Piano duos are not novel in the music world. From Vladimir Ashkenazy with Andre Previn to Katia and Marielle Lebèque, and Martha Argerich with Daniel Barenboim, concert audiences are well accustomed to seeing two pianos and two players on a stage.
Less familiar are duos carrying torn sheets of paper, latex, scarves, a pair of saggy green pantyhose and a collection of toothpaste boxes, who proceed to stuff these objects inside the pianos before starting to play. But that’s part of the live preparation employed by New York-based Kathleen Tagg and Cape Town-based Andre Petersen for their project Where Worlds Collide, released on CD (Dre & Chan Music Concepts and Spotted Kat Music).
Petersen credits “a divine orchestration” with bringing the two together. They’d studied at UCT 20 years ago, and kept in touch. Two years ago he was looking for a fresh challenge, and was intrigued by the idea of working with another pianist on music that crossed genre boundaries.
“Kathy’s name kept popping up. I was aware she’d been working in nonconventional contexts in New York and I contacted her. We both seemed to have reached a place where we were liberated from our training. Immediately, she said: ‘Yes, I’m in’. ”What followed was what he calls “a walk of faith. We’d not sat down at a piano together yet, so the planning involved a lot of e-mails, a lot of Skype and — given the different timeframes — even more coffee. And what we shaped was, I think, a new sonic world.”
Petersen’s first degree was in classical piano, but he qualified cum laude in jazz from the Belgian Lemmens Institute and is best known for work with jazz players from South Africans Winston Mankunku, Robbie Jansen and Feya Faku to Americans Stefon Harris and Dave Liebman, as well as with world music outfit Zap Mama. He has taught at UCT, UWC, the Oslo Conservatoire and also, currently, at Wits. Tagg has been based in New York since 2001, where she was named Outstanding Doctoral Graduate. Since then she has toured extensively, taught, composed and written a stage musical. Her collaboration with soprano Zanne Stapelberg, Soul of Fire, was nominated for a 2014 classical Sama.
Tagg and Petersen had very clear ideas about what they did and did not want the collaboration to be. “We didn’t want to be boxed in by what we were previously known for,” says Petersen. “For example, a concert where the classical player only works from a score and the jazz guy improvises. There are some beautiful Poulenc pieces for two pianos, and there’s the Herbie Hancock/Chick Corea thing — it’s not either of those. We wanted it to tell a pan-African story, but not in a cheesy, clichéd way.
“And we wanted to acknowledge SA composers, but not be trapped by over-respectful nostalgia. We didn’t want it to be alienating and exclusive, as things called ‘classical’ or ‘new’ music can sometimes be. Rather, we wanted to entertain wide audiences, with a repertoire everybody can get interested in, without compromising musical integrity.”
The resulting album comprises nine tracks (slightly more than half of the stage show from which it is derived: Petersen likens it to the “director’s cut“) from composers including the two principals themselves, Abdullah Ibrahim, Moses Molelekwa, Bheki Mseleku and Duke Ellington. The latex, paper and green tights are some of the ingredients of a “prepared piano” from which, by playing both inside on the strings, and on the keys, a much broader range of sounds — including sounds that echo African traditional instruments — can be produced. “But it’s also visually entertaining on stage: ‘Oh, what’s he going to do with those tights?’” says Petersen.
That was particularly important for the show’s earliest incarnation at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. “[Then director] Ismail Mahomed gave our proposal complete open-minded acceptance,” recalls Petersen. “He was prepared to take a risk on an unheard concept, and that was important for the project’s development.”
Since then, the show has been seen in Stellenbosch and at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. “People come because they see the name of a composer they know; or because they know Kathleen’s work, or mine, or maybe just because they are interested in jazz or classical music and want to see if the combination will work.”
The repertoire was assembled through a holistic process, Petersen says. “We plotted the sonic landscape first and then placed specific tunes in it. Every piece is different, from the Afrobeat that underlies Molelekwa’s Rapela and the polyrhythms and overtone sounds in Kathleen’s compositions such as Berimbau, to straight-up Ellington/Strayhorn in Tonk. How we treat them depends on where in the story they are.”
The players discussed when to place duets, solos and prepared passages, and who would play them. “There are straight melodic parts where people can breathe,” explains Petersen, “and tunes that are not polished individual ‘pieces’ but used as stepping stones to real improvisation: different every time; in an equal partnership, with no dogmatically defined roles.”
This approach, feels Petersen, allows the duo to expose listeners to the high-level compositional thinking behind SA melodies they may assume they know. “I’ve had classical fans come up afterwards who can’t believe that Angola [by Bheki Mseleku] was written by somebody with no university music training.” Petersen says. “We need to reveal what’s inside a composition like Allen Silinga’s Ntyilo Ntyilo, alongside talking history and biography about it.”
That’s part of the reason why Petersen and Tagg are eager to take the music abroad. They’re in discussions with European record labels and classical contemporary music festivals overseas. “We fit well into that format, and we are bringing something new. We’re not just recreating African music for two pianos, but demonstrating fresh approaches to both the instrument and the repertoire.
“And we feel like we’re representing our country and our continent while we play it.”