Medium of Interest
The weight of scoring The Head & The Load
with Thuthuka Sibisi
An interdisciplinary artist with a practice that centres musicality and the sonic, Thuthuka Sibisi is a classically trained composer and director with an academic background in physical theatre and performance art. A researcher interested in contributing towards a multidisciplinary reading and experience of the world, Sibisi’s practice is self described as “always coming from a generous place of concern, integrity and care” for the socio-political themes his work covers. Considering sound as a medium, charged with materiality, this week’s Of Interest uses Sibisi’s role as the co-composer and musical director for a production like The Head & The Load to challenge the space that contemporary African art affords the sonic.
A manifestation in multiple languages and seemingly clashing voices or standpoints, The Head & the Load is the sum of fragmented parts that we expect to resist each other. Putting musicality and the sonic forward as “the glue that binds”, Thuthuka Sibisi says he approaches composition as the collage act of putting things together. To explain how musicality can summon someone to pay attention or understand an otherwise foreign text, Sibisi mentions how from a sonic perspective, sounds have universal charges. Everywhere, in most instances, Sibisi believes “There is no moving or invoking without thinking about the sonic.”
The South African audience has been anticipating The Head & the Load’s homecoming for some time as a result of the national lockdown delaying its initial debut here. Last week the public finally had the opportunity to engage with this coveted work. How did you find opening night?
It was great. I was a mixed bag of nerves, adrenaline and frightfulness because the show has landed and we’re showing it to an audience that better understands a lot of the referencing. It adds nuance to the work that wouldn’t be there in front of a European audience. Then there’s this thing of still being the twelve year old sitting in the choir pews waving at my mom in the audience. There’s something really exciting about showing what you do to family and loved ones especially because most of my work only shows overseas. The audience really took to the work and there was a sense of to and fro. Sometimes this sort of material can be kind of gloomy. Walking into a space where people want you to be there creates a comfort; a soft landing. Excuse the pun, but however heavy the load the soft cushioning that we land on allows it to be embraced in a different way.
Conception for The Head & the Load began in 2016. That means you’ve been working on this for seven years. What were some of the generational, political and practice related negotiations that came with composing for this project?
To take a few steps back, the project itself came from Triumphs & Laments which we had done in Rome. It was set in a performance space and had two ensembles coming together as a clash of moments. In that process, when the ensembles encountered each other; something changed. In that experience were a few things. Like, what happens when you have a drummer walking while playing.These actions, what do they summon? That was where the moment for The Head & The Load came from. I think we soon realised that there is no way of thinking about history or war as a linear act, or as a procession. That would mean there’s one definitive start and end. This was not that at all. The most significant negotiation was figuring out where I fit in. Post ‘94 there was always this thing about being a model c that marked you as a coconut versus a kasi boy. Since I suffered with the idea of not being black or white enough, there was this sense of unbelonging. Part of that unbelonging reflected itself in how I think about the archive. Otherwise I think that part of visiting the archive from the project that I did with the African Choir of 1891 to now thinking about the WWI African soldiers, the function is finding where the care and responsibility lie as conduits of that story. If anything it enlightened the way that I respect responsibility.
Considering how The Head & the Load is held by multiple mediums, with no medium more significant that the other, how did you and Philip Miller approach composing with all parts of the production in mind?
It always starts with research. I sometimes use research as a way to hide behind practice. It’s an insecurity where until I know enough, I won’t start. But I’ve recently fallen away from a lot of that. We don’t wake up knowing what we’re going to dream that night. So as it stands my current process starts with a very small moment that then becomes the centre. If I then add a harmony underneath this, what does it sound like? If I turn it around and sing it from reverse, what does it sound like? Let me unstack it and put two notes above each other, what does that create? It’s constantly about moving things around until the form feels fitting.. Having come from a classical music background, I’ve always felt out of place. Out of place, but in place. You study it so much that you definitely know it. But there’s this imposter syndrome that comes with being a black conductor and composer doing Italian classical music in South Africa in a language that isn’t spoken on the streets of this country.
How then do you contextualise yourself and your work in this space?
It’s about using African sounds and sensibilities in a classical form. It’s about thinking of an operetta with African text and harmony. I think a lot about how Italian opera comes from the language. The musicality of the language developed a sense of music that became an opera. So then what would isiZulu’s musicality sound like? That’s a part of what my discovery is. Part of The Head & The Load and the African Choir previously was about speaking back to these European places where so much naming has come from there. We’ve taken them on and let them deliver us into whatever we need to be. It’s a constant enacting and reenactment of a positionality that has nothing to do with us. In speaking back with The Head & The Load, it’s a constant recreating of sounds that allow for artistic subjectivity and move as you will instead of being summoned by a protocol of what it should sound like. That’s what the game is; figuring out how much playing we can get away with in this space. How much probing do we need to do to both incite anger but also joy.
One of the things that’s interesting about The Head & the Load is this idea of looking at or addressing the past in the present. It gets more interesting when we take note of the intergenerational aspect of the disciplines that are coming together. You, Gregory Maqoma, Philip Miller and William Kentridge span different generations and practices. Would you say that was reflected in the process?
I mean yes. There’s two sides to it. It’s this thing of wrapping our minds around what is known and what is not known and why it is not known. It’s an interrogation of access, gatekeeping, safeguarding and intellectual prowess. There is so much that is there but very few people have access to it. Even in thinking about The Head & The Load and researching it; had it been done by someone who doesn’t have the access and know-how about how to access resources like William’s studio does, I don’t think certain parts of that archive would have surfaced. Access is in proximity to institutionalisation. That’s kind of sad in terms of the transference of knowledge. But that’s part of the beauty; no story is ever one dimensional.
It’s kind of fantastical how stories continue to exist, whether they’re well documented or not. But they do. A story can come from centuries ago and still exist in our minds. There’s something beautiful about being able to transform and retain in ways that are ephemeral. That’s where the intergenerational aspect comes in. We all felt enough to give and hold back at the same time. When you think of the quality of artists involved in this show, you would think working together was challenging, but it wasn’t. William knows how to bring the right people together. In that ability is the creation of enough space that people can feel secure. That’s what this process was. It’s a constant game of catch and pass. There was only a response and how we use that is effectively used to make the work.
There isn’t an assertive culture around considering music, sound or the sonic within the realm of contemporary African art. How would you describe the charge that sound has as a medium especially in the context of the role that it played in The Head & the Load?
Oh my god, it’s the glue that binds. Musicality is honestly where we move from and what we move towards constantly. There isn’t a scene that’s not marked by a musical number. There isn’t a scene that doesn’t have a musicality to it. There’s a point where the language that is being used is fictional nonsense. The only way to deliver that nonsense or to summon someone to listen with an ear willing to accept is through music. Even in noise there is musicality. There is no moving without thinking in the sonic.