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Philip Miller Explores Power And Language As Form of Control And Oppression

William Kentridge’s large-scale theatre production, “The Head and the Load” had a profound impact on South African audiences during its brief home run at the Joburg Theatre.
May 18, 2023
9:11 am
The Head & The Load - photo credit Stella Olivier

The Head and the Load is a layered, technically sophisticated work that portrays the alarming, untold narrative of African soldiers who served as porters and carriers in the First World War.


The production, with music composed by Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi, is a phenomenal compilation of harmonious and clashing images, sound, and performance, drawing on historical events, philosophical ideas, musical and artistic expression of the period, multiple languages, power, and political maneuvering.


The Nollywood Reporter spoke to the composer, Philip Miller, recently in Johannesburg.


“What I was engaging with was very essential questions,” Miller, said. “I had to ask myself about the world of sound I was trying to imagine that obviously went beyond the sound of warfare but, of course, included the sound of the cacophony of war,” he added.


It was the end of the era of Romanticism when the First World War broke out. Composers were confronted with the horror of war and, according to Miller, which led to the atonalism and modernism.


Philip Miller in studio

Miller was interested in how musical elements of beauty and melody collide with the sound of war and disturbance. “I was constantly working within this tension between dissonance and more melodic, beautiful sound, and the hangover of the colonial world within Africa,” Miller revealed.


The black and white moving procession at the back of the stage includes several images of old-fashioned gramophones being carried by African soldiers. Miller explained: “There is a really interesting anecdote which became a visual motif and a sonic motif in the work and that was gramophones and those old horn gramophones you see being carried.”


The British Philanthropic Society used to send a variety of goods to African soldiers or porters, including gramophones with recordings, Miller expounded further. “They sent accordions; melodeons; cards; checkers boards and drafts, and all sorts of objects,” Miller said.


What kind of music was being played? “Remember the beginnings of recording also happened at that time. So, I was interested in the fact that probably there was quite a lot of ragtime jazz from America being played in Africa.”


The cross-pollination of music intrigued Miller. “I was interested in the different sonic worlds and how they intertwined or collided with each other,” he said.


Miller tried to imagine the songs that the porters in the trenches would have sung.


“There is so little documentary evidence because of the kind of racist structure of how things were written down historically,” Miller explained.


Credit_ Alex Markow – Dambuza Nqumashe in The Head and The Load

“I musically imagined things, like the idea of war going all the way back to Zulu war cries and the Amabutho songs. Then I also thought of songs that might have been played or sung in a tavern, Miller said. The moment in the production where a kwela-type song is played by trumpet players who jump out of a box, is an expression of this.”


Miller grappled with the notion of sound going backward and forward between Europe and Africa. “The modernist atonal music that was coming out of Western Europe is also part of an African sound world, so I wanted to break this idea of there being two different sound worlds,” he said.


To demonstrate this musical reciprocity, the exquisite singer Ann Masina sings Je te veux, a song composed by Erik Satie. “The intention was to convey that internationalism was also happening at that time,” Miller said. Continuing, he asked: “So why would a Black singer not have learned some Satie or even have performed in a concert in Europe?” To this, he proffered an answer: “It is very important for us to look at these paradoxes of musical worlds.”



Extensive historical research went into composing the music for the production, “I have always been interested in history and that has led to me looking at histories that have been either suppressed or hidden, and trying to explore those histories in ways in which music can do.”


From set choreographers to set and lighting designs, to cinematographers, to projection designers, to video editors, to singers and performers, Kentridge’s ways of working is to build long-term collaborations. This allows for a working environment, where each member of the team is free to contribute their creative ideas and to mould and shape the production.


In the workshops, everything is happening at the same time, Miller explained. The filming and the filmmaking, the images and the projections are happening at the same time as William is moving actors on the stage.


“We are testing things out constantly” Miller said. “There is an organic process and, of course, many of the people – almost all the people who work with William – are long-time collaborators. This is a truly collaborative work in that everyone is creating a work together. Obviously, William will give an overall structure, but really this is a collaboration between a group of creative people,” Miller said.



Miller has close relationships with singers and performers in the production, who, he said he has known “for a musical lifetime.”


“Often, I will sketch some ideas and hand them over to a singer or a musician to interpolate or improvise around. It is a conversation, a dialogue.


In his research, Miller came across a dictionary which was used during the time of the war called, Swahili Phrase Book for Beginners.


“I imagined that there would have been soldiers or people in colonial army regiments speaking Swahili to some of the soldiers in East Africa,” Miller said.


He searched for phrases that were in imperative form which were of interest from the perspective of the relationship between language and power. In a fascinating interaction between Ann Masina and Joanna Dudley, Swahili words are thrown back at the colonialist, who is forced to repeat them.


“It was a way of taking words and the power of words and using them in a musical way to actually play with this notion of power and language as another form of control and oppression,” Miller said.


Elements of a previous production with Kentridge informed The Head and the Load, Miller explained, describing a project on the banks of the River Tiber in Rome, entitled Triumphs and Laments, which incorporated long processions over a 500-metre walkway. “The idea of shadows walking and moving was a fascinating idea for both of us,” Miller said. “We were interested in the idea of sound that travels and movement and processions and walking and I think that kind of came through into William’s head when he started this project.”



The extra-long stage on which the production is performed had implications for Miller’s musical composition. “I had to keep an eye on the idea of different sound worlds happening at different points of the stage, and that is what I tried to do. Often, in the composing or the performing, we allowed different things to happen simultaneously,” he explained.


The opening in South Africa was an extraordinarily moving experience for Miller because the history had been hidden for so long. “We were presented with a particular way of viewing the First World War which came from a very particular colonial, European perspective and for the first-time audiences were given an opportunity to understand the incredibly complex, difficult, and horrifying things going on in Africa due to the colonial wars that were happening in Europe. It’s all in the work,” Miller said.


The production ends with silence and the actor, Hamilton Dlamini, reading a list of the dead. It’s an opportunity for collective acknowledgement, Miller explains.


“It’s a shocking piece of history,” he said, adding that he hopes it resonates with everyone who sees it.


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