Breaking new ground at the World New Music Days in South Africa

World New Music Days travels to South Africa to celebrate its centenary, marking the beginning of its exploration of African new art music. Lukas Ligeti outlines the importance of music that sits at the intersection of Western and African culture 

The International Society for Contemporary Music is the world’s leading network of organisations supporting new concert music (new art music). Founded in Austria in 1922 by 24 of the 20th century’s most significant composers, including Anton von Webern, Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Egon Wellesz and Ethel Smyth, today it has roughly 60 member organisations located in more than 50 countries around the world. Each year it hosts a festival of new art music, the World New Music Days (WNMD), migrating to a new country each year. Having held its first festival in 1923, the ISCM is seen as the “UN of new music” and the WNMD is the “UN general assembly”.  

I’m on the board of NewMusicSA, a small organisation that was founded in around 2000 by the South African composer Michael Blake and whose mission it is to support and promote new art music from and in South Africa. NewMusicSA also happens to be the South African chapter organisation of the ISCM and is in fact the only ISCM member organisation in Africa. Given these connections, I was pleased to be contacted by the executive committee of the ISCM about the possibility of NewMusicSA hosting what will be the centenary WNMD. Its goal is to engage more strongly with Africa and be more inclusive of its composers, as the festival presents its first ISC event in Africa. I hope that my unusual status as a creator of experimental music who works on innovative projects with musicians across Africa, but is equally rooted in the musical life of Europe and America, will enhance my role as Artistic Director. I see this as a huge opportunity for new music in Africa. 

South Africa is unique in that it has a vibrant diversity of both African- and European-based cultures. So, for example, concert music and opera in the European tradition are quite ubiquitous, as are various African music traditions, which in this part of the continent are often choral. The country also has a very active jazz and a strong pop scene, whereby various subgenres of house music are especially popular, which is an anomaly in Africa. In the rest of the continent, the most popular dance rhythms are loosely based on rhumba, though they’re often presented in a very high-tech manner. Over the last few decades, musicians in Africa have become increasingly audacious and experimental. More conceptually oriented art forms such as sound art have taken hold not only in South Africa but also, among other places, in Nigeria, a country that has also recently started to flood the world stage with Afrobeats, a new genre of African pop music. Around the continent, but particularly in East Africa, electronic dance music has become progressively more welcoming to unusual forms of expression. 

However, there are many problems, too. South Africa faces considerable political tension and the music scene – even the new art-music scene – is no exception.  One of the ways this festival is important is that we are bringing everyone to the table. This is not a festival for one particular clique or scene; it is for all composers and musicians. All of Africa is struggling with infrastructural difficulties that also affect music. Copyright protection is an issue in the face of widespread piracy. The lack of availability of high-quality musical instruments at affordable prices is also an issue. But none of this impedes the creativity of people who are motivated, and African music has learned to be very resourceful. Our festival is an example: funding has not been easy, but we are making it happen anyway, as best as we can. 

Late spring is a beautiful time in South Africa. The weather is mild and perhaps the jacarandas will still be blooming. It’s a country of wonderful landscapes and a deeply interesting, cosmopolitan culture. Johannesburg is one of Africa’s biggest cities, with the cultural vibrancy of the continent but the infrastructure of a major American city. Cape Town is a place of unparalleled natural beauty, full of great food and wine and, most importantly, extremely friendly and welcoming people. This year’s World New Music Day will be a unique opportunity to experience a unique selection of music in a unique environment, at the intersection of Western and African culture.  

The ISCM’s World New Music Days takes place from 24 November until 3 December in Johannesburg (and Soweto) and Cape Town in South Africa 

Lukas Ligeti currently divides his time between Miami and South Africa, where he received his PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) in 2020 and holds an honorary professorship at the University of Pretoria. As a composer, as well as curator, drummer and professor, his compositions draw on diverse traditions including African influences, New York experimentalism, electronic music, jazz and the European avant-garde. Also an established percussionist, especially in the fields of jazz and free improvisation, Ligeti has long worked with live electronics and has initiated numerous intercultural musical projects, such as his European-African electronica group Burkina Electric. He is the son of György Ligeti, whose involvement with WNMD began in 1960 in Cologne.