Triumphs and Laments

William Kentridge has created an epic frieze with ninety figures, some as high as thirty-two feet, along the banks of the Tiber.  This gargantuan work explores the contradictions of the Eternal City, from its myth-laden past to the present. The frieze was inaugurated with performances, conceived by Kentridge and the composer Philip Miller, on April 21 and 21, 2016, Rome’s 2,769th birthday. This piece, a thirty-minute-long procession along the banks of the Tiber, featured two bands with a mix of African and Italian musicians, along with two hundred volunteers.

Philip Miller:

To make this work, I have created a “stereophonic” effect, with simultaneous playing by two musical processions of singers, brass players and percussionist walking towards each other from two opposite positions along the river Tiber and in front of the frieze on the walls. One procession is an expression of triumph, the other of lament.  This stereophonically guided shape serves as the structure and form of my composition.

As my starting point, I chose to examine the Hebraic liturgical songs of the late Renaissance Italian and Jewish composer Salomone Rossi from Mantua.  His madrigal  “Al Naharot Bavel” (Hebrew: By the rivers of Babylon) based on the text of Psalm 137 from the Book of Exodus spoke to me not only of oppressed nations forced into exile, but also of ensuing nationalism and violence.

There are other motifs from the past and the present that are relevant to the human stories that are being performed and find voice in in the arrangement:  a slave song from Mandinkan West Africa, an ancient Southern Italian melismatic (the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession)  folk songs  and a Zulu battle song.

All these themes of humanity at its best and its worst have inspired my music for this imposing ceremony as much as has the beauty and magnificence of the city of Rome.

Programme notes for Triumphs and Laments. Video of the performance below: