This extremely appealing disc is the first devoted to the music of South African composer Robert Fokkens (b. 1975). Educated at the University of Cape Town and the Royal Academy of Music, Fokkens is based in the UK and currently a lecturer in composition at Cardiff University. The disc contains six chamber works from 2001-11, and Fokkens writes that “over this ten-year period, my main interest has been the exploration of identity —looking at how musical styles and genres, cultural, social, and geographical background, and non-musical personal experiences and interests are all reflected in the music one writes. These issues are, of course, about far more than developing one’s musical creativity, and for a white South African living in Europe—at least, for me—these have been, and remain questions which require constant consideration and re-evaluation.”
Indeed, from the subjects that inspire Fokkens’s pieces, it is clear that his identity as an African composer is very important to him, and there is certainly overt influence from traditional South African (especially Xhosa) music on his style. The main adjective that comes to mind when hearing Fokkens’s music is “lucid” —the pieces are nearly all very transparent in texture and harmony, and yet there is great personality and individuality in the writing. Several of the pieces make truly beautiful use of microtonal elements, within an accessible and luminous sound world. Each of the seven pieces has something striking and compelling about it, so it is unusually difficult to single anything out, though the piano trio Mammals of Southern Africa (Fokkens notes that “few things are as emblematic of Africa in the non-African imagination as its animals, despite the limited contact that most Africans have with them”) and the violin/cello duo Tracing Lines are particularly strong.
Performer-wise, the disc is anchored by the members of the Fidelio Trio, a piano trio whose superb explorations of new music in all styles puts it in the forefront of the UK’s contemporary music scene. The other two performers (flutist Rees and soprano Rozario) are both active new music specialists. Rees is an advocate in particular for the bass flute, whose wonderful timbre is heard in Inyoka Etshanini, an evocative trio for bass flute, violin, and cello inspired by its Zulu title, which means “snake in the grass.” Though it’s still very early in the year, this terrific album is almost certainly Want List material.