It was a request from Adrian Jack that prompted this piece. He asked me to rework White Man Sleeps (originally written for two harpsichords, viola da gamba and percussion) for the Kronos Quartet for a performance at the ICA. I resisted the idea at first, especially as the African tuning of the original piece would have to be dropped. It occurred to me however, that the western tuning (equal temperament) would mask the source material and make my intentions clearer. I began work.
After the first performance I changed the order of the movements, placing the last dance, which seemed to me to be the weakest, first. This the piece quietens down and becomes more intimate as it progresses.
Sources: In composing this piece I drew from the following sources: the first movement owes something to the style of Basotho concertina music; the second and fourth movements are drawn from traditional Nyungwe music played by Makina Chirenje and his Nyanga panpipe group at Nsava, Tete, Mozambique, recorded and transcribed by Andrew Tracey (to be found in an article entitled ‘The nyanga panpipe dance’ in African Music, Vol.5, No.1 (1971)); the third movement derives from the San bow music (recorded by Tony Traill of the University of Witwatersrand) and from Basotho lesiba music, transcribed by myself; in the fifth movement I added my own invented folklore. My approach to the original music was anything but purist – it is played in Western tuning, filtered, slowed down by a few “time-octaves”, cast into non-African metres (like the 13-beat pattern of the first dance) and redistributed between the players in several ways. I also used interlocking techniques where they were absent in the original models and vice versa.
The title ‘White Man Sleeps’ comes from a moment in nyanga panpipe music where the performers leave off playing their loud pipes for a few cycles and dance only to the sound of their ankle rattles, to let the white landowner sleep – for a minute or two.