A Healthy Live Music Ecosystem is Needed for Innovations: An Interview with Dr. Cara Stacey

Musician, researcher, and composer Cara Stacey gravitates between the strange and wonderful sonic worlds of classical string ensembles, kinetic ‘music’ on machines, traditional southern Africa mouth bows, and beyond. On November 23, she performs with one of the five bands featured at the upcoming South African Jazz & Classical Encounters Festival at the impressive Spier Wine Farm’s Amphitheatre, newly refurbished. There, will be a splash of the best South African jazz and classical artists in a blaze of contemporary music. On piano and traditional southern African mouth bows, she is joined by long time colleague and Stellenbosch composer, Matthijs van Dijk, and eclectic jazz artists, Reza Khota on electric guitar, and Bryton Bolton on double bass. They call themselves the Night Light Collective. See them at 3.15pm on Saturday!

Traditional bow player, Cara Stacey: credit P. Burger

Originally a classically trained pianist, with Masters degrees from Edinburgh and London, Stacey’s real love migrated to research, play and make southern African musical bows (umrhubhe, uhadi, makhweyane) thanks to long residencies in eSwatini (formerly, Swaziland) where she spent her childhood upbringing.  The makhweyane, a one-stringed gourd-resonating bow, was the subject of her Doctorate which she is now turning into a book.

Makhweyane bow

Stacey became easily enamoured with other out-of-the-box inventions and musical innovations picked up from other country influences, such as in Brazil, Peru, and Iraq, the latter where she delved into pre-1500s Islamic inventors in the field of robotics. Her one-year post-doctoral research as an ethnomusicologist at University of Cape Town (UCT) led her to put flute music to a water-based instrument she built, based on 12th Century Baghdad mechanical inventions.  All this, quite different from her earlier research with traditional African bows. 

She left her teaching at UCT last year to move to Johannesburg where she currently lives, teaching bow ensembles, composing, freelancing with live gigs, writing songs on commission, and preparing her next albums with songs recorded to date. Her UK record label prefers vinyl and digital productions.

For anyone wanting alternative sounds with a very different mix of familiar and less familiar instruments, Stacey’s first album, Things That Grow (2015,) features UK-based Shabaka Hutchings, and offers kinetic/machine-like bumps with the wind instruments of traditional flute and mouth bow rhythms. Her latest album, Ceder (2018), offers an acoustic duo – Stacey on piano with Peruvian flutist and composer, Camilo Angeles. Both albums offer the unusual – some frantic, some familiar rhythms; some wily, some bizarre sound phrasings; a dentist’s drill; some familiar mouth bow overtone sounds of rural southern Africa, sounds of animals and birds, the list goes on. Beware: on Ceder, your dog’s ears will be affected, if not dancing! The titles of the pieces to be performed at Spier are enticing in themselves: Stacey’s visual-score “Luhlata njengetjani” and Dijk’s “How to Sit Underwater”.

Tickets for the Spier Festival on November 23, 2019 are R380 from www.quicket.co.za . The Night Light Collective performs from 3.15pm – 4.15pm.                                        

I caught up with Dr. Stacey who presently resides in Johannesburg to find out more about what makes her musical spirit tick.

Your contemporary music – what to expect at Spier

CM: The group you are playing with at Spier – Reza Khota, etc. Did you choose this group?
CS: It started as a string quartet led by Matthijs who has a strings background. We were all close friends, united in our particular musical experimental tastes. I’ve worked with Bryton Bolton and Reza Khota in my own capacity – we have different musical backgrounds. We had played in Makanda earlier this year, and with Lungiswa Plaatjies we played at the  Johannesburg International Mozart Festival last year. We basically workshop and experiment together. Our music will be diverse and from our own compositions.

CM: What sounds can we expect from your group, given your own eclectic preferences and training?
CS: With that ensemble, I play indigenous southern African instruments and these musicians all offer me good rhythms. I’ve gained a lot of experience from people who have written in ways I would not have played on those instruments, but can do so in this ensemble space. So I don’t see it too different for myself. And because Matthijs and I come from a classical training, and from the original ensemble, I would say it’s more of a ‘new music’ ensemble. We do quite a bit of improvisation, but it draws more on the contemporary classical type of musical language, so I will play piano in that vein in the ensemble. In my solo capacity, I like to do different things. And in my research I do different things as well.

Musical Kinetics

Stacey’s prototype of medieval perpetual flute with water-based mechanics

CM: What made you gravitate towards the kinetic arts and use of machinery in sound? You were influenced by some Swiss inventors, I believe?

CS: I had two residencies: One in Basel, Switzerland and the other in Brazil through the Africa Center in London. I am also a post-doc Fellow at UCT drawing musical connections existing pre-1500s across the Indian Ocean. It was quite different from my earlier research where I worked with musical bows in Swaziland, now called eSwatini . And I work a lot in performance-based projects whereby composing is a way of creating new knowledge. It was a departure from my other projects as I was all of a sudden surrounded by archaeologists looking at very early African and Asian histories. My task in that project in that year was to build this water-based instrument that had been designed in Baghdad in the 1200s. Sometimes academia can be that way. It’s an old manuscript that laid out the sounds of music.  https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2019-03-19-magical-flutes-links-to-early-islamic-robotics

In my research, I noticed how many kinetic and mechanical items were passing my way, and while I was resident in Switzerland, I came across Swiss kinetic artists like Jean Tinguely (d. 1991) in a huge museum in Basel honouring his work. Then, when I went to Brazil, the strangest coincidence happened: a Swiss man who had lived in Salvador where I was, had brought musical ideas about all sorts of design things, and made these kinetic musical instruments. So he influenced me with kinetic principles while I was building this Iraq prototype machine – it was crazy! I’m super ignorant about these things, and one year is definitely not long enough to grapple with such a design. I managed to build this plastic prototype of that machine which lives under my desk now!

Making of Things That Grow album

CM: In your Things That Grow album, there are songs that sound quite dark. What influenced you to compose those songs?
CS: The album, released in 2015, was midway during the PhD when I was getting ready to head back to eSwatini to do more research. The process of making that album was an interesting one. My Masters before that had focused on innovation with southern African bows. I knew most of the bow players around, so I often see the fusions or new forms people make in their performances. There’s often a spoken word component, or the bows take on a certain role in any live ensemble, particularly in traditional rural performance, for instance – all very innovative in their own ways. I wanted to challenge myself in the use of those roles. So I was lucky when living in the UK to have an innovative partner at that time, Shabaka Hutchings, who is a fantastic musician and improviser. I wanted recording sessions with open minded improvisers , mostly jazz musicians, to try to break down some of those roles which traditional instruments tend to take. So I composed different things and just booked the people I respected. They walked into the studio, we tried a lot of things which I didn’t like. Everything was an experiment. I had written a variety of notes, a folk song, something for the drum kit, whatever. I threw out what I had written, so about half the album is improvised. I just drew on the talents of others, and we played combinations of trios and duos. There’s a couple of tunes that are groove-based and you can hear that. ‘Fox’ is my favourite song with a clarinet melody to fit over this mouth bow pattern, so it was all quite experimental. Since I was applying the rural African bow, I had to work out all the sounds that I liked, but try not to replicate music that wasn’t mine.

Experience with African Music – Overtone Sounds

CM: When we talk about ‘African’ music, it really is so varied and eclectic from one side of the continent to the other. What’s your favourite African area in terms of the music you’ve studied?
CS: It has to be eSwatini because of the long time I’ve spent there working with traditional players, composing with them, and doing research on their instruments. I also listen to a lot of archival and old recordings and different contemporary stuff. Then my studies in London focused strongly on different African music, particularly West African as well, like classic ensembles from the 60s and 70s. So it’s difficult for me to pinpoint areas, but I would say southern Africa and West African because of its lyrical styles ….and how they integrate indigenous instruments which is what I’m interested in.

CM: Which music do you gravitate towards in South Africa with its explosion of different forms of musical expression now? In general.
CS: There’s so much!! I’m generally multi-tasking with so much work – I try to stay on top of things, especially dance music, but it’s so incredible out there – so much innovation all the time. It’s easier for me to watch indigenous instruments as I’m in that scene, and I know a lot of the people doing innovations. These creatives are largely under-supported. We’re trying to uplift all the players of those instruments, and at the same time support each other as working musicians. For instance,
Cândido Salomão Zango, also known as ‘Matchume’, from Mozambique is a key link for me with Mozambiquan musicians.

Machume Zango at PNTGM

The eSwatini rural area is important for me. Moving back to South Africa was so confusing! In eSwatini I had a much closer connection with Mozambique – this changes one’s perspectives on a whole range of political, social, and cultural issues. I guess I felt a sense of international connection being outside of South Africa which is a powerful country of influence in the region.

CM: … and an African reality. When you’re talking about the ‘Africanness’ of local music, you’re crossing into an African spirituality, aren’t you? Like what journalist Struan Douglas writes about, or pianist Nduduzo Mhakhatini advocates in his compositions…..
CS: I can speak about the instruments I know best: When I spent so much time with these older musicians in eSwatini, iaged 80s to 90s, they exposed me to lyrical, poetic things that I would never have had contact with. Even where I grew up in eSwatini, I was relatively disconnected with that rural cultural experience. The way eSwatinis use their language is so artistic, like poetry to me. Different to urban slang, you learn through the language and music. This is a different world dealing with spirituality and culture – of these artists being outside of the cash economy. And this is such a different way of being an artist compared to my life, for instance.

CM: I hear in your music the repetition, the chant, common in traditional music. There’s also a low register in the music, like the American Indian music has this low earthy rumble that calls out to the ancestors. Is this the attraction of mouth bow music to you?
CS: As an ethnomusicologist, I know there are a bunch of us who are strong players who think about music from a performance and composing perspective. Some are also doing a more traditional type of research; others maybe more innovative research which brings those two things together – performance and composing. Because of that, I’m exposed to so many types of music from around the world , being in that academic scene, which means that music we listen to globally is almost always popular, commercial music, whether it’s jazz or classical. There are certain structures of the music that we are familiar with. So it takes an effort and skill for people to hear and construct music in a completely different way. For me, bow music has opened me up in a lot of ways because of the way the instrument is played and structured, and the overtone nature of the sound. You listen and create or compose in a completely different way to, like, if I was writing a jazz tune, or for a string quartet. Many different structures and modes of listening: People don’t hear, for instance, the integration of traditional instruments in a pop song; they don’t hear the form of those instruments.

This is why I’m drawn to different types of instruments. If you listen to people like Colin Stetson, he uses that dance, overtone quality in the saxophone. I think people in South Africa are starting to think outside the box in terms of how to structure music. Stetson deals with these deep cycles that, to me, are similar to southern African bow music, but his is a fundamentally different structure to the music. It’s closer to, say, classical minimalists, some other composers that create organized sound that we are not always familiar with. And there are lots of communities around the world that do that in very different ways. I’m lucky in that I go to conferences and have colleagues well versed in making music people are otherwise not familiar with.

Running Concert Series in One’s Home Town

CM: Talk about your concert series in your communities. There’s a whole topic of concern about the ‘lack of venues’…. The venues are there, but the business angle needs to be worked out, to get owners on board with a good business model.
CS: My colleague, Nicola du Toit, and I do a live music series called Betwixt https://betwixtmusic.co.za/  and started it when the ‘Straight No Chaser’ club closed in Cape Town. So now in JHB, we put on live performances in different places. But getting patrons there is so stressful. Basically, doing live means loosing money! When I started the concert series, I realised how hard it was to get people to attend. We had created a model where it was really affordable , and there were add-ons to encourage people to come. But it made me realise that it was on me as well, to go out and spend my money at gigs, and support artists I respect. Musicians can get despondent at audiences, but I think, having been on a number of international residencies where I have met people who are dealing with similar issues in different parts of the world, it is on us to support each other.

CM: That’s very generous of you. I know this is a theme of students at jam sessions – they’re coming out with a real solidarity
CS: It has to be that way. It is so hard to find space for artists to do what they would creatively want to do with live audiences. Audiences do love the arts and will try, but even the musicians wouldn’t come to our gigs. I’m more peripheral in my musical tastes, but I support my male friends’ gigs. However, they never come to mine! I think that for there to be a healthy live ecosystem, there’s lots of responsibility all around. I did a residency in America in 2016 with many musicians from all around the world, who had albums out and had performed a lot. Every one of them also ran a concert series in their home town. So that made me think that I need to contribute something locally, since I move around a lot with live performances. Everyone was involved in creating space for other musicians, as well.

See www.carastacey.com

See www.carastacey.com

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