The Music of Chance

Since the early 1980s, the South African College of Music at UCT has been recording its regular live performances at the Baxter Concert Hall and other venues. This hybrid mix of recordings ranges from Opera, to African Music, Jazz and Western Classical, which are all taught at the College. Listen to these high-fidelity recordings on the Digital Collections website.

Theo Herbst and Shaun Karssen

Theo Herbst, left, and Shaun Karssen

Theo Herbst is a Senior Lecturer at the South African College of Music. He graduated from Stellenbosch University with a BMus-degree and from the University of KwaZulu-Natal with an MMus-degree in Composition. He continued his Composition studies at the ‘Staatliche Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst’ in Stuttgart, where he was also active as choral conductor and orchestral performer. Before joining the South African College of Music in 2012, he was a lecturer in the Music Department of Stellenbosch University, where he was instrumental in establishing a Music Technology programme at under- and postgraduate level. He composes, and his doctoral research explores approaches to musical acculturation.

Shaun Karssen worked as a recording engineer for several years before enrolling for his Bachelor of Music. He is currently a lecturer at UCT in the field of music technology, and is the assistant conductor and manager of the UCT Symphony Orchestra and Wind Ensemble. With his recording background, he has a passion for all types of music, and its performance practices. Shaun also conducts research in music sociology, and considers the documentation and preservation of live performances to be a valuable resource for his line of enquiry.

The South African College of Music (SACM) has come a long way since it was founded by a group of musicians led by Madame Apolline Niay-Darroll and opened with six students in 1910 in Strand Street, Cape Town. Today the College, which is located in the gracious Strubenholm building adjacent to the Baxter Theatre Complex, is part of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Cape Town.

The SACM boasts several string, wind, jazz and percussion ensembles as well as a symphony orchestra, a Jazz Big Band and an Opera School that presents an annual season of performances. All the students at the College play in the orchestras or bands, or sing in the opera productions.

Since the early 1980s, the SACM has been recording the regular performances that take place in the Concert Hall at the Baxter Theatre Complex, the Chisholm Recital Room, or at other venues, like the City Hall. But until recently, these recordings on digital audiotapes and compact disks were stashed away in a storeroom at the College.

When Theo Herbst joined the South African College of Music (SACM), he was tasked with expanding the existing Music Technology courses and infrastructure. ‘Part of the driving force behind that vision was to formalise the existing archive of SACM recordings,’ says Herbst. ‘When I bounced the idea off the then head of the College, it turned out that he was also keen explore ways to expand the existing audio archive. We wanted to set up the archive in a way that would give researchers access to the material – in other words, it had to be housed within the library.’

‘Before this digitisation project began, the recordings were safely stored and catalogued, but not readily accessible,’ says Shaun Karssen, who has curated the recordings, ensuring that each one has been digitised along with the necessary metadata to make it useful to researchers and searchable online.

Karssen’s main selection criteria have been quality of performance and variety of material, with the aim of fairly representing the College’s diverse concert activity. Each recording has been digitised along with a copy of the concert programme.

‘What’s so great about having these concerts recorded live is that that they’re more like ethnographic field recordings than seamless studio recordings,’ says Karssen. ‘Commercial recordings are edited and doctored and made to sound as perfect as possible, whereas these recordings are more like sonic snapshots of these performance events.’

All of the recordings in the archive were recorded by SACM senior technical officer Robert Johnson, assisted by support staff.

‘Commercial recordings are edited and doctored and made to sound as perfect as possible, whereas these recordings are more like sonic snapshots of these performance events.’

‘Before the advent of the recording industry, the standard of performance was different because the music was considered to be in flux; there was a lot more variation. But now that we have recordings as our standard, things have become much more homogenous in terms of what you expect when you hear a recording. We’ve come to expect a certain standard from the recording industry – and the kind of demands that this has placed on live performance is unimaginable.

‘But in a live concert recording, you can never have a perfect take. You can’t get around the fact that the music is alive – there’s always something to remind us of that fact; something that might sound slightly out of tune or imperfect. And that’s very important because the works of new composers are always going to be present in their own social milieu. So you’re never going to get the work of a brand new composer performed in the same kind of performance tradition as the music of, say Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, which has been filtered through centuries and centuries of performances.

‘Apart from extraneous noise, like members of the audience moving around or the conductor moving around, you might hear someone coming in at the wrong time or playing slightly out of tune, or the rhythm might not be quite precise.’

‘It’s good to have recordings like these, which are raw. They haven’t even been mastered; what you hear is exactly what happened. Apart from extraneous noise, like members of the audience moving around or the conductor moving around, you might hear someone coming in at the wrong time or playing slightly out of tune, or the rhythm might not be quite precise. Then you also get interpretive aspects, and the excitement of an experienced conductor really pushing a student orchestra to get the best possible performance out of them – almost shocking them into performing something new or brave.’

Herbst chimes in: ‘What appeals to me is that you often find that there is a particular electricity in the air that is associated with live performance. There’s an energy that goes amiss when you’ve got an edited studio recording rendition.’

‘Digitising these recordings presents an extraordinary opportunity to put everything on the same stage, without driving artificial wedges between musical cultures.’

‘It isn’t our intention to popularise the work of a particular performer or work or student or conductor or guest conductor. Here at the SACM there are African Music experts, Classical Music experts, Contemporary Music experts… and digitising these recordings presents an opportunity to present diverse practices on the same stage,’ says Herbst.

Fifty concert recordings (featuring 716 musical pieces) from the past eight years have been digitized so far. It is hoped that further CDs as well as the digital audio tape recordings, which date back further than eight years, will be digitised in future. There are about 700 archive recordings at the SACM.

‘It is our hope that people will engage with the material in an inquisitive, critical manner. If musical historians living one hundred years from now want to take a critical, evaluative view, that is their prerogative,’ he says. ‘In establishing this archive, we are simply striving to create a digital portal or window on the South African College of Music and widen access to these concert recordings.’

UCT Big Band