By BRUCE DENNILL
Caroline Leisegang will be showcasing the compositions from her new album My Body Of Preludes at Circa On Jellicoe in Rosebank on 10 May. Book at Computicket.
The publicity ahead of the launch of Caroline Leisegang’s new album My Body Of Preludes makes a point of underlining her status as “South Africa’s Youngest Classical Composer”. But given her chronically poor health of late – Leisegang has been in and out of hospital for over a year, being tested and treated for a clutch of serious, unspecified ailments – there is also a sense of the collection being, if not planned as such, then possibly being regarded as the beginning of a legacy.
“I’m not that young anymore,” smiles Leisegang, “I suppose that ‘youngest composer’ bit might still apply in terms of people who are recording and releasing albums. But classical music is particularly long-lived. It’s easier for purely instrumental music to have relevance whenever and wherever it is played. It’s not like a young rock band, who lose their looks, then their fans and then run out of themes. That can be an issue in South Africa.
“The same is true internationally as well. The work of composers like Phillip Glass will last. It’s abstract but it has meaning – kind of like a painting. We could have that too. The classical scene here is much bigger than people know, but it doesn’t get the coverage it should.”
For this project, what were the practical issues involved in being creative while being ill?
“Last year, I gave up on doing just about everything,” says Leisegang. “I wasn’t feeling well and I was on too many medications to handle a circular saw [woodworking is another of her passions]. I fell into a rut, to the extent that taking a photograph of my hospital bed was a way of adding purpose to every day. I was on a number of different drugs – high and desensitised, feeling numb and in pain all at the same time.
“I had to convince to try to learn how to do everything again,” she notes. “I gave myself a year from then to redefine myself.”
In the room where we’re chatting stands Leisegang’s pride and joy, a mint-condition 1941 Steinway Pianino.
“I had some music I’d already written, and was reworking some older stuff, and then my day, very kindly, bought me this piano.”
She looks at the instrument and smiles. It’s clearly a totem; a muse.
“I brought in a piano teacher to help me re-learn how to read music. You’ll hear on My Body Of Preludes that there are some simple compositions and some complex ones. Some were all my brain could handle at that time; others were learned afterwards.”
Leisegang’s experiences outside of her own health concerns had a big impact on the process.
“The concert will also include some anecdotes from that time; the other parts of the story,” she notes.
“There were amazing people that I met. One was a lady in the first ward I was in. She was 74 years old and her birthday was a week before in mine. I taught her to knit again and she read her Bible to me every day. She promised me she would phone me from her house in Parys and have me over for tea.
“There was another woman who was always admitted at the same time as I was, and was always in the bed across from mine. She died around the same time that I lost an aunt I was close to, so there was a strong link there.
“There was still another woman who was admitted when I was there, complaining of pins and needles in her hands and feet. By the end of the day, she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Those days were hard.”
Another wry grin.
“And then there was Felicia,” Leisegang says.
“She was the first lady I encountered during the whole process. I think she was addicted to her meds – she was completely nuts, and would fight all the time with the other patients, including one old lady who swore more than anyone I have ever met. So many strong women, and their lives just … went. The nurses became a community for me, though – I’ve formed freiendships there.”
These experiences – and emerging on the other side – must all have had a considerable soul or spiritual impact.
“Yes,” she says. “I think that once I had completed the work, I was very proud of it at first. Then there were administrative issues and I felt less proud. And then it became a premise around which to interrogate me about my health, so I’m a little conflicted about it now.
“I have the ability to be a concert pianist, but not the confidence. I think this experience will be about connecting with listeners; about the music coming directly from me. It’s all about metaphors as well – coming full circle; mirroring that by going back to Circa for the launch [the pianist launched her Oyeblikk albm there as well]; all of that.”
If she’s uncertain about how she feels about My Body Of Preludes overall, is Leisegang at least happy with the way the individual tracks have turned out?
“Oh yes,” she nods. “Preludes are by definition short and sweet, written for living rooms and to be played on tiny pianos, where they would be performed by the composer. So you would have had Liszt or Chopin playing while people were drinking champagne or getting involved in a game of roulette. And in that sense, I’ve very happy with what I have here, and how they will be played.
“Some people don’t agree with that approach, but as Sue Cock, a teacher of mine, once said: ‘A little grey man in a little grey office wrote the rules for classical music – it’s okay to break them.’”
Communicating the many multifaceted themes that inspired this album would have been tricky, but Leisegang is satisfied that she’s done what she set out to do in that regard.
“Each piece is a person, an event or a piece of my body that isn’t working,” she says. “They do tell the stories I want them to. And three of the preludes are about two people – those relationships become part of you.”
There’s proof of that effectiveness in the reactions the composer has had to the music so far.
“It’s quite a sad album,” she shrugs. “Everyone I’ve been testing the music on has been a bit tearful. So it definitely conveys something. I’d hope that it give listeners a glimpse of me while making them aware of something in their own lives.”
She breaks off, considering her next statement.
“I think I’m happy with that outcome. If you’re creating music for reasons of vanity, you’re doing it with the wrong goal in mind – you are not the person who’s going to be listening to it most of the time.
“I’ve been through a lot in terms of being sick – and not only in the way I was feeling. There were times when I was not being trusted when I tried to explain how I was feeling, which was really tough, and led to a phase where I just stopped taking responsibility for my health. Around that time, I read an essay Christopher Hitchens wrote when he was dying of cancer, and I really understood what he meant when he said. ‘I don’t have a body, I am a body.’”
The Steinway looms large in the room – exactly how did it affect Leisegang’s desire to get back into making music?
“It’s a remarkable instrument,” she says. “It made me realise I wanted to get my life back. I’m not an invalid or in wheelchair. It’s a metonym for my life, I think. It’s like it was made for me. I have played a lot of pianos, but never one like this. It’s a diamond, hiding here in my room.”
Leisegang having access to the piano’s heritage allows here to become part of a community beyond just the greater collective of musicians.
“Not many people truly understand what it is or means,” she agrees, “or fully understand the art and the history involved. For me, being logged as the owner of a Steinway will be a huge thrill! But there is so much that it important about it. It had a life. I want to know why and where it was made and why it’s part of a limited edition. I want to know how the woman who owned it previously kept it in such pristine condition.”
In some ways, the return to Rosebank’s Circa On Jellicoe gallery carries a similar sort of emotional weight.
“It does, but it’s also about practical reasons,” says Leisegang. “The shape and the acoustics are perfect for this instrument – music can travel around and around an oval room like that.”
What are her expectations of that first public performance of the Preludes material?
“Ask me an hour before the concert,” she smiles. “It will be special, though. And also cathartic. For the audience, it will be seeing me performing the truest version of my music. With added fairy lights and candles. It’s not supposed to be a virtuoso thing. There will be no ballgowns. But I’m hoping it will be an experience rather than a gig.”
The album is actually only scheduled for release in September or October due to some behind-the-scenes bureaucracy, but this first show will hopefully set the scene for further exposure and development of the project.
“I’m hoping there will be other intimate concerts in interesting locations,” suggests Leisegang. “Let me just figure out where I can take this piano …”