Disquieting (Post-Apartheid) Musical Modernism: Four Hermeneutic Readings

William Fourie

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis considers manifestations of musical modernism in post-apartheid South Africa. Modernism has in recent years been regarded as conservative and elitist. These critiques, coupled with the way in which European modernist music was utilised by the apartheid government to substantiate a ‘progressive’ white culture in opposition to a ‘regressive’ black culture, suggest that modernist music in contemporary South Africa would at best hold little cultural import and, at worst, represent the cultural capital of a repressive regime. I argue in this thesis that the opposite is the case, that modernist works composed between 1994 and 2018 can be interpreted within and against the societal conditions of the post-apartheid era. To do so, I draw on, and develop, a broader definition of modernism, which is ontologically grounded in the notion that modernism is an artistic response to the conditions of modernity. This definition allows me to delink modernism from its contextual position in early twentieth-century Western centres as well as its aesthetic characterisations and consider under its remit music that is responsive to post-apartheid modernity.
The thesis develops the concept of post-apartheid musical modernism in four hermeneutic case studies of works that have previously received no, or only little, scholarly attention. The first is Kevin Volans’s String Quartet No. 5, ‘Dancers on a Plane’ (1994). This case study considers the work within the conditions of post-apartheid art. These conditions reject the instrumentalisation of art as a form of resistance against the apartheid regime and prompt a move away from realist forms of expression. In the second case study I read Johannesburg Etude No. 1 (2011) and City Deep (2018) by Clare Loveday against the neoliberal economic order as it manifests in the country’s mining industry. This case study maps, through
the close reading of Loveday’s works, the growing disillusionment with the post-apartheid government as the socialist tenets of the struggle were systematically replaced by an economic system that exacerbated the inequality between the rich and the poor. The third is a reading of Theo Herbst’s Konka Klanke (Tunguska) (2010). This case study draws on theories of forgetting by Heidegger and Ricoeur to read Herbst’s composition against the discourse of forgetting espoused by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings on the human rights violations of the apartheid era. I interpret Herbst’s composition in terms of a bifurcation of forgetting, in which forgetting can be understood as both a necessary condition for memory, and, simultaneously, a destructive, pathological form of amnesia. In the fourth case study, I read Andile Khumalo’s spectralist composition, Bells Die Out (2013) as a critique of the expectations of blackness. Khumalo’s work, I argue, does not resound blackness explicitly, but produces blackness as a ghost of colonial modernity. Drawing on these four case studies, I argue for a revised conception of musical modernism in South Africa, one that both recognises its critical potential in post-apartheid South African cultural politics and in a more global canon of modernist music.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Harper-Scott, J. P. E., Supervisor
  • Johnson, Julian, Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Sept 2020
Publication statusUnpublished - 2020


  • South African music
  • Modernism
  • Kevin Volans
  • Clare Loveday
  • Theo Herbst
  • Andile Khumalo
  • Hermeneutics
  • Post-apartheid music

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