By James May, Special to the Sybaritic Singer
Scott Miller is a veteran of his aesthetic. Over his career he’s developed a practice that blends electronics and acoustic composition into a holistic method, one that produces diverse works that clearly stem from a single voice. It’s no surprise that he was the long-time President of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS) and current director of the SEAMUS Record Label; his service in this capacity reflects his own work in exploring the myriad ways that electronic composition and digital processes interface with composing.
Internal relationships and patterns mirror natural ecosystem behavior
His new portrait album with TAK Ensemble, Ghost Layers (New Focus Recordings), presents a snapshot of his practice over the last decade. In particular, on display is his “ecosystemic” writing, pieces that function based on internal relationships and patterns which mirror natural ecosystem behavior. Even this overarching framework is holistic, built not to exclude but to invoke as many sonic imaginings as possible. The inimitable TAK Ensemble delivers each piece with careful precision and understanding, turning on a dime between meditative repetition and meticulous patterns interspersed to various degrees with Miller’s own electronics.
Miller’s work can very generally be categorized by the types of spaces he invokes in his writing, a useful way to engage his ecosystem framing. The pieces which bookend the album, Accretion and Lovely Little Monster, present spaces full of activity. The highly independent instruments assert their familiar repetitive motives without ever locking in, accruing a web of gestures that quickly establish internal reference. In each work, the instrumentalists move between a quasi-improvised sensation of material relationship and synchronicity, articulating clear forms while providing lots of breathing room for the listener.
The subtle extra-compositional relationships
In contrast, the internal pieces of the album portray more reflective acoustic ecosystems. Eidolon, Chimera no. 2, and Katabasis each explore more internal spaces, carving a sense of rootedness out of the acoustic properties of the parts themselves. Here the focus is not the kaleidoscopic motives of each instrument, but the subtle extra-compositional relationships that each sound establishes with one another.
Of this latter category, Katabasis is by far the most successful. Each of its three movements explores the same basic material in compounding ways; movement one, “Relaxed, but Persistent” allows time for each sound to interact with its surroundings, letting the listener focus on the resonances at hand. This evolves into the more fluid second movement, “With Direction, Not Urgency,” which incorporates slight motion into the earlier ideas. This motion changes the scope of the “ecosystem,” pushing our listening from the minute details of acoustic relationships to the broader ambient space created by the gentle cycle of aperiodic repetition. The piece concludes with a more monolithic approach in the final movement, “Brittle and Delicate, With Precision.” The space here is the contrast between sound and silence, where each pause allows a renewed relationship to the instrumental statement. TAK delivers their performance here, and across the whole album, with an assured understanding of the creative ideas at play.
This aesthetic clarity shines in the first and last pieces of the album as well. Accretion opens the record with an assured statement on part of both the composer and the ensemble. Instruments weave their unique motives in and out of other lines, then suddenly snap into place for the occasional homophonic exclamation. Accretion also brings in explicit references to the programmatic thinking that guides some of Miller’s writing; based on analysis of field recordings that captured ice floes and waterfalls, the piece demonstrates that familiarity of natural sounds, where pitches or rhythms seem to repeat but never quite in a periodic way. These outer pieces also demonstrate Miller’s keen orchestration, both showcasing and balancing the instruments with dexterous ease.
Negotiating ambient sound worlds
Where Miller’s writing threatens to falter is in its slower moments. Eidolon and Chimera No. 2 negotiate sound worlds that could be ambient, but that imbalance the instrumental activity and the underpinning sounds. Here, the problem is pacing; sonic ideas that carry lots of formal inertia fly through the stereo field without altering the static background, either psychologically or compositionally. The most successful moments of these works are not the moment-to-moment contributions, but the large-scale formal shifts that provide more gravitas to these slower-developing pieces. In particular, the satisfying registral electronic shift halfway through Eidolon and the evocative final third of Chimera No. 2 effectively capitalize on the pent-up developmental energy of their surroundings.
Ghost Layers presents a balanced window into Scott Miller’s creative interests, showcasing the variety of ways his personal practice of electronics, improvisation, and acoustic writing can manifest in a series of works. At every turn, the TAK Ensemble captures the best of his writing, from careful subtleties of color to breathtaking rhythmic precision. This is a release that humbly requests careful engagement, presenting nuanced works that demonstrate the range of a creative practice.
James May (b. 1994, Pittsburgh) creates texture-focused music that explores performative power dynamics, extended vocal technique, and literature. His works range from notated pieces and improvisation environments to experimental electronics and digital sound design. James is also a conductor and writer with contributions to icareifyoulisten.com, the SHOCC project, and Sound American. He received the 2018-19 Mitchell Scholarship, funding an MA in Experimental Sound Practice at University College Cork, and holds previous degrees from the University of Louisville and The College of Wooster. James currently lives in New Orleans. @jmm3rs || www.jamesmaycomposer.com