Review – Taking your mind for a walk

2012-07-04 07:56

With school mistress poise and ever-so-slightly kinky, black strappy shoes, South Africa’s only experimental concert piano diva Jill Richards sat down at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last night and coaxed from her Steinway concert grand a meditation on South Africa as seen from abroad through the eyes of poet and author Antjie Krog.

Antjie in Berlin is so delicate and so fierce that all you can really do is remove your glasses, close your eyes, cock your head and open your ears.

Composed by South African-born, Denmark-based Rudiger Meyer, Antjie in Berlin brings to life letters from Germany as read by Krog and written to her mother, extracted from her book Begging to be Black.

What Meyer and Richards do is ooze music into the spaces between the words.

Their accomplice is sound designer Shaughn Macrae, who bleeds tech and echo into the room.

The result is a kind of poetry that we’ve never heard before – with an anarchistic twist of contemporary South African issues.

Looking at her home from Germany while on a writing residency, Krog can’t help seeing South Africa in everything – from the street workers collecting dry leaves to the world’s largest university centre for the study of Northern Sotho – in Berlin and run by white, blonde-haired Afrikaans women in love with the language.

She records her observations on the death of Western culture, on the suffocating spread of middle class consciousness, on climate change and soup ladles, jumbled words that become a plea for culture and debate.

Subtle and jarring, Meyer’s collaborative soundscape is as melodic as it is unconventional.

Words become notes, silence becomes sound, European concerns become absurdities, off keys become pretty and prettiness disrupts itself.

The auditorium may have been half empty and Richards may be little known in mainstream South African music, but when the legendary Kevin Volans wants to debut a new two-piano composition, he calls her to play with him – and the CD release goes on to be nominated for a Grammy.

Her performances of works by Feldman, Kurtág and Stockhausen have been broadcast by the BBC, and she frequently has works dedicated to her by living composers.

She has collaborated with jazz artists like the late Zim Nqawana, visual artists like William Kentridge and now Antjie Krog in self-imposed exile and the deeply modern classicist Meyer.

Nuanced and original, Antjie in Berlin is the opposite of the clashing, loud, attention-grabbing fare on offer all across the festival. It’s for putting your feet up and taking your mind for a walk.

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