Song cycle on /Xam texts
for baritone, violin and percussion
This cycle of songs interspersed with instrumental movements and pre-recorded playbacks is based on texts reconstructed from the Bleek & Lloyd archive, a collection of phonetically transcribed and translated /Xam folklore, stories and ‘poems’ currently housed at the University of Cape Town. From the transcriptions collected between 1870 and 1875, I set four lyrical texts in response to a commission, which requested a piece for the three prize-winners of a competition held in Munich. The specific instrumentation of baritone, violin and percussion resulted form the jury’s choice of winners.
The existence of the Bleek collection is fairly common knowledge, but it is not generally known that it contains phonetic transcriptions of the documented conversations. These can in certain sense be seen as very early sound recordings and as such were for me the most fascinating aspect of the material: ‘tangible’ remnants of the now extinct aural tradition, ‘genuine’ representations of ancient material of a quality similar to that of the rock paintings, undisguised by subjective attempts at translations or interpretations.
My immediate impulse was thus to have the texts sung in their original language. But after a tenaciously pursued quest to find somebody sufficiently knowledgeable to appositely pronounce the phonetic shorthand, I was confronted with the finality of the notion of cultural extinction: there would never again be anybody to speak or understand /Xam. It was a shattering, experiential realization, far exceeding the mere knowledge of the historical facts. We tend to speak lightly of extinction, believing or hoping that it won’t concern us, yet its looming spectre in the wale of projected global warming has made it a buzz-word in the current ecological discourse. It is arguably the most final and imaginable tragic occurrence, dwarfing the notion of individual death. With respect to the mute phonetic transcription it has conveyed to me a most profound implication of ‘silence’.
I thus had to resort to set an English translation, using that of Stephen Watson as a point of departure. (Stephen’s poems had in the first place made me aware of the texts.) In order to not fully discard the original idea of the original sounding language, I persuaded Pedro Dâusab, a Nama speaker, to attempt an artificial rendition of two short text passages. Together with excerpts from field recordings of music by the Kalahari Bushmen compiled by John Brearly, they contribute to an occasionally added sonic backdrop to the performance – the attempt at reconstructing an ancient soundtrack for the landscape, which the composition wishes to evoke. For the rest the music operates with ‘dry’, ‘bony’ and ‘wooden’ sounds to explore the ‘brokenness’ of the deserted places, which //Kabbo mentions, to emanate the poetic manner in which the /Xam seemingly responded to their austere circumstances and ultimately to lament the now prevailing silence.
I gratefully acknowledge the following persons, who have all, in one way or another, assisted me during the process of this composition: Wilfried Hiller, Dr. Eckhard Klapp, Stephen Watson, Leslie Hart, Jerryl Klinghardt, Nigel Crawhall, Anthony Traill, Carine Rousset, Prof. J. Snyman, Prof. W. Haacke, Deidre Hansen, Pedro Dâusab and John Brearly. And of course //Kabbo, Han≠kass’o and Diä!kwain as well as William Bleek and Lucy Lloyd deserve a special word thanks!