Introducing Philip Miller

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On Monday April 26, Q2 spotlights the music of South African composer Philip Miller as part of our monthly series of weeklong Composer Introductions. Listen in for a fresh infusion of musical discoveries; download from above his piece Felix in Exile; and read below Sounding Out the Image, an essay written by Miller for Q2 on his collaboration with the versatile artist and director William Kentridge.

Miller also recently stopped by the studios to speak with WQXR's Abbie Fentress Swanson about his approach to music-making and his fruitful partnership with Kentridge, in honor of the artist's ongoing exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York City. Hear interview excerpts below, and read the full report: A Look at the Sound Man Behind Kentridge's Films.

How do you get started composing a piece?

Talk about working with provocative political artists, including William Kentridge.

How do you want to engage with the listener?

Sounding Out the Image: Talking to myself about working relationship with William Kentridge by Philip Miller

It was in 1993, William Kentridge visited me at my flat in Helvetia Court Yeoville, Johannesburg, to ask me whether I would compose a piece of music for a film he had just made entitled "Felix in Exile." I remember putting the video cassette into the VCR machine with William present in the room and for the very first time watching his charcoal drawings evolve and move from one image to another. Smudges and erasures, objects and landscapes miraculously formed and fell away, appearing and then disappearing. There were images I had never seen before: bodies being covered with newspapers in the landscape, mine dumps and monumental pylons arising out of the Johannesburg highveld scrub.

While I watched the film, it felt to me as if William’s visual language was familiar. It was like a foreign language where the sound of the words were familiar but the meaning was not apparent.

When I had finished watching, William broke the news to me. He had edited the film to the slow movement of the Dvorak String Quartet in F, Op. 96, “The American.” This is a sublime piece of music. My heart just sank. He told me it was merely a guide which seemed to work "pretty well" with his film but he thought that he would like something new perhaps. I gulped and said I would try and compose something for him, and this was the beginning of our working relationship and friendship. I wrote the music for "Felix in Exile" on an old upright piano in my flat. It was composed for string trio. I had no computer then, just a pencil and music manuscript paper and an erasure.

It seemed that, like William, I too needed to rub out a lot!

Every few days. William would come to visit me at my flat and I would sit at the piano and play him ideas and fragments. I would say to him. “Imagine that this melody is played by a violin. Imagine that these chords are played by a cello.”

This went on for a few weeks until William felt that the music I had composed was working for his film. I dived head first into the recording studio (I had never before recorded live instruments in a professional sound studio.) We recorded the music for "Felix in Exile" in one day. We were a strange team. I would interject, asking a musician to play with more vigor or expression. He would constantly be looking at the film on the TV monitor, sometimes beating out the rhythm to himself. Much later in the day, as the more painstaking part of mixing the music and fine-polishing the recording took place, he would lie slumped on the couch, with his eyes closed. I was never quite sure if he was asleep or listening with his eyes closed or both.

Little did I know that once I had finished recording the music, this would not be the end of the process at all. Together with William’s long time editor, Catherine Meyburg, my composition was cut and re-cut, bars removed, bars added, layers added, layers subtracted, some parts made softer, others louder, sound effects underscored, then a haunting traditional song sung by the South African vocalist Sibongile Khumalo was added. And finally the music was put back together again. What had happened here? I was shocked. Stunned. This was sacrilege! And then self-doubt hit me. Had I failed in the end? Why was the piece not being used in the film just the way I had composed it?

After all, a serious composer composes a piece of music and when it is complete, it is inviolable. Each note, each bar, each sound, each dynamic marking is there with absolute certainty and precise thought.

Slowly, over time, as the film entered into the public realm, I came to understand that I had succeeded with the music for "Felix in Exile." William had found in my music an emotional voice for his images. His background in the theater draws him to music which creates a meta-narrative to his films and gives an emotional subtext in which the images are embedded.

The power of this two-way relationship between music and image had initiated a dialogue. We were seeking out a common language together. It was clear to me that each medium could shape the other.

In retrospect, I can share with you that writing music for "Felix in Exile" has been the hardest project with William on which I have ever worked. But William had presented an exciting challenge that I was not ready to walk away from. And so here began the beginnings of forming a working relationship where trust would be an integral part of making art together.