Freehand is the Personal Story of Pianist Charl du Plessis and his Life in Music

Freehand Cover

The whirlwind that is pianist Charl du Plessis’s life has meant that more than 20 years into his performance career, he is finally releasing his first solo album. He reveals the thought processes behind Freehand to DIANE DE BEER:


Pianist extraordinaire Charl du Plessis is all about improvisation – not only on the keyboards but also in his life. He has to be. He has that many projects in the air at a given time, and constantly has to juggle.

Stepping off a plane from an international destination, he runs to catch another flight to make a concert as Nataniël’s accompanist the following day and then he rushes from there to catch up with the Charl du Plessis Trio who are also releasing a CD at the Woordfees in March.

But with improv part of his game, he will be performing his latest and first solo album,  Freehand, at the Atterbury Theatre (and in concerts throughout the year across the country) on Sunday at 3pm, followed by a performance in the Cango Caves just outside Oudtshoorn on March 28 at 8pm as part of this year’s Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK), bookings opening on Saturday (February 21). This hasn’t happened in 24 years and is a rare event, which won’t happen any time soon – if ever.

He will be the first pianist to present a performance in the Caves on International Piano Day. Strict rules will be applied to avoid any damage to this historical site and for Charl, it is a dream come true. “The space, the acoustics, the darkness and the sounds that will embrace everyone!”

The origin of the solo album began with unwinding after concerts and a hectic touring life. Arriving home and wishing to unwind, this Steinway artist would sit and tinkle on one of his two Steinways (one a new acquisition) playing music that’s gentle to his ear. When he felt it was time for a solo album  – finally – it was to these excursions in his mind that he decided to escape to.

He would sit down at the piano, and we all know that end of day feeling, and start playing. This was music that he liked listening to and never to please anyone. It’s mostly gentle and spontaneous, yet once he decided this was the way to go, he would practice improvising according to a specific mood, a moment or an object that would take him to a specific place.

“I didn’t feel I had to prove anything,” he says about this solo attempt – and many of his fans would say about time.

But of his many endeavours, where Charl has also excelled is planning his own career. Any solo career is a challenge as an artist. You only have yourself, your skills and a professionalism which helps you to sell and establish yourself. But mostly you’re always on show.

And one of his attributes is coming up with new ways of making music – classical, jazz and simply a melody that he finds enchanting or a composer he wants to showcase. He would contact a fellow performer or two or three and put together a show.


What is truly impressive is that these shows always had a specific individuality and originality and never felt forced. This was an unusual yet also deliberate route. And those who know Charl’s work would have expected something as smart as Freehand to go solo with.

He is celebrating two decades as concert pianist in both classical and jazz  spheres. This is not typical but from the start (and I witnessed his first jazz competition in which he competed against some of the top young talent in the country, achieving a brilliant second place), he felt comfortable in both spaces. “I have had true musical satisfaction in combining my passion for various styles in crossover arrangements for multiple projects with my trio, with orchestra or solo,” he writes in his album notes.

This one specifically captures his own voice – an important step for especially solo artists. He describes this way of playing piano almost like an artist doodling or a chef who after a particular stint in the kitchen would crave comfort food not fine dining. And once he knew this was what he was going to do, he turned to fellow musician, the Trio’s drummer, Peter Auret, who is also an award-winning recording engineer, to record this pet project. It took three solid days of spontaneously improvising at the Etienne Rousseau Theatre in Sasolburg  – no rules, no preconceived ideas.

They have worked together before and the reason Charl is comfortable with this particular artist is that he feels no judgement. This was a project that felt very personal, a statement as a first solo album, but Charl also needed it to be far removed from critics, purists and conservatives.

Living and working in this world, especially in South Africa, he knows the pressures. It’s a tiny but hugely critical community and can sometimes inhibit artists to try something new – the essence of being an artist. By chance I heard some critics talk about his first Freehand performances and it was clear that he had found something truly unique to share with an already adoring following. But that’s how you get there.

Once the recordings had been made, the process was still on-going. “I left it before listening for five months because I needed some breathing space and distance,” he explains. Then he was called to choose some tracks because these improvs didn’t yet have titles. Following the completion of the album, which then had to be performed, he had to relearn the pieces that had flowed from his imagination.

“I couldn’t even recognise some of the pieces when I listened to it the first time,” he says. “This is what I love about spontaneous music making: the unpredictable journey, the freshness, the honesty, the energy, the enjoyment,” he concludes in his album notes.

The success has been sweet and he walked off after that Aardklop run with the best musical production award. Something that has been rewarding too which he didn’t take into account was the mobility of the project. “I’m reaching different audiences because I can pack up, travel and play,” he says – from Upington to Vleesbaai and from Shanghai to Switzerland.

Charl knew early on  that he didn’t want to travel the typical classical route. He needed to find a voice that would catch the fancy of audiences – worldwide. He has done exactly that on a stage, probably the most difficult in the world. This is storytelling without words and demands that the audience truly use their imagination.

With all his different projects, Charl has made sure of that – and now for the first time, he hopes to capture them with a very personal story. Listen and make up your mind. I think it is difficult to resist.

For more detail and dates, check

“The Alchemy of Words” plays with different disciplines creatively


alchemy of words

Photographer: Dee-Ann Kaaijk

After premiering with a sold-out run at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, Naomi van Niekerk’s The Alchemy of Words will be touring Southern Africa: landing in Johannesburg at the Market Lab’s Ramolao Makhene theatre from Thursday to 1 October, on 5 and 6 October at Cape Town’s Theatre Arts Admin Collective, 11 October at CCFM in Maputo and on October 14 and 15 at the Etienne Rousseau Theatre in Sasolburg.

Arthur Rimbaud, says Van Niekerk, for those who don’t know, is regarded as the ‘enfant terrible’ of French poetry who published his first immortal poem at the age of 16 only to completely abandon writing poetry at the age of 21! During this short period he managed to create a body of work that has had a profound impact on the poetry of his own time and on that of the 20th Century. André Breton, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Jim Morrison are some of the artists and musicians that have been influenced by his writing.

Who is this literary pioneer and creative genius who continues to receive letters from fans all over the world even 123 years after his death?

I am now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working at turning myself into a seer… The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering but one must be strong and be born a poet… – Arthur Rimbaud, 1871.

In The Alchemy of Words, three artists from different disciplines –puppetry, film and music – search to capture the enigma of this French poet and what it means to be a pioneer. It aims to be an immersive experience that combines artistic projections, puppetry and live music inspired by the diverse imagery from Rimbaud’s poems – smoke filled battlefields, the lush countryside of the French Ardennes, colourful vowels, crimson seas and more.

Naomi van Niekerk

Van Niekerk’s personal affinity to Rimbaud started when she studied for three years in a small town in northern France, Charleville-Mézières which also happens to be the birth town of Rimbaud. His face is everywhere and all the shops are named after him. “I discovered his poetry and started translating it from French with a dictionary (as part of learning the  language) and was intrigued though I never really got into it, it was too complex!”

If you have seen any of Van Niekerk’s collaborations, you will know that she works in a unique way. “I don’t describe or see myself as a theatre-maker. I’m an artist and performance is one of the mediums I work with,” she explains.  “I’ve always been working in many mediums such as scenography, puppetry, filmmaking and most recently printmaking. I was always drawn to shadow puppetry because it fits into a frame like a graphic novel and within that frame anything is possible. My light box gives me the same freedom – to create a world in a frame without needing too much. In my case some sand, cardboard and scissors… I also love to draw, its an obsession that started when I studied in France and could not speak French, it was a way of communicating ideas and absorbing new experiences.”

Experiencing her work on stage is like seeing many different artworks appear and disappear as you watch them being made.

partners at play

With The Alchemy of Words, she collaborates with two artists, composer Arnaud van Vliet (a regular collaborator) and puppeteer Yoann Pencolé, someone she studied with in France. It wasn’t an easy process because of living on different continents, but Van Vliet who is also the dramaturge of the piece, selected a series of Rimbaud poetry and set it to music. During a short time together in June (just before the National Arts Festival where the piece premiered) Pencolé and Van Niekerk would work out scenes which Van Vliet would see in the evenings and critique. “The music existed before we started and so did many of the projected imagery. Our challenge was to create a narrative thread,” explains Van Niekerk.

While she is currently hooked on film, she enjoys working in different mediums and the one feeds off the other. “With theatre it feels like I’m taking my prints/drawings off the gallery walls and into the street, making it accessible to a broader public than the elite Fine Art community. Theatre is a shared experience that happens once, within a specific framework of time. The performance then continues to exist in the memory of the audience.”

She believes that The Alchemy of Words has wide appeal. “Some people connect with the words of Rimbaud’s poetry, others enjoy the visuals and the music and we’ve had some fantastic responses from children as well. Anyone who would like to engage with imagery and poetry on both emotional and intellectual level, should see it.”

“This is one of my goals – giving the public a memory that they can linger on.”

  • This collaboration between South African and French artists was made possible by the generous support of the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS)