Contained (within): Commentary on a Commentary

an essay on Chemins Perturbé (2021) for flute, clarinet, guitar, mezzo-soprano, violin, and viola

Chemins Perturbé contains two compositions in one. It starts with a work for solo violin, “Punctuated Movements,” upon which is composed Chemins Perturbé, a work of instrumental commentary in which the entire violin solo is just one of six ensemble parts. Both works are fully contained compositions, but the latter compliments, extends, and amplifies the solo piece, so that they may be performed separately or as a two-movement work: first the solo, then the ensemble.

“Punctuated Movements” was composed while reflecting on the musical relevance of Rudolph Laban’s movement analysis, specifically the “effort actions,” a system which attempts to describe physical movements on three continua: time (sudden-sustained); space (direct-indirect); and weight: (heavy-light)[1]. The solo (originally conceived for viola) began as a preliminary sketch for choreographer Kathryn Alter; a collaborative exploration as we worked towards a larger project. I soon recognized “points for potential growth” in the piece that inspired me to compose Chemins Perturbé in the manner of Luciano Berio’s “musical commentary,” which David Osmond-Smith defines as “the use, as a compositional starting-point, of a complete and self-sufficient musical work”[2]. In particular, the title and spirit of Chemins Perturbé is drawn from Berio’s Chemins series, which he based on the solo Sequenze, and as such should be understood as a (newly) self-contained work in which all ensemble members have an equal role to play.

Performing the compositions together presents the listener with the unique opportunity of hearing a complete musical work (“Punctuated Movements”) in a completely new context, an experience which blurs the line between a provisional and final piece. As Osmond-Smith writes, a work of musical commentary “question[s] the finality and internal inevitability so readily attributed to the individual work… It chooses rather to emphasize the degree to which a ‘finished’ piece may be so only by virtue of a partly arbitrary set of decisions on the composer’s part, for whose reversal the Chemins series allows ample opportunity.”[3] Even though “Punctuated Movements” is complete (and remains so), it becomes provisional when Chemins Perturbé is heard; a self-contained work is revealed to contain within it the latent potential for completely new works. By recognizing these sounds as simultaneously finished and provisional, I hope this piece encourages a liminal mode of listening that finds meaning from both statuses.


[1] “NYU Movement Research Group.” Accessed January 28, 2022. https://nyumovement.org/projects/lma/intro.html.

[2] Osmond-Smith, David. “Berio and the Art of Commentary.” The Musical Times 116, no. 1592 (1975): 871–72. https://www.jstor.org/stable/959202.

[3] Ibid., 872

“Palimpsestuous (again, already)” for Civitasolis Quartet

Amidst all the uncertainty of summer 2020, my friend Lara Mitofsky Neuss told me about a new call-for-scores from one of her ensembles: the Civitasolis Reed Quintet Miniatures Project. I decided to write something and am delighted that Civitasolis decided to perform my piece! “Palimpsestuous (again, already)” is comprised of one brief section of music, repeated twice, the second time with a pre-recorded track. A colorful multiphonic in the oboe is the centerpiece of the work and is used as the backing track for the repeated music. I talk a little bit about the piece before the performance in the video below. And don’t forget to check out the other compositions selected for the Miniatures Project!

“Within frames, clouding breath” for loadbang

In the winter of 2019 and 2020 I had the opportunity to write a piece for the esoteric quartet, loadbang (Adrian Sandi, bass clarinet; Andy Kozar, trumpet; Jeffry Gavett, baritone voice; William Lang, trombone). The original concert, planned for March 2020 was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the ensemble was eventually able to record the program. I’m happy to share the video of that effort here:

Also listen to the incredible pieces by my colleagues in the Graduate Center Composers (CUNY), all posted on our YouTube channel. Special thanks to George Katehis and Gabriel Bouche Caro for recording.

At that point (again)

Nebula Ensemble will perform my piece “At that point (again)” on their upcoming concert: VERSE//CHORUS//NOVA

“At that point (again)” is a quartet for the unusual instrumentation of tenor saxophone, trumpet, viola, and cello. Much of the material was drawn from “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars. Specific elements of the harmony, rhythm, and phrase structure were considered along with broader stylistic and idiosyncratic aspects. The most conspicuous of these is the recycling of the song’s bombastic opening: three repeated chords with a distinct harmony that announce the start of the music. “At that point (again)” takes this idea but does not allow the fanfare to relax into a groove so readily. The chords progress forward, each new sound heralding its own arrival. This is the first meaning of the work’s title: we continuously relive the opening even as the context and details change.

The harmony follows the song’s chord progression, but is manipulated to create complex sonorities based on overtones and microtonal inversions. These chords reflect the natural microtonal inflections in the melody as performed by Bruno Mars, which are taken to an extreme and produce a comparably expressive progression that shares the original’s characteristic momentum.

Eventually, the repetitive energy dissipates and the texture becomes as intricate as it is delicate. With the opening fanfare escaped, the music takes on a more melodic character, stretching and distorting a single line of the song, which taken out of context and restated continuously, takes on an unexpectedly gloomy significance: the desperate desire to escape something. As the fanfare reappears and dissipates again, a frustration emerges: we’ve had this argument, this fight, this protest before. The details, the characters, the circumstances have changed. But the cycle continues. I don’t understand why or how, but we are at that point, again.

 

score:

pdf: At that point (again) 

Moment(s): Varioius/Concerted (for the Omnibus Ensemble)

“Moment(s): Various/Concerted” (2016) is for 10 players and was written for the Omnibus Ensemble, especially for the “Omnibus Laboratorium: Peabody – Tashkent” and was premiered by Omnibus Ensemble in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on 12 March 2017.
www.omnibus-ensemble.asia/

https://soundcloud.com/scott-allen-miller-ii/moments-various-concerted-for-the-omnibus-ensemble

Program Note:

Moment(s): Various/Concerted (2016) for ten players:
[nay (alto and soprano) – oboe – percussion (suspended cymbal, crotales) – chang (or santur), –tanbur – two violins – viola – cello – contrabass]

     The starting place for this work was a collaboration with the incredible Omnibus Ensemble, who combine Western instruments and style with the traditional music and instruments of Uzbekistan. Members of the ensemble guided me through an exploration of Shashmaqam, particularly the incredibly beautiful and precise ornaments indicative of the genre. The specificity to which these microtonal embellishments are executed inspired me to connect this music with the newer microtonal tradition of spectralism. By deriving the musical lines from Uzbek ornaments and the harmony from the overtone series, the pitch content ties together these two otherwise disparate musics while also establishing a historical relationship to the Uzbek instruments and to timbre more generally.
     After a sonorous introduction to the sound-world, the main body of Moment(s): Various/Concerted presents short phrases constructed with contrasting sounds within the ensemble, often repeated two or more times to establish them as consolidated moments or ‘sound-objects.’ Throughout the piece, these musical ideas are developed with a focus on texture and timbre, always increasing in length and complexity.

Peruse the score here: issuu.com/edmundscottmiller/do…variousconcerted_-_s

and passes, leaving behind – for solo percussionist

My solo percussion piece, “and passes, leaving behind,” explores simple metallic sounds. It was written for Nate Gworek in the Fall of 2015 and we worked quite closely to find some very specific instrumentation that I was interested in. One item that came from our collaboration is what I’ve been calling a ‘prepared crotale tree,’ which Nate figured out how to rig with paperclips to add some buzz. I treat this like a deconstructed bell tree, because in the context of this piece, the timbre lives somewhere between the triangles and the bell tree. Another important sound in the piece – the very first thing you hear – I could only describe to Nate as ‘muted and metallic.’ After some more particular discussions about what I was after, Nate sent me a clip of the opening bars being played on a metal saucer (from a gravy boat, I believe). It’s perfect. The final quirk – and perhaps my favorite – is that the whole piece is performed with knitting needles as mallets. This was Nate’s idea, entirely, and provides an unexpected grace and sensitivity which permeates Nate’s performance overall. Here is the premiere performance:

“Portrait” for two trumpets (with one melodica)

“Portrait” was composed in the spring of 2015 and received it’s premier at the beautiful Evergreen Museum and Library along with ten singular photographs by Stefan Reichenstein. I recently recorded this ‘demo’ of the first 3 minutes of the work in order to share it here. The instrumental set-up is a unique one so I’ve copied my notes to the performers below, which will explain the ‘preparations’ and  techniques being implemented to those interested. Cheers!

The first trumpet player performs the entire piece with the mouthpiece of a melodica inserted into the bell of the trumpet such that the air can only escape through the melodica. This is best achieved by using a handkerchief or similar cloth around the tube to block airflow through the bell. In this way, the melodica will sound whenever the player buzzes into the instrument. In the score, an X-notehead is used in the melodica part to indicate a note being depressed without sounding. This occurs (m. 7) at the beginning of a crescendo when the dynamic is too soft for the upper note to speak; the effect should be similar to slowly rolling a chord.

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This setup will transpose the instrument up (approximately) one whole step. Therefore, read the C score as if it was in B-flat (i.e. written C is open). Since intonation tends to be low, alternate fingerings are occasionally provided in parentheses. From mm. 7-15 the low A-flat should be the natural tuning. It is meant to be tuned to the 7th partial of B-flat and is approximately 1/6-tone lower than A-flat.

The second trumpet player performs the entire piece with a cup mute. The multiphonics notated on the bottom staff are to be sung into the instrument.

Demo/sample recording (both parts performed and recorded by the composer):

First Trumpet’s performance score in C:

ScottAMillerII -Portrait- PerfScore1TrumpetC -15April2015

Please contact me at scottmusicmiller@gmail.com if you would like to play or program this or any of my other compositions. Cheers!

“…washed out to sea” on Artworks

I’m very proud to have an excerpt from my piece for solo double bass, “…washed out to sea” appear on Maryland Public Television’s series Artworks. A short clip of the full work runs over the end credits of episode 336, which you can watch for free here or at this link!

http://video.mpt.tv/viralplayer/2365549248

Below is some additional information on the program that I grabbed from their website. Please check it out!  

Maryland Public Television is excited to launch the third season of Artworks, MPT’s weekly arts series. The lively series is hosted by Rhea Feikin, a cultural icon in her own right. The show features intriguing profiles of established and emerging artists from across the country working in all creative categories: musicians, performers, visual artists, writers, designers, artisans – and experimental others who defy definition. Each program gives viewers insider access to outstanding artists they would never see otherwise, including many from our own area.

What’s new this season for Artworks? There are innovations ensuring that every episode includes works by creative talent from across the Greater Baltimore- Washington, DC area and Maryland. These include “Pop-Up Exhibits” showcasing compelling visual and performing artists. And viewers might recognize a favorite band or musician playing under the closing credits – an inventive way to showcase regional musicians by exploiting existing video “real estate” each week.

Artworks is made possible in part by the People of Baltimore County, and by the generous contributions of MPT Members.

“Pillars, erased” – for orchestra

“Pillars, erased” is a ten-minute work for orchestra. From the start, monolithic chords are presented simultaneously with scattered, manic flourishes. Out of the chaos, comes virtual stillness. These juxtapositions continue throughout the work as the texture oscillates between clarity and amorphousness. A single descending melody gradually emerges from the gestural landscape, at times blending in, at other times revealing itself explicitly.

Many thanks to the Peabody Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Teri Murai for a wonderful reading of a very demanding work.