Symphony: Daar kom die Alibama
was commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival and first performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on 27 August 2010. The title comes from an African folksong, one of the most extraordinary pieces of cross-cultural music I have come across. It was written in Africa in 1863 in the British colony of Cape of Good Hope, by members of the Cape Malay community, in Afrikaans (a language of Dutch origin) about the arrival of the confederate warship, the Alabama, in Table Bay, Capetown. The Cape Malays, who became known as the ‘Cape Coloureds’ were descendants of Malayan and Indonesian slave and political prisoners, who by this time were often of mixed race, having intermarried with both European and sometime Hoi, Griqua and other indigenous people.
According to the Cape Malay Choir Board:
In July 1863 Governor Woodhouse of the Cape was informed that the Alibama was in Saldanha Bay, in pursuit of an enemy vessel, the Sea Bride. Onlookers who lined the shore of Table Bay, Greenpoint and Camps Bay and who had never seen a steamer before, were delighted when the Alibama forced the defeated Sea Bridge into Table Bay. The victory tale soon became a folk song.
I have called my piece Symphony: Daar kom die Alibama
referring to the original meaning of symphony as ‘sounding together’, partly in honour of this extraordinary song, which is celebrated by so many different communities. However, my Symphony has nothing to do with the 18th and 19th century genre, with its movement structure, its themes, motives and development. On the contrary, in line with most of the avant-garde music of the second half of the 20th century, there are NO themes, motifs, no development and no climaxes, although I have allowed myself a certain amount of repetition. Rather there is simply a juxtaposition of different orchestral textures. All material and patterning is treated structurally and not dramatically. As with many of my earlier pieces, the structuring principles of the piece could more easily be compared with that of African textiles than musical models. The piece is not based in any way on the original song.
While writing the piece it became for me a meditation on the sea and the role of ships and their cargoes in our history – the porcelains, textiles, spices, teas, teachers, explorers, exploiters, scientists, soldiers, weapons, diseases and slaves… So the piece hovers in a state of unfulfilled anticipation from beginning to end.