Paeans of pain-filled hope return

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Wrenching cantata based on TRC testimony takes to the stage again, writes Robyn Sassen

By Robyn Sassen 

When a brief season of composer Philip Miller’s REwind was announced in Johannesburg three years ago, the news spread like wildfire – and the performances were all sold out in a matter of hours.

“It was phenomenal how a choral cantata about the stories told during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission caught the imagination of theatregoers,” Miller recalls.

Now the work is back in Cape Town, where it originally began “in its roughest form”.

On December 16, the Day of Reconciliation, 2006, REwind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape & Testimony was performed for the first time, in St George’s Cathedral.

“It connected with the community in a way that convinced me there was something special going on with it,” said Miller. “It was the time of the Cape Town Minstrel – known colloquially as the ‘Coon’ – Carnival. Performers were rehearsing outside the cathedral. After a minute or so, the cacophony really worked in the madness of our society, with fragments of sound that collide.”

Miller, who switched from being a criminal lawyer to composing serious music, was inspired by writer Antjie Krog to compose a choral work about the truth commission. He used the form of a cantata, the musical setting of a text.

“It was not necessary for it to have religious overtones, but spirituality in its delivery was important. I chose to make it a cantata because I liked the idea of giving it a formal name,” Miller said.

“I created this work from the original TRC testimonies. They were not well recorded. They were not all in one language. It was important for me to make the work so that audiences knew what was being said in the testimonies.”

In the production, the testimonies become paeans of hope for the future of South Africa.

Four principal singers – in this case, Sibongile Khumalo, Otto Maidi, Stéfan Louw and Nozuko Teto – stand at the front of the stage. They are accompanied by a string octet which sits in front of a semi-transparent screen, on which work by Gerhard and Maja Marx is projected.

Behind this screen is the choir – consisting of members of the Cape Town Opera Voice of the Nation and the Heavenly Voices, who from time to time are lit to become eerily visible through the images.

Instead of using clichéd images of apartheid horror, REwind layers languages in translation to tell its tales – rewinding and replaying to enrich the aural and visual palimpsest and using images of ordinary things like a loaf of bread and a lace curtain to tell its stories.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said of the production: “The cantata brought together the cry of our country … It was a deeply moving, most powerful and uplifting experience … a contribution to nation-building.”

Explaining why the work had such brief and infrequent seasons, Miller said: “It’s a big production. There’s an 80-piece choir. It comprises high-quality multimedia displays that integrate with the performed music. The whole gesture of the work is big.”

And, of course, a production on such a scale is not feasible without funding. REwind has had a mix of sponsorships, including seed money from Spier in Cape Town and assistance from the Association of Atlantic Philanthropy.

“It’s ironic that our biggest funders are overseas,” said Miller. ” It’s given the work the chance to travel.

“For example, the cantata has also been staged in New York and London.

“It has been astonishing to see an African-American choir from Brooklyn sing with a mass college choir. Similarly, watching a choir of blue-rinsed English ladies in London learning how to toyi-toyi was fabulous. The work develops its own sense of dialogue and engagement; the material takes on another meaning. It is a living sound memorial which changes all the time.

“There are plans to make REwind mobile. The idea is to take it to every small town and dorpie in South Africa where there were TRC hearings. It would be performed in the town halls.

“It will need to be extensively reconfigured and will bring in the collaboration of church and community choirs in each town it visits. The project’s a long-term process.”

“REwind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape & Testimony” was funded in part by The Atlantic Philanthropies. 

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