William Kentridge: Slow Music for Fast Action, and Other Conundrums

The South African giant at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, and the Metropolitan Opera

A scene from Alban Berg's Lulu, which Kentridge directed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, 2015. KEN HOWARD/METROPOLITAN OPERA

A scene from Alban Berg’s Lulu, which Kentridge directed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, 2015.


Last year, Carnegie Hall audiences experienced a heavy dose of South African wonder man William Kentridge, plying his tricks and talents, mind and matter, as part of “Ubuntu, the Music and Arts of South Africa,” his homeland. Turning Carnegie Hall into a warm and cozy setting, he began his performance by demurring that he felt somewhat out of place there since he’s an artist and not a composer and the production was billed as an opera—sort of. Which led him to a recollection of a New Yorker cartoon in which an elephant sits down at a piano and tells how uncomfortable he feels performing, because, as he explains, “I’m not a pianist“ (pause) “I’m a flautist.”

Even though Kentridge is not a composer himself, he partnered here with one, his longtime collaborator Philip Miller, in “a Cine Concert.” The heady pastiche in this program, called Paper Music, consisted, as Kentridge wrote in the Playbill, of “New music for old drawings. Recent music with recent films. New music written for films yet to be made.” And besides Miller, there were singers Joanna Dudley and Ann Madina and pianist Idith Meshulam—all masters of breathtaking (theirs, literally) otherworldly special effects.

Almost vaudevillian in wit and amplitude, the opera featured singers who stretched their vocal cords to mimic the sounds of musical instruments, home sirens, and animals; clips from Kentridge’s animated silent movies at once frightening, absurdist, and reminiscent of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin; and exciting disruptions of his animation The Refusal of Time, in which metronomes do their own thing scrambling rhythms and demonstrating how one set of stimuli affects the perception of others. “There is a way,” Kentridge writes, “in which one is constantly listening to the music and trying to make a connection between the outside world and what one is feeling and seeing.”

The effects of what we hear (music) and what we see (slow music for fast action and vice versa, sad music for playful images) in all aspects of his work engage and confuse us, taking him and us from one fictitious time and place to others.

William Kentridge and Dada Masilo in Refuse the Hour at Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2015. STEPHANIE BERGER

William Kentridge and Dada Masilo in Refuse the Hour at Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2015.


Similarly, the performance included fake and reversible action as in Kentridge’s flip books—in music that could be inverted and played backward, slowed down, repeated, and then moved forward, and in the case of the artist-author on stage (reality) intervening in the fiction on screen, where he also talks to himself, his double. So time itself doesn’t really exist. The past is always present in the future, and it’s therefore appropriate that the new work in this program included the old pieces that are, obviously, works in progress.

So much of this has been considered and reconsidered and amplified in Refuse the Hour, another chamber opera, which ran through October 25 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Similarly, this multimedia production with dramaturgy by physicist Peter Galison, is so imbued with simultaneity that the discordant parts almost drown out one another. Kentridge’s drawings and animations, as always, capture our attention and imaginations, while the music, composed by Miller, controls and agitates us. This work extends into physics, mythology, magic, art history, science, and the nature of the universe, for starters. Everything else, seen and unseen, is there as well.

Megaphones are multipurpose props, for amplified singing, speaking, sounding off, and for serving as as arms and legs for dancers performing time as clock hands—time to talk, to sing, to move, and to keep count to the relentless beat of metronomes. Reality, myth, and history continue to interact relentlessly and inconclusively. The stylized choreography by Dada Masilo and video design by Catherine Meyburgh amplify the narrative.

As the character of himself, Kentridge begins with a lecture/memoir addressing, in particular, entropy and black holes, relating first the story of when he was eight and his uncle regaled him with myths, whose supernatural events and characters remain as predictable and unpredictable as history itself.

William Kentridge's Lulu recumbent appears in his recently published artist's book, Lulu, by Arion Press (2015). ©2015 THE ARION PRESS

William Kentridge’s Lulu recumbent appears in his recently published artist’s book, Lulu, by Arion Press (2015).


And currently, at the Metropolitan Opera from November 5 through December 3, Kentridge directs Alban Berg’s tragic opera Lulu (1935) with soprano Marlis Petersen in the lead role. She told the New York Times, “It’s a white canvas, and you can paint on her what you want.” Unfortunately, she will no longer be painting on the tragic character after this run.

The artist has produced with the San Francisco–based Arion Press a limited-edition artist’s book featuring 67 drawings that he adapted from the hundreds he created for the Metropolitan Opera projections. The texts themselves are based on the two plays by Frank Wedekind that are the basis for Berg’s libretto; they are also the source for the 1924 silent-film classic Pandora’s Box.

“For an artist,” Kentridge explained, “the great thing about Lulu is that it is all about uncertainty and ephemerality, so images can be constantly constructed and deconstructed.”

He called the Arion Press book, “a high-end operating manual” for penetrating the opera and his work.

Finally (for the moment), adding to the Kentridgerama is the fact that the artist has donated his complete works in time-based media to George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York.

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