Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Young SU composer makes waves
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing (Hannelie Booyens)
Published: 27/05/2024

​At just 24 years old, Lize Briel is already making her mark on the world stage. A master's student at the Department of Music at Stellenbosch University (SU), Briel achieved a remarkable feat this year: She became the first woman to win a competition for classical composers in South Africa – the prestigious Alexander SA Composers' Competition.

Last year Briel also made waves on the international stage when she secured third place in the #CreateCOP28 competition by Art Partner, an international art and sustainability contest.

Briel's winning piece for the local competition, “Echoes: A Minimalist Dialogue", not only showcased her innovative use of minimalist techniques but also highlighted her ability to weave African instruments into classical compositions. This award earned her R50 000, an all-expenses-paid trip to Germany to have her work performed, and the opportunity to serve as composer-in-residence with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra for a year.

The talented composer and flautist's journey to Germany in April was an exhilarating whirlwind. Briel's work was performed by the Junge Norddeutsche Philharmonie in Hamburg, marking a significant milestone in her career. “It was almost surreal," she recalls. “One month after winning, I was in Germany, experiencing my composition come to life with an international orchestra." This experience not only broadened her professional network but also enriched her compositional perspective, Briel says.

Indigenous instrument

For her composition, Briel used a traditional African instrument called the uhadi, a “musical bow" played by several South African communities. Crafted from wood, the uhadi features wire or gut stretched between its ends. Attached to the bow is a calabash, serving as a resonator to amplify the sound produced by the strings. When played, a reed is used to strike the strings, generating two fundamental notes overlaid with distinctive overtones.

Briel fell in love with the uhadi when she attended a concert of the South African Strings Foundation. “I loved the sound and I was fortunate that I could study the uhadi under Dr Ncebakazi Mnukwana at SU, who taught me how to play."

For the concert in Germany, Briel incorporated two uhadi's in the performance. “The original piece was written for an uhadi section because I wanted the sound to be part of the fabric of the orchestra itself. In Germany, I played one uhadi myself and I asked one of the German percussionists to help me with singing and playing the percussion section on the other uhadi. He managed his part quite nicely. It worked out well, everybody loved it."

Briel confesses that she's not a very confident singer, but she feels comfortable using her voice as an instrument, especially if it's her own composition.

Although she doesn't come from a musical family, Briel credits her mother for providing ample opportunity to develop her talents. “I'm the only one in my family that does any form of music. I started playing the flute in Grade 2 and it kind of stuck. I continued through high school and only got serious about music towards the end of high school."

Experimenting with sound

At SU, she continued with the flute as her main instrument. In her second year, she chose to add composition as a subject and orchestration followed. “I also did conducting as an extra module and I conducted some of my own compositions. The more skills you have, the better."

Under the mentorship of Arthur Feder and Dr Antoni Schonken, Briel earned her BMus (Composition) cum laude in 2022. She is currently doing a master's degree in composition, hoping to graduate at the end of the year. For her thesis, she's exploring the impact of soundtracks on the portrayal of mental illnesses in cinema, a subject she is passionate about.

Briel enjoys exploring different sound sources and experimenting with sound production. Collaborating with diverse artists is essential to her creative process, enabling her to embrace different viewpoints and develop artistically, ultimately leading to the creation of innovative compositions.

Her work “Ocean Soundscape: An Installation about Ocean Pollution", composed for string quintet, trash, and electronics, garnered recognition at the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference held in December last year. After winning third prize, the work was showcased at the UN Headquarters in New York in December.

Briel says this composition highlights the environmental degradation of our oceans, blending the sounds of discarded items with traditional instruments to foster a powerful message about conservation and creativity. The piece takes listeners on a journey from the ocean's depths to its surface, delineating the devastating impact of pollution through distinct sections.

Whale song

The work was also performed in the Iziko South Africa Museum in Cape Town where the performers were not only surrounded by garbage, but the sound of trash was also included in the musical piece. “I collected and recycled my trash, and I asked the members of the string quintet to do the same. We used chocolate wrappers and pieces of plastic wrapped around the strings of the instruments during the performance."

The profound symbolism of the piece was enhanced by the massive whale skeleton in the hall where it was performed. Briel incorporated recordings of the ocean and actual whale songs in the electronic soundtrack which was also mimicked by the sounds of the string instruments. “The acoustic of the whale hall was amazing. The performance was quite powerful, especially towards the end of the work where one of the last things you hear is the sound of the whales."

Looking ahead, Briel aspires to further her involvement in film music and art installations, focusing on creating impactful music that addresses societal issues and enhances human experiences. Her ambitions include pursuing residencies abroad to expand her musical horizons and continuing her advocacy for the integration of African instruments in classical music settings.

As Briel continues to break new ground in the music industry, her journey reflects a blend of innovation, dedication and a deep commitment to cultural expression.