Composer Philip Miller

Composer Philip Miller

Cape Town Opera’s innovative TWO:30 consists of two new 30 minute contemporary operas. South African composer, Phillip Miller, composed one of these works. Philip Miller studied music composition and completed his postgraduate studies in Electro-Acoustic music composition for film and television at Bournemouth University. He has worked closely with the artist William Kentridge, written several film scores and collaborates on theatre and live performance events. He has been invited to present his works that he has collaborated with William Kentridge at the Paris Cinema Festival this year. ClassicSA interviewed his career.

Your new work Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Dictionary of a Mining Accident has just premiered in Stockholm and will premiere in Cape Town next week. What is the work about?

PM: It is a meditation of the subterranean world of mining, exploring and excavating the language of Fanakalo as a point of entry.

How did you do the research for this project?

PM: The Goethe Institute and German Public Radio commissioned me to make a sound work for radio in 2010 during the Soccer World Cup, in collaborartion with another composer, Lucia Ronchetti. This work involved interviewing miners, going down a mine and recording some of the sounds underground.  The current work moved away from the industrial sounds of a mine and focussed on archival documentation.I based the libretto on two sources: A 1967 Miners Dictionary of Fanakalo issued by the Transvaal Chamber of Mines and an old register of mining accidents from the 1930s, which was found in an archive from the WITS Cullinan Library.

How big is the cast, and what accompaniment do they have in this work?

PM: The cast consists of 8 singers - seven from South Africa, accompanied by a percussionist and strings. All the singers also play tuned miners picks which sound something like tubular bells. This amazing set of musical instruments was made by the ingenous Mark O Donovan from Odd Engineers who worked with me closely in creating the sounds.

Your work often tackles tough issues. Have you ever felt like exploring something completely frivolous?

PM: I think that when you live in South Africa and absorb what is going on around you, it is hard not to engage and be moved by the tough issues that everybody encounters in different ways,
Having said that, I can also have fun and love things that are silly, absurd and crazy. I once wrote a cabaret about Daisy De Melker, the murderess, for the actor Robert Colman - in drag.

You have collaborated closely with the artist William Kentridge. How has he influenced your work?

PM: I have learned a lot from William’s process and his ability to trust in not having all the answers when you make a work at the very beginning of the making process.
His calmness in the face of the pressures and the last minute crises of working in a live performance environment is something I admire and covet!

Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time, for which you composed the music, has been exhibited at the Tate Modern in London and is going on tour to Vienna, Paris and Melbourne. What did you involvement in this project entail?

PM: I worked with William in the conception of the work, together with a very talented group of collaborators: including Catherine Meyburg, the film editor, Dada Masilo, the choreographer and the physicist, Peter Galison from Harvard University who brought to the projects an understanding of the physics and history of time and space. The work begun with sound fragments and images which served as building blocks for both the Installation which was exhibited at Dokumenta and the live performance piece.

At the end of June you will be in Paris, France on invitation of the Paris Cinema Festival. Please tell us more about this.

PM: I will be performing the music to both new and old films from William Kentridges oeuvres.  What makes this special is that I am working with musicians who I love working with from previous projects - a pianist from Italy, Vincenzo Pasquariello, and Joanna Dudley an extraordinary singer, composer and performance artist from Berlin.

What does the increased international recognition mean for you and have you received an increased amount to commissions due to this?

PM: International recognition does not always translate into commissions from home, which is where my creative inspiration comes from and where I work. It’s still hard for work to be made. Because I work as a composer between the boundaries of video, theatre and performance art, I don’t always fit neatly into the category of ‘serious’ music composer who should be writing symphonies and string quartets.

You have composed extensively for film. Do you wait for visuals from the director before you start composing for this, or how do you approach this?

PM: I often start before the visuals are given to me, sometimes as early as at the script stage or at least when the film is being edited.  Some film directors find it useful to cut to a “temp score” or “guide track”, which tends to happen in the more commercial arena of film-making and can inhibit create music making.

Looking back to where it all started – were you already sure that you would become a composer as a child/teenager?

PM: I started off as a lawyer so for me, I jumped careers. Every day, I wake up saying to myself that I am lucky that I love what I do - making music.

You studied under Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph, Peter Klatzow and Joseph Horowitz. Which other composers had an influence in the development of your style?

PM: I think this changes all the time, depending on the project. I listen to a diverse array of music. For Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Dictionary of a Mining Accident I was listening to old archival recordings of Mine Dancing from the Hugh Tracey Collection, Benjamin Britten “ Noah’s Flood” and Heiner Goebbels: Surrogate Cities.

Your post-graduate studies were in electro-acoustic music composition. Many people are open to contemporary compositions when played on traditional classical music instruments, but not when they are performed on electro-acoustic instruments. Why do you think people have such a resistance to anything they do not know?

PM: I think these barriers are breaking down now and with the way young composers are emerging from so many different scenes – electronic dance music DJ-ing, computer software engineers now collaborate with singers, it seems that these boundaries are blurring.

Lastly, what music do you like listening to?

PM: It depends on the mood. Last night I listened to Stephen Sondheim’s Passion and then ended off with Janice Ian’s At 17- really schmaltz and teenage nostalgia!

TWO:30 will be performed by Cape Town opera , at secret location in Cape Town, on 13, 14 and 15 June 2013.

Published 10.06.2013
Interview by Christien Coetzee Klingler

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