Kalk-Bay based Philip Miller (pictured left) is an international composer and sound artist with an extraordinary body of work. His output is multi-faceted, often developing from collaborative projects in theatre, film, video and sound installations. He frequently works with artist William Kentridge, has won awards for film scores including Miners Shot Down, and his work is performed around the world.
Miller’s newest musical composition is a contemporary African take on the score for the South African choreographer Dada Masilo’s Giselle, which is currently touring Europe. We spoke to him about the project, and his upcoming work:
WeekendSpecial: You’ve created a new score for choreographer Dada Masilo’s version of Giselle. How did this come about?
Phillip Miller: Dada Masilo and I met working on Refuse the Hour, a collaborative production with the artist William Kentridge, in 2013.
WS: How would you describe her piece?
PM: It definitely does not follow this well known traditional ballet. Neither in the narrative or structure. I might call it a contemporary dance interpretation shaped by a South African perspective – a meditation on the traditional ballet, subverting and deconstructing both the content and form of the original ballet.
WS: To this end, you have “re-imagined” the original score and added a contemporary African feel. Please tell us more?
PM: I was given a lot of freedom to move quite far from the original score written by Adolphe Adam. Dada only asked me to quote a couple of themes – in particular she wanted me to work with Giselle’s “Mad Theme”. My compositional techniques were divers. I explored shifting the music from its orchestral palette – by working with electronic sampling as well as re-interpreting the music in the context of traditional African rituals. The traditional healer’s chants to the spirits are an example.
WS: And the process – did you work together creating the ballet and score as a whole, or was the choreography done first or vice versa?
PM: We worked together – it was contemporaneous – often creating musical ideas which Dada tested during her workshop process. There was an exchange of musical and choreographic ideas. I attended rehearsals and watched Dada and her dancers interpret and respond to the music. It was a really a mysterious and almost intuitive process.
WS: For Giselle performances, is it with live musicians or will your recording be used?
PM: The recording is used. Live performance with musicians is always first choice but the financial costs of touring this with a large orchestral ensemble were prohibitive.
WS: Is there any chance of the work being performed in SA in the near future – and where will it be in the meantime?
PM: Right now they are touring Europe and will be in the US next year.
WS: You started out life as a lawyer, we believe – how hard was it to make the shift to internationally acclaimed composer, and what did you do to make this happen?
PM: It was quite a natural progression for me. Composing and playing music was always a part of my life (I studied piano as a child).
I started off my law career working in entertainment law, which already gave me an entry into the world of performing arts and cinema. I met many people in the industry so all I had to do was convince them that I was a better composer than a lawyer! My first break came when I was offered to compose the score for the phenomonally popular TV series Yizo Yizo directed by Angus Gibson and Tebogo Mahlatsi. This certainly opened doors for me.
WS: Your work is often intricately entwined with other artists working in different genres – William Kentridge, of course, more recently Deborah Bell, and film directors such as Julian Jarrold and Jahmil XT Qubeka. Is a collaborative style your chosen way of working?
PM: I have not always chosen to collaborate. It was more that the kind of work I was offered as a composer was collaborative in nature – whether film music or dance etc. I do love the interesting shape that work takes when you work with collaborators who you respect and trust. For me this is always thrilling and there is always an element of the ‘unexpected’. For me the greatest joy is working in opera – the ultimate collaboration of all the artistic disciplines.
WS: What’s up next for you?
PM: I am working on a new multimedia project with Kentridge, The Head and the Load, but also preparing for an exhibition of sound installations for 2018.
Next performance: Roma Europa Festival 28 September to 1 October 2017