nokuthula ngwenyama

MusicWatch Monthly: A vote for diversity

November concerts initiate reimagined seasons of socially distant, socially relevant new music

After a nice weekend of socially-distanced Halloween shenanigans, the beautiful blue moon and a well-earned extra hour of sleep, November is here. It took a long time, but it feels like Portland’s arts community has settled into a rhythm of live-streamed concerts and occasional outdoor performances. What I appreciate above all is that this new format allows for a bit more experimentation in repertoire as we continue to move on from the hegemony of German dudes in classical music.

We can hear that in how the classical music community expands its focus, as composers and musicians who used to be on the periphery move toward the center. Older composers are rediscovered, newer composers get more attention, and we continue to confront our long history of complicity in racism, sexism and classism in music.


Nokuthula Ngwenyama: in the middle of things

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

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.”