Composer Philip Miller talks to Gwen Ansell about his many collaborations, including his work on the TV series Roots.
Many South Africans know that local music legend Caiphus Semenya provided compositions for the equally legendary 1977 TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s book Roots.
Those who tuned in to the remake of the series, which premiered in SA on DStv in June, may not have realised that the SA connection continues. Music for the first episode was created by Cape Town-based composer Philip Miller, and the musicians for it included percussionist Tlale Makhene and singer Siya Makuzeni.
Miller is perhaps best known here for his many collaborations with the visual artist William Kentridge. The most recent, Triumphs and Laments, involved two large bands playing as they marched towards one another beside the Tiber River in Rome, alongside a 500m-long Kentridge frieze. Created with choral arranger Thuthuka Sibisi, Miller’s music — played by ensembles including immigrants and refugees — spoke poignantly about exile and the impact of war.
But Miller is now becoming equally recognised for his soundtrack compositions, for both SA productions (Isibaya, Miners Shot Down) and overseas ones (Catch A Fire, Black Butterflies, Martha and Mary).
In Johannesburg to work with musicians here on a sound installation for the upcoming Darmstadt Festival in Germany, Miller talked about the different challenges of writing for film. "There’s a constant tension," he explained, "between choosing a sound palette that has integrity — in terms of location and history — and creating something that fits the emotions and the drama.
"And the needs of the drama most often come first."
Roots posed other dilemmas. Miller’s single episode aired first, but was recorded last: "so I had to herald themes written by composer Alex Heffes that would be carried through the series."
Initially, Australian director Phillip Noyce had contacted Miller (with whom he’d worked on Catch A Fire) merely for advice on historical West African music. "I didn’t have that specific expertise," said Miller, "but I could hook him up with scholars and griots.
"There was a real, respectful commitment from the production to creating an authentic soundtrack through research and listening to those who knew."
Later, though, Noyce contacted him again, this time to request music for the first episode. Miller initially demurred, but was persuaded: "I really respect Phillip as a director."
That didn’t mean the process was seamless. "Phillip had very specific ideas of what he and the network wanted and needed. There were more rewrites than I’ve ever experienced. We’d have conversations — he was in LA, nine hours and thousands of miles apart — in which I’d go: ‘Why do you hate my kora (a West African musical instrument)?’ and he’d say ‘No, I love it — but not for this scene.’"
Writing for the kora was complex in itself: "It has set tunings, so it’s hard, for example, to get a true minor sound," and the content of the film was harrowing for everyone working on it. "It shows the hard violence of racist colonialism, and it was a tough gig emotionally." says Miller.
Nevertheless, he’s satisfied with how the music worked. "Some moments soared.
"For example, there’s a scene when Kunta Kinte is whipped for insisting on his African name, where Madia Diabate’s kora and Makuzeni’s voice convey that defiance and pain magnificently."
Roots was the second TV drama in which Miller composed music relating to the West African coast and the early slave trade.
He also wrote the award-winning score for CBC series The Book of Negroes (based on the 2007 Lawrence Hill novel), which was partly filmed in SA, though aired here only in July.
That was a different task. Working on a complete series, rather than a single episode, meant the music could travel from early 18th century West Africa to Charleston, New York and Nova Scotia.
"I needed to develop a very early American sound palette for that: fiddle sounds, pre-blues and pre-spirituals — which disappointed me slightly, as I’d have loved to use those textures." The production approach was also different: "It was rather more an imagined African landscape, with the emphasis mainly on getting the feel of the music right."
However, Miller’s approach to both films had a common thread. "In both I tried to be understated, especially given the extreme realism of the violence in Roots. It feels emotionally manipulative to fill all the spaces with too much sound."
Miller believes the time is overdue for SA TV stations to move away from telenovellas and use the same rich pool of SA talent that Roots and The Book of Negroes drew on to create ambitious, serious drama.
"For me, it’s quite disappointing. We produce plenty of soapies, but until proper budgets come from broadcasters, we’re not going to be seeing the depth and vision of Roots, or The Wire. They happen because there’s real money going in."
SA may have to share Miller with the world (at least for now) but SA projects still form an integral part of his work. He has just collaborated with Makuzeni on a sound design project for the Women’s Museum in Pretoria. Workshops with women’s organisations around the country provided elements for a musical collage that gives agency to the voices of women: "These weren’t necessarily organised choirs, simply women singing — everything from humming, to chants, to toyi-toyi — incredibly powerful," Miller says.
Though the current SA base for the globe-trotting composer is Cape Town, the Darmstadt project brought Miller to Johannesburg for a day. That day took him from the gritty urbanism of Goud Street and Downtown Studios to the fast, flashy vibe of Rosebank and the Gautrain.
It made him wistful. "I miss this city," he says. He’ll be back.