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15 Questions to Michael Blake

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I’m on holiday right now, relaxing in my apartment in Cape Town, catching up on correspondence after quite a busy year. Thinking about some new projects while I’m away from the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg (where I live) and Pretoria (where I teach).

What’s on your schedule right now?

Finishing my opera – two scenes to go – and getting the vocal score ready for the producer. It should be staged in 2009. The libretto is adapted from the once controversial Afrikaans novel Sewe Dae by die Silbersteins.

Would you say the music scene is in a state of crisis? How hard (or easy) has it been for you finding performance opportunities and audiences for your music?

The music scene in South Africa has always been in a state of crisis. So while Europe may appear to be in crisis if you’re living there, it looks like heaven from here. I’ve been lucky with performances in most parts of the world largely through the contacts I made with performers, composers, festival directors during the two decades I lived in Europe (1977-1997), but also to some extent because South Africa is still a kind of post-1994 flavour of the month and I often get called in to do the neo-African number.

What do you usually start with when composing?

I usually start by improvising at the piano until I hit on something that grabs me. I then notate it on the computer (using Sibelius) and then I continue with the same process. When I’ve got quite a bit of material (depending of course on the scale of the piece), I start playing with it and creating some kind of structure, but rarely with any pre-conceived structure in mind.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?

Crucial. I’m always telling composition students that they need to have a clear sound image in order to go forward with a new piece. And it’s always clear to the listener when the image is not clear.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?

Well I’ve probably answered that under a previous question. I write very detailed scores without room for improvisation as others composers do or have done, but on the other hand I do also improvise freely as a performer in the realisation of other composers’ graphic scores etc. That is a separate activity though.

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?
I use largely consonance, but in either case I employ it dysfunctionally (to use Kyle Gann’s apt phrase). On the other hand, what I try to do in the bigger compositional picture is, I hope, largely dissonant with the status quo.

Russian composer Alexander Danilevski said: “The musical innovations of the 21st century will not be intonational ones; they will be based on developing a new musical form and dramaturgy.” What are your thoughts on this?
He’s probably right on the first count – experiments with intonation have been rather exhausted – and the in area of digital technology and multimedia I think many innovations have been developed viz a viz musical form and dramaturgy. But the digital field is also easily exhausted. My own formal structures are influenced by the work of underground filmmakers.

How would you define the term “interpretation”? How important is it for you to work closely together with the artists performing your work?
I am fortunate to be able to work regularly with particular artists (including my own ensemble in South Africa) and in some small way I feel that a kind of performing tradition of my music is already developing. I can refer new performers to recordings for example. Because much of my music looks deceptively simple on the page, but is easy to play badly, I do like to be at rehearsals of a new piece or a new performance – not to control or interfere as many composers do, but simply to share thoughts about the interpretation and to make sure everything is alright for the performance. My scores are mostly self-explanatory so there is little need for interference.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
Absolutely yes! I think it is essential for an artist to be relevant. A serious composer can and should still have some political or social influence. Our job is not to reinforce comfort zones, but to make listeners feel uncomfortable if necessary, or at the very least to get them thinking about issues that affect everyone. The politicians are pretty useless at what they do, so it’s up to the artists.

Would you say that a lack of education is standing in the way of audiences in their appreciation of contemporary composition?
No, I think the composers are standing in the way, along with the institutions that educate them and the structures that promote and present new work. Out here the tendency is retrogressive – you could be forgiven for thinking that most new music was written fifty to a hundred years ago – and that is reinforced by the institutions, the concert structures, and the only classical radio station. But its worth remembering that audiences are much more intelligent than is usually thought to be the case, and it’s actually the powers-that-be that are less so.

How, do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience without sacrificing their soul?
Trust the audience. They do know what’s good and what’s crap. Don’t put them off with negative advertising. Involve the composer in the presentation and publicity at every level.

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.
Out here that is the case to a large extent, but that’s because those who dole out the cultural subsidies are not being well-advised. Sometimes they do reach the right people, but often the right people feel that they won’t get anything and so don’t bother to apply. Artists have to work hard at these sorts of things, in addition to creating art. Composing is much tougher than many jobs.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?

All the music I’d like to hear, but can’t for whatever reason. I in fact directed a festival in South Africa from 2000-2006 and was able to do just that. I invited interesting composers and performers and had an annual party. I think composers make the best artistic directors because they can extend their compositional skills to composing an entire festival. It’s the same principle really.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?

Picture by A. Kaganof

Damba Moon. Let us run out of the rain. Ensemble Bash. CD. London: oundCircus, 2001
Spectrum 4. iKostina. Thalia Myers. CD. London: Usk, 2005


Michael Blake

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