Orchestral works

Solstice: Seven Poems of Don Maclennan

  1. The Well
  2. Blue
  3. Self-Knowledge
  4. Poetry
  5. Ownership
  6. Reduction
  7. Envoi
Dedicated to Don Maclennan and Musa Nkuna
Commissioned by SAMRO Endowment for the National Arts
Parts on hire
Bardic Edition Score BD in preparation
Duration: c. 19'00"

Programme note

I first met Don Maclennan during a short stay in Grahamstown in August 1997, when I was visiting composer in the Department of Music at Rhodes University. The first book of his poetry I encountered was Solstice: it was launched a few months after my visit and Christine Lucia sent me a copy in London. I was struck by the spareness of the writing complemented by the richness of thought that lay behind it. Although as a composer one is always looking for verse that might be set, I realized at once that I could never 'set' this poetry; it was definitely in no need of a composer's hand. When Musa Nkuna requested a work some years later, it was nevertheless to Don Maclennan's poetry that I turned, and from Solstice that I eventually chose seven poems that I loved most. My concern was providing a setting for the poems rather than 'setting' words, and as by now I had a composition called Tenor and String Quartet -- a wordless piece also written for Nkuna -- under my belt, I took the opportunity to plunder it, and so The Well, Ownership, and Envoi have their musical origins in this work. I added words to this existing music with little adaptation, a process that does not draw attention to the cadence of words in the way earlier composers have done but allows the words to speak for themselves. Self-Knowledge, quotes some phrases from the 2nd movement of my String Quartet No 1. (Don was at the premiere in Grahamstown and told me afterwards how the 2nd movement had worked for him, while the first hadn't.) Poetry revisits a tenor aria from the first scene of my opera Searching for Salome. Reduction is indeed a reduction: the piano takes a break and we have a duet for tenor and horn, with the vocal line based on a uhadi bow song and the horn standing in for the uhadi bow. Blue came 'out of the blue' and, unusually, only uses the 1st verse of the poem. There are few classical models for horn, voice and instruments: Schubert's Auf dem Strom is the most significant; but Britten's Serenade takes the medium into a new realm. I studied them both very closely as I worked on mine, and gave the horn an important role both in duet with the voice and as a soloist, in much the same way Britten did. After pausing for breath in the fourth song, the horn launches into what is effectively a mini horn concerto, with occasional lines from the voice; and in the final song, the horn again has a considerable solo role. The final ordering of songs was dictated by musical structure rather than poetic narrative. It is my journey through the book, pausing at certain points to reflect musically on particular poems. I must have been struck by the way they are about music, poetry, or the artist.

Solstice: Seven Poems of Don Maclennan was composed between January and August 2004 in Johannesburg. It was commissioned by SAMRO Endowment for the National Arts for Nkuna and Trio Capricorn of Cologne and is dedicated to Don Maclennan and Musa Nkuna. The poems are taken from Maclennan's Solstice, published in 1997 by Snailpress in association with Scottish Cultural Press, and used with the permission of the poet. The premiere of the chamber version was given on 15 August 2008 in the Musaion, University of Pretoria.

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Audio excerpt: Blue - No 2

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (Rain Dancing)

Dedicated to Jill Richards
Parts on hire
Bardic Edition Study Score BD and Two-Piano Score BD in preparation
Duration: 22'00"


First performance: Wednesday 17 October 2007; Linder Auditotium, Johannesburg, South Africa; Jill Richards piano, Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Nicholas Cleobury conductorperformance details.

Programme note

This piece has what one expects in a piano concerto: a clear structure, recognizably recurring harmonies, quite complex polyrhythmic layering, lush orchestral textures with lavish percussion, a dazzling virtuoso piano part, and tunes that you can whistle as you leave the concert hall. Yet this is not a conventional 'classical' or 'romantic' concerto.

The structure was mostly not pre-determined. There are two cyclic forms (common in African and minimalist music), interwoven throughout most of the piece. One is based on the two-chord structure of traditional African bow music, the other is a sequence of four chords most often articulated by the brass. Although the concerto was composed as one 22-minute sweep, three sections are discernible: a quieter 'slow' movement starts halfway followed by a faster and louder finale, although the joins of the three movements are blurred. The material of the slow movement is very different from the outer two; more reflective and with lighter orchestration.

In composing I work like a filmmaker, using montage technique to construct the music. The tunes are used in different environments each time they return, so they are never quite the same. I don't use the word 'theme' because I don't 'do' themes and then develop them in the traditional way, but you will however find traditional and popular South African musics are woven into or referenced in this piece.

The concerto was written as a present for Jill Richards, every South African composer's Best Friend. She has been playing my music all over the world for many years as she has other South African composers, and has recently recorded a CD of my complete solo pieces. So it was a surprise to me that this turned out to be the first piece I'd written especially for her!

The first performance was given on 17 October 2007 in the Linder Auditorium Johannesburg, by and the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Cleobury.


Blake se Rain Dancing is stilisties deeglik ingebed in ‘n Afrika-minimalisme met al sy voor- en nadele… Die poliritmiese lae waarvan Blake in sy notas melding maak, hou die werk aardgebonde en maak die klavier eerder ‘n obligaat-instrument as ‘n solistiese teenspeler. Daar is met die ontgunning van klankkleure fassinerende elemente in die 22 minute: eksotiese melismes, vindingryke timbre-samevoegings, warlike gevorderde hantering van slagwerk, terwyl die orkestrale kleure soms die impressionistiese sfeer van ‘n eeu gelede binnedring…In dié concerto is daar weliswaar meer kontraswerking teen die einde, met uitgesproke liriese passasies gedra deur die solis — veral met uiters verfynde spel in die hoé register. Ook die slot woel himself aanvanklik moeisaam los, maar eindig tog verrassend.
Blake’s Rain Dancing is stylistically deeply embedded in an African minimalism… The polyrhythmic layers which Blake mentions in his programme notes, bind the work together and make the piano an obbligato rather than a solo player. With the exploiting of timbres there are fascinating elements in the 22 minute span: exotic melismas, ingenious colour combinations, extremely demanding use of percussion), while the orchestral colours sometimes inhabit the impressionist sphere of a century ago… In this concerto there is indeed more contrast towards the end, with expressive, lyrical passages for the soloist — especially with very refined playing in the high register. The conclusion also unwinds slowly at first, but nevertheless ends with a surprise.
Paul Boekkooi, Die Beeld, Johannesburg
Translation: Giel Swart

Michael Blake’s Piano Concerto enjoys the alternate title “Rain Dancing” and as the composer noted in his all too brief introduction to the world première at the Linder Auditorium last night “it hasn’t rained this much in Gauteng in October for years”. The comment might have been made in jest but it actually gives an acute insight into what Michael Blake really is. A shaman. His compositional practices derive in equal part from cinema editing and sculpture. He works with his computer timeline as a fine artist would, shaping and teasing form into wry, elfin sets of sound that skip away from balance and artfully elude perfection. There is a willful perversity in Blake’s approach to sound. It’s as if he knows exactly what we would like to hear a motif develop into and instead of feeding us what we want he conjures up possibilities that are maddeningly close to our own sense of resolution but never quite get there.

Blake is a carrot dangler and his sometimes fey, sometimes wistful melodies encourage us to hum, to whistle, and even occasionally, to jig - but never in a way that would actually release the tension that his compositions ever so gradually build towards…intriguingly the Rain Concerto’s most memorable sections occur when percussion and strings talk to each other and the climax of the work is a full on Joburg thunder storm. One expects the cavalry to charge, cannons blazing.

On the way to this zesty climax there’s a great deal of repetitive phrasing but it isn’t the kind of austere minimalism we know from Steve Reich or the agonizingly empty on and on-ness of Philip Glass; Michael Blake’s shamanism evokes the giddy swirling of the Baal Shem tov on Shabbas, tossing back the vodkas and merrily dancing his praises to Hashem. If you could imagine the most playful rigour or the most rigorous playfulness then you would be some way towards appreciating this shamanistic invocation by Michael Blake that demands to be described as drunken minimalism. Rain on!

Aryan Kaganof, Kagablog, Thursday 18 October 2007

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Audio excerpt: opening

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Audio excerpt: central section

JSB – Chaconne

Duration: 5'00"


First performance: Sunday 1 March 1987; Woking, Surrey, United Kingdom; Woking Symphony Orchestra, Roy Stratford conductorperformance details.

Ground Weave

African Notebook No 3b
Duration: 3'00"


African Journal No 8b
Parts on hire
Duration: 7'30"

Programme note

This orchestral transcription of Let us run out of the rain was made almost immediately after the original was first performed. It paraphrases Nsenga kalimba (thumb piano) music recorded in the Petauke District of Zambia (in southern Africa) by John Blacking in 1961, and transcribed by him. The tunes were composed and performed by Gideon Bingaili, Ackson Lungu, Taiad Mwanza and Ackson Zuly. The work was originally composed for piano or harpsichord duet (1986) and arranged for string quartet (1991) and percussion quartet (1995).


African Journal No 15a
Parts on hire
Bardic Edition Score BD in preparation
Duration: 10'00"


First performance: Saturday 17 October 1992; St Augustine’s Church, Brighton, United Kingdom; Brighton Chamber Orchestra, Guy Richardson conductorperformance details.

Programme note

Kwela is both about memories and memory. The idea of writing a piece which both recalled and reconstructed this particularly vivid childhood memory had been taking shape in my mind for some time. But thinking about the use of memory as a compositional device is what actually got the compositional process underway. And unlike other pieces I'd been writing at the time in which I started out with no specific formal plan in mind, here I started by letting the cyclic structure of the model shape the work.

'Kwela' is a form of urban street music that developed in South Africa during the 1950s, influenced by American jazz orchestras. In addition to the characteristic pennywhistles, a typical band would include a homemade guitar, tin rattles and a one-string bass with a wooden-box resonator (such as a tea-chest). The music they played was characterised by a repeated (cyclic) chord sequence with repetitive melodic lines for the pennywhistles. Both the chord sequence and the call-and-response structure of the melody have their origins in traditional South African bow music. David Coplan, writing about the 'kwela' phenomenon in his classic study In Township Tonight, notes that "the music gave rise to a sexually suggestive form of jive dancing called 'patha patha' (touch touch), in which partners alternately touched each other all over the body with their hands in time with the rhythm. The dancers often shouted the word 'kwela' (Zulu for 'climb on' or 'get up') to induce others to join in."

On another level Kwela is an examination of 'kwela' in the broader sense — the generic form, the characteristic sound, the musical materials, the musical origins, the performance history. I started out composing a response to another cyclic work — the Bolero of Ravel — but departed from that monolithic approach after a dozen or so cycles and took a freer approach. The original version of Kwela for chamber orchestra dates from 1992; I remixed it for strings only in 1998 and added the coda in 2002. It is scored for first and second violins, violas, first and second cellos, and basses, and lasts about 9½ minutes. The first performance was given by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra conducted by Bernd Ruf on 21 December 2002 in the Mozartsaal, Stuttgart.


Komponisten wie Kevin Volans oder auch Michael Blake, dessen Komposition “Kwela” den Abend eröffnete, hielten überhaupt nichts von der Rassentrennung. Blakes Stück übersetzt den populären Tanz aus den schwarzen Townships der fünfziger Jahre in die Klangfarben des Streichorchesters.
Dietrich Helssenbüttel, Stuttgarter Zeitung, Monday 23 December 2002
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