Nokuthula Ngwenyama: in the middle of things

Composer-violist performs new work with Dover Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Primal Message is “based on the idea of communicating the things we learn to communicate with each other: our intelligence, our emotions, our goodness,” its composer, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, told the audience at its Chamber Music Northwest premiere in July. A meditation on communication in the space age, the string quintet is Ngwenyama’s reflection on the Arecibo Message — which she called the “first message we sent into space, knowing what we were sending” — and Steven Johnson’s cheekily terrifying article “Greetings E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us).” Lucky us: the music was indeed intelligent, emotional, and good.

Described as “an artistic force,” the 42-year-old Ngwenyama was born in Los Angeles and lives in Phoenix, Arizona. That desert landscape inspired her Sonoran Storm, a lively viola solo I’d seen her play barefoot in Lincoln Hall at last summer’s Chamber Music Northwest, and which Ngwenyama has since expanded and recorded in a version for solo viola, string orchestra, harp & percussion.

For this year’s festival, CMNW commissioned her Primal Message for viola quintet, string quartet plus second viola — a time-honored tradition for viola-playing composers (Mozart, Dvořák, Hindemith, Vaughan Williams, Clarke,  Bunch) who want to write themselves into the action. As Ngwenyama later confessed, “violist composers want to get right in the middle of things.”

Nokuthula Ngwenyama performed her own music and other works at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

I heard Primal Message performed twice in July, once in rehearsal and again the next day at its New@Noon world premiere, both times by the magnificent Dover Quartet, CMNW’s 2018-19 Ensemble-in-Residence, who return to Portland next month. I was moved by the music’s elegance, wit, and clarity, and above all by the fact that Ngwenyama had essentially written five solos on top of each other.

A Masterclass in Listening to New Music

I love these open rehearsals CMNW puts on in Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium. Classical music bears repeated, attentive listening, and the double tragedy of today’s classical music is how little we really pay attention to music in the 21st-century, and how seldom we hear a new work more than once. Open rehearsals (and CMNW’s wonderful open-secret “Encore” discounts) help with both of those, especially when the composer is present, and especially especially when the composer is right there playing with the ensemble she wrote the music for, and directing the rehearsal. Throw in a little Q&A and you’ve got what amounts to a masterclass in listening to new music.

“All four of you have such strength of conviction and musical vision,” Ngwenyama told the Dover Quartet, now in their eighth season with CMNW, during the Q&A. “As I was writing the score it was like you were there with me. Each one has brought magic to their parts that I didn’t imagine.”

The Dover Quartet and Nokuthula Ngwenyama perform her ‘Primal Message.’ Photo: Tom Emerson

Ngwenyama derived her new composition’s structure from the prime number sequence 2-3-5-7. In musical terms, that’s partly a matter of rhythms and rhythmic harmonies (also known as polyrhythms) and partly a matter of intervals and interval groupings (also known as scales). In practice this meant a more or less Harrisonian-Reichian rhythmic and melodic pandiatonicism, shimmery tone clusters and triads expanding out from the beats of overlapping rhythmic waves, all five instruments taking turns on that universal pentatonic scale (the Human Song, again, always).

Heart of Melody

Balancing all that was the heart: a wistful, yearningly ascendant, suitably science fictional  melody that weaves its way all through Primal Message. Ngwenyama calls it “Il Cuore”—Italian for “The Heart”—saying, “there is a certain sort of ecstasy to the melody, all the hopes, dreams, and passions of humanity.”

This oh-so-human melodic sense pulses through Ngwenyama’s work and especially chamber music like Primal Message: there’s melody everywhere! Not just that heart theme and the pentatonic profusion, but all through the duos and trios in the contrapuntal inner voices. At one point in the rehearsal, Dover violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and Ngwenyama went over this one tiny wisp of pizzicato in the first viola part, just a snippet of melody really, little more than a motive—and it was gorgeous. It was stuck in my head all day after the rehearsal and again after the next day’s performance. One little ear worm in a tumbling compost bin of fertile melodies.

Primal Message also turned out to have a lot of subito moments, quick dynamic turns bringing the various melodies to the foreground, all well executed by the quintet. Still: “we have to hold back a little—we have to really hold that dolce quality,” she said. Ngwenyama spent a fair amount of rehearsal time dialing in these balancing acts. With so much melody going on, it’s important that the whole ensemble be able to feel and hear and understand which character has center stage at any given moment, a typical issue for string quartets ever since the holy trinity (Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven) kicked the medium into polyphonic overdrive.

Nokuthula Ngwenyama. Photo: Mark Morgan

I sat down in the Kaul green room after this summer’s premiere and asked Ngwenyama about Primal Message, the composing life, and the future of classical music. Her answers have been condensed and edited for flow and clarity.

On Becoming a Composer

As a youngster, I was always encouraged to compose more. But it was finding the time to compose, and when you’re a kid it takes a certain type of discipline to be able to sit. As an adult too. To be committed to that idea that it will take that much time to make it clear for your colleagues, that they will be able to understand it—and not just that your colleagues in the now, but your colleagues in the future whom you will not know, who will hopefully be able to read what you are leaving. That kind of drive came in adulthood.

There were songs and things I was really committed to and wanted to write down, so I wrote them down and I sketched them with tape and staff paper. And I have all those sketches, and I did develop some of them, but I never developed them for anything beyond me. I felt like I had to write, but I didn’t feel like I had to write for anyone.

That was actually a really liberating thing. Plus I was performing and getting to play all this other incredible music, and I kept that writing for me until someone got wind that I was still writing and was like, “we’d like to commission you to do something.” I started getting commissions, and I was like “oh, ok, then I better really start working on this because other people really want it.”

And we are professional musicians, which means if I have been called to do a task, then I need to do it, and not really worry about exactly how I’m going to do it, but just do it to the best of my ability and try to be as honest about it with the tools I have as I possibly can be. That came from the nuts and bolts of having something specific to write about that wasn’t just, “oh, I’m going to write a song ‘cause this idea came in my head,” or “I’m going to sketch this, I don’t know if I’ll ever develop it but at least I got it down.”

And I got it out. That’s the thing with composers. Sometimes you just have to get it out so that you can leave it on the page.

On Being a Composer

It’s a practice. Because it takes so much discipline and because it takes that drive every morning, every day. The morning you open your eyes, you can’t imagine going through a day—an entire day—where you aren’t going to think about music for at least a minute. Some people would call it an obsession. But I believe it is a path, it is a practice.

CMNW Viola masterclass with Nokuthula Ngwenyama. Photo: Tom Emerson

You’re looking for your voice when you compose. Somehow, when you are able to meditate and quiet things down, it makes you more receptive to the things that need to come through. Being on our path. Having the freedom. Quieting the mind. Taking the time to really focus.

Because most of society, especially with electronics, they want to keep you plugged in and jazzed up and not really taking time to reflect and think and come from that quiet place, “il cuore,” that quiet place inside….

‘You take the noise of the world and you make it into something’

Composers really do have to have a call to do something. You’ve got a bunch of stuff going on in there and it has to come out, and it is your expression. But you’re interpreting the world and sometimes the only way to emotionally process it, or accurately and efficiently process the emotions and the noise of the world: you take the noise of the world and you make it into something.

The music reflects it. I’ve had gunshots come through my music. I don’t know how else to process that. Like the fear of sending my children to school and thinking they could get gunned down. And yet, they have to go to school, and try and learn in that environment. It’s got to go somewhere. I write about what I’m dealing with.

And we’re all dealing with something. If you’re not dealing with something, you should be dealing with something. ‘Cause that’s what it’s about.

Communicating the Vision

That’s the puzzle of composing. How can I communicate what I’m thinking or what I know that I can do to you so that you can do it when I’m not here and you don’t need to ask me how to do it? The Beatles didn’t exactly have the training or the lexicon to write that way, so they wrote in their way. But the people who are playing your music have such extensive training, they don’t want to be just used and abused and given a part. If you actually put some care into the part and you are clear without being verbose, musicians really appreciate that.

Nokuthula Ngwenyama, J.P. Redmond, and Tara O’Connor peformed Redmond’s ‘Three Literary Snapshots’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson

Because nobody has time to sit there and try and figure out what was going on in our brain. Make it readable and make it accessible for people, for the musicians. They’ll do a better job communicating what it is that you’re trying to say and then people will understand them better. If you’re just throwing stuff out there and you don’t care, like “I don’t care if it is readable, whatever musician is going to have to deal with it,” that musician is probably not going to be able to deal with it. You really want to use the knowledge and skills of the people that you are writing for. And trust them. You gotta let go and trust them and know that they’re going to do it and probably do it better than what you imagined.

Primal Message

Primal Message was good for exploring us, and how we communicate. But now we have to think about how we are going to communicate together, humanity versus our technology, which is undoing our humanity in a way. The way I’m thinking tends to be where I’m working too, so I was thinking about what’s primal and how we get in touch with that. Primal essence—both the intelligent and emotional, all of it. How do you get in touch with that? And how do you communicate that? And have it be a message of beauty, and compelling enough for another life form to be like, “whoa, that’s kind of cool that someone tried to put that math in there and do this and make it a song.”

And now I’m just thinking more about shared-minds theory, and how there isn’t really meaning unless you are bringing all of your experiences to the conversation, which is beyond our verbal conversation. I’m bringing all of my experiences, but then as we interact that’s where the meaning occurs. So it is within our shared interaction, we find meaning. Not just because I said something and you said something; it is going into a kind of a sixth sense of embracing the other senses in communication.

Eventually we will have to communicate much more, in terms of machine communication and human communication, because there is going to be communication we are not going to want the machines to understand. That sounds a little Terminator-esque, but I think the sooner we work on our human communication and the sooner we come together as a species on earth, the better we will be able to deal with these things and improve life for everyone.

So, that’s kind of where I’m going with my philosophy. Composing and getting into that not literal sense of learning but abstract sense of learning and communication.

I was just thinking of the things we have to do as artists and that’s different than the things you have to do as a parent, as a companion. We have our artistic imperative that we have to respect; no matter what anybody else says, you have to respect that. Because it really does come down to: how are you spending your time? And it’s a hard one, when you have a younger family, a growing family. In today’s world it’s a hard one.

Composers Joan Tower and Nokuthula Ngwenyama at Chamber Music Northwest’s Composer Panel last summer. Photo: Judy Blankenship.

That’s called not sleeping a lot and burning the candle at both ends, because how else are you going to do it? That’s how I do it. I don’t necessarily recommend people to do that, but when it has to get done, it has to get done. And these two albums have to come out. Like this year.

The Future of Classical Music

I look at my family in Zimbabwe and they’re like “what are you doing?” My dad just asked me, “why are you playing the white man’s music?” You know, music is human. It is universal. It almost doesn’t matter who wrote it.

I actually think that it is always going to be around, because it is the foundation for so much of what we hear. Especially as video dominates more and more. People don’t know, but they actually really do want to hear real instruments. It makes a huge difference on any production.

I believe that the tradition will always be around. It’s a small percentage of the population which has the time and the ability to really enjoy and learn about this art form from the classics up til today. I mean it takes time. It really does. And most people don’t have that time. That’s why people get into it more when they retire. They just didn’t have the time before. They were working so hard, they were raising families. They knew it was out there, but they couldn’t do it. And then they retire and they’re like, “oh, now I have time to go to these things and learn about it.” And then they get into it and then it becomes like a whole social thing, something they can talk about with their friends. And they can really enjoy it.

Nokuthula Ngwenyama. Photo: Mark Morgan

So I don’t think it will ever die. Hopefully the flames of the best we can give to each other will be here, and unfortunately the flames of all the horrible things we can do to each other will always be there, and it’s gone like that through the currents of time. I think that this type of musical expression falls into that camp of “it must preserved and it will be preserved.” There will always be those holdouts, those dedicated holdouts who make sure the flame doesn’t die. That’s where we are now. We are preserving the flame. And I think we will forever have to preserve the flame. It will never ever be super widespread. And I accept that.

The Dover Quartet will be back before you know it, playing Britten, Bartók, and Dvořák for CMNW in October. Meanwhile, Ngwenyama is working on a new viola concerto and an orchestra-plus-violin version of her recent solo piece Rising, originally composed for “solo multitrack violin and pedals.”

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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