The Music of Triumphs and Laments

Philip Miller

The music for Triumphs and Laments is inspired by the masses of migrants trudging across Europe and the images we carry of them: mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters, and friends dragging their scant belongings from a place of terrible violence to a place of imagined sanctuary, a place that might become “home.” The migrants are, of course, not the first exiles, nor will they be the last. These are the processions of the 21st century.

As a starting point for my composition, I examined the liturgical songs of the late Renaissance Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi of Mantua. His madrigal Al Naharot Bavel, which is based on the text of Psalm 137 of the Book of Exodus, speaks to me not only of oppressed peoples forced into exile, but also of the nationalism and violence that surrounds this exile. The structure of my composition came from re-imagining Rossi’s songs being played stereophonically by two musical processions of singers along the waters of the Tiber. One procession is an expression of triumph, the other of lament, as the narratives of migration are tragic, but they can also be redemptive. I was imagining brass players and percussionists walking toward each other along the rivers of Babylon, or along the edges of the Red Sea, or indeed along the edges of Africa and Lampedusa, and encountering one another across great bodies of water.

As migrants leave loved ones behind, or make it to the hopeful “promised land” only to find a new world of difficulties, Triumph and Laments speaks across the water. Exploring the dissonances, harmonic shifts, and mottos off Rossi’s work, together with my co-composer Thuthuka Sibisi, I have broken down the composition into fragments, loops, and rhythmical motifs. I have extended moments of both dissonance and resolution, which evoke both lamentation and triumph that emerge from the two musical processions. Every triumphant musical phrase is answered by its counterpoint: music of mourning and darkness. I have also allowed the elaboration of Rossi to give way to eruptions where voices from both past and present come together to resonate within the sound-world of the processions: a Mandinkan slave song from West Africa combines with an ancient Southern Italian melismatic folk song and a battle-song of the Zulu warriors.

In the city of Rome, as in all European metropolises, the narratives of migration are inscribed in its stones. As we walked and played this music along the Tiber, I chose not to ignore the graffiti written on the embankment walls behind us, much of which has been erased in preparation for the project. Rather, I chose to incorporate these slogans– even if they were sometimes foreign or unclear and indecipherable–into a “call and response” chant between the two musical processions. This “sounding” of the erased graffiti brings visual traces into the musical palimpsest that shapes the composition, reminding us of the triumphs and laments of the present-day city that these inscriptions mark.

Finally, I chose the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke from his book Die frühen Gedichte (1909), to be recited and sung during the procession: “That is the longing: to dwell amidst the waves / and have no homeland in time.”*

*Rainer Maria Rilke, epigraph to Die fruhen Gedichte cited in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press, 1999) p. 551.


Published in C. Basualdo (ed), William Kentridge: Triumphs and Laments, Buchhandlung Walther Koenig: Berlin, 2017.