Hearing Landscape Critically: Memories of the 2013 Meeting in South Africa

Hearing Landscape Critically:

8-11 September 2013, Stellenbosch University, South Africa


The Hearing Landscape Critically conference hosted by Stellenbosch University in September 2013 was the second in a series of four interdisciplinary meetings and the first sponsored as part of an International Research Network funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The event drew together over 100 delegates from a range of disciplinary backgrounds with a view to interrogating relationships between landscape, music, sound, and place. The conference opened with two contrasting activities responding to the violent “shaping” of the South African land. The first was a Druid walk, conducted by visual artist Willem Boshoff, which led delegates across edgeland sites in the Stellenbosch area (a rubbish dump and an informal settlement). The second was a screening of Aryan Kaganof’s study of free jazz artist Zim Ngqawana’s response to the criminal vandalization of his Johannesburg music institute, The Exhibition of Vandalism (2010), followed by reflections from Justice Edwin Cameron, AIDS activist and sitting judge in the South African Constitutional court. Ngqawana and pianist Kyle Shepherd’s improvisations on damaged instruments turned the desecrated space of the institute into a painful exploration of landscape and violence as well as an anguished indictment of the failures of instruments of state to protect its citizens against such devastation. 


Jonathan Cross’s eloquent analysis of Harrison Birtwistle’s evocations of a Hebridean landscape, in the context of the Highland clearances, introduced one of the recurrent themes of the conference: the forceful removal of people and so-called “cleansing” of land. District 6, a mixed Cape suburb declared a “whites only” area in 1966, supplied the mnemonic and visual impetus for Kyle Shepherd’s improvisation on the lives of those displaced by the apartheid government. The bulldozing of District Six hastened the decline of another extraordinary cultural phenomenon. The Eoan group, founded initially as a “cultural and welfare organisation for the colored community in District Six,” became the first company consistently to stage full-scale opera productions in South Africa. Through Kaganof’s 2013film, An Inconsolable Memory, and a multimedia exhibition curated by Lizabé Lambrechts and Ernst Van Der Waal, conference delegates experienced some of the most powerful operatic moments heard on South African stages and the remarkable narratives of those singers entangled in a struggle for personal dignity, political freedom, and creative expression. Stephanus Muller’s reading of An Inconsolable Memory proposed three properties of scale and excess (quantity, heterogeneity and dislocation) as markers of the ethical imperative of the South African landscape, shaped by the lived experiences of remembrance, curation, and creativity. 


Geographer Jessica Dubow dwelt on the idea of landscape as a sight/site of abstraction and nonrevelation, while Christabel Stirling foregrounded this notion of haunted landscapes in her paper on Orford Ness, a remote shingle bank in Suffolk that was used for much of the previous century by the British military as a site where “the physics of death were tested and perfected.” The mutability and stability of embodied response was strikingly illustrated in Katja Gentric and Marie-Anne Staebler’s study of a multimedia work, Scoring Boschpoort, which considered the human trace of ecological decay at a now defunct granite quarry in Mpumalanga. In their sound installation and discussion, Hannelore Olivier and Laura du Toit illustrated the creative possibilities of “clay-sounds” in the making of a “soundtrack for the broken earth.” Flutist Marietjie Pauw’s lunch-hour recital underscored a body of South African art musics that, more and more, is asserting its distance from an Austro-German nineteenth-century template to reveal a transgressive hybridity bespeaking the aesthetic energy of a nation in search of forging new identities. 


Emily MacGregor gave a striking account of the landscape of the twentieth-century Austro-German symphony through her study of early performances of Pfitzner’s Symphony in C sharp minor, evoking Foucault’s image of the panopticon as a model for understanding the baleful role of the symphony as an agent of social, political, and creative discipline. Winfried Lüdemann’s reading of Gideon Fagan’s responses to South African nature in his Karoo Symphony, composed in the 1970s, argued for an aestheticized rather than an explicitly politicized understanding of music and landscape. Christine Lucia offered a syncretic reflection of the South African landscape through Winston Mankuku’s album Yakhal’ Inkomo (Be"ow of the Bu"), in touch with the country’s political struggles in the 1970s and the increasingly muscular voice of black musical protest. Marie Joritsmaa’s compelling analysis of antifracking songs in the semi-arid Karoo region cast music as a response to an urgent political and environmental crisis. Willemien Froneman, meanwhile, unwound the intertwined relationships between boeremusiek and the Karoo landscape, dwelling on the common motion shared by the borehole drills of nineteenth-century imperial surveyors and the repetitive songs and dance music of a contemporary accordionist and drill operator, Theo Slubbert. 


In a very different context, Jo Hicks was immersed in the idea of musical landscapes as social recreation, through his study of riverside cafes and the archetypal figure of the accordionist in early twentieth-century Paris. A cluster of papers on musical (re)creation in the nineteenth-century metropolis were introduced by Roger Parker’s study of the animated dioramas that became a popular spectacle in Victorian London: their silence spoke both to hoary reservations about the affective power of sound, and the urgent need to maintain a utopian vision of the contemporary city. 


Notions of mobility, (re)creation, and the city were dovetailed once again in Thomas Peattie’s paper on the sonic mapping of Mahler’s sonic subjects. Moving from a Nietzschean idea of the Romantic wanderer to a more prosaic notion of Mahler’s pedestrian journeys in the Austrian Alps and the Vienna Ringstrasse, Peattie examined the role of walking as a Figur in Mahler’s middle symphonies. Walking and the environment were likewise central threads in Angela Impey’s paper on women, music, land, and conservation in east Africa, arguing for a more locally-attuned acoustemology of place as an alternative to the hegemony of Northern European landscape epistemologies.


Pressing issues of responsibility, care, and ownership were foregrounded by Cherryl Walker’s keynote address on land rights and social justice in South Africa, drawing attention once again to the devastating legacy of historical territorialization and occupation, and to the complex and often competing claims of notions of home in the nation’s current land debates. A second keynote paper, by Carol Muller, offered a moving personal tribute to the Capetonian jazz artist Sathima Bea Benjamin, who died on 20 August shortly before the beginning of the conference. Recalling the beauty of Benjamin’s voice, Muller drew on Latour’s idea of vital materialism to argue for the richness of diaspora as the source for localized modes of expression. 


Geometries of language, ritual, and space were prominent in Chris May’s thematic analysis of Arvo Pärt’s critical reception, deconstructing the use of spatial metaphors as a means of articulating different notions of boundedness (spiritual, creative, expressive) in Pärt’s work in lieu of a more rigorous engagement with the technique and rhetoric of his music. Reading landscape as a recurrent trope in Adorno’s writing on music and aesthetics, Sebastian Wedler drew the distinction between “Stimmigkeit” (coherence or accordance) and “Stimmligkeit” (vocality or voicedness), arguing that Adorno’s understanding of landscape in music as a “lyrical” category emerges more through the dialectical relationship between musical events rather than residing in the events themselves. 


Haunting, memory, and the materiality of place were key themes in a panel chaired by Daniel Grimley. In dialogue with two South African composers, Hans Huyssen and Theo Herbst, the panel discussed language, the grain of borrowed or sampled sounds, and the troubled landscapes of South African contemporary music. Geographer George Revill re-invoked many of the themes and anxieties raised during the panel, and recurrent throughout conference discussion, arguing for a closer critical engagement between geography, music, and sound studies in our critical attention to the acoustic quality of landscape. Perhaps the most striking summation of the conference, however, was a lunch-hour concert given by Neo Muyanga. In a program comprising songs about play, water, soil, love, earth, and protest, Muyanga rendered the violent extremities and alluring arrest of the South African landscape as an uninterrupted flow of textures, melodies, and rhythms. A further innovation was the commissioning of creative responses to the event from Kaganof and the writer Stacey Hardy. Kaganof’s film entitled Night is Coming: a Threnody for the Victims of Marikana and Hardy’s short story, River Blindness, raise crucial questions about the abstractions of academic debate in forms that are precisely liberated from the conventions of that discourse. 


A no less vivid memory was the warmth of the welcome at Stellenbosch. The conference organizers are indebted to the Local Organizing Committee, especially Marietjie Pauw, Hilde Roos, William Fourie, Stephanus Muller, and Santie de Jongh, for their unstinting efforts in supporting such a fruitful and challenging event.


The third meeting in this series took place at Harvard from 14-16 January 2015, and the fourth is still to come. More information is available at www.hearinglandscapecritically.net, where selected papers from the Stellenbosch conference are also available as podcasts.

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