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Robert Fokkens Interview

Posted on 18 March 2009. © Copyright 2004-2023 Composition:Today

C:T talks to South African composer Robert Fokkens, who is also artistic director of Sounds Underground.

Robert Fokkens
Tell us something about your background.

I'm a South African composer working in London. I studied at the University of Cape Town and the Royal Academy of Music and completed a PhD with Michael Finnissy at the University of Southampton a couple of years ago. I have regular performances in the UK and South Africa, and have also been performed in the US, various countries in Europe, Japan and Australia.

How did you start composing?

I have sung in choirs and played the violin since I was fairly young. At high school I made some attempts at composing, and did a lot of arranging - mostly of pop music. In my gap year I worked (arranging and performing) in a cabaret ensemble, and was singing with the Cape Town Opera company simultaneously - working in music felt absolutely wonderful and natural, and Puccini sold me on being a composer.

What drives your work, what are you passions?

Given my start in composing, it won't be a surprise that vocal music and music in dramatic contexts are the things that I enjoy the most.

Tell us about your forthcoming premiere of Flights into Darkness

Flights into Darkness is a contemporary melodrama based on Oscar Wilde's iconic The picture of Dorian Gray and Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler's psychological thriller Flight into darkness. It is a dark, disturbing piece, combining music, text and drama, and was devised by the cast and myself. It is performed by actor Tom Frankland and pianist Jakob Fichert.

In this piece we are revisiting the long-neglected form of the melodrama, and drawing together texts from these two great fin-de-siecle novellas. Episodes from Schnitzler's remarkable representation of mental collapse, drawing heavily on his experience as a turn-of-the-century psychoanalyst, are interwoven with Wilde's twisted tale of art, depravity and morality.

The melodrama was popular in the early 19th century, and combines music, spoken word and dramatic action in a clearly structured relationship. The modern understanding of the word comes, no doubt, from the over-wrought style of theatre traditionally associated with this form. Both Wilde and Schnitzler have their roots in this tradition, yet undercut this with measured, at times clinical, observations - and in Wilde's case particularly, droll philosophical monologues - about the nature of madness, identity, reality and morality.

Flights into Darkness draws on these tonal resources and on contemporary theatrical practice, weaving texts highlighting these and other themes from the individual novellas into a single sinister journey through some of the darkest regions of human experience.

There are two performances - the premiere at The Warehouse in London (Theed Street, London SE1 8ST, nearest Tube: Waterloo) on Tuesday 24 March 2009 at 7.30pm, and at the Jacqueline du Prť Music Building in Oxford (St Hilda's College, Cowley Place, Oxford, OX4 1DY) on Friday 27 March 2009 at 7.30pm. Tickets are available from or by calling 07791 468398.

You are artistic director of Sounds Underground, tell us something about the group, what it does, it's raison d'etre.

This is a very exciting new role for me, having taken over as Artistic Director from the wonderful cellist Olly Coates in December.

Sounds Underground is essentially a new music event promoter. We create opportunities for composers to have their music performed by professional musicians of the highest calibre, giving them a platform for their music at a crucial stage in their careers. We collaborate with composers, performers and other artists to allow creative people to realise their visions. Launched in London in November 2004, we have already commissioned twelve new works and performed music by many emerging composers.

Our aims are to commission emerging composers and to encourage regular performances of their music; to collaborate with composers and performers to create innovative programmes; and to draw in new audiences for contemporary music. We welcome submissions of one or two scores and/or recordings from composers, and contact from performers as well, as we are always looking for people to work with.

Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.

I'm not sure I can claim to have a working method, as the process seems to involve being as far away from my desk as possible most of the time. I tend to start from some sort of image or narrative - musical or otherwise - which I then explore and develop before I get any notes down. I struggle to actually start writing until I have quite a clear idea of what the piece is and a sense of how it is going to fit together as a whole.

Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?

Drama and text are, after music, the media to which I respond most strongly. I also love dance. So perhaps the human body and the voice in space are the things which I've drawn on most.

What is your musical philosophy?

I aim for clarity in my music. I also hope that my music reflects the fact that I am

non-European in some way. Most important to me though, is that a piece is interesting and has something to say for itself which the listener couldn't hear anywhere else.

Who or what has influenced your style?

There are two people who have been very important in my development. My PhD supervisor, Michael Finnissy, is an extraordinary teacher. His guidance in helping me find my voice as a composer was absolutely critical. The second person is Madosini, a South African virtuoso musical bow player - her music, and South African bow music in general, is the basis of my work on a number of levels, although this is perhaps only clearly audible in a limited number of my pieces.

What's the strangest idea for a piece you've ever had?

The most visually odd piece I've written might be a piece I wrote about the deconstruction of tango when I was at the RAM. Initially, I wanted to have three actors destroying Tango drink cans with various power tools on stage, but eventually settled for a Warholian slideshow (it was a long time ago!) of progressively mangled Tango cans.

What does the future hold for you?

In terms of writing, there are a few commissions I'm about to start, including a piece for marimba and vibraphone, and a choir and orchestra work for premiere in November. I'm also planning to work on another dramatic piece (this time with singing) for Tete-a-tete's 2010 Opera Festival.

Performances coming up include a Wigmore Hall performance with fabulous vocal trio juice on 6 April; a tour of South Africa by a Danish quartet as part of New Music South Africa's The Bow Project; two performances by Claire Booth and Andrew Matthews-Owen of my setting of David Diop's Africa for the bmic's The Cutting Edge Tour (these were supposed to happen in March but have been postponed because of illness); and the premiere of a children's oratorio in Bath at the end of April. I have also been selected for the World New Music Days in Sweden this year - I don't have any details yet, but it seems that my violin concerto An Eventful Morning Near East London, will get its second performance there.

Please list anywhere online where your work can be experienced

I don't currently have any audio material online. I'm in the process of putting up a myspace site, but a serious lack of time has prevented me getting anywhere beyond the sign-up stage at this point. If readers are interested to hear my music, please contact me through my site:

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2023

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