Edmund Scott Miller, composer


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Organum – for two alto saxophones

Extended program note:

Organum is a composition that borrows its name from the style of medieval sacred music characterized by drones and perfect intervals. However, it is important to note that this piece is not intended to be historical and no stylistic choices were made to align it with the practices of authentic organum. The music is constructed out of two main ideas: a ‘pendulum’ consisting of a chromatic scale fragment swinging down from concert E-flat to concert B-natural and back up, eventually coming to rest in the middle, on a concert D-flat; and a five-note tone row (E-flat – A – B-flat – D-flat) which provides most of the melodic material through a rotational process borrowed from Stravinsky (i.e. “Stravinsky Verticals”). Two similarities are immediately apparent: both musical ideas begin on E-flat and end (eventually) on D-flat, and both contain five different pitches. The second of these becomes the root for the form of the entire piece, the number five playing a significant role in every aspect of the musical development. There is a section of music for each note of the pendulum figure as it unfolds on the macro level. Rhythmic grouping of different numbers (1 through 5) conflict at each transition until 5 has ‘defeated’ 1-4. The pendulum figure only occurs explicitly in the beginning (while the tone row is being presented in retrograde), in the middle (over a D-flat drone, the eventual destination), and at the end (when the destination is finally reached).

An important theme in this piece is the natural versus the artificial. This is embodied respectively in the ‘organic’ pendulum figure versus serial composition techniques as well as the free, meterless flow of the piece versus the exactitude of certain rhythms. 


Performed here by the incredible Jacob Swanson and Sarah Marchitelli:

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World Premier – ‘Artifact’ at the Walter’s Art Museum

This Friday, 4 October 2013, I’ll be having a composition premiered alongside new works by other Masters students from Peabody Conservatory at the Walter’s Art Museum. My piece is for soprano, recorder, guitar, violin, and bass viola da gamba. This was an interesting project for me for a number of reasons, but at the heart of the matter was that I only had about two and a half weeks to write a 6 minute piece from the ground up. There were also a lot of firsts: writing for viola da gamba, writing for recorder, writing a concert piece for voice and chamber ensemble, not to mention the first thing I was to compose at my new institution.

I had to come up with a concept  immediately, find a text to set (or determine another way to write for the soprano affectively), then experiment with the actual musical material. Having been given the instrumentation and the performance space, I immediately noticed a connection between the plethora of historical pieces in the Walter’s and the pseudo period ensemble. This served very strongly as a source of inspiration conceptually. It made me think about the purpose of these artworks and instruments today; is the interest artistic or historical or both? This was a decent starting point for me and I had to find a text that concerned itself with that.  Well, I didn’t know any, and everyone knows finding a text that is musically motivating can take months if not longer.

In a bizarre coincidence,  I had learned about this opportunity while in Baltimore signing the lease for my new apartment, though I wasn’t moving in for another week and had to drive back to upstate New York. While driving for 6-7 hours I was thinking about what sort of text I wanted. In fact, I got such a good idea of what I was looking for, I actually ended up just writing the text myself! I don’t claim to be any kind of poet, but I like words and writing enough that I felt comfortable, in this case, writing text to be set to music. With the concept settled and and poetry finalized, I could proceed basically unhindered in the composing of the piece. I spent my last week in Albany and my first week in Baltimore at the piano with my head down, pencil in hand, guitar on my lap. The only breaks I had were miniature seminars with the recordist and viola da gamba player who graciously helped me get a sense of their unique instruments. The whole experience was a great exercise in ‘creativity on demand.’ At the end of it all, I feel it’s a strong piece, born of necessity with little time to double back and alter the particulars.

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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!