Sympathetic Vibrations

I remember a cello lesson I had as a child in which I was particularly fascinated with how a string on the cello would vibrate seemingly all by itself, when in tune with the same note played on another cello. Later I found out that there was a term for this acoustic phenomenon – sympathetic vibration.

Space & Electronics. At the time I was also more interested in building electronic oscillators than practising my cello scales. I was particularly fascinated with the way in which different objects in the room could be made to vibrate as I tuned the oscillator to different frequencies.

Records & Radio. My parents owned a Deutsche Gramophone recording of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto which I loved to listen to while constructing my electronic circuits. Later I was given an old radio by an aunt and the whole world of popular music flowed in through its loudspeaker and shook up my room. I gave up the dream of building my own synthesizer, bought one and started making music with it…

Place. Since then I have travelled much and lived in many different countries and environment and language have come fill much of my attention. Much of my music has grown out of a process of transcription and transformation of things I find in the world around me.

Environment & Language. I have constructed pieces purely from recorded sound, combined those sounds with “classical” instruments or found ways of translating everyday environmental sounds into instrumental counterparts. The rhythm and melodies of language have also become an important point of departure for creating instrumental music.

Body. But even though music might be closely related to the forms and structures of words and language, it all comes down to vibrations – the ways in which bodies vibrate and are affected by vibrations – the two celli and their sympathetically vibrating strings.

Long Biography

I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and probably the single greatest influence of my childhood were the frequent trips to my grandparents farm. My desire to create music myself only really bloomed around the age of 11 or 12.

At the time I was something of an electronics nerd - mostly into building oscillators and having fun with making objects vibrate with them. This interest started to shift however and I soon became preoccupied with building a synthesizer - a dream that was eventually abandoned as the desire to make music with one took the upper hand. I saved up and bought my first (monophonic) synth, a Roland SH 101, soon to be followed by a Juno 60.

My teenage years were mainly filled with playing in a band started with friends. The likes of Depeche Mode, Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Sylvian and Japan were amongst the first inspirations.

Upon leaving school the desire to explore the origins of the more experimental sides of pop that I had discovered was given an opportunity when I unexpectedly gained admission to study music at the University of the Witwatersrand. An environment in which only a few of the students were actually involved in creating music of their own surprised me somewhat but also introduced me to the world of (Western) music history.

Xenakis was amongst the first of the modern composers that really blew me away. Reich and Stockhausen showed the origins of the sounds of the experimental pop (Japan/David Sylvian’s Ghosts for example) I was so taken with.

The courses in Ethnomusicology at the University opened up the world of African music. Kevin Volans was a leading role model in showing that all these worlds could be combined. Later on the discovery of Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns? made a deep impression and I ended up embarking on a lengthy study of his music…

A DAAD scholarship opened up the way to Europe and something of a culture shock upon arriving in the world of so much of the music that I was so curious about. After some years in Germany further studies in Holland rounded off my education with different perspectives and the chance to meet composers from all over the world, some of whom count as my closest friends to this day.

Around the millennium shift participating in the first of what would become three consecutive composer/choreographer workshops at the European Dance Development Centre in Arnhem corresponded with the desire to get out from behind my writing desk and a little more in touch with the world. Electronics, popular music and the body made something a return alongside all that had been gained from my academic adventures.

At the same time a chance meeting with a visual artist at a festival in South Africa led to the creation of “A Walk with Bongi through Alex” - the first of what was to become a series of soundscape pieces and the beginning of my sound-art activities.