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Nokuthula Ngwenyama: a short introduction

6 Feb 2023

News Story

Born in Los Angeles, of Zimbabwean-Japanese parentage, Nokuthula Ngwenyama initially came to prominence when she won the Primrose International Competition (the first established specifically for the viola) at the age of 16. She had, however, been writing music for some years, and now enjoys parallel careers as a violist and composer.

Initially written for viola quintet, Primal Message depicts Ngwenyama’s response to the Arecibo message, which was sent into space from the Puerto Rican observatory of the same name in 1974 in the hope it would be received by other lifeforms. The work reinterprets this binary message as music, going beyond the purely mathematical to consider humanity’s ability to connect with others.

Ngwenyama's starting point is prime numbers, translated into music as specific intervals. She develops these into an expansive and sensuous score, effortlessly beguiling the listener’s ear with lush string writing akin to Vaughan Williams.

I am thrilled [Primal Message] has also been recorded for the SCO's digital series and can't wait to hear the performance!

Nokuthula Ngwenyama, in an email to the SCO (January 2023)

The performance by the SCO (available as part of the 2022-23 Digital Season for a month, from 6 March) uses a 2020 rescoring of the music for strings, harp and percussion – a combination of instruments Ngwenyama had enjoyed hearing in Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's Symposium (for violin and orchestra) and subsequently used in her own Viola Concerto, where she found it beneficial "in terms of balance". The new orchestration of Primal Message came about for practical reasons: she "was hoping to record it at the same sessions as the [viola] concerto with the Janáček Philharmonic", but they ran out of time.

With many years of playing in string orchestras herself, it is understandable that she should feel comfortable writing for the medium. The existence of a third version of Primal Message for strings alone feels entirely appropriate in this context, allowing the work (like the Arecibo message itself) to reach as wide an audience as possible.

On a side note, Ngwenyama holds the distinction of having been taught by a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, arguably the most important and influential of 20th century music teachers. The latter’s students include such diverse figures as Astor Piazzola, Quincy Jones and Philip Glass, not to mention Grażyna Bacewicz, whose Concerto for String Orchestra the SCO performed in December 2023 - another string player with a thoroughly idiomatic way of writing for the medium.

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