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UBUNTU: Philip Miller on Paper Music

South African composer Philip Miller discusses Paper Music, his latest collaboration with visual artist William Kentridge, featuring a selection of films by Kentridge with music by Miller.

Paper Music

I started working with William Kentridge in 1993 on his film Felix in Exile, part of his Soho Eckstein series. Many years later, this strange, unpredictable process of putting music together with moving images continues to fascinate us: how a sequence of images is read when one piece of music is heard and conversely how the music is heard when a sequence of images is read; and how we hear music when one set of images is chosen over another. This is the journey we embark on when we work together as visual artist and composer.

Returning to some of these films for this particular concert series, configured for two singers and a pianist, has required me to listen to the music afresh. I wanted to avoid the joyless task of attempting to re-create a facsimile of the original recorded soundtrack on a live stage. Instead, I have critically listened again to the music, decoding and reinterpreting the sounds that glued these films. While an original musical motif may still remain in these new elaborations, sometimes even a new composition emerges. The recent texts from William Kentridge’s Norton Lectures have been intertwined into the music for some of his films with existing scores (e.g., Felix in Exile). These new musical interpolations once again change the meaning of these films.

Over the many years that I have composed music for the moving image, I have been struck by the musical grammar that has emerged: why I choose a particular rhythm, which becomes the motor or impulse for the motion of a moving object; and why the choice of a few chords in particular harmonic sequence creates a narrative, which is hidden in the absence of music and sound.

These powerful and intuitive tools are both compelling to me and also dangerous in the way they might close down a more open interpretation of the film. We all know how we can feel manipulated by a film score, where we start to feel the intrusion of a mournful violin at the scene when a romantic couple is parted.

The animated films of Kentridge allow a composer the space to suggest alternative narratives—emotions that may not even have been in his thought process when he drew these images. This gives an exhilarating but challenging sense of freedom not often found in the collaboration between composer and artist.

The newer films that are presented in this concert, which have evoked the title Paper Music, explores the relationship between sound and image, but in a more reduced and unmediated sense. Without characters moving through sequences of time and space, with no moments of “action,” we are left with fleeting fragments of pages turning, written texts, and abstracted marks. How the musical composition then begins to emerge now becomes less predetermined, more mysterious and surprising.

—Philip Miller

Paper Music
Philip Miller | William Kentridge
Monday, October 27 at 7:30 PM
Paper Music: A Ciné Concert by Philip Miller and William Kentridge
Zankel Hall

This is the latest project in an ongoing collaboration between the Johannesburg-born visual artist William Kentridge and his South African compatriot Philip Miller. Their artistic partnership dates back to Kentridge’s 1993 film Felix in Exile, part of his celebrated Soho Eckstein series for which Miller wrote the score. Paper Music features a selection of films by Kentridge with music by Miller, including three that were presented at the dOCUMENTA (13) exhibition as part of The Refusal of Time installation.

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