“Music can be called nothing other than the sister of painting, as it is subject to hearing, as sense that comes after sight, and creates harmony by combining its well-proportioned and simultaneously appearing parts, though they are compelled to emerge and to fade away in a single or several tempos. These tempos enfold the well-fitting quality of the elements from which the harmony is composed, no differently from the way that the lines describe the elements of which the human beauty is composed.” – Leonardo Da Vinci, Paragone
It’s 2pm on a spring afternoon in Joburg’s slow and scenic southern suburbs. I’m in Tshego Nyatlo’s studio. To his fans, he is known as Micr.Pluto. His studio is a child’s bedroom in his Mondeor flat that he’s converted into an impressive audiovisual workstation.
He’s exercising his skills in multitasking, varnishing a mix-down of one of his fluorescent sci-fi tracks for his now newly released Dead Rainbow EP while finishing a design for a corporate client and finalising a set list for his upcoming tour to promote the new album.
The room is cluttered with equipment: monitors, synthesisers, scanners, digital drawing pads and compact super gadgets. Known for his minimalist hip-hop-tronica, he’s been instrumental in putting the Joburg beat movement on the map as one of its most salient ambassadors. He curates a regional African experimental beat compilation called Subterranean Wavelength, for which he also creates the cover art.
He’s actually a trained and practicing multimedia designer and illustrator by trade. His vast portfolio is filled with multimedia and illustration work for major corporate clients such as the South African Reserve Bank, Puma South Africa and Primedia, and yet he’s predominantly recognised for his beats. “I do prefer the level of creative freedom my music gives me. My music doesn’t have a client, so for me it’s a pure platform of expression, unlike my graphics work, which has to adhere to someone else’s vision,” says Nyatlo.
He just released a collaborative single audiovisual project, elusively entitled Vague, with fellow local production/design virtuoso Vox Portent. The two worked in tandem on the explosive folktronica anthem and collaborated on the wavy, effervescent cover art.
The experimental electronica scene has always had a symbiotic love affair with the visual arts scene. This is reflected in the work of sonic pioneers such as Los Angeles lo-fi legend Teebs, who also exhibits as a painter; Czech electronic composer Floex, who creates conceptual installation art; Russia’s Pixelord, who works as a graphic designer; and Japan’s Taku and Deru, who have both curated exceptional collaborative photographic projects.
The South African beat scene is the paragon of this dualism. A lot of its most prominent producers are fine artists, graphic and multimedia designers, videographers, photographers and illustrators by day and electronic musicians by night. The duality of the course of creative lives leads to an intercourse of influences from both worlds, giving their work its synaesthesic aesthetic.
“I definitely feel there’s an underlying Africanness to our aesthetic, especially with a lot of the new stuff that’s coming out, because we’ve noticed that foreign audiences are increasingly interested in our culture. But what makes us stand out as South Africa is how universal we are in terms of our reference points. We’re a very mood-oriented scene; our work isn’t overly intellectual, nor is it overly emotional. We’ve managed to base our aesthetic on mood, which resonates with everyone,” says Neo Mahlasela also known as Hlasko, whose transcendental electronic compositions evoke surreal and mythological shades.
There’s a time-warped anachronism about his music; something all at once fossilised yet digital, industrial and pure, like extraterrestrial praise poetry, like the exhumed tomb of a prehistoric mechanical being.
He’s recently returned to Joburg from a French tour to promote his new Afro-futurist collaborative project with Labelle called KAANG, which was released in May to global critical acclaim. But what the majority of his fans are still not privy to is his vocation as a fine artist.
He works as a printmaker at the David Krut Projects studio in Rosebank, Joburg, and has exhibited an extensive body of work of symbolic expressionist drawings at contemporary art galleries including the Kalashnikovv Gallery and Ithuba.
“With printmaking, I definitely do it for some sense of financial stability that music doesn’t provide. But I don’t sell my art, nor do I aim to really profit off of my music. There’s some sense of expressive freedom there that arises from the lack of commercial expectation,” says Mahlasela.
Micr.Pluto shares this sentiment. “My time allocation to my various tasks is about priorities. Graphics work tends to bring in more income. I think there’s a lack of financial stability in experimental music generally, which forces us to search for that in more practical places. I mean, one of my favourite producers, 813, is a fireman by day.”
It could be argued that this very lack of a lucrative alternative music scene in this country has led to the more boundless exploration by our local electronic musicians.Hlasko and Micr.Pluto have collaborated on a number of projects, including live electronic performances at Ithuba and Kalashnikovv Radio, and an ethereal track on Micr.Pluto’s new EP.
How does Hlasko manage to juggle the two art forms? “With me, it’s a constant struggle to balance both worlds. In the case of my visual art, I’m overly ambitious when it comes to what I feel is work that’s polished enough to exhibit, so I’m more patient with the process because I know what I’d like to achieve with my art is something that will take a lot more time and resources. I’d say it’s a love and lust thing – I suppose I’m addicted to making music and I’m in love with creating art. Love takes patience.”
Art and music have almost always been divinely interconnected. Even Plato “recognised a special connection between eye and sound. Synaesthesia [Greek: shared sensitivity] has been an epistemological topic since the days of ancient philosophy,” writes Barbara John in her essay entitled The Sounding Image, published on the German alternative art history website Medien Kunst Netz.
Sculpted African masks were used in ancient sub-Saharan rituals of song and dance. “The Western roots of a direct interplay between art and music lie in Christian liturgy. The structure of the church building as the place where mass is celebrated emphasises the special significance of music through the choir, which is immediately adjacent to the altar. Music is an indispensable part of the celebration of mass, and the artistic decoration of the altar is essential for the ceremonial process … the act of worship climaxing in the raising of the host is accompanied by singing, incense and the glow of candles – with the altarpiece as a pictorial setting. The variety of artistic contributions ranges from the decoration of the musical instruments via the miniature painting in the hymnbooks to panel painting,” writes John.
Powerful music and imagery have repeatedly come together over the years to communicate humanity. Today, contemporary digitised methods of music composition and visual art have an uncanny synergy that manifests in a variety of tangible modes.
This synergy is present in many great records with iconic cover art (such as Reid Miles and Francis Wolff’s work for Blue Note Records), moving films and animations with equally enchanting scores (like David Lynch’s enigmatic self-scored cinema), audio-visual performances (the collaborative live performances of electronica demigod Clark and light designer Adoxo), and skate and music videos (Flying Lotus’ collaborations with Kahlil Joseph).
Technological advancements in this century have enabled artists to fully achieve Léopold Survage’s dream: “I want to animate my painting, I want to give it movement, I want to introduce rhythm into the concrete action of my abstract painting, rhythm that derives from my inner life,” wrote Survage in “document no 8182”, first published in 1914 by the Paris Académie des Sciences.
Electronic composers and visual artists both create in quasi-anonymous realms of solitude, existing as mythical abstract figures subject to rumour and canonistic speculation by their audience. They both adhere to the structural principles of form, tone, texture, harmony and composition. They both experience the odd detachment of not being in the room when their art encounters most of its audience. It lives mostly beyond them, in the places they’ll never touch and in people they’ll never meet.
They both do, however, have access to precarious platforms to showcase their work in the flesh at ceremonial gatherings that curate an alternatively fashionable social experience. For the artist, it’s the exhibition; for the electronic composer, it’s the live performance. Both producers and visual artists are forced to compete to distinguish themselves among the faceless pool of names by developing a pioneering and inimitable signature aesthetic, to magnetize semi-elitist hordes of disciples devoted to a stylised dream. Their art becomes a subcultural status symbol and their works become intellectual fashion accessories used to complement and enhance the image of the hipster avant-garde lifestyle of its consumers.
All the artists The Con spoke to noted the similarity in processes and the interplay of influences. “With drawing, in the beginning I’m just focusing on each mark at a time, and then I track the subconscious to see where it leads me – same as with my music. I refrain from intellectualising the process. I want it to be more spirited than thoughtful. In both processes I enjoy the notion of letting down my guard and following my intuition … I think, to a large degree, the same aesthetic runs through what I express sonically as it does visually. I also prefer to allow some indeterminacy to shape the result. The process dictates what the outcome is, and the outcome is usually an illustration of my thought patterns and my capacity to focus and lose focus,” says Hlasko.
Micr.Pluto makes a similar point. “I feel that both these creative processes have a boundless nature and are platforms for exploring abstract concepts. The thought that there’s no ‘correct’ or standardised way of expressing ideas or creating artwork with both these mediums is one way in which I connect the two modes of creativity. A random doodle could evolve into a full-blown work of visual art. Playing around and improvising with a drum machine on music software can become a complete composition.”
Vuyo Serote is a videographer, designer, illustrator and executive director of Threefold Creative, the company that recently worked on the cover art and music video for Micr.Pluto’s Dead Rainbows project. “They definitely inform and influence each other. Sometimes hearing a riff or a piece of music can lead to the creation of a visual piece, and this also works the other way around.”
As a beat-maker, Serote made his name as one half of beat-and-graphics duo 8BitOctupus, and now releases solo material under the moniker Hak Gwai. He elaborated on how the two art forms tend to mirror each other.
“Music is usually composed with low, mid and high frequencies. Visual art is usually composed of dark, mid and light tones. Hearing, seeing and experiencing these similarities is why I believe they work so well together, because like all things, separate parts work in unison to make a whole. Both mediums are expressive art forms; they both have a mash-up of guidelines and ideologies that creators abide to or break in order to create them. So although the two can exist in isolation, they are also the perfect for each other. How’s that for romance?”
Another rising producer-cum-visual artist, Pretoria native Vusi Hlatwayo, aka Metal Messiah, is precisely what would happen if Frank Zappa, Clutchy Hopkins and DJ Shadow had a South African lovechild. He lives to excavate samples from the most enigmatically obscure sources.
He’s magnetised towards the bizarre, yet structurally enslaved to the melodic. His only official release to date is the avant-garde masterpiece entitled Divine Messages from the Light Bringers, released in 2009, which features one of his potent illustrations on the cover art. The 14-track album is a melancholic homage to the masters of bebop and avant-garde jazz, opening with an ode to Sun Ra and ending with a tribute to Max Roach. It swerves between avenues of darkness and grandeur, juxtaposing vague, flat, singular notes to vociferous percussion and eerily awkward background noise. It makes an ambivalent statement about contemporary Africa: it acknowledges its postcolonial sickness but embraces it, parading its scars and its shame like a new skin. It not only invites its own destruction but seduces it with promises of salvation, like a Metal Messiah, decaying in style, preaching a new gospel for the brokenhearted robots and spiritually dead generations to come.
Hlatwayo works as a layout designer by day and a beat-maker/record collector/trader/event promoter/DJ by night. His process alludes to the principles of avant-garde jazz. “The common factor in the way I approach both them is the free jazz type of composition or way of thinking. For instance, I’m mostly influenced by the works of Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton and Art Ensemble of Chicago.
“The way they play and compose their sounds is the way I would like to draw and make music, but the avant-garde factor comes out more in my music because I think I have a wider palette of reference because I listen to a lot more music than I research art. When it comes to my artworks, I tend to think about the concept and process so much that I end up not achieving what I have visualised, and I become more minimalistic than experimental. What I want to achieve with both of them is having more expression, especially in my artworks. I want them to be devoid of any actual references –buildings, nature, human figures – but more colour and feeling.
With my music, I’m trying to capture the everyday life of blacks, especially people I know, and I would sometimes record conversations of people in a taxi and sample them so that the people who will get to hear the music will also relate,” says Hlatwayo.
Renaissances are defined by a periodical surge in adventurous intellectual exploration. In seasons of cultural revolution, the local harbingers of enlightenment tend to be multidisciplinary contributors to the paradigm shift.
The South African art scene is at the precipice of such a revolution.
A swelling stratum of our young generation is progressively preoccupied with the agenda of subversion and reinvention. The growth in the general bilateral sentiment of corporate and political cynicism mixed with artistic and creative optimism has reached unprecedented proportions.
We’ve entered an age of autonomous art where the artist’s studio and the composer’s orchestra have been condensed into the contents of their laptops. With these new portable stations of creativity, artists can convey their ideas in previously unfathomable sensory dimensions and unchartered forms of media. The artistic sovereignty provided by current platforms of communication has liberated the young artist from the burden of codependency upon the external forces of patronage and exposure.
Micr.Pluto puts it succinctly: “Platforms like SoundCloud and Behance have given artists a lot more independence by giving them a whole new platform to channel and distribute their work – to take over the world from their bedrooms. On the downside, there isn’t much quality control on these platforms. The work is cluttered and arbitrarily arranged which also contributes to how disposable art’s become in this internet age; there’s always a new name that’s hot right now.”
Hlasko reflects on some of the shortcomings of the new wave South African art and music scenes. “I think a major shortcoming of our scene is a general lack of solidarity. There are a lot of interesting things going on, but we don’t get enough exposure to them because of how individualistic our approach is.”
He also touches on the noticeable exclusion of black beat-makers from the mass-marketing cool crowd and industry powers that be. “The demographic misrepresentation of our scene drives me insane, but we have to place it in the context of an infantile democracy just getting on its feet. We’re still represented by others, whether it’s black artists being represented by white curators and media, or African artists being represented by foreign curators and media. I’d like to see more independence in that regard.”
MICR.PLUTO launches his new EP Dead Rainbow tonight at the Fada Gallery at the University of Johannesburg. The launch will feature Hlasko, Vox Portent and Card on Spokes and starts at 7pm
This piece was produced as part of The Con’s partnership with the Visual Arts Network of South Africa for the 2014 Ways of Being Here project
Explore the Johannebsurg, Pretoria and Cape Town underground beat scenes with the three Subterranean Wavelength compilations