Brendon Bussy

If Walls Could Talk Would They Sing?

Posted in Art, Mandolin, Music, Research, Soundtracks by Brendon Bussy on September 30, 2011

In June this year I was approached by Renée Holleman to collaborate on a soundtrack for her upcoming show ‘A Novel in Parts’ at WhatIfTheWorld’s new premises in Woodstock, Cape Town.

The brief she gave me proved to be a great opportunity to explore Woodstock, the neighbourhood Masha and I had just moved into, as well as a useful challenge for my compositional techniques.

This is the final soundtrack:

Woodstock  is today primarily a Moslem community with a growing immigrant population from other parts of Africa, but up until the 1940’s it was a Jewish neighbourhood of Lithuanian decent. Renee explained that the show would touch on specific and tangential references to this context, especially as the exhibition was to take place in the old Woodstock Salt River Synagogue complex – the Hebrew Community Hall having been converted into the new gallery premises.

A detail from a work on the show ‘A Novel In Parts’

[See more images from the show here.]

She also explained that the soundtrack would need to have a clear link to the current context but also in some way evoke the past – and use sound to achieve this.  The starting point would be the location of the exhibition – the Synagogue complex, which had been de-consecrated in the late 1950’s, and had seen a number of other occupants, including a bicycle repair shop and a furniture manufacturer. But the broader landscape also needed be explored; its current nature – a noisy semi industrial and commuter artery, and the past – the arrival of immigrants from Lithuania. And importantly, the knowledge that a large part of the new neighbourhood has been built on reclaimed land,  the old beach front now an industrial zone.

All of these factors suggested a dense and layered timescape, where the crowded present would need to be distilled, and the past reconstructed from memory. They also pointed to a need for a considered compositional approach which would lend clarity to the soundscape but also encourage more complex readings.

Former Hebrew Community Hall (corner Argyle and Albert streets) showing facade

Compositional technique

Renee first became aware of my work through the soundtrack I created for Monument, where I used the floor tile pattern of a long corridor in the older part of Cape Town’s central station as a structural reference (the patterns determined the onset time of each section of the composition). For this reason she suggested as a starting point to use the silhouette of the building’s facade. I explored this possibility and arrived at a way of using the facade to determine the length of the composition.

Another idea she suggested was the use of a distinctive Jewish musical mode (or scale) to represent the Jewish time period – the Ahava Rabbah (meaning ‘Abounding Love’ in Hebrew); used as part of the daily Jewish morning service. This mode is also used as the backbone of Klezmer music where it is known as the Freygish mode. I explored this genre on my mandolin, and with the constraints of seven notes in mind, corresponding to seven points on the facade, came up with a few useful melodic ideas.

I then suggested that I find an ‘opposite’ or mirror to this mode to reflect the current Islamic nature of the neighbourhood, however after some research I soon realised that the overlaps and similarities between Arabic Maqams (scales) and Jewish modes made this idea redundant. In fact the Hijaz Maqam is identical to the Ahava Rabbah. So instead I created a melody with two parts – one an approximate ‘inversion’ of the other- which I used for the second ‘present day’ half of the composition.
[For those who are interested, the notes of the Freygish/Hijaz modes are (starting on D): D Eb F# G A Bb C D]

Working score based on an interpretation of the building facade: I explored the Ahava Rabbah/Hijaz mode and came up with two 7 note melodic motifs, each note relating to a point on the facade; one (the ‘blue’ melody) roughly a melodic  ‘inversion’ of the other (the ‘red’ melody’).

The seven note motif turned out to be very useful as it not only suggested a useful melodic motif for use throughout the composition but also a means of determining the overall length, becoming a unifying structural element for the whole work. I ended up using it to ‘pace’ the entire work by spreading it out over the entire length at a very slow tempo (the cello like sound) as well as using it in variation form at a higher tempo throughout the piece (using it on a ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ level – like the relationship between a stitch and a visable pattern).

Instrumentation and Other Sounds

My mandolin was used as the vehicle for all of these explorations and discoveries and it became the primary instrument used. Its versatility in a range of genres including Arabic music (where it is sometimes used), Klezmer music, where it is a familiar voice, and even Cape based Malay choir music made it an appropriate choice.

I recorded my playing with a range of microphone options (including contact microphone) to give me a wide variety of tone colours. And I made liberal use of pitch shifting to achieve base lines and ethereal music box like sounds.

The only other instrument used was a bowed instrument I had made based on a Segankuru – a Zulu one string fiddle. I played and recorded the Ahava Rabbah/Hijaz mode, edited it and played it back using a software sample player. The sound ended up sounding quite cello like, but with a pleasing roughness of quality.

For the penultimate urban section of the composition, I spent time recording in the Woodstock train station and on the Woodstock part of Main Road. Those familiar with Cape Town’s (and South Africa’s) public transport will recognise the taxi gaatjies (share taxi doormen).

And I also made use of third party field recordings (see acknowledgements at page bottom).

The Exhibition (brief observations)

The exhibition centres on an intriguing installation – two almost identical rooms, typical of a Woodstock Victorian home. Installed back to back  I felt the urge to repeatedly move between them, each teasing me to spot the differences. Two cups of coffee,  two chess boards with game in progress, two open suitcases each containing a personal collection of cherished memorabilia. Is it possible to hold two almost identical images in your mind’s eye?

A sense of “what happened here?”. Carbon paper drawings of a ‘ghost’ sailing ship in common Woodstock surroundings, framed classified adverts in local papers referring to ship sightings reinforce this notion. Disparate scenarios encouraging me to construct my own interpretation.

At the exhibition walkabout Renee quotes Wittgenstein “A picture is a fact”. But the sense of quiet, of past and present overlapping, of the familiar stripped of sound seems to defy this.

Soundtrack  acknowledgements


The Freesound Project

Sea on beach:
Shofar Ram’s Horn:  Jpors
Spinning Bicycle wheel: Faruku


Paul Whelan – for generous access to his klezmer knowledge and cd collection

The Mandolin Cafe’ Community and Comando list – for plentiful and useful advice about Klezmer music

2 Responses

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  1. mrzimmer said, on October 29, 2011 at 9:07 am


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