Shades of Words

Andile Khumalo

Music: Andile Khumalo

Words: Alexandra Zelman-Doring

Recorded live on 19 October 2013 at Opéra National de Paris, Bastille, by Ensemble L’Instant Donné with Joanna Bailie as the narrator.

Violin: Saori Furukawa || Viola: Elsa Balas || Cello: Nicolas Carpentier ||  Flute: Cédric Jullion

Clarinet: Mathieu Steffanus || Piano: Caroline Cren || Marimba: Maxime Echardour

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Artist’s Bio

Andile Khumalo

Andile Khumalo holds a Masters’ degree from Musikhochschule Stuttgart (Germany) and a Doctoral degree from Columbia University (New York City) where he worked under the supervision of Prof. George Lewis and Tristan Murail. His music has been performed and presented at festivals around the world, such as New Music Indaba, Grahamstown Festival (South Africa), Forum Neue Musik (Köln, Germany), Royaumont “Voix Nouvelles”, Festival de Automne (Paris, France), International Society of Contemporary Music (Hong Kong), Takefu International Music Festival (Japan) and in the United states by ensembles such as Sontonga String quartet, Ensemble Mosaik, Ensemble Baikonur, International Contemporary Ensemble (New York), members of Ensemble Vortex, Talea Ensemble, Wet-Ink Ensemble, Ensemble 20/21,Empyrean Ensemble (California, USA), Ensemble L’Instant Donné and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra

Peer Review

Yoshiaki Onishi
Andile Khumalo: Shades of Words

The Audacity to Say Little

The sonic landscape…

The sonic landscape of Andile Khumalo’s Shades of Words, a composition for narrator and seven instruments set on poems by Alexandra Zelman-Doring, is ascetic. I say ascetic because he is wholly faithful to his framework of composition—a framework that is transparent, yet brimming with potential—that he sets forth, and he does not steer away from it.

Khumalo shuns verbosity. His compositional language matches Zelman-Doring’s poetic style; there is no note wasted in Khumalo’s transparent musical texture. The beginning of the piece is striking in that regard; supported by a thin layer of note, i.e. the violoncello’s artificial harmonic, the alto flute sculpting its musical gesture through simple repetitions of the percussive tongue-rams and the ethereal timbral bisbigliando. Each beat contains a microscopic musical gesture that seems to state everything it desires, without having to go on. There is no run-on sentence in Khumalo’s music.

Soon it is revealed that each sound is attributed to different words in the text: “(the) ink sores sting.” He then reveals the underlying context on which such a transparent sonic landscape is constructed: pain. A laborious pain accompanies the creation of music. Zelman-Doring writes: “I’m ill with small gesture, it hurts to say little.” Yet, she is determined to only say little: “They heal and I open them again.”  

Her text wholly resonates with Khumalo’s desire to resist verbosity. He embraces concision. His phraseology is deliberate; he painstakingly imagines each note and sees to it that it hangs precisely on the next. As a result, his musical gestures are filled with suspense, and he encourages the audience to join a suspenseful journey, where the “deep listening”—a virtue that is antithetical to the modern society as it dissuades its people from doing so—is an imperative.

Still, there are instances of intense, dense cloud of notes, for example in measures 88 through 93. But these calculated gestures emphasize what follow next: the stillness and the suspension. It is as though these subsequent passages are more intense than the scurrying gestures.

In terms of the textual details of the music itself, there are some gestures that must have been influenced by some predecessors. For example, from measure 27, we could hear the rumbling bass drum in the quiet dynamic range subtly colored by the trills of the clarinet, while the string trio weaves the waves of registers with tremolo “extr. Flautando.” This gesture is perhaps a re-imagination of the sound world of Salvatore Sciarrino who, through many of his works, also describes the situations of night, or darkness. The darkness resonates with the title of the piece, “Shades of Words.” Or, throughout the piece, the brittle, rapid lines of piano are reminiscent of the writing of Beat Furrer. Yet, the true power of Khumalo’s writing is evidenced in that these moments of “influences” remain merely as intimations, and nothing more. I hear such flirting with these predecessors as inevitability for unfolding Khumalo’s own sound world; the sound world that is unique to Khumalo. In other words, Khumalo situates these influences as stepping-stones for him to soar higher, in order to establish his own sound world.

Khumalo’s arrangement of the Zelman-Doring poems is also structurally convincing. When the first poem (poem A) is introduced, Khumalo does not reveal its entirety; instead, he stops at the first stanza. Then follow two poems (poem B and C). When Khumalo recapitulates poem A, we know now how these three poems, seemingly signifying three different matters, are so closely interrelated with the help of the categorical keywords. Some of the examples are: “Pen” (for the poems A and B) “rest,” “sleep” (poems B and the latter part of poem A). Combined together, the three poems become one larger poem, filled with a web of signifiers.

When the austerity of Khumalo’s music and the expressivity of Zelman-Doring poems are combined, what we hear is the world that obliges us to hear more and imagine more in place of what is not audible in the work. It is a poiēsis in action; the sound world becomes richer because we the audiences partake in the making of the music. Andile Khumalo’s audacity to say little gives a lot to us; his ascetic soundscape matches an inherent barrenness of words, in his own character and in the poet’s, which manifests itself in uninhibited beauty.


George E. Lewis
Andile Khumalo: Shades of Words

In his extraordinary book, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, African American critical theorist Fred Moten quotes saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who responds to an invitation to comment verbally on his music with “Words don’t go there.” In response, Moten asks the obvious, yet profound question: “Where do words go?”

Andile Khumalo’s chamber work Shades of Words (2011) poses a number of trenchant responses to this query, by creating a virtual ecology that explores the destiny of words.  Khumalo’s musical approach exemplifies the resonances of remembrance; the titles of a number of Khumalo’s intimately scored chamber works–Bells Die Out, Shades of Words–provide entrée to an aesthetic sensibility strongly marked by sudden irruptions of force, framed by carefully constructed silences and near-silences.

This extraordinarily compact composition performs with aplomb the bridging of the temporal gulf between words, which can generate an entire network of associations in an instant, and music, which despite its reputation for immediacy, takes its time to construct its environment. While many composers routinely report their interest in “time”–a seeming truism–the implication of Khumalo’s composition goes beyond now-conventional disruptions and transgressions of disciplinary boundaries. Shades of Words transposes disciplinary contentions and struggles for meaning to a higher and more resonant register that asks us how to reconcile two experiences of time: one in remembrance, recollection, and fantasy, where indeterminacy and agency meet, and the other on a (now often virtual) page, operating in the interstices between immediacy and permanence.

Repeated listening to Shades of Words constitutes an engagement with emergent forms of knowledge that, while not easily addressed in quantitative terms, nevertheless presents responses to thorny issues of intertextuality between sound and other media–perhaps the most difficult kind of intertextual form to meaningfully address analytically. While many composers can find music in poetry, Khumalo approaches the poetry of Alexandra Zelman-Doring in a way that harmonizes the forms in his own music with those present in the text, as distinct from the all too frequently deployed strategy of conventionally “setting” a text by recontextualizing the words and their meanings, or even stripping meaning from them entirely, perhaps through processes of syllabic or phonemic atomization.

Eschewing this strategy of containment and control, Khumalo’s instrumental gestures are quicksilver and fleeting, providing commentary on the words. This aesthetic of instrumental Gesprächsfetzen can be seen as an integral aspect of Khumalo’s work; at the same moment, this line–“I’m ill with small gesture, it hurts to say little”–explicitly ironicizes the music.

The poetry itself deals frankly with the experience of creativity as duress, appearing as the sudden, painful, yet somehow ardently desired removal of privacy and mystery. Here, the choice of narrator and spoken word acts in contradistinction to the more usual melodizing of the text. The primordial melody of the words themselves cry out, followed by the resonances of remembrance, in several forms, for example, suspenseful string tremolos, induced timbre trills and instabilities in the woodwinds, and exchanges of single short pitches among the instruments as a group.

Finally, an encounter with Shades of Words must also consider the text as performed.  While Andile Khumalo’s compositional enterprise is collaborative and dialogic, yet at the same time gently noninterventionist, his score also provides relatively exacting performance instructions, specifying at the level of individual words the relation between text and sound. Thus, in Shades of Words the poetry performs as part of the music, and the music becomes part of the poetry, and after a while, a listener cannot imagine them growing apart.


Mokale Koapeng
Andile Khumalo: Shades of Words

Not Afraid of the Old Fuhrers of Music Establishment


In his article captioned Who’s Afraid of the Avant-Garde? Charles Rosen (1998) details Julian Lloyd Webber’s dislike for modernist style in music. Lloyd Webber was bemoaning the ‘prestige and acceptance accorded to’ modernist composers. Rosen goes on to say that several publications gave the rumblings of the well-known British cellist generous coverage with one of them using the headline “STOP THE DICTATORS OF MODERN MUSIC”. According to Rosen, the fact that modernist music is a threat and frightens classical music establishment, “is an encouraging sign that modernism is alive and in good health” (ibid).

This opening paragraph does not, in any manner, suggest that Khumalo’s Shades of words is an avant-garde musical composition. On the other hand, the work, technically and aesthetically, straddles between avant-garde and post-avant-garde. The reason I used Rosen as an introduction is to locate Khumalo within a broader, yet contradictory narrow musical space he currently operates in. Juxtaposing Khumalo’s Shades of Words with the contemporary South African compositional landscape makes the work more interesting and important to the very landscape. This is a landscape characterised by parochial and insulated tendencies by those who have the opportunities and means to commission and ‘stage’ works. In contrast to the headline used for the Julian Lloyd Webber ranting, we should say “STOP THE DICTATORS OF OLD MUSIC ESTABLISHMENT”.

My brief rumblings about the ‘OLD’ and the anything modernist and post-modernist is an attempt to contextualise Shades of words and Khumalo. It is also meant to foreground composers such as Khumalo, who are not afraid of the old fuhrers of music establishment. This is obviously talking about Khumalo’s native country, South Africa. This simply means that works by composers such as Khumalo have remote chances of being heard by the South African music public. It is equally sad to notice that even institutions of higher learning are, in a veiled manner, averse to such works.

The Music Score

A close examination of the score reveals a composer who is well schooled in modernist composition techniques. The score makes for a brilliant work of ‘visual art’. A critical look at this works of visual art reveals an interesting and important component of the work; the marriage between the spoken word, poetry by Alexandra Zelman-Doring and the music of Andile Khumalo. As Edward Cone “observes that the objective musical score, while ultimately the source of all musical perception, is by no means what determines that perception” (quoted in Herzog 1995: 299). Cone says “it is the perceived composition that is the object of critical and interpretive thought. The interesting ‘facts’ about such a work are not those that are simply true, but those that are relevant to our perceptions. Thus historical data may be correct, analyses maybe textually demonstrable; but our opinion as to the applicability of the data, of the significance of the analysis, depends on our perception of the composition” (ibid). Herzog continues to say that [f]or interpretation to carry conviction it must be based on intense appreciation – indeed, on love” (Herzog: 299). My appreciation and of obvious love for contemporary music are a helpful crutch in interrogating Shades of words.

A cursory look at the score might suggest a piece of music steeped in modernist compositional tradition, with all its concomitant sonic qualities like atonality, “a high degree of condensation, lending itself to rapid change and the quick intense making of points” (Bernard 1997: 5). I will get back to this point under On ‘Melody’.

The first page just before the entry of the voice, explores space and openness. Space as determined by the relationship and interaction between the instruments and the linear aspect of each instrument. The gap between the woodwinds and the strings heightens the importance of this space between these instruments. Khumalo cleverly explores the sonic space between the alto flute and the clarinet. The entry of the clarinet, in the third bar, is another exploration of space and its relationship with the flute. The openness of that space suddenly gets congested in the next bar, a bar defined by “rapid change and the quick intense making of points” (ibid).

The score is rich with this interaction between voice and instruments, and interaction that is underpinned by exploration of space. The opening lines of the voice/poem, adds another dimension in the exploration of space. The opening words The ink sores sting, in bar five, come soon after sonic space being determined by the instruments. The second page is a repetition of the same principle Khumalo explored in the previous page, but he looks at individual lines for sonic expansion. Sustained single notes and the prolongation of the text; ink sores sting, conclude this exploration of space. In bar 9, the rapidity of the text is heightened by the tremolo of the cello. This bar marks the end of the opening section of the work.

Sonic insights into Shades of words

In this section, I will not look at all the constituent elements that make up the piece but on a few that are of significance in shaping the piece.

On ‘Melody’:

Rummaging through the many notes in the score, Khumalo consciously or unconsciously affirms what Rosen believes in when he stated that “[i]nterpreting a work of twentieth-century music we can emphasize its radical nature, or we can try to indicate its nineteenth-century origins” (1998: 72). On the surface, Shades of words can be easily located in the ultra-modernist compositional tradition, but a closer look at some of the musical elements in the score, reveals smaller components that would betray a modernist and ultra-modernist position of basic music parameters. Khumalo has mastered the art of concealing sonic contours. These contours are shared by different instruments, with individual instruments connecting with one another. The alto flute and clarinet in the first five bars have an interesting conversation between themselves. The primary notes in those bars are: E-F (alto flute), followed by F# E (clarinet) and A (clarinet) in bar 5. This is also confirmed in bar 14 (Marimba and piano), 16 and 23 (alto flute and clarinet). The work is pregnant with such pointillistic examples.

The uses of repetition also help with fortifying the possible instability that might emanate from the tonality used by Khumalo.

On ‘Harmony’:

Arnold Schoenberg said “[a] new kind of tonality may be found again. Triads would once again probably be possible” (1978: 70). Khumalo is joining a brigade of composers who are in search for a new kind of tonality. The path he takes is steeped in chromaticism. It is not certain to me that he consciously designs a harmonic framework for his composition, but his melodic lines are suggestive of a harmonic language and this language is firmly located in the post-avant-garde approach. The vertical sonorities explored in bars such as: 12, 51, 69-70, 94 are a derivation from a tradition established by post-avant-garde masters such as Luciano Berio. Bars 27-36 are also based on this harmonic practice. The notes played by the strings might be strewn apart but they produce another form of vertical sonorities.

On ‘Rhythm’:

In this work, Andile Khumalo has managed to free himself of the ‘tyranny of the bar’. Like many composers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the bars seem to serve as a means to keep the performer together. The bars do not have any bearing on accent implication. The long notes tied into subsequent bars add some fluidity to the flow of the music. The use of additive rhythms and what Elliot Carter calls ‘metric modulations’ would prove difficult for average players. To add another layer of difficulty is the use of polyrhythms and interlocking.

On ‘Notation’:

Typical of any modernist and post-avant-garde music score, Shades of words is overloaded with performance instructions. These include codified symbols and specific instruction by the composer. Some of the instructions by the composer are meant to make the performers be cognisant of the intended blends between various instruments. I find one of the ‘requests’ somewhat impossible to achieve. It is in bar 3, the blend between the clarinet and the viola. Looking at the duration of the notes and the dynamic level, it is almost impossible to attain a convincing blend between these two instruments. Other suggested blends are somewhat feasible.

On ‘Timbre’

It looks like the choice of instruments was a well thought out decision. The timbrel qualities provided by the chosen instruments offer us special instrumental effects that aid in heightening the expressive intensity of the work. Andile’s deliberate use of thin textures in most parts of the scores help in foregrounding the text. This helps in elevating the communicative role of the voice/poem. The voice can never be seen as ‘the poor cousin’ of the instruments but becomes part of the musical content. The delineation of the poems is assisted by the interaction between the various instruments and the intensity that is carried by these instruments.

On the whole

This is a well-conceived work that displays mastery of compositional techniques. The clarity of the score makes the reading of the music easy. You do not have to be an instrumental virtuoso to navigate this score. This is a classic example of “organized sound material in time” (Verschure and Manzolli 2013: 394).