In 1982 Adrian Jack planned an installation of my tape works as well as live performances of my more African pieces in his MusICA concert series at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London). He asked me to write a piece to complement Mbira and Matepe. This posed a daunting problem. The tuning system of the other pieces was specific to Mbira-style music, and I wanted to write something quite different. I realised I could add viola da gamba to the ensemble because its movable frets could cope with the tuning. This would also give me an opportunity of working with my friend Margriet Tindemans.
A long search for music appropriate to the tuning ensued. In the end I drew from Tswana and nyanga panpipe music, from San bow music, and from Basotho lesiba music and concertina style, to which I added my own invented folklore. My approach was anything but purist - the music is filtered, slowed down by a few ‘time-octaves’, cast into non-African metres (like the 13-beat pattern of the last dance) and re-distributed between the players in several ways. I also used interlocking techniques where they were absent in the original models and vice versa. This treatment now seems to me to be unacceptably Germanic, but at the time I was still very much a Cologne composer. I feel that the piece has more to do with European music in the 1980’s than anything else.
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.