Sculpting music out of movement

Say “Arts Alive” and you don’t automatically think of experimental music.

The Jo’burg city festival, which started this week, has many strengths—accessibility, affordability and a strong diasporic perspective among them—but its wildly eclectic gaze has settled only rarely on the city’s vibrant new music scene.

Composer Philip Miller says: “I think there’s a very mistaken idea of ‘modern’ music as atonal, dissonant and somehow separate from the rest of the music world.” This year he gets his chance to turn that misperception around. With pianist Jill Richards, video director Gerard Bester and artist William Kentridge, he’ll present the project, Playing On Image, at Arts on Main as part of the festival.

Miller and Richards have worked together for more than 10 years. Their collaborations have been characterised by work with images, including a sound design to accompany Kentridge’s Nine Drawings for Projection. The first part of this Arts Alive project takes that aspect of their work further.

“Once we decided to do a concert, we looked at the films we hadn’t covered before,” says Miller. “Work by Kentridge and Deborah Bell—little 1990s’ jewels that had somehow got lost along the way.”

Richards says: “We looked at creating a sound-world that could relate to those images. I’ve got a big box of toys—glass, wire, vegetable brushes, all sorts of things—that help us to invent new sounds. That’s one aspect of the ‘playing’ in the concert title. We’re not doing foleys, not simply creating an accompaniment. And it also had to be something that could work for the Arts on Main space, which excites us both as offering a new environment for music.”

But the second part of the concert breaks completely new ground for the pair. It’s a series of sonic meditations on the act of playing piano.

“I started thinking about Jill and her physical and mental relationship to the piano. I’m fascinated by what goes on in a player’s mind, so I began asking her questions: What does it feel like when you start to play? And if you make a mistake?” says Miller.

From those conversations came a concept that braided together Richards actually playing the piano and words and images—live video feed captured from the performance—playing on a screen. The texts come from Richards’s answers to Miller’s questions and from the pianist’s collection of books on piano-playing. They quote Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter’s aphorism, “Play with a cold brain and a burning heart”, novelist Italo Calvino on music’s “lightness and exactitude” and Richards herself, “Time for you is not the same as time for me when I’m playing”.

And more words are still being invented. When I interview Miller and Richards in late August, Playing on Image is still a work in progress. They’re exchanging ideas based on Richards’s notion of piano-playing as “taming the lion”.

“You’re — er — what was her name? That TV woman who did dog-training?” asks Miller.

“Barbara Woodhouse,” she suggests.

“That’s it: you’re the Barbara Woodhouse of piano training. No, wait, I’ve got it! You’re the piano whisperer!”

If the text comes from flights of verbal fantasy such as these, the music comes from the choreography of the pianist’s body and what Richards calls “the geography of the piano”. One melody was suggested by an exercise for wrist mobility. “That rotational movement will be the basis of the composition,” says Miller. “I’m sculpting the music out of movement.”

“Some of this is stuff about playing I’ve known for so long that at a conscious level I’ve forgotten it,” says Richards. “The project has made me revisit my thinking around the integration of mind, body and spirit and try to articulate the experience of all those neural pathways firing.

“But,” she responds to a question about a description of the process, “I’d prefer you to call it playful, rather than post-modern. We really are playing on ideas and images about piano playing.”

They are uneasy about labels for their work that eliminate the creative fun or put them on a rarified pedestal. “I’m terrified of the word ‘composer’,” says Miller, “when it’s a label for someone who works only with notes and sound. I work now with image, with text and with theatre.”

“Everything we see is overlapping,” says Richards. “The arts talk to one another.”

Those conversations are why the Arts on Main space, with its galleries, bookshops and performance spaces, is such an appropriate venue for the concert. Richards presented Stockhausen’s Mantra at Arts on Main last year and was energised by the fresh listeners she found.

“Visually oriented people come to music with open minds. This concert will speak to anybody who’s interested in how images and sound can relate. There may be that initial fear with new music that you need to know lots before you can understand it, but actually all you need to bring are your ears.

New York Times, July 2007 by Steve Smith

“Bringing Life, Death and Sight to Sound”
Until fairly recently, composers who took on political topics tended to obscure their subjects through symbolism or misdirection. That we have lately grown accustomed to more straightforward reportage is generally credited to John Adams, who put arias into the mouths ofRichard M. Nixon and Mao Zedong.

Artthrob: US Premier of Philip Miller’s REwind

khumal-opera singer

Composer Philip Miller’s ‘REwind’, a Cantata for voice, tape and testimony, premiers in the US at the Celebrate Brooklyn Festival on Friday, July 6 at Prospect Park, New York.

Well known for his stirring musical contributions to the artist William Kentridge’s videos and theatrical pieces, Miller first premiered ‘REwind’ in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town in December 2006. It is a work for choir, orchestra and film, using recorded audio testimonies from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Gerard and Maya Marx have made extraordinary video sequences which will be projected with the music.

Internationally celebrated Sibongile Khumalo and Fikile Mvenjelwa are the soloists, and will be singing with the Total Praise Choir of the Emmanuel Baptist Church of Brooklyn, a group of ex-pat South Africans led by the Lion King choirmaster, Ron Kunene and the Williams College choir.


Artthrob: February 2007 by Sue Williamson

William Kentridge’s : “Black Box” at the Johannesburg Art Gallery
I made a special trip up to Jo’burg to see this one, and it was worth it, in every way. ‘Black Box’ is dazzling. It is still with me. Commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim, Kentridge constructed a model of a theatre to play out in old film clips, video animations and interventions by automated figures moving across the stage, the harrowing account of the decimation of the Hereros by the German colonists. Philip Miller is the composer who collaborated with Kentridge, and the 14 minute viewing experience is intense.

New York Times: February 2006 by Nathan Lee

“Surreal Love Triangle”
The animated “9 Drawings for Projection” is preceded by an overture sequence called “Journey to Moon,” a tip of the hat to the pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès.