I was at the Matrix Music Collaborators’ season finale concert on May 5th, and while the whole concert was good the highlight was the last piece on the program: “Girltalk” by young South African composer Braam du Toit. It’s a lush, gorgeous, and sometimes surprising postminimalist meditation/groove which manages to be still and restrained while simultaneously pregnant with occasionally relieved dramatic tension. It was one of the best new pieces I’ve heard in months.
The piece was composed for two pianos, two string quartets, and bass—the pianists were South African duo pianists Cara Hesse and Laura Pauna (friends of du Toit’s from music school), and the string section was headed up by Matrix violinist Yuri Namkung and consisted of other South African players and local friends of Matrix. Musically, it’s constructed out of a series of five movements related through similar motifs and harmonic moves, with much of the harmony coming out of pop progressions. And then, in the very last moments of the piece, it gives away the game and briefly quotes Cindy Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” I asked Braam (via e-mail, as unfortunately he was unable to be at the concert) how that quote related to the rest of the piece, and he explained that the earlier material is designed to be similar to the Lauper tune without ever being a direct quote. He describes the whole piece as theatrical and filmic, and says that it’s also a character study of pianists Laura and Cara. He talks about how when they were in school together he used to stand outside the door of their practice room and listening to both their verbal and musical communication, and that he used that as an inspiration for the structure of this piece, with its motif trading and sense of play.
Having heard “Girltalk,” I wanted to know more about the composer. Born in 1981, Braam grew up in Swellendam, near Cape Town, South Africa. He studied composition with Peter Klatzow at the University of Cape Town, and in 2001 he won the Priaulx Ranier Award for composition. He has worked extensively in theater, writing music for more than 20 theater, dance, and film projects. He cites John Tavener, Hildegard von Bingen, Michael Nyman, Meredith Monk, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, and Steve Martland among his main influences.
Braam doesn’t have a website, but he was kind enough to send me some MP3s of his other work. It’s all good, although “Girltalk” is the masterpiece among the pieces I’ve heard. All of the work he sent me was short—no movement longer than three and a half minues, and most pieces are slow, lush, and atmospheric. Their miniature-like nature put me in mind of William Duckworth’s “Time Curve Preludes.” His dramatic intensity tends to come not from fast and aggressive music but rather from changes in dynamics that bring out a dark edge from material that started out as merely melancholy and meditative. In the second movement of his piece “Tripsongs” (for string quartet, I believe), for example, a violin cycles through a simple fourteen note cell, and gradually the other instruments enter cycling through a swelling chord progression. About two thirds of the way through, the cello starts grinding out the bass line and the mood shifts, becoming almost menacing. But then almost as soon as it began, the intensity subsides and the piece is over. These same structural elements were apparent in “Girltalk” as well; most of the movements could have gone on longer, but Braam errs on the side of restraint. And with so many composers writing long, self-indulgent pieces that run good ideas into the ground, it’s refreshing to be left wanting more.
Speaking of wanting more, as I mentioned Braam has no website to which I can direct you. He will, however, be writing a new piece for next year’s Matrix Music Collaborators season. I’m looking forward to it.