Written for the Keiskamma Music Academy by Ilke Lea Alexander
Notes by the composer:
Drawing from a two-day trip spent with Nharo San musicians in Botswana, First Dances is a work that seeks to convey elements of music-making, seen amongst the musicians, that I experienced during this time. Given the briefness of the trip, our interactions, musical and otherwise, were somewhat superficial and allowed me only a glimpse into their world of making music. Coming from a background of education, I was curious to find out more about their way of making music, beyond the sounds of rhythm, vocalizations, singing and movement. I asked if I would be allowed to join in playing the the dikadiri, a bow instrument propped up on the floor and played by a group of 5 or 6 women by striking the taut metal string with reed sticks, and if so, would somebody teach me? I was invited to join the music with much encouragement and was told that all I had to do was pick a player and imitate her rhythms. It seemed simple enough; however, I quickly learnt that it wasn’t going to be as easy as I had initially thought. Instead, it required a lot of concentration for me to pick out an individual rhythm from the intricate weave of different rhythms going on at the same time. I had to resist the temptation to play the dominating rhythm that was a result of all of these rhythms coming together. I watched my “mentor” very closely, separating sound from sight as I went on.
It is this particular experience on which I base the foundational concept of my composition, First Dances: making music through watching an action that decides when you should play. I wanted to create my own weave of rhythms and melodies in the ensemble, but I did not want to rely solely on Western notation. I wanted the elements of movement, in the form of action, to be a guide, and movement, in the form of dance, to be present and integral to the music, as it is in the music of the Nharo San people. I really wanted to go beyond performing a simple transplant of the sounds of their music into a Western music-making setting, and rather try to look deeper (as deeply as one could in the short time we had) at the processes that might guide this way of making music.
As this work is written specifically for the Keiskamma Music Academy, part of my compositional process was having the opportunity to workshop conceptual ideas with students from the academy. As an educator, I was interested in developing different ways of making music, without conventional Western notation, with the players themselves in an educational and interactive environment. Out of three “experiments”, one, which used body percussion as a score, was most effective in creating a meaningful musical experience. Having heard how effectively a polyrhythmic way of playing and interacting can be created in an ensemble through the “drum-kit conducting” of Lukas Ligeti, I utilized this concept with body percussion in the beginning of First Dances.
As the piece develops, the music takes on a through-composed form with the use of Western notation. I tried to maintain the effect of “poly-ness” in the music by having the ensemble play different groupings of the pulse, while accenting notes to stand out from the texture, which results in a hint of a melody that is heard now and then but only ever fully grasped and formed as a whole for one fleeting moment, gone as quickly as it came.
It is my hope that this style of composition affords the students of Keiskamma a musical experience as new and fresh as the encounter with the Nharo San and the process of writing this piece were for me.
First Dances was commissioned by the SAMRO Foundation for the Music Academy Orchestra in 2017. The work includes a string quintet of Violin 1, Violin 2, Viola, Cello, Contrabass and Body Percussion. To purchase the whole package select all 7 parts which will cost a total of ZAR408.00