Billy often throws Afrikaans words into conversation.
“22 people died.”
“No, in Egypt.”
“Oh, I thought we were talking about Manchester, cos 22 people died there.”
“Yes, first 19, then it was 22. But that’s toevallig.”
Toevallig. Coincidental.Toe – then val – fall ig – adverb suffix. Something happened ‘in the way things have fallen.’
This made me think of how in Italian, a language that is oddly near to Afrikaans in the corners of my brain, accadere is the verb that means ‘to happen, to occur’. And cadere is to fall. So, in a sense like ‘to befall’, even though ‘befall’ has to have an object. There is a very particular event that takes place within this action. An event that catalyses a change. In this case, a rather terrible event: people fell, their spirits extinguished. A drastic change. People fall when they die. We also fall asleep, and fall in love. Something is relinquished, without our control. Is that why we are so afraid of falling?
Cadere, caduta, cadde… cadenza. “Don’t have a cadenza!” – anyone ever said that to you? If you’re a woman, it’s bound to sound familiar. It shares a place in a dark pit with ‘hissy fit’, ‘hysterics’, ‘fanny wobble’ and other choice gendered phrases to do with breakdowns from which all humans suffer. Even ‘breakdown’ elucidates how natural it is to gravitate downwards, towards the ground, and at the same time how our every effort is directed towards not falling, not giving way.
Cadenza could literally be interpreted as ‘a falling.’ ‘Cadence’ came from cadenza, which came from cadere. In speech, a cadence is a rhythmic inflection, a going-up-or-down. Similarly, in music a cadence is what happens at the end of a phrase, or musical sentence – it indicates coming to a close, or not coming to a close. It is a manner of falling. We are taught about four different cadences, categorised according to explicit or implicit harmonic progressions. They have funny names: perfect, plagal, interrupted and imperfect.
But music also has cadenzas. And as I learned my first ever piano concerto (typically a three-movement work for orchestra and soloist), the association with nervous vicissitudes shifted: a cadenza, in classical music, is the part where the orchestra stops playing and the soloist wields their virtuosic sword, swinging their prowess this way and that, dazzling the audience with unfathomable dexterity. In front of 30 odd professional musicians and a hall full of expectant ears, it’s pretty fucking intimidating, and yet one of the best moments one could experience as a classical musician, if you get the chance.
A typical concerto:
First, the soloist presents themselves, then the orchestra. Playful musical conversation ensues between the two parties, bits of solo here and there, varying the themes. The first themes return after a while, it feels like reaching home. But home is yet to come. Actually, the orchestra is carrying the soloist to a dizzying height only to drop them there, all of a sudden –
You’ve never seen so many notes on a page. Tiny notes, so it’s clear how they fit into each phrase, or to indicate they are just part of a run or a wash, while each is a beast you have had to tame. Now you must brush over them with ease – it is an illusion behind the musical theme, and the listeners must forget those notes and simply be transported by the soaring melody. You are so exposed, you fend off that all-too-familiar fear of making mistakes, it’s all about the music, damn it! But no, it’s not just about the music. Time becomes elastic, and as it pulls this way and that, you start to remember: It’s about you. It’s about the hours spent toiling to get that one phrase just right, to stop your fingers seizing up during that long trill, to strike the right bass notes as you fling your left arm to the bottom of the keyboard, to balance power with delicacy, to inflect that last phrase – that tremolo – so perfectly that the audience knows, the orchestra knows, it’s over now.You have relinquished.
Suddenly you hit the ground. The coda has begun, it’s faster than you thought you could play, the orchestra becomes a blur of sound. Are you in the correct bar? Oh shit, here it is, better ace those last arpeggios – can the audience even hear you? – you pour your entire torso into those last chords
V – I – V – I! (A perfect cadence )
Some audience members hold their breath, in awe, some cough or fidget with wrappers, some try to hide their embarrassment at having prepared their hands to clap, because they were wrong, it’s not over.The conductor readies his baton for the second movement.
Coila-Leah Enderstein is a pianist based in Cape Town. Her interests include live art practices, improvisation, and the performance of newly composed music. She has produced various works of her own, collaborated with other artists and premiered several new South African compositions. She also forms part of the Avanti Duo with flautist Sally Minter.