Scott Allen Miller, composer

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Writing Randall’s Leaf, I: Libretto and Form

This summer I’ll be posting some thoughts and observations on what I’ve learned from writing Randall’s Leaf, a 38 minute chamber opera in one act. The first installment takes a look at how the very beginning of the process shaped the final product. 

I began the process of writing my first chamber opera, Randall’s Leaf, by writing the libretto. I chose this route for convenience among other reasons, but I wanted to put down some thoughts about how it shaped the project as a whole. In attempting to maintain a constant sense of narrative, I was thinking about how the drama was to unfold visually and musically. One of my struggles was imagining the pace of the words differently in speech and singing. In general, I had an approximate aesthetic or emotion in mind, but it was difficult to remember that I was writing for opera, not a stage play. My libretto is often very conversational and almost always involves multiple characters on stage at once. Rarely are traditional operatic forms, like recitative and aria, referenced and there is certainly never anything as strict as a da capo aria. While this type of libretto often proved difficult to set to music effectively, I think it contributes to the large scale dramatic progression of the composition in a positive way.

Most of the singing lives somewhere between traditional recitative and aria, which means when the music finally opens up, it feels (and sounds, and looks!) like an arrival. The final scene, for example, begins with a brief instrumental interlude followed immediately by the first true aria of the opera: “But this…I remember this slope… I remember this grass!” Randall (baritone) has entered his painting and we finally see this oppressed, depressed man allow himself the luxury of pouring out his intense satisfaction and sheer amazement. In true ‘aria’ fashion, the narrative is allowed to rest, put on pause as the main character sings his heart out. I think that by showing musical restraint and only using this aria effect as a dramatic climax appearing about 28 minutes into a 38 minute work, it provides a meaningful lift from the forward drive of what comes before.

Similarly, in the final scene, Becket (tenor) finally receives his one and only true aria moment. And unlike Randall, this is the first extended period where he gets to sing alone. Becket’s fourth-scene aria serves dramatically as a resolution in the narrative. A brief dialogue between the two provides some necessary explanation, through the only recit-like material in the scene. The music is reduced to an intimate baritone/viola duet which increases in complexity, approaching the climax of a renewed friendship. This climax is expressed to its fullest only after Becket’s aria, when Randall and Becket have a duet (perhaps the closest thing to a real ‘duet,’ as opposed to just simultaneous singing, in the entire chamber opera). Becket’s aria therefore, functions in two ways: it is a musical and dramatic release which concludes Becket’s dynamic shift as a relatable character, while also providing an important impetus for the continued forward motion of the drama. With these two arias strung together, I ran the risk of providing too much ‘release’ and not enough ‘conflict’ to motivate the plot. Dramatically, there is very little left to settle, but more remains to be said, and it must be stated effectively. By capitalizing on the suspense musically and formally, the final dramatic message can be delivered meaningfully. and with the same sense of inevitability as the earlier narrative-driven opera.

Understanding this interaction between dramatic narrative and music was one of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of this project. I’ve found that by creating the libretto myself I was obliged to consider a unique perspective that is easily lost or overlooked. Writing my own libretto also forced me to solve dramatic problems musically, filling in gaps and propelling the story. Reflecting on the project, I’m happy with the way the libretto helped cast the final shape of the music both formally and dramatically, and I would recommend this approach to any composer. When the time comes for my next operatic project I will have finer tools to create another libretto myself. But just as importantly, I am in a position to collaborate effectively with a librettist, something I hope to do a lot of in the future.


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Semantics is for Poets

This is a piece that was composed last fall for a reading session with the amazing quartet loadbang (baritone voice, trumpet, clarinet/bass clarinet, trombone). They were gracious enough to give their time and talent towards a reading session with a handful of student works at SUNY Fredonia. Loadbang was brought in by Ethos New Music Society, and besides the reading session and an amazing concert, Jeff Gavett and Will Lang each gave a lecture/masterclass. The residency was very will received! I was really inspired by the ensemble’s strange instrumentation and experimental repertoire. It struck me that this was a perfect opportunity to experiment with some aleatoric ideas that I had been interested in for a long time. Pulling from various sources including Lutosławski, Cage, and Earle Brown, my concept was to create a fluid texture in the ensemble, over which the singer could present some lines of text… what text?

On that front, I was actually inspired by a course I was taking at the time called History of the English Language (affectionately known by its acronym-cum-epithet, HEL). I was struck by the absurdity that I found to be inherent in using elevated language to describe the most basic elements of its construction. I considered myself to be a very good speaker of the English language even before knowing, for example, what an allomorph is, or what morphophonolgy is for, or the difference between phonology and phonetics. I was intrigued by the idea of using a text that was essentially anti-poetry (à la Part III of Louis Andriessen’s De Materie) and thought about using definitions of various linguistic terms or particularly dry excerpts from some of my textbooks. But nothing seemed satisfactory. Finally a sarcastic line that I used to end a discussion-forum post for the class stuck with me and seemed to capture the notion of using ‘anti-poetry’: “semantics is for poets.” So I ran with that and eventually came up with these lines: “All language is systematic; syntax is for scientists; semantics is for sculptors; syntax is for scholars; semantics is for poets; all languages change.” The score indicates the inflection for the delivery of the text but there is not pitch, allowing for a clear, declamatory delivery.

Besides the aleatoric ‘box’ notation and the original text (a first for me) I also got to experiment with a third thing: deconstructing the phonemes (not phonetics!) of the words and developing them in an essentially musical way. This has been a long-standing desire of mine, and the aesthetic worked perfectly in the sound-world I was trying to create. The main challenge in this piece was creating a convincing form even while relinquishing so much control to the performers. The text helped significantly in this regard, as a way to help structure the musical ideas to fit the delivery of the text. But the musical material is organized to create a logical progression as well.  Here is an amazing group of performers from Fredonia performing the piece in concert! Michael Manganiello, voice; Omar Ore-Quinones, bass clarinet and clarinet; Gianluca Farina, trumpet; and Peter Isaac, trombone. Recording is courtesy of Tim Bausch.

Score: ScottAMillerII-Semantics is for Poets – Please contact me if you’re interested in performing the piece!

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Sonata in D — for double bass and piano

Performed by Buddy Griffith on double bass and John Bailey on piano.

Program Note:

The Sonata in D for Double Bass and Piano is a single movement Sonata Allegro form that works to juxtapose simplistic, diatonic, chant-like music with dense, chromatic, ‘romantic’ music. Both themes emerge from an initial stasis into immediate contrapuntal conflict. Neither side is given quite enough room in the exposition, but representative key centers of D and A-flat are established for the chant and romantic themes, respectively. The development features a rapid shifting of ideas as the two concepts influence one another harmonically, temporally, and motivically. The recapitulation features the themes in reverse order, suggesting a triumph of the romantic theme which is finally presented in full. But then the chant theme returns unadorned, emerging seemingly unscathed by the conflict or by its nemesis’ poignant assertion. A brief coda refuses to confirm either, or maybe it validates both.

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Evolution — for multiple percussion trio

This challenging piece was written for and dedicated to a favorite group of percussionists lovingly dubbed the ‘Three Boss Gentlemen.’ It has yet to see a public performance, though it was recorded in December 2011 by the Gentlemen themselves, Alec Dube, Torrell Moss, and Sean Perham. Special thanks also to Tim Bausch for recording their performance.

Program Note:

This composition is constructed organically with short motives and rhythmic fragments. There are three main sections, each marked by a distinct tempo and prominent timbre. Throughout the piece new sounds are formed through the amalgamation of different timbres. Each family of percussion instruments is represented by its most simple or pure sound: the woodblocks for wood; the bell of a cymbal for metal; and a tenor drum for skins. The first major section deals mostly with the timbral development of the skins and wood instruments. The second major section begins by developing metal sounds alone and then adds in the other timbres until they have evolved into a climax involving the loudest instrument in each family: the slapstick, brake drum, and bass drum, respectively. The third section is the arrival point and is marked by a sonorous transformation of the cacophony that came before. Here, all of the pitched percussion instruments take over and make melodic sense of the rhythmic and gestural material. The main motives are sorted out. The composition’s destination has been reached and the understated conclusion reminds us where it all came from.

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“Edification” — sonata for string quartet

This single movement for string quartet was written for a reading session by the MIVOS Quartet during their brief residency at SUNY Fredonia in September 2012. I was experimenting with form as well as style. The Classical quartet as well as the post-war avant garde were my two main influences. In the process of writing the quartet, I began to think of this disparate combination as Haydn-meets-Penderecki; the Father of the string quartet at odds with the genre’s outer limits.

The piece was performed and recorded by a wonderful quartet from Fredonia. Thanks to Stephen Minor, Giovanna Ruggiero, Chelsea Hadden, and John Chatterton for wonderful performances and to Tim Bausch for producing such an excellent recording.

Program Note:

“Edification” presents two closely related themes, in unstable incarnations at first. Parts of each of these themes are abstracted and explored to their limits before being reconstructed. Having gained a new strength from the disarray they have experienced, the themes are now able to stand on their own as well as coexist in a meaningful way.

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“Solus” — for orchestra

“Solus” was adapted from some sketches of mine for a solo piano piece which was abandoned in favor of the full orchestra version. It was written for a reading session at SUNY Fredonia and that recording is presented here. Not bad for a reading, listen to them trombones!

Instrumentation: 2 fl, 2 ob, cl, bcl, bsn, cbsn, 2 hn, 2 tpt, ttbn, btbn, timp, 2 perc: (1. xylo, vibes; 2. tam-tam, tri, sus cym), hp, strings

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“When You Are Old” — Song for Mezzo-soprano and Piano

This beautiful poem by William Butler Yeats was brought to me by my friend Tami Papagiannopoulos. This song was written for and dedicated to her. It is performed here by Tami (mezzo-soprano) and Allison Peden on piano.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

-W. B. Yeats

Program Note:

“When you are old” sets the melancholic scene of Yeats extraordinary poem with an endless yearning motive. The ternary form is suggested by the poem. The music of the outer sections surround us, like the mournful text and lonely fireside setting surrounds the speaker. The music of the middle section comes from the speakers own mind and is static yet persistent like a ubiquitous memory.