Singing about unsung heroes: Composer Tshepo Tsotetsi at the Beethovenfest | Music | DW | 10.09.2019
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Singing about unsung heroes: Composer Tshepo Tsotetsi at the Beethovenfest

Known internationally through his New Skool Orchestra, the young South African composer feels a responsibility to tell the stories of today, as he reveals in conversation with DW.

In its mission not only to report about culture but also to convey and sometimes even to help create it, Deutsche Welle commissions a new work of music each year that is then premiered at the Beethovenfest in Bonn. That happens as part of the Campus Project, a collaborative effort of the broadcaster and the Beethovenfest.

This year's commission went to a young saxophonist and composer from South Africa, Tshepo Tsotetsi, and his composition "Birth of Change" for vocals and orchestra is given its world premiere in Bonn on September 12, with a repeat performance in Berlin the following day.

In a spirit of bilateralism, the piece is performed by a well-known six-member male vocal ensemble from South Africa named Just 6, joined by six female singers from Germany in the group Sjaella. The National Youth Orchestra of Germany rounds out the lineup of performers.

We spoke with Tshepo Tsotetsi during rehearsals, just as his piece was making the transition from the score to actual sound.

Tshepo Tsotetsi rehearsing with young African instrumentalists (MUTESOUVENIR/K. Bienert)

Telling the stories of today and having fun are two things Tsotetsi feels the world needs more of

Deutsche Welle: Could you describe the process of turning your musical notation into a real, live performance?

Tshepo Tsotetsi: I've been working on this piece for months now, and it has been just me and the computer in a dark little room. It's a great feeling to hear this piece come to life finally with the whole ensemble.

Read more: A preview of this year's Beethovenfest

That happened faster than I thought it would. I was excited by how the singers instinctively made it their own, which is what I'd hoped they would do. I've worked with vocal ensembles before and have a soft spot for singers anyway.

The melodies are easy, and the vocalists sing beautifully. The performers have super-bright qualities. It's magical to see how these people from two different countries interweave their sounds with each other, while sticking to the African influence. Hearing how they jelled was the most impressive thing I've experienced in a long time. I think they could have many future collaborations and make a lot of money.

We're going to have a good time, and that the piece will develop very organically — nothing too intellectual about it.

Six yoiung Africans clearly in a good mood in a press photo of Just 6 (Just Six)

Just 6? No, the lineup of performers at the premiere is much larger

How did you feel after the vocalists and the orchestra rehearsed together?

Excited! This was the first time I've conducted and played piano at the same time. That was cool, and at the first run I was very impressed by this orchestra. I think the premiere will be explosive. It's all young musicians and music, which is a good place for me to be in right now.  

What role do the vocalists play in your piece?

They just naturally do what any voice would do. There is only so much that an instrument can do. When voices are added, they definitely come out on top — here more than ever.

Read more: Last year's Campus Project

You are a storyteller. Is there a story to this composition?

The most important thing is fun. I believe in fun. I think fun should be talked about more than it is.

And the second thing: Part of the second movement has to do with mental health and with supporting people who have to deal with these issues. With the lyrics, we try to tell the story of how love can overcome many things, but also, in some cases, about how love is not enough. It's also about monitoring situations and being there for people in more ways than just sharing feelings.

Young Euro Classic 2018: MIAGI Youth Orchestra (MUTESOUVENIR/K.Bienert)

Leading South Africa's MIAGI Youth Orchestra at last year's Young Euro Classic festival

And the last movement is about imagination. Many a time we try to be successful in a most conventional way. I tell the story of a baker who bakes and about how the success of his business depends on his finding new ways to do his job.

Or imagine the work of a cleaner. It's not a glamorous profession. But in my life I have met cleaners who were the most sparkling personalities and had the most optimistic attitude towards life.

So my composition is about whom I call the not-so-visible people in our society, the unsung heroes who actually make things operate more efficiently than we think. What would we be without bakers, without cooks or janitors? We don't appreciate them as often as we should.

How would you describe your compositional style?

I've always described my music as definitely "New Skool." We are striving for something different. We use the same instruments, the same kinds of musicians, but it's the perspective that changes.

I am very young, just 28 years old. And I believe that since I have the gift of composing, I should be reflecting today's times. It's our duty as composers, as artists, to really depict a current feeling of what we experience as young people.

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