti and Peter Maxwell Davies (1976). In 1977, he launched the first New Music concert series at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg with his ensemble Moonchild. His first works attracted the attention of veteran South African composer Arthur Wegelin, who described him, prophetically, as "a musician with talent and initiative and the potential to become a prominent composer in South Africa's musical life." That potential was however soon forestalled by his departure for Europe (the spectre of active military service drove many white males abroad), where, at the invitation of another South African composer, Stanley Glasser, Blake studied music theory and analysis at the University of London Goldsmiths College (MMus, 1977).
Blake spent twenty years in London (1977 to 1997), as a freelance composer, pianist and teacher. He was part-time lecturer at Goldsmiths College, where he founded and conducted the Goldsmiths Contemporary Music Ensemble. From 1979 to 1986 he was the keyboard player in the electroacoustic group Metanoia, and its co-director. In 1986 he founded the ensemble London New Music for the performance of experimental music, and the group gave regular concerts at the South Bank, Institute for Contemporary Arts and elsewhere. LNM undertook British Council-sponsored tours in Europe, and broadcast regularly for BBC Radio 3 and European radio stations, premiering new work commissioned by Blake from his contemporaries — Gerald Barry, Matteo Fargion, Christopher Fox, Chris Newman, Howard Skempton, Kevin Volans — as well as playing non-mainstream ('downtown') composers he considered important — Cowell, Crawford Seeger, Ives, Wolpe, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Bunita Marcus, Barbara Monk, Christian Wolff and Walter Zimmermann.
Described in the Musical Times as "one of the two leading protagonists [along with Kevin Volans] of the South African art music scene", Blake has divided his time between composing, teaching, and promoting the work of fellow composers. At the beginning of 1998, he moved back to South Africa and settled in Grahamstown where he taught composition at Rhodes University and established the (now) annual contemporary music festival, the New Music Indaba. Blake was its director from 2000 to 2006. At the 1999 meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Music held in Bucharest, Blake made a successful bid for South Africa's re-entry into the ISCM after an absence of nearly four decades, and was President of the ISCM South African Section, NewMusicSA, for six years. In this capacity he has represented South African new music at a number of festivals and meetings worldwide. It is this double life as an 'influential' entrepreneur that perhaps elicited Muller's comment, and by the same token, has kept knowledge of his work as a composer somewhat out of the public eye, as Kaganof notes.
It was the former quality that enabled colleague Grant Olwage to single Blake out as "one of the ideas-men of the South African music scene" (in the Preface to the book Composing Apartheid): Blake's vision for the New Music Indaba was to have the widest possible audience listening to the most challenging music of our time, and discussing it critically. As a teacher of composition, he believes that the ability to compose is innate in everyone and just needs to be cultivated: through exposure as much as by teaching. Always interested in young composers, Blake was struck after his return to South Africa in 1998 by the lack of opportunities for young black composers in the education system. He therefore established a "Growing Composers" project within the New Music Indaba in 2000, inviting some of the most distinguished composers and cutting-edge ensembles from Europe, America and Africa — many of whom were personal friends — to give classes annually in Grahamstown. The success of these events has elicited praise from both the academy and South African government, and the fruits of it in the form of new works by for example Sibusiso Njeza, Samora Ntsebeza and Lloyd Prince have been heard as far afield as Amsterdam, Tokyo and New York.
Some of these "growing" composers have gone on to receive commissions for subsequent Indabas and have contributed to festival projects. Most notable among these is "The Bow Project" (2002-5), a concert series over four years where works were commissioned as responses to traditional African bow music — still performed in South Africa by a few (rare) players. Music by these players, as well as recorded performances, were transcribed by seventeen composers, who then wrote short string quartets based on the transcriptions: traditional bow meets new bow. Commissions also went out for projects like the bicentennial "Reimagining Mozart" (2006) — eleven new works provided responses to, and were programmed alongside, classics by Mozart. These projects saw established jazz composers and improvisers such as Carlo Mombelli and Paul Hanmer encouraged to 'cross over' into the world of classical chamber music.
An improvising musician himself, Blake has made guest appearances with Dutch saxophonist Luc Houtkamp (at the Unyazi Electronic Music Festival, another project of NewMusicSA, launched in October 2005) and with jazz pianist Nishlyn Ramanna. He has also been commissioned, by Trevor Steele Taylor, to create live improvised scores to 'classic' silent films screened at the Grahamstown Film Festival.
From the mid-1970s onwards Blake's musical language was partly the result of an immersion in the materials and playing techniques of African music, and he composed a series of pieces loosely collected in what he calls his "African Notebook". These explored mbira music for example, and sometimes produced new variations or mapped the figuration onto arrangements of music by Bach and Purcell. By the time he settled in London, this had become a more substantial "African Journal" to which more than 24 different pieces (and numerous alternative versions) were added over the next two decades until he returned home in 1998. Several of these have become his most performed pieces, in particular Let us run out of the rain (1986) and French Suite (1994). Martin Scherzinger, in the Cambridge History of Twentieth-century Music has described these as "understated translations of African music into Western idioms [that] deftly negotiate the borderline between quotation and abstraction, and, in the process, interrogate the opposition between the two" (609).
When Blake completed his doctoral composition portfolio at Rhodes University in 2000, one of the external examiners was the distinguished African scholar and composer J.H. Kwabena Nketia. Nketia begins to marry the idea of Blake's influence as an agent of compositional influence with the idea that he embodies that change, in his remark that the compositions in the portfolio (which included representative works from the period 1986 to 1999) were "particularly valuable both as models that can be explored by African students of composition and as an approach to the creative dimensions of sounds and structures in African music".
Since 2000, Michael Blake's work has revealed a previously unknown depth and postmodern sensibility. As he puts it: "when I woke up in the new millenium I knew I wanted to do things differently". This watershed in Blake's life is exemplified in two works: String Quartet No 1, written for his long-standing friends and collaborators the Fitzwilliam String Quartet in 2001 and premiered in Cambridge for Blake's 50th birthday celebrations, and Ways to put in the salt, an uncompromisingly stark interpretation of African bow harmonics written in 2002 for John Tilbury. In these and other works that followed, an African sensibility is subsumed into the fractured narratives that have become a feature of his recent work. His Piano Concerto (2007) is one such work, and it is notable that even in the cultural climate of the new South Africa where 'challenging new composition' is met with even more of a deafening silence than it is in the cash-strapped north, the premiere was seen by critics as a major event on the South African musical scene and a resounding success with audiences.
A passion for unusual timbres and instrumental combinations saw the realisation of two more commissioned works in 2007: Shoowa Panel for vibraphone and marimba (premiered in South Africa) and Rural Arias for singing saw and eleven players (premiered in Vienna). A composer who thinks on his feet and perhaps more than anyone approaches Adorno's notion of a 'musique informelle', Blake draws as much on the visual arts of Africa and the West — African weaving, abstract painting, undergound cinema, silent films — as he does on African musics and American and English experimental music aesthetics. He is "a cool wrangler of the disparate" to quote Jean-Pierre de la Porte, who suggests that Blake is South Africa's Jasper Johns. Martin Scherzinger points to the same quality when he says, "In Blake's late musical style, one might say, a breezy mobility thus mingles with filmic montage."
Since 2003, Blake has been collaborating with independent South African film-maker Aryan Kaganof. The fruits of this relationship so far include short 'visual realisations' (in the spirit, but not the style, of Kenneth Anger) of Blake's Reverie (Kaganof's Reverie), D.S.I.M.L. (The Hermeneutic Traffic Circle), Ways to Put in the Salt (Martin Heidegger's Prologomena to a History of the Concept of Time Transcribed for Solo Piano by Michael Blake and Executed by Jill Richards), French Suite — First Dance (Il Strategio del Ragno — The spider's stratagem), and Three Toys No 2 (Notes on Melancholy). The two have also collaborated on the original score for the first cellphone feature film, SMS Sugar Man, and two documentaries about Blake's work: Untitled: A Portrait and Carpet of Memory.
Blake has now produced work in every medium — stage, orchestral, chamber, keyboard, instrumental, vocal, and choral. He has worked in film (including original scores for 'silents' by Gustav Machaty and Maya Deren) and dance and in 2009 he completed the draft of an Afrikaans digital opera in seven scenes, Searching for Salome, based on Etienne Leroux's 1962 novel Sewe Dae by die Silbersteins — Seven Days at the Silbersteins.
An ongoing concern with providing uncompromising repertoire for young or amateur players has over the years seen Blake create works for the major grade examination boards (Trinity College, Associated Board, University of South Africa), pieces for youth choirs and orchestras such as the Soweto Buskaid String Orchestra, and, most recently, Postcolonial Song, an 'open score' commissioned for the groundbreaking network of ensembles in the UK called CoMA (Contemporary Music for Amateurs).
Blake's compositional output of well over 100 works to date has been performed widely in Europe, North and South America, Australia, and Asia, including New Music festivals in the UK, Belgium, Slovakia, Germany, Austria, Cuba, Argentina, Australia and South Africa. Many works have been recorded for radio and television, and several CDs including Blake's work have been released, among them the complete solo piano works 1994-2004 played by Jill Richards (2008). He has collaborated with many well-known European ensembles and soloists including the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, Trio Basiliensis, Musica Aeterna, Ensemble Bash, Ixion, the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet, Stuttgart Kammerorchester, John Tilbury, Daan Vandewalle, Antony Gray, Lesley Schatzberger, Yasutaka Hemmi, Darragh Morgan, and Mary Dullea. Since his return to South Africa in 1997, Blake has worked closely with Jill Richards, Robert Pickup, Magda de Vries, and Musa Nkuna. In recent years, he has received commissions from the Arts Council of England, the National Arts Council of South Africa and the Southern African Music Rights Organisation.
Michael Blake has given solo and (often with Jill Richards) piano duo recitals throughout Europe and the Americas and, since his return to South Africa, at universities around the country; he has particularly championed music by South African, American and British experimental composers. In 2007 he formed the Michael Blake Ensemble for the performance of his own work by the best South Africa players. He has been a guest lecturer at universities in South Africa, the Janacek Academy in Brno, the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires, the University of Toronto, Goldsmiths College, and a visiting composer at Bucknell University, USA. He was lecturer and composer-in-residence at the University of South Africa in 2007-2009.
Courting controversy since his student days, when he organised a week of performances of Stockhausen's Aus den sieben Tagen to celebrate Wits University's golden jubilee, Michael Blake at once inspires and irritates, forcing listeners out of their comfort zones and debunking the mysteries of composition. A mover and shaker, and a composer with "nothing to prove and plenty to say", as critic Mary Jordan put it after Rural Arias was performed at the Arnold Schoenberg Centre in Vienna, Blake is now shifting his focus much more towards composition, and away from his entrepeneurial role.
A recent major work, the thirty-minute 2008 Piano Sonata (subtitled the ‘Choral’) sets up a series of interlocutions between two disparate twentieth century traditions — Southern African choralism and American experimentalism, in particular Charles Ives’ monumental Concord Sonata. As the latest manifestation of a project that started ten years ago when Blake began working with local choirs at the New Music Indaba, the ‘Choral’ Sonata pays tribute to the founding fathers of a tradition often overlooked in wider music and intellectual circles. It was composed at the request of Flemish virtuoso Daan Vandewalle, who considers it “the first big sonata of importance in the 21st century”.
In October 2011 his 60th birthday was marked with a symposium at the University of Stellenbosch and concerts in South Africa by the Fitzwilliam Quartet. Their CD of his first two quartets and piano quintet was released in October 2012. An article published in The Musical Times last year considered his output as “Music not of place, but of time. Blake is not unsure of who he is and where he lives. He is not obsessed with Africa, nor is he chained to ‘the West’. He is perhaps the first South African composer to be unselfconsciously an African composer. His are the blueprints and stratagems of a new cosmopolitan South African sound.”
In 2012 Michael Blake was appointed Professor Extraordinary at the University of Stellenbosch, and in the same year he established the Sterkfontein Composers Meeting, an annual masterclass for young and emerging composers, at the Nirox Foundation. During 2014-2015 he was artist in residence at STIAS (Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, South Africa) and during 2015 takes up composer residencies at the Nirox Foundation (Sterkfontein), Rockefeller Writers Centre (Bellagio) and Visby International Composers Centre (Sweden). He has recently completed Migrations or The Parable of the Journey to the South for sixteen solo voices, String Quartet No 5 in memory of Katharina Wolpe, ...only the song of the birds... for mezzo soprano, flute, cello and kannel for Ensemble Resonabilis (Estonia), Alto Trombone and Vibe for Ivo Nilsson and Jonny Axelsson, and a Sonata for Cello and Piano (subtitled 'Hours with the Masters') for Friedrich Gauwerky and Daan Vandewalle. Current projects include a duo for double bass and piano for Leon Bosch, a guitar piece for Richard Turner, a second duo for Ivo Nilsson and Jonny Axelsson, and Afrikosmos - an extended set of piano pieces based on African material, ranging from easy to concert level.
Recent premieres have included Pentimenti (commissioned by Domus for cellist Friedrich Gauwerky), Ukukhalisa Umrhubhe (commissioned by Festival d'Automne for Mantombi Matotiyana umrhubhe and tape), Standing Stone Circle (Yasutaka Hemmi violin and Takayo Matsumara harp) and Piano Concerto No 2 (commissioned by MIAGI for Ensemble Reconsil, Vienna), in Johannesburg, Paris, Tokyo and Vienna respectively. In New York, the US premiere of Rural Arias given by the New Juilliard Ensemble (as part of the Ubuntu Festival of South African arts) was quickly followed by the world premiere of Shard at Carnegie Hall (a contribution to Nicolas Horvath's Philip Glass project). His First and Fourth String Quartets were featured in 'Night of the String Quartet' at the 2014 Ars Musica in Bruges and Tombeau de Mosoeu Moerane for birbyne and tape was premiered in the version for clarinet at the ISCM World Music Days in Slovenia in September 2015 where Blake represented South Africa. Meanwhile tune into Johannesburg radio station Classic FM during drive time where you are as likely to hear Michael Blake’s music, as at New Music festivals and in concert halls on all five continents.