Disinter & Reconfigure: A Conversation With Composer Philip Miller

 

Paper Music: A Ciné Concert Philip Miller and William Kentridge Carnegie Hall, New York City, October 27, 2014

Two works from the concert, “Emergency” and “Trio for Four Hands,” are on view at New York’s Marian Goodman Gallery through November 26, 2014

In “Emergency,” singers Ann Masina and Joanna Dudley mourn, “Whilst hoping and hoping and hoping… against hope—the world’s changed—the world’s stayed as it was—the word’s changed—the word’s stayed as it was. Unhappen.”

On October 27, Paper Music Suite, a witty, poignant, a gently subversive song-and-film cycle by composer Philip Miller and visual artist William Kentridge, made its U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall’s “UBUNTU: Music and Arts of South Africa” festival. Paper Music united films, mostly animations based on Mr. Kentridge’s charcoal and ink drawings, with live musical performances by Ms. Masina, Ms. Dudley, pianist Idith Meshulam, Mr. Kentridge, and Mr. Miller. In the first half of the program, the artists performed newly rescored works from Miller and Kentridge’s twenty-year collaboration, including a segment from The Refusal of Time, an immersive film/soundscape connecting colonialism, theories of relativity, and a monumental “breathing machine”(with editor Catherine Meyburgh and dramaturge Peter Galison; shown at dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013-14).

I asked Philip Miller to tell me about the processes and politics underpinning this extraordinary work.

Elements of Paper Music by William Kentridge

ALISON KINNEY: Your and Mr. Kentridge’s program notes comment on the narrative and grammar of music and image. Writers are always hammering at musicians and visual artists for the story, the language, as though only word-based forms existed. Do you want to push back against that, or are you happy with the “storytelling” concept for framing this work?

PHILIP MILLER: When you watch silent stop frame animation, you’re constantly aware of process—in William’s case, the rubbing out [because the charcoal animations create movement through drawing and erasure]. The moment sound is added, it smooths out. That smoothing out immediately allows us as the viewer to make a linear interpretation—but it isn’t linear, ultimately, because we’re constantly thwarting that, we’re pushing away from linear narration, pulling things apart.

I’m liberated from narrative by working with William, who’s fairly anti-narrative as an artist and filmmaker. He tends not to have a fixed dramatic arc with a set of characters, so, as creators, we never discuss narrative overtly at all. At some point, a loose structure links together, and right toward the end we talk about whether we can connect—or disconnect—things. That approach to moving image and sound is the antithesis of my work in the commercial film soundtrack world, where everything is guided by narrative emotion and aligns scenes with the needs of the film director.

There’s no doubt that in some of William’s earlier work, there are characters: in Tide Table, there’s the beautiful scene with the sea and issues of HIV in South Africa, and in Other Faces, two protagonists collide with each other in cars, there’s an explosion of rage. The music does bring an emotional narrative that underlies the work.

In “Looking at a Tree/Waiting for the Sibyl,” one page reads, “DISINTER/RECONFIGURE.” Is that what’s going on with the new scores for the older films: Tide Table with its ocean and seagull sounds, a bell, rattle, whistling, a flight of Chopin on the piano, and Franco Luambo’s “Likambo Ya Ngana”; in Other Faces, the singers create a grassy, whiffling, chirping vocal soundscape, Ms. Dudley spins a creaking bike wheel, and Ms. Masina sings arguments in Xhosa, megaphones, and impact noises.

Ann and Joanna are from different worlds. Joanna’s from the Berlin contemporary modernist music scene; she does these extraordinary voice sounds. Ann’s from Johannesburg; she’s got a very versatile voice—gospel, traditional music, and opera—with a strongly improvisational background. We associate Sprechgesang [a vocal stylization, loosely used to refer to speak-singing] with spending years at conservatory, but that tradition of speak-singing is part of South African culture. The two of them come together and do the same thing from two different approaches. For Ann, those chirpings are part of her vocal language, which I tapped into, and then Jo listened and responded through a learned process.

The operatic piece comes from a Schubert song, Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel). We were looking at questions of time, and that song had a rolling, compulsive quality. I’d been listening to a series of Schubert lieder, I played a section to Ann, and we found a section we could connect with. It developed into operatic form, because opera is very much a part of South African culture.

The Western notion of the operatically classical voice has transplanted to South Africa in interesting ways. There’s a strong group of opera singers, a good opera school, and, because of the history of colonial mission stations and missionary choirs, a tradition of choral singing’s been carried on for a few hundred years. So the opera singers have a European tradition that’s been reformed and redeveloped in South Africa. I’m interested in the drama of the voice: working in South Africa with incredible artists and performers, but also the voice itself, the timbre, what the voice brings to the way we look at things: The vocal gestures, sighs, chirps, the spaces, the non-verbal cues and little things in-between words.

The film components of “Sonnet (so long as men can breathe)” and “Trio for Four Hands” show Mr. Kentridge’s hands painting abstract calligraphies on moving paper rolls. In your program essay, you say that musical grammar is “both compelling to me and also dangerous in the way [it] might close down a more open interpretation of the film.” Do you want to talk about the possibilities that music and sound offer, in a work that claims no linguistic authority? And what film should teach us about how to listen?

When the films are abstract, like the later films of Paper Music, the music is providing its own emotional narrative, but it’s a kind of meta-narrative, rather than a literal narrative or development.We’re much more geared toward moving images, in literary writing and criticism, because we have a better language for that. Music and sound are seen are a more discrete discipline. Fewer people feel they’re able to talk about music; there’s more of a divide between those who play or make sounds and those who listen.

But sound adds another layer of meaning to the way we watch something. Particularly if you’re working in a fairly abstracted form, often sound allows you to think about light, movement, and color. Those metaphors we use for art can apply, in shorthand, to talking about music: the color of a sound, the timbre’s having color, while the rhythm is about movement, gesture, and light. All of those elements that make up music become interesting, once you’re working with abstract image-making.

This leads to the essence of Paper Music, which was intended to be non-narrative, to allow William to respond to music and sound. How that was done was that he chose a piece of music and responded by marking a paper roll with his black ink paintbrush, to the sound he was listening to. That was filmed. That film was then handed to me, without sound. I then looked at those markings and responded with music. So I was creating a musical structure for those marks, which then stood as a work on its own.

With “Sonnet,” William read a poem [Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18]. I recorded it; I took the rhythms of each phrase, the way the poems scanned, the rhythms of phrasing, and wrote the piece to that. Then he took the music and responded in his mark-making, in a three-way process. I suppose we see the mark-making in a particular way: a thick, dark mark creates a feeling of violence, enforced by the music, or working against it. All the ways we can work visually we can juxtapose with the ways we work with music; all these elements of composition apply to the moving image and the making of marks. So in its most simple form, what if you put the sound of a saxophone to a set of moving images, or a trumpet? Or put that same mark to 1960s modernism, or a medieval plainsong: how are you going to read it? It’s always about referring to emotion in terms of cultural linking and referencing.

 

 

For the new piece “iBook (uses of a tree),” Ms. Masina teaches Ms. Dudley the Fanagalo words for book, table, smoke, pencil, ashes, and gibbet; the recitation and the accompanying film images begin to rush and diverge. What’s being represented in these gaps?

William sent me a set of texts, his little aphorisms I call them, over email: “Uses of a tree: a book, a pencil, a table, ashes, smoke,” and then, “a gibbet.” At the time I was interested in language dictionaries; I’d found an old Fanagalo dictionary in an old shop in Johannesburg. I was thinking about lists of words and transliterations, and then I just responded. I thought, hmm, I’m going to play with terms of translation. I gave the song to him as a recording. He responded with a series of pages. At some point, he put them out of sync, and he could never catch up, so he did stream-of-conscious drawings on that basis. He allowed it to become its own crazy, mad thing; he wasn’t going to reflect it, or do full illustration. Do you know about Fanagalo?

Just as a lingua franca used by miners?

Fanagalo comes from the mines, but it got used in the context of domestic households under apartheid. So the white head of the family would often speak to the black servant in Fanagalo. It’s a language of orders: go wash the clothes, go tidy up, you do, you must, all in imperatives. So I took it and reversed it, so Ann is teaching the language to her “madam.” Then she says, “You did this very well,” the kind of line that would be said by a white woman 20 years ago.

Let’s talk about your new opera, Extracts from the Underground.

For the 2010 World Cup, I was asked to do a piece about Johannesburg, and I thought about the fact that it’s a city built from the wealth of gold mines. To do a piece about the city, I needed to think about the sounds underground, so I went down a mine. After a series of calamitous experiences—my recording equipment wouldn’t work, I was suffocated by the heat and darkness—after four hours of that, I’d recorded nothing. And those things can be positive. Rather than the sounds I’d thought I wanted to use—the mechanical drilling and mining—I started to think about what else is down there: the human voice, Fanaglo being spoken.

So I worked with a group of choral singers from the Zulu isicathamiya tradition of a capella singing. In the process of workshopping, they developed the sounds of the mine, a siren, the voice of a rock—

“the voice of a rock”?

—yes, the voice of rock formations, cracking rock. Miners have amazing terminology for rocks. In particular, rock drillers are skilled at listening to rock underground; the sounds connote things that may or may not happen when you stick dynamite in. Those all became the building blocks of the piece. I developed it into an oratorio, then exhibited it, so it played out in the street. Those sounds and phrases in Fanagalo, some were painful and powerful: I’m hungry, Give me the money, those were from the dictionary. Other pieces were colloquial slang for being underground.

Then fast-forward to two years ago, to the killing of mine workers at Marikana outside Johannesburg, the platinum mine, where police shot down 41 people, over a few days, at the labor protests. So for the past year or two, I’ve developed this, to reflect the archive, and to tell what’s happened to mine workers two years ago.  

“Panther (for Rilke)” layers the poem, read in German by Mr. Kentridge, and breathlessly recited by Ms. Dudley, lyrics (“caught in the charcoal dust,” “the world consists of the turning of the film reel, the pacing of the panther”), Ms. Masina’s percussive and operatic vocalizing, and the film of a caged panther. Would you like to excavate this?

It was very exciting. I’d read bits of William’s Norton lectures at Harvard, then I heard him deliver them in Hamburg, this amazing two-day marathon. In one he spoke so eloquently about “The Panther” by Rilke, and he read it in German. “This could be such a beautiful song,” I said, “send me the lecture notes.” And when I asked him to read it to me, there was something that related back to “iBook,” a list of adjectives describing the panther. The words became an earworm, repeating over and over, like the cyclical repetition of the film moving. So I gave those words to Joanna to sing, and together we repeated them over and over. Then I said, “Let’s try to say them in one breath,” so she literally gasps. So why do these things end up like this? Through trial and experimentation.

Working with William has allowed me to know that while there are processes I think could be interesting, I seldom know the outcome. I have to trust the process, trust that some things don’t work, but you shouldn’t fear that, just say, “Let’s see what happens.” An element of chance or risk, because you’re not aware where it’ll end. It’s not like some compositions, where you know where every note will land, soft or loud. With none of this work did I have any idea, when I started, what I’d end up with. Not one in the Paper Music Suite.

Alison Kinney's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Avidly/LARB, New Criticals, Hyperallergic, Narratively, Madcap Review, The Hairpin, Salon, The Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories, The Literary Review, Blue Mesa Review, Gastronomica, and the opera blog Operagasm. She received an MFA from The New School and has subscribed to the Metropolitan Opera for ten seasons.