Biko meets Stockhausen: imagining a conversation between radicals who had nothing in common
It's hard to imagine that Steve Biko and Karlheinz Stockhausen would have had much to talk about when they met in 1971 in Joburg.
What would a black consciousness leader have in common with a German composer, who by all accounts appeared to be on a fly-by-night trip through the city to give a few concerts?
If you look through the files containing the research Philip Miller has compiled on this trip and the meeting of these two great minds, which are on display as part of his BikoHausen installation at the Goethe-Institut, it seems clear their interaction was not by any means monumental or earth- shattering. It appears neither party was changed by the encounter.
Stockhausen's wife, Mary, sums up the meeting in a single line in her diary, among other cringeworthy observations about locals which she describes in ethnographic terms.
Yet this seemingly unimportant meeting is quite unexpectedly the point of inspiration for a remarkable multimedia filmic dual-channel work by Miller that weighs in on our vexed history and the notion of political ''radicalness", race, liberalism, cultural exchange and appropriation.
Miller did not set out making the work with this in mind. An invitation from the Goethe-Institut, which had sponsored Stockhausen's visit in the early 1970s, to dig into this composer's archive and produce an artistic response forced him to find a connection to him.
It proved a struggle, says Miller. He might be a composer and/or aural artist but Stockhausen wasn't influential on his practice at all. "I was looking for a link that made sense to me. When I saw that he had met Biko I knew that was it. They were both radicals of their time."
Despite having this in common they were worlds apart, not only geographically but culturally, conceptually and politically. This is the most striking feature of Miller's video work, which sets the men in conversation with each other.
Miller achieves this by splicing together audio footage and texts produced by them. This is ''held" together by footage (directed by Catherine Meyburgh) of his team of musical and choral collaborators, which includes Siya Makuzeni, Ann Masina, Tlale Makhene, Bham Ntabeni, Waldo Alexander and Vus'umuzi Nhlapo. They all respond to the archival material aurally through singing and percussion.
The result is a kind of visual and audio collage where the past and the present are interwoven. Not that the dividing lines are clean; there's a clear sense of moving backwards and forwards but, more importantly, you are left with a sense that Biko and Stockhausen are not ''hearing" each other. Not only because they're artificially ''conversing" but also due to the fact that they have such different mindsets, despite being thought of as "radical".
Biko represents an Afrocentric position and Stockhausen a European one, though he has an obvious reverence for African music. He suggests that musical composition relies on (cultural) appropriation and that modern cities such as New York architecturally echo the way different cultures are interwoven.
Stockhausen and Biko might have been in the same room together at some time, but you're left with the impression that they inhabited different times and spaces. In contrast, the musicians Miller is seen conducting in the documentary footage are in harmony, particularly at the climax. They're voicing their interpretation of Biko and Stockhausen's words - the score is textual.
This all makes for a truly fascinating and layered work that shouldn't be missed. Miller is known the world over as William Kentridge's dedicated composer, but in this multimedia filmic work he proves what an interesting artist he is in his own right.
• 'BikoHausen' shows at the Goethe-Institut in Parkwood, Johannesburg, until June 6.
• This article was originally published in the Times.