Arnold van Wyk, a South African composer of classical music (1916–1983), lived in London for almost eight years, initially to enrol for a two-year music course. Due to the outbreak of the Second World War, he remained in London for longer. During his stay there he composed Poerpasledam for piano duet (Muller 2008, 2014). The title of this composition is a corrupted Afrikaans version of the French pour passer le temps as pronounced in the prevalent vernacular in French-speaking districts of the Western Cape. To “pass the time”, or “while away the time” may have been Van Wyk’s artistic response to the pervasive presence of war. This article explores some of the originating circumstances and four performance contexts of Van Wyk’s Poerpasledam, the piano duet that he (then) reworked for flute and piano duo in 1981.
The article asks what the contemporary cultural significance of Poerpasledam, judged “a minor work” by Muller (2008:68), may amount to. In order to begin to answer this question, the article poses as a curation that exhibits aspects of Poerpasledam. Curating, an interface between art, artists, public and institution, acts as a theoretical frame that engages critical meaning-formation in order to sound the actual and metaphorical reverberations of Poerpasledam.
Many of Van Wyk’s letters (housed temporarily in the Van Wyk archive at the Documentation Centre for Music, Stellenbosch University) are written to a close South African friend, Freda Baron. The letters reveal Van Wyk’s states of lethargy, self-doubt and depression. His letters also show conflicting notions of his time management, sense of duty to country and humankind and of his notions of artistic creation potentially symbolic of what he calls a “power for good” in the world. Having resigned from the BBC as broadcaster and presenter of music programmes, effective July 1st, 1944, Van Wyk experiences deepening despair. Despite time on his hands, he has, by early 1945, nothing to “show” but Poerpasledam. A cryptic diary entry of 20 February 1945, written on the day of the London performance of Poerpasledam (a composition that his friends jokingly referred to as Protoplasm, among other titles), perhaps indicates the entanglement of Van Wyk’s despondency, events in the news, time management and sense of duty. The entry reads, oddly: “‘Protoplasm’/ Jews: land Acropolis 1.0/ Collect tickets”. This entry perhaps confirms the contagion of war in his musician-composer Londoner life. The entry possibly also juxtaposes the intricate complicity of writing “a lightish work” – a mere divertissement – during a time of world war, composed while he believed that the artist was compelled to continue to create, although “Mozart against machine guns is about as effective as a kleilat against tanks”. (Kleilat, from klei- (clay); -lat (thin elastic branch or bough), therefore the game involves slinging clay at the opponent, using a bough.)
Dame Myra Hess and Howard Ferguson performed Poerpasledam for piano duo at a Wigmore Hall concert on 20 February 1945. After that, Van Wyk withdrew the composition, saw the war to its end and returned to South Africa to work at the University of Cape Town and then Stellenbosch and to live a quiet and reasonably politically inarticulate life until his retirement in 1978.
Only in 1980 did Van Wyk report having taken another look at Poerpasledam, wondering (in a letter to Ferguson) whether the piece was of any value after all. The reason for his surmising appears in the same letter to Ferguson. The flutist Éva Tamássy, a former colleague of Van Wyk’s at Stellenbosch University, had approached him for a first (and only) flute and piano performance in which they were to appear together. Within a few weeks they compiled a programme of standard repertoire, to which Van Wyk added Poerpasledam, then hastily adapted for flute and piano, with five of the original nine movements retained in the new composition (Thema, Canone, Ländler, Notturno, Finale alla Tarantella). My investigation of the Tamássy-Van Wyk printed programme that documents their recital in the Evertsdal Homestead in Durbanville on 20 February 1981 (exactly 36 years after the première of Poerpasledam) reveals further complex allegiances, although some of these may have been unintended by the artists. It appears that the theme of war remained ingrained in this new performance, for the recital was requested by the Southern Cross Fund. This organisation purported to be a “morale builder” (Van Heerden 2014, 2015) that mobilised the South African public to support the cause of the Border War / Bush War (1966–1989). This 26-year war was controversial (Liebenberg 2015), in part for its close allegiances with apartheid racism and white superiority, anti-communist rhetoric, blatant withholding of information from the public and ongoing commitment of crimes by the state. Van Wyk referred to this second performance of Poerpasledam (in his 1981 letter to Ferguson) as a concert “for our boys on the border”.
At the time of writing this article, I obtained a photograph of a soldier sitting off-duty, wearing only his underwear, playing the flute on the South West African / Namibian Ondangwa air force base. This photograph poignantly comments on tensions of music, artistic creativity, conscription and war. The photograph first appeared on Facebook, came to me by chance and appears to have no connection to Van Wyk’s Poerpasledam. However, in the context of Poerpasledam the black-and-white photograph directs the focus on to forms of contextual complicity, not only of the composer-creator, or subsequent flautists, but also elicits considerations of what people do to “while away time” in contexts that demand critical responses. The recent comments by war photographer John Liebenberg, quoted in this article, further illuminates these tensions. (John turned out also to be the subject of the photograph.)
Two further performances of Poerpasledam that inform the article were ones I undertook myself. When I played Poerpasledam in 2014 in Stellenbosch I was unaware of aspects such as a world war and border war that lay in the originating contexts of the composition. I performed the music as a celebration of a South African flute composition (the only work by Van Wyk for flute) and I dedicated the performance to choral conductor Acáma Fick, in whose honour a birthday celebration concert was organised in the Endler Hall.
By the time that I presented Poerpasledam in 2016 at the request of a Curro school’s music department (who were hosting a Van Wyk centenary concert), I knew more. I had read some of Van Wyk’s letters, read press previews, seen programme notes, undertaken a dissertation that explored interventionist curating in local contexts and had considered the very questions that had plagued Van Wyk: time management and artistic duty in times of war. I experienced 2016 as a time of war. This was a year in which June marked the midway point in a two-year nationwide struggle between marginalised students and university-commissioned security operations attempting to quell uprisings for free education on campuses. Tension emanated from Poerpasledam as I performed the music in the relatively stable and comfortable surroundings of a suburban setting such as Durbanville. I suggested to the audience that I would play the Finale alla Tarantella as a spider death dance – an attempt to begin to rid my body of complicit poison. The pianist and I lament-danced through Poerpasledam, playing in memory of historical contexts, and in memory of our musician predecessors of 1945 (London), 1981 (Durbanville), 2014 (Stellenbosch) and sounding tension into 2016’s Durbanville.
From the four performance contexts described and explored, this article concludes that inter-contextuality surfaces between performances; that war and times of war retain a close link to the music of Poerpasledam and that flautists engage a curatorial tension when performing the music with (or against) the memory of previous performances. The article suggests that classical musicians may continue to play the music (as I did in 2014) with ideals that have little or no intention of relating the history of the music and its past performances with historical or contemporary events, but the article proposes that the current research reveals that this latter option (if it is one that holds lingering appeal for musicians) is the poorer for its content and effect. The curator Okwui Enwezor reminds us that art has “an effect” when it expands its “table of content” (2015). This article curation extends the table of content for Poerpasledam.
The article puts into practice the methods of artistic research that are able to enmesh theory, practice, performance and historical research (Borgdorff 2012, Cook 2001, Cook 2013, De Assis 2013, Stolp 2015, Pauw 2015). Artistic research is able to adequately research and report on history, practice, phenomenological experience of the composition and meta-analysis of its contexts, as well as embedded complicity and tension through conventional and reflective writing (Sullivan 2010, Johnson 1998, De Brabandere 2015). Finally, the article finds that Poerpasledamis metonymic for what people do in times of crisis and challenge, times that Enwezor labels as “[our] fragile ecology”. Through this article curation the reverberations of Poerpasledam resonate into juxtapositions of time, place and ideology while contemporary music practices change.
Keywords: artistic research; curating; duty; flute; performances; Poerpasledam; time/ pastime; Van Wyk, Arnold; war