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The Songlines Quartet

In the summer of 1986 I completed my book The Songlines under difficult conditions. I had in fact picked up a very rare fungus of the bone marrow in China. Certain I was going to die, I decided to finish the text and put myself into the hands of doctors. My work would then be done. The last third of the manuscript was a commonplace book of quotations and vignettes intended to back up the main line of argument. I put this into shape on sweltering summer days, wrapped in shawls, shivering with cold in front of the kitchen stove. It was a race for time.

The Songlines starts with an investigation into the labyrinth of invisible pathways which Australian Aboriginals call the “Footprints of the Ancestors” or “The Way of the Law.” Europeans know them as “Songlines” or “Dreaming Tracks.”

Aboriginals believe that the totemic ancestor of each species creates himself from the mud of his primordial water-hole. He takes a step forward and sings his name, which is the opening line of a song. He takes a second step which is a gloss on the first line and completes the linked couplet. He then sets off on a journey across the land, footfall after footfall, singing the world into existence: rocks, escarpments, sand dunes, gum trees, and so on.

I hoped to use this astonishing concept as a springboard from which to explore the innate restlessness of man.

I made a miraculous recovery. The book came out in June 1987. On the day of publication there was a French air controllers’ strike and we had to cross the channel by Hovercraft. We were four hours late. I promised myself not to buy the newspapers and read the reviews. I relented and bought the London Independent: I think I am quoting the reviewer correctly by saying he found my work “unbearably pretentious.”

We took the slow train from Boulogne to Paris. On the seat behind two musicians were working on a score. Their instruments were on the rack above their heads. They were Rostropovich and Anne-Sophie Mutter. It was a good omen.

The book did well. When it appeared on top of the best-seller list, I had a crisis of confidence. Had I at last joined the trash artists?

Early on I saw it was useless to lay down the law on a subject so tenuous and decided to write an imaginary dialogue in which both narrator and interlocutor had the liberty to be wrong. This was a difficult concept for English-speaking readers. I had a running battle over whether the book should be classified as fiction or nonfiction. “Fiction,” I insisted. “I made it up.” A Spanish reviewer had no such difficulty. A libro de viaje was a travel book and a novela de viaje…there was Don Quixote.

Understandably, the academics were cautious. But I refused to budge from the basic tenets I aired in the book:

—As a South African paleontologist, Dr. Elizabeth Vruba, said to me, “Man was born in adversity. Adversity, in this case, is aridity.” Homo sapiens evolved once and once only, in southern Africa sometime after the first northern glaciation (circa 2,600,000 years ago) when the North Pole formed, the sea level fell, the Mediterranean became a salt lake, and the mixed South African forest gave way to open savannah scrub.

—Homo sapiens was migratory. He made long seasonal journeys interrupted by a phase of settlement, a “lean season” like Lent.

—The males of Homo sapiens were hunters and the women were gatherers of vegetable food and small game. But the function of their journeys was to make friendly contact with neighbors near and far. Men talk their way through the problem of inbreeding. Animals fight to achieve this.

—Man is “naturally good” in Rousseau’s sense and the sense of the New Testament. There is no place for evil in evolution. The fighting impulse in men and women was designed as a protection from wild beasts and other terrors of the primeval bush. In settlement these impulses tend to get thrown out of gear. Compare the story of Cain the settler and Abel the wanderer.

—Man is a talking creature, a singing creature. He sings and his song echoes up and down the world. The first language was in song. Music is the highest of the arts.

I had many letters from the readers of The Songlines. Occasionally the morning post would throw up some miraculous treasure. A lady from Connecticut sent me a photostat of Anne Cameron’s Daughters of the Copper Woman, in which an old Nootka woman describes how her forebears would navigate their oceangoing canoes.

The Nootka, the Bela Coola, the Haida, and the Kwakiutl were technically in the hunting and gathering stage, but the sea so teemed with salmon and the forests with game that they settled in large timber houses and had classes of nobles, workers, and slaves.

This is the text of the steerswoman:

Everythin’ we ever knew about the movement of the sea was preserved in the verses of a song. For thousands of years we went where we wanted and came home safe because of the song. On clear nights we had the stars to guide us and in the fog we had the streams and creeks that flow into and become Klin Otto….

Klin Otto was the salt water current that ran from California to the Aleutian Islands.

There was a song for goin’ to China and a song for goin’ to Japan, a song for the big island and a song for the smaller one. All she had to know was the song and she knew where she was. To get back, she just sang the song in reverse.

One morning last February, during a very bad bout of malaria, the post brought a most intriguing letter from a South African composer I had never heard of: Kevin Volans.

I have been meaning to write to you for some time, but the temptation of adding some presumptuous invitation…to come with me on a recording trip in Lesotho…held me back.

His titles were wonderful: “White Man Sleeps,” “She Who Sleeps with a Small Blanket,” “Cover Him with Grass,” “Studies in Zulu History,” “Kneeling Dance,” “Leaping Dance,” “Hunting,” “Gathering.”

I was too feverish to play Volans’s tape at once but finally summoned the strength to put it on the tape deck. It was a dazzling, frosty day and my bedroom, with its white walls and white venetian blinds, was slatted with sunlight. I was boiling hot. I lay back and could not believe my ears. I was listening to “White Man Sleeps,” scored for two harpsichords, viola da gamba, and percussion. It was a music I had never heard before or could have imagined. It derived from nothing and no one. It had arrived. It was free and alive. I heard the sounds of thorn-scrub Africa, the insects and the swish of wind through grass. But there was nothing that would have been foreign to Debussy or Ravel.

I called Volans up in Belfast, where he was composer in residence at Queen’s University. Mine was the first call on his new answering machine. Within a very few days he was at my bedside. I had a friend for life.

Kevin comes from Pietermaritzburg, the most English city in South Africa, and is thirty-eight years old. His parents owned a dry-cleaning business. When he was ten his mother bought a piano. By the time he was fourteen he was playing Liszt’s piano concertos and wanted to be a concert pianist. He was terrorized by the other boys on the school bus, and would walk home in temperatures of 105 degrees, in a black flannel blazer, gray flannel trousers, spit-and-polished shoes, and a boater hat. On the way he passed Africans sheltering under the trees, hearing the people’s song, guitar music, and world of rhythms.

He went to Johannesburg to study Western music without yet being aware that he loved the sounds of Africa.

He came to Europe in 1973 and studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen, later becoming his teaching assistant. He studied piano with Aloys Kontarsky and music theater with Mauricio Kagel. He began to realize that what distinguished African music from European (except perhaps for early music like that of Hildegard of Bingen) was its unawareness of proportion. African music is not deliberately asymmetric. It has no precise proportions: patterns are created by addition, not subdivision. In many cases repetition is not perceived. The music ends, as abruptly as it begins, like bird-song. No rhythm is arrived at by calculation—Stockhausen calculates everything.

Arriving fresh from a field trip in the mountains of Lesotho, Kevin made straight for a Cologne première by the German composer and was struck by the conviction that the language of serialism was dead. Western music was always architectural: he wanted a music in which the roof floated free.

Kevin had two colleagues, Walter Zimmerman, the son of a Nuremberg baker, and Clarence Barlow, who was born in Calcutta. They decided to return home and investigate the relation of music to its geographical source. This was not shopping around the world of ethnomusicology. Zimmerman produced what he called Lokale Musik with the implication that the local was the universal; he composed a series of works that would define aspects of his tradition. One of these was an orchestral work in which he mapped features of his native landscape onto the orchestration of some two hundred rustic waltzes (Ländlertopographien).

Clarence Barlow came back from Calcutta with a twenty-four–hour cycle of street sounds, and an analysis of harmonic and rhythmic consonance and dissonance in Indian music.

Kevin made several recording trips to southern Africa. He began with street music and immediately realized it was far more interesting than any ideas about it. Zulu guitar music is used not only as an accompaniment to long walking journeys, but as a means of making friends and working out social tensions: in what appears to be ritualized aggression, Zulu guitar players engage in a musical substitute for stick fighting. The two players will meet and one of them will say, “You stab first.” The songs always include elaborate introductory flourishes and praise poetry recited at high speed over the guitar ostinato.

Studies in Zulu History” began as an attempt to record the great Afrikaner festival at the church where King Dingaan killed the Boer leader Piet Retief, a founder of Pietermaritzburg. On a day known as the Day of the Covenant a Boer massacre of the Zulus is remembered annually.

Kevin saw the faces of the congregation and got cold feet. It was midday. He wandered off into the veld and recorded the prehistoric sounds of insects, the heat rising, and an occasional bird. He took the tape back to Europe and spent three years on-and-off in the Cologne studios making an electronic replica.

Cover Him with Grass” is derived from Basotho work sounds in which old men split a log, children shout, and women sing as they throw chips of stone while road building.

ZwaZulu Summer Landscape” is an extended composition of natural sounds collected on a return trip.

These tape pieces serve as a curtain raiser to a long series of instrumental works which aimed at reconciling African and European aesthetics. Islam tends to introduce new techniques to its converts; Christianity brings new objects. In the predominantly Christian south the musical techniques remain traditional, the instruments imported. Kevin chose to make an inverse assault on European music, bringing new techniques from the south and adapting existing instruments: the harpsichord, the flute, the string quartet. He avoided exotica.

On returning from Africa he was bitterly disappointed to discover he was neither African nor European. Soon he realized that he was free, free to compose whatever he wanted. There is a Sufi saying, “Freedom is absence of choice.” I believe this to be devotional music of the highest order. For me, Kevin is one of the more inventive composers to appear since the death of Stravinsky.

The Songlines,” his fourth string quartet, was given its première by the Kronos Quartet at Lincoln Center on November 26.

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