The South African composer Robert Fokkens, now Lecturer in Composition at Cardiff University, studied at the University of Cape Town and the Royal Academy of Music, and most recently with Michael Finnissy at the University of Southampton. Recalling something of the spirit, but not the letter, of older compatriots such as Kevin Volans and Michael Blake, Fokkens’s well-defined compositional voice combines native South African with broader international musical concerns in the service of what the composer describes as ‘exploration of identity’.
The 2007 song Africa (to a text by David Diop) that concludes the disc opens arrestingly with the solo soprano (a commanding performance by Patricia Rozario) singing ‘Africa, my Africa’ to a dancing figure that oscillates between two pitches. The song falls into three broad paragraphs, dealing first with Africa as an unreachable and romanticized (imaginary) creation; more turbulent music then accompanies a presentation of Africa’s problematic recent past and present; and finally, we are offered a gentle, if cautionary, vision of a more optimistic future. Generalised, these three sections stand for much of the other music on the disc, in which contrasting material is combined dialectically, sometimes finding a precarious, provisional synthesis. Moreover, the dancing 7/8 figure recurs in most of the pieces presented here, both pre- and post-dating its appearance in Africa. The almost obsessional way in which the figure haunts Fokken’s music reveals, perhaps, the extent to which his music continues to grapple with his compositional heritage.
Like Africa , the duo for violin and cello, Tracing Lines (also 2007), which opens the disc and gives it its name, reveals certain compositional preoccupations that recur across the works represented on this recording. Thus, the use of mutes on the strings generates a characteristically furtive, strained sound-world; the use of melodic cycles and quartertones, both drawing on precedents in Xhoso bow music, provide direction and colour respectively. Fokkens’s detailed liner notes, here as elsewhere, direct our attention to the technical characteristics of the material, but strangely downplay its compelling expressive quality: there is a real sense of a journey over the three movements, passing through landscapes that are by turns strange and familiar.
The titles of Irreconcilable Truths (2002) and On Disruption and Displacement (2004), like Tracing Lines, reveal Fokkens’s delight in exploring musical relationships, and the ways in which the confrontation and combination of opposing ideas can yield new formal and expressive qualities. On Disruption and Displacement is perhaps the more successful of the two pieces, involving more inherently memorable materials and processes, and relying less on sequential development. The quietly beautiful Inyoka Etshanini (2007) effects an altogether more subtle interaction. Written for Carla Rees (as was the first version of Tracing Lines) and inspired by her development of quartertone flutes, the work gradually intertwines chords for string harmonics with a sinuous and initially independent melody for quartertone bass flute. Here, the gentler, reflective side of Fokkens’s compositional personality is to the fore, though the harmonies get increasingly astringent as the music works to its climax.
Nine Solitudes (2006) offers an innovative reworking of variation principles, interspersing extended etudes amongst a theme and five variations (each conforming to clear character types such as slow movements and scherzos). These etudes- three in total- take as their basis the material of two of the other variations. The work mediates between extremes of violence and calm, but its own restless internal dynamic prevents easy resolution. The individual variations betray debts to other composers- the Skempton-esque No.3 is especially lovely and, as with the work as a whole, played with great understanding by Mary Dullea. Elsewhere, rhythms get locked into tight loops, sometimes finding release (as in the jazzy No.8), sometimes curdling and choking. The music eddies and circles before veering off into unexpected directions, but always returning to the Africa motif.
Mammals of Southern Africa (2011), played with great gusto by the Fidelio Trio, is the centerpiece of the disc, and the most recent work. It displays a greater transparency of form and a clearer expressive domain than its predecessors. Whether this relates to the nature of the work- it consists of five character pieces, each depicting a different kind of animal- or to the composer’s growing confidence in his own voice, remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Fokkens’s technical armoury is both subtle and powerful, deftly blurring the (traced) lines between Xhoso influences and those of , say, minimalism, European modernism and jazz (the lively third movement, ‘Mob of Meerkats’, is a compelling instance of the latter).
Fokkens has been well served over the last decade by a growing number of performers and ensembles committed to his work, not least those represented on this disc, who offer here compelling, sympathetic accounts of his development in the field of chamber music.