Scott L. Miller: Tipping Point

, composer


SCOTT MILLER and ZEITGEIST celebrate the first decade of their work together with the release of Tipping Point, a CD featuring Miller's deft works for instrument and electronics alongside his only strictly acoustic work written in the 21st century. 


SCOTT MILLER and ZEITGEIST celebrate the first decade of their work together with the release of Tipping Point, a CD featuring both previously unrecorded and recent compositions, as well as one of the only purely acoustic works that Miller has written this century.

The collaborative relationship between composer Scott Miller and the ensemble Zeitgeist began in 2003, supported by the Jerome Foundation. Their initial collaboration resulted in Shape Shifting: Shades of Transformation (Innova 638), a concert-length work of ten pieces involving interactive-electronics, improvisation, and spoken-word settings of poetry by Felip Costaglioli. Shape Shifting far exceeded the artists’ expectations in terms of the scope of the work, the variety of ensemble+electronics explorations, and the overall success of the collaboration.

Since then, their personal and professional friendship has deepened and their collaborative activities have multiplied. Beyond Shape Shifting, Miller has written more than 20 compositions for the group and its members. They have undertaken dozens of performances together throughout the United States and Europe, and Miller has served as producer on numerous recordings for the ensemble and its members, including three Zeitgeist CDs.

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In addition to featuring the most recent compositions written for the ensemble, Tipping Point includes work from the beginnings of their fruitful collaboration, cataloguing a period of tremendous artistic growth for the composer. The members of Zeitgeist have regularly acted as a musical proving ground for Miller’s explorations, particularly those combining acoustic instruments with interactive-electronic effects. The present sound of his music owes much to the ensemble’s years of fearless experimentation and passionate collaboration with him. Tipping Point is a testament to the creative potential of a long and committed artistic friendship, reflecting on the incredible work created together over the past decade, and looking forward to new work yet to come.

SUPPORTED in part by the American Composers Forum through the 2013 McKnight Composer Fellowship Program. Twilight commissioned by The Southern Theater with support from the Jerome Foundation. Scott Miller uses Symbolic Sound Corporation's Kyma sound design and computation engine.

In the program notes to the composition Tipping Point, the composer says, ‘The tipping point is when an object is displaced from a state of stability to a new, different state. This applies equally to people as well as things. In either case, you can give it one good push, or lots of little tickles, but eventually it’ll go over. Sometimes the tipping point is preceded by an eerie calm, other times erratic and volatile shifts. The new state may be worse, it may be better, it may seem to not amount to very much. Mostly, I think, it’s like trying to kick-start a motor.’

Tipping Point was written for Zeitgeist to premiere at SEAMUS 2010, hosted at St. Cloud State University. It was voted by conference attendees to be included on the Music of SEAMUS, Volume 20 (EAAM-2011). This is a remixed and re-mastered version of the recording on that CD.

Pure Pleasure was originally supposed to be for improvised snare drum performance with pre-composed fixed-media electronic sound. The fixed-media is the result of a day-long recording session of Patti Cudd improvising on the snare drum with interactive electronics, which was then edited and processed. This became the basis for a fully composed and tremendously difficult part for two snare drums. About the title, the composer says, 'When I was completing the work and in rehearsals with Patti Cudd, Patti asked me what is the piece about. I hadn't really considered it until then and gave her my first reaction, that it is just about the pure pleasure of performing the rhythms in the piece.'

Forth and Back is a setting of the poem by Catalan poet Felip Costaglioli. Costaglioli’s poetry is rich in evocative imagery and musicality, heightened by how he lays out the written words on the page. His poetry is meant to be performed as sound, and this setting of the text has been strongly informed by a recording of the poet reading this work shortly after he completed it in August 2003. The poem examines the past and looks to the future, anticipating “the beautiful absence of us,” when two come together and individual identity is erased as part of becoming the “other,” which is “us.”

To read the full liner notes, purchase the download or CD.

Technical credits
All works recorded at Wild Sound Recording Studio, Minneapolis. July 5-6, 2010, Matthew Zimmerman, master engineer (track 1, track 3). August 14-15, 2013, Steve Kaul, master engineer (track2, tracks 4-6).

Produced, edited, and mixed by Scott L. Miller.
Mastered by Margo Kõlar.
Art, layout, and design by Raul Keller.
All compositions © Scott L. Miller; Published by American Composers Alliance, Inc. (BMI)
Forth and Back text ©2003 Felip Costaglioli.

Scott L. Miller

Scott L. Miller is a composer of electroacoustic, orchestra, chamber, and multimedia works described as “high adventure avant garde music of the best sort” (Classical-Modern Music Review) and “inspir[ing] real hope and optimism for the future of electroacoustic music.” ( Known for his interactive electroacoustic chamber music and experimental performance pieces, Miller has twice been named a McKnight Composer Fellow, he is a Fulbright Scholar, and his work has been recognized by numerous international arts organizations. Recordings are available on New focus, Innova, Eroica, CRS, rarescale, and SEAMUS, and his music is published by ACA (American Composers Alliance), Tetractys, and Jeanne. Miller is Professor of Music at St. Cloud State University, Minnesota, where he teaches composition, electroacoustic music, and theory.
04 Mar, 2018

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New Focus makes textura Top Ten Labels List

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Gapplegate Music

Scott Miller, or Scott L. Miller to be precise, is not a jazz composer in the usual sense. Yet his music has a new music-avant jazz synergy. I covered several of his albums on myGapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review. You can go there and type in his name in the search box to find those. I post the latest review here because his music seems to me will be of equal interest to avant jazz aficionados as it is to new music listeners.

And so we have the latest one, Tipping Point (New Focus 161), which features the chamber ensemble Zeitgeist, with whom Miller has collaborated since 2003, and electroacoustics, an important component of much of his work.

Six pieces are presented on the album, some previously unrecorded, some new. Zeitgeist consists of piano, two percussionists and woodwinds. They seem especially well-suited to the music, which has tonal and more avant structures and a kind of direct expressiveness that brings it closer to avant jazz than some other composers. Soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw graces the ensemble on three of the six works represented and sounds excellent.

It is music better heard than described, except to say that Miller has a real flair for evocative new music which he gives us ample evidence of in these works.

If you want to be introduced to a new voice on the scene, or even if you know his music already, this one is a seminal example of why he is important. Give Tipping Point your ears and I think you will be pleased. - Grego Applegate Edwards, 5.6.2015


The cover of Scott Miller's Tipping Point displays two text details, but it should really show three, so integral to the release is the group whose playing is featured on it. As if to further accentuate the point, Zeitgeist has been collaborating with Miller since 2003 in a relationship that began with the release of Shape Shifting and has grown deeper over the years. Miller has written a large number of compositions for the ensemble and has produced recordings for it and its members, including three Zeitgeist CDs. And without wishing to take anything away from Miller, as it is after all his compositions that are performed on Tipping Point, the recording makes as compelling an argument for the group as for the composer.

That's especially true when one takes into account the type of music Miller creates: electroacoustic chamber music. He's no new music dabbler, by the way: not only does he teach composition, electroacoustic music, and theory at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, he's also the current president of the Society for ElectroAcoustic Music in the U.S. (SEAMUS). Zeitgeist has figured critically into Miller's evolution, as the group has helped catalyze his work as opposed to being a mere adjunct to its development. On their latest collaboration, Zeitgeist performs previously unrecorded and recent Miller compositions, plus a purely acoustic work. It bears worth mentioning, too, that he doesn't watch from the sidelines but is, in fact, credited with electronics on five of the hour-long recording's six tracks.

Premiered by Zeitgeist (and for whom it was written) at SEAMUS 2010, the title track offers a representative taste of Miller's composing style. For eleven minutes, electronic whirrs and clicks interact with piano, vibraphone, marimba, and bass clarinet expressions in a rapidly shifting setting punctuated by percussion accents. A multi-scenic setting of a poem by Catalan poet Felip Costaglioli, “Forth and Back” benefits considerably from the presence of soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw, whose singing helps humanize Miller's ponderous, dream-like reverie, and the evocative character of Costaglioli's text is complemented by an equally rich backdrop of piano, woodwinds, and mallet percussion. Shaw also appears on the suitably titled nocturne “Twilight” and, wordlessly, on the crepuscular closer “Consortia,” the latter nicely enhanced by inner piano strums and bowed vibraphone textures.

Originating out of a day-long session whereby snare drummer Patti Cudd interacted with electronics, the rhythmically charged “Pure Pleasure” proves ear-catching in featuring nothing more than crosstalk between two instruments. Something similar happens during “Funhouse,” though this time the interactions involve Miller and bass clarinetest Pat O'Keefe in a piece characterized by jazz-like spontaneity.

Throughout Tipping Point, Zeitgeist attentively navigates the knotty pathways of Miller's music, and one comes away from the recording less humming any of its melodies than impressed by the group's fastidious rendering of the composer's material. It's also worth noting that, generally speaking, Miller acts more like a formal Zeitgeist member than guest sound contributor, given how seamlessly his electronic effects are woven into the arrangements.

July-August 2015

American Record Guide

Scott Miller’s “ensemble+electronics explorations” are more approachable and musical than Burtner’s. But there are still a number of buzz words and hip phrases in the liner notes to warn you that the material is not standard classical music and that our future robot overlords have invaded most works, causing them to become electroacoustic. Tipping Point, though, is a fascinating entity. I admit I have a penchant for the bass clarinet, but Miller’s use of it with piano and marimba creates a great timbre. The repetitive growth of force that eventually pushes or tips the piece into a new area is done with intelligence and undercuts expectations. ‘Twilight’ is a beautiful piece for soprano, mallet percussion, clarinets, and electronics. The vibraphone and electronics give the piece an uneasy pedal, but the round sound of the bass clarinet and Carrie Henneman Shaw’s tender delivery craft a relaxing atmosphere. Pat O’Keefe gets free reign with his bass clarinet in Fun House, a spatial work involving microphones, speakers, and computer programs altering sound objects as they occur in specific spaces. Recordings of works that require performers to wander around are never as exciting as being there, but Fun House is convincing.

-- Kraig Lamper © 2015 American Record Guide

New Music Buff

I was particularly pleased to receive this disc for review as I am a long time fan of the Minnesota based Zeitgeist ensemble. This varied ensemble has been a vital part of the new music scene in Minnesota since about 1977 (I still have some of their vinyl LPs). Happily they are in the process of making these out of print items available again on CDs via their website.

Curiously there is very little on the ensemble’s web site or on the internet in general on the history of this group prior to about the year 2000 A Google search yields few references to this group and Discogs does not have much listed in their discography of Zeitgeist. Their Wikipedia page is also in serious need of updating. The Innova records site is perhaps the most useful in identifying the albums released by this group in its various configurations and solo or other collaborations by its members (though the re-release of the older discs are not distributed there). I realize that this group began in the pre-internet era but perhaps it is time to clarify this and present a comprehensive history and discography of this significant new music ensemble.

The present disc is a collection of recent works by Scott Miller, a Minnesota based composer and teacher whose association with Zeitgeist goes back to 1993. He is currently the president of SEAMUS (Society for Electro Acoustic Music in the United States) and professor of music at St. Cloud State University. You can find his work on youtube and Sound Cloud.

Now let me say here that it is my observation that electroacoustic music, while not an uncommon genre, seems to be a specialized one which, like Zeitgeist, is not consistently well-promoted. At least that is my explanation (excuse perhaps) for my limited knowledge of Mr. Miller’s music up to this point.

The CD is a collection of six tracks with vocals by soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw on tracks 2, 4 and 6. Each track is a separate work and they are listed in the proper order on the back of the CD case but are discussed out of order in the notes for some reason.

But now I must stop my whining and criticisms (and thinly veiled references to Prince) and turn to the actual music. This is really wonderful music, well-performed and well worth your attention. And if the term “electroacoustic” puts you off don’t worry. What we have here is an artist who has managed to integrate a variety of techniques into an effective musical language that transcends mere experimentalism to yield some really good music.

The first piece, the one from which the album receives its title, is Tipping Point (2010) and was originally included on the SEAMUS CD Volume 20 (EAAM-2011). This is a remixed and remastered version of that recording from 2010. This writer hears echoes and homages to (or influences by, you decide which) Terry Riley, Steve Reich as well as perhaps Morton Subotnick and even the thornier sound of Mario Davidovsky at times. To my ears this is an integration of many ideas which work effectively together.

The second track, Forth and Back (2003) is the longest track and is a setting of the poem by Catalan poet Felip Costaglioli. The setting is atmospheric, appropriate to the lovely texts and the vocal writing is simply beautiful. Carrie Henneman Shaw delivers this work with the success of interpretation that one would expect of a musician who understands the composer’s intent. Not an explicitly virtuosic piece it nonetheless challenges the performer with sotto voce passages that I imagine are quite a balancing act for a singer. This is a beautiful piece and the fact of its electroacoustic aspects take on far less important place than the effectiveness of the setting.

Next up is Pure Pleasure (2008) is a percussion piece. The composer goes into some detail in the notes as to the genesis of this piece and that is interesting but so is the act of listening to it. This is one of the more obviously experimental works here.

Twilight (2008-13) is actually a portion of a larger work, a collaboration between Miller, Pat O’Keeffe and video artist Rosemary Williams called, The Cosmic Engine. This is a multi-media chamber opera which premiered in 2008 and this section was revised in 2013. The text is by Walt Whitman. Again, Shaw does a lovely job with the lyrical vocal lines.

Funhouse (2003) is a marvelous use of electroacoustic methods. It is a piece with rather complex origins as explained in the notes but, consistent with its title, this is a fun piece to hear and, I imagine, to play. Along with the percussion piece it represents the more overtly experimental work of this artist.

The final track, Consortia (2013), as with Twilight, is an outgrowth or by product of work on the multimedia opera, The Cosmic Engine. Here the composer enlists computer processing to create a sort of live polyphony with live mixing of tracks of pre-recorded and live improvisational structures based on some renaissance tunes and techniques. I will leave it to the listener to read through the technical details but the result is a pretty entertaining piece of music.

Zeitgeist does a wonderful job here playing with passion and dedication. I can only hope that we hear more from both Zeitgeist and Mr. Miller.

The recording done at Wild Sound Recording Studio in Minneapolis (Mark Zimmerman, master engineer on tracks 1 and three; Steve Kaul, master engineer on tracks 2 and 4-6) is lucid and warm. The art and design by Raul Keller makes for an attractive product. This release from New Focus Recordings belongs in the collection of any new music fan and certainly every Zeitgeist fan.

-- Allan Cronin, New Music Buff, 11.9.15

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