Counting not by numbers but through music

Philip Miller’s music and William Kentridge’s art humanise people dehumanised in the archive of colonial bureaucracy, and fight the Nazi practice of reducing people to numbers and ciphers.

“I could never,” says Philip Miller, “be that isolated composer, stuck in a garret in the middle of a forest somewhere, writing music on my own and then telling somebody to play it.”

Cape Town-born Miller is reflecting on a quarter of a century of collaboration with visual artist William Kentridge. Miller created music for the video installations featured in the 40-year Kentridge retrospective Why Should I Hesitate? Putting Drawings to Work, which is at Cape Town’s Zeitz MOCAA gallery until March 2020. 

The experience, he says, can be distilled into one overarching gain: a vastly enriched appreciation for collaborative and collective working. The Zeitz exhibition provides, he says, “an important opportunity to step back, take a breath, and look at what it all means. Working with William is probably the most singular creative collaboration I’ve had.”

Seizing that chance

Miller didn’t start out aspiring to be the hermit composer in the garret. He loved art and music at school, was accepted for university studies in both, but eventually did the sensible thing and opted for law – without ever abandoning the dream of a creative career. In 1994, Free Filmmakers’ director Angus Gibson asked if he wanted to score the TV documentary Soweto: A History

“It was that crucial moment where somebody says ‘I’ll give you a chance’ – and, of course, I jumped.” The soundtrack was heard by Kentridge, who invited Miller to create the music for the animated short Felix in Exile on a shoestring budget: “Just me and William, a piano, a TV and a VCR machine in my flat in Yeoville.”

Related article:

Miller says he’s grateful he did not go “the individualistic B. Mus route” where the study of music is riven by divisions of role, genre and more. Entering composition via the world of moving image, where there are always multiple players, “thinking and creating collectively has felt natural from the start. It has never been a case of being handed visuals and being told to make a soundtrack.” 

Not that collective work is easy. “It’s both a joy and a monster,” he says. “You’re working with so many energies: sometimes riding them; sometimes falling off – because it’s unstable – people are shifting in relation to what’s in their own heads, as well as what comes from others.”  Kentridge’s projects allow “incredible space for that to happen, before, at a certain point, he steps in to make a choice from it all about what’s working.”

Creativity and Counting Numbers

Miller describes that creative process in action for one installation that will be at Zeitz: Counting Numbers, which grew from Kentridge’s large-scale 2018 Tate Modern work The Head and the Load. That told the story of the thousands of African soldiers who served, un-memorialised and only meanly compensated, in World War I. Artist and composer both did intensive research, “so by the time we came together, we were no longer tied to narratives of events and could explore.” 

Counting Numbers employs a different approach to the same archive of colonial bureaucracy and German ethnographic recordings of prisoner-of-war interrogations. “In the Head and the Load there was space to provide extensive context. Here, we can’t, and so we had to use those recordings in a different way. As William and I explored, the notion of numbers became central.” 

Miller lists the sources of those numbers: in the 2 000 recordings of the Humboldt University Lautarkiv, each man is ordered to count from one to 20 in his language; in the British bureaucratic documents everything sent to the “native” troops is itemised. “This is colonial history – counting ancestors, comrades, deaths – and it also speaks to the Nazi thing of reducing people to numbers and the meticulous record-keeping of atrocities.” 

Sharing those ideas with singers Bulelani Madondile and Lubabalo Velebayi led to their proposing additional strands of sound, including their own isiXhosa translation of the soldiers’ hymn Abide With Me. “That collaboration took the whole work to another, indescribably painful, level.”

Related article:

Working as Miller does, with found as well as composed sounds, inevitably raises questions about appropriation. “It’s always a fair question to raise,” says Miller, “and one I’m happy to discuss with anybody.” Again, he suggests that a sincerely collaborative approach makes the difference. “You must research, acknowledge the people a sound comes from, and what it means to them – and respect their ideas about how it is used.”

Last year, Miller created new brass-band marching arrangements of South African struggle songs for an Oaxaca university band, while he was in Mexico for the Kentridge work More Sweetly Play the Dance. He’d first worked with that material on the soundtrack of the 2006 film Catch A Fire

“Those songs helped shape the world I grew up in and live in now. With other countries that have resisted repressive regimes, they form part of a universal language. The Mexican musicians played me their struggle songs too, and that sharing got us all considering what a struggle song is and means, beyond the particularities of just one country. The musicians got so committed to the project that when we ran short of lyres [clip-on music stands] they went home and made their own.

“It’s a truism, but music does have that extraordinary capacity to build those kinds of connections. And words plus pictures intensifies that. When I was working in film – for example, on [TV series] Yizo Yizo – I loved the way you could change how an image was viewed with music, and vice-versa. That also fascinates William and both of us are committed to shared enquiry around that dialectic – that alchemy.”

7 August 2019: Composer Philip Miller at a recording studio in Norwood, Johannesburg.

On ‘going beyond’

Miller’s quarter-century career so far has spanned documentaries and TV and cinema dramas alongside the continuing, and still-central work with Kentridge. Recently he has begun working with dancers including Dada Masilo, for whom he scored a fresh Giselle, and is currently developing a new work exploring ceremonies, employing source rhythms from Setswana music. “The complexity of those is mind blowing,” he says, “musical brilliance on an extraordinary level.” 

Now he’s looking forward to two projects that take him into fresh territory, with visual artists Yinka Shonibare and Joy Gregory. In the latter, Gregory explores colonial routes of transportation and transformation through the movement of plants. 

“Changing landscapes, creating cheap food sources for slaves … That history is complex,” he says. “I’ve never understood people who don’t want to go beyond what they know to ask why. And I learned some of that ‘going beyond’ from my work with William.” The more diverse and challenging his collaborations, Miller concludes, the more he appreciates the imperative to research: “In my next career, I think I want to be an archivist!”

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.