Commissioned by the Fine Arts Brass Ensemble

  • hn.2tpt.tbn.tba
  • 20 min

Programme Note

Giles Swayne: A Memory of Sky

In 1975 the Afrikaner poet and painter Breyten Breytenbach was arrested by the South African regime for "terrorist activities". He spent the next seven years in a prison cell - first in Pretoria Central Prison, later in Pollsmoor, near Capetown. The greater part of his sentence was spent in solitary confinement. After his release in 1982 he wrote The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist - a disturbing account of his time in prison, which was published in 1984. Breytenbach never whines, never loses his sense of humour, and confronts his predicament and his own state of mind with extraordinary honesty. The True Confessions is not simply a documentary record of solitary confinement, but a profound analysis of the many different effects of cruelty and deprivation.

At the end of 1988 I got in touch with Breytenbach, who lives in Paris, and asked his permission to use various short sections of the book as text for a piece which I had been commissioned to write for voices and a small group of instruments. This piece, No Man's Land, will be completed by the end of the year. In the course of several long and wide-ranging telephone conversations with Breytenbach it became clear that we had many ideas and interests in common; we have since met, and are planning to collaborate on an opera. Meanwhile, the form and idea of this piece, which I was planning at the time of our first meeting, became imbued with ideas from The True Confessions…

'A memory of sky' is the title of the second section of The True Confessions. "You are buried to what you know as normal life outside: the rhythms of day and night, of the seasons of the year, the rhythms of intercourse and communication between people with hands, between butterflies and croissants and dolphins, the million little things which weave the cloth your life consists of." Much of the book is concerned with time, and I was struck by the idea of someone in solitary confinement trying to make sense of senseless isolation, trying to make time pass more quickly, and tried to imagine how I, in such a situation, would cope with it. Breytenbach talks about "staring at the wall, living with an ear at the door and yet cringing at the slightest noise, talking to the ants, starting to have hallucinations…"

I started from three ideas: a fluttering sound, a pulse, and silence. Pulse, after all, is the passing of time. There are five different pulses in A memory of sky, ranging from slow to fast, and the music flits from one to another. The fluttering is created by irregular patterns of rapidly repeated notes, and then combined with pulses. The result is a static but unpredictable sound-texture which I thought of as a form of silence. In this way I composed ten "silences", two at each pulse-rate (one loud and active, the other quiet and passive). They are not, of course, silent; but they make no attempt to do anything or move in any direction - they just exist - empty, unchanging and yet mysteriously not quite predictable. I have spaced them across the piece very much as the bars are spaced on a prison window. The memories of sky appear between the silences, as the sky itself between the bars. Breytenbach again: "On summer days when you were cleaning the corridor you could see through the grill clouds passing along the blue highway above the yard wall facing you: boats on their way to a dream…"

A memory of sky was commissioned by the Fine Arts Brass Ensemble, with funds provided by Southern Arts and the Newbury Festival. It was first performed by them at St Lawrence's Church, Hungerford, on May 16th 1989.
© May 1989 Giles Swayne

"I believe, more than ever, that the
system existing in South Africa is
against the grain of everything that is
beautiful and hopeful and dignified in
human history; that it is a denial of
humanity, not only of the majority
being oppressed but of the minority
associated with that oppression; that
it is profoundly unjust; that it is
totally corrupted and corrupting; that
it is a system with which nobody
ought to be allowed to live."

Breyten Breytenbach: The True Confessions of
an Albino Terrorist

"I shall not be seeing the stars again for many years."

Breyten Breytenbach: The True Confessions of
an Albino Terrorist