Scott L. Miller: Ghost Layers

, composer

About

Composer Scott Miller releases "Ghost Layers" in collaboration with the critically acclaimed TAK Ensemble. The album features recent chamber works, all but one of which include an electronic element. Miller's extensive exploration in the electro-acoustic realm informs these works, some of which apply digital techniques to the acoustic compositional process, while others layer electronics on top of acoustic textures and field recordings embedded in the compositional texture.

Audio

Throughout his work, composer Scott Miller demonstrates a reverence for observation — of the sounds of the natural world, the nuances of the electronic realm, and the intricacies of acoustic instruments. On “Ghost Layers” we hear this quality manifested in several chamber works, all but one of which include electronics. In much of his recent work, Miller has written what he terms eco-systemic music. Through the use of found environmental sounds, subsequent analysis of those sounds, and the establishment of paradigms within the structures of the music, Miller builds musical forms that mimic ecosystems in the way they function. The music on “Ghost Layers” manifests these characteristics of Miller’s music in ensemble pieces that balance kinetic intensity with subtle examinations of pitch and timbre.

Originally written for Estonian based Ensemble U:, Accretion grew out of initial field recordings Miller made in 2015 of waterfalls on the Grand Portage Trail and ice floes in the Grand Marais Bay. Spectral analysis of these recordings generated data which populated the acoustic and electronic material in the piece. The ensemble writing alternates between heterogeneous textures where the instruments occupy different roles within a shared space and more coordinated mechanisms. Two-thirds through the piece, one of the field recordings emerges and washes over the texture, transforming this dynamic piece into one of ambient contemplation.

Eidolon, which means phantom, was written for TAK Ensemble on the occasion of this recording. Inspired by a phantom score Miller thought he heard within the airplane sounds on a transatlantic flight, the work opens with a drone like one you might hear inside the cabin, and an occasional seatbelt notification ping. The ensemble slowly integrates into the electronic sounds, illuminating the score Miller imagined he heard at 32,000 feet.

Spatialization plays a large role in the electronics in the surrealist Chimera No. 2 featuring violinist Marina Kifferstein. The work frequently blurs the lines between the acoustic and electronic sound production or sustained tones and non-pitched material. When the violin takes a more soloistic role with rich double stops alternating with pizzicato phrases, the electronics surround it in a series of unsettling rattles that slink around the stereo field. The work’s ending section shifts to sustained material in an eerie halo of sound that amplifies the high partials of unstable violin harmonics.

Katabasis is the only purely acoustic work on the recording, though the composition was guided by an electronic process involving one melodic line realized by different “windows” moving along the line at different speeds. Short phrases are broken up by rests, lending the texture a ritualistic flavor and a chance to contemplate each set of pitches, simultaneities and discrepancies as a unique sonic gem.

Closing the recording is Lovely Little Monster, which along with Accretion contains the most exuberant music on the recording. Again we hear Miller alternating between systems of independent activity, with swooping glissandi in the winds and disjunct activity in the percussion and electronics. As the piece comes to a close, the monster has either worn itself out or been tamed, as haunting flutter tongue gestures in the flute lead into a final gong sound in the electronics.

Scott Miller’s “Ghost Layers” captures a composer whose innovative use of electronics puts him at the intersection of several trajectories. As a modernist, he explores and deconstructs the properties of acoustic and electronic sound and their intersection. As an experimentalist, he toys with process and silence, using them as tools for framing sound in novel ways. And as a conceptualist, Miller uses his observations and archival footage from the natural world to construct musical structures that echo what he has discovered in ecosystems. The result is deftly crafted music that invites us to listen more broadly to our world beyond the confines of its downbeat and double bar line.

– Dan Lippel

  • Engineer: Ryan Streber
  • Recorded at Oktaven Audio, August 19-20, 2019
  • Mixing: Scott L. Miller
  • Mastering: Greg Reierson, RareFormMastering
  • Design: Scott L. Miller

Scott L. Miller

Scott L. Miller (1966) is an American composer, best known for his electroacoustic chamber music and ecosystemic performance pieces. Inspired by the inner-workings of sound and the microscopic in the natural and mechanical worlds, his music is the product of hands-on experimentation and collaboration with musicians and performers from across the spectrum of styles. Three time McKnight Composer Fellow, recordings of his music are available on New Focus Recordings, Innova, and other labels, many featuring his long-time collaborators, the new music ensemble Zeitgeist (whose albums he produces). His music is published by the American Composers Alliance, Tetractys, and Jeanné. He is a Professor of Music at St. Cloud State University, Minnesota, where he teaches composition, electroacoustic music and theory. He is Past-President (2014-18) of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the U.S. (SEAMUS) and presently Director of SEAMUS Records.

http://www.scottlmiller.net/

TAK Ensemble

TAK is a quintet that delivers energetic and virtuosic performances of contemporary classical music. Described as “stellar” (Oneirics), and full of “restless strands of ever ­shifting color and vigor” (Feast of Music), TAK concerts are consistently dynamic and engaging. The group frequently collaborates with video artists, installation artists, and experimental theater companies to create immersive concert experiences on a multi-media level. TAK has had the pleasure of working with esteemed composers Mario Diaz de Leon, Lewis Nielson, Tyshawn Sorey, Sam Pluta, Ashkan Behzadi, Natacha Diels, David Bird, and Taylor Brook, among many others.

The members of TAK are each "individual virtuosos" in their own right (Lucy Shelton), and have performed individually across North America and Europe with ensembles such as the London Sinfonietta, International Contemporary Ensemble, JACK Quartet, Wet Ink Ensemble, and Grammy­-winning ensemble Roomful of Teeth. TAK has performed throughout New York City in spaces such as Roulette, New Amsterdam Records Headquarters, DiMenna Center for Classical Music, and Issue Project Room. In recent seasons, they have been invited to perform in collaboration with the American Composers Alliance, Innovations en concert (Montreal), the Queens New Music Festival (Queens, NY), and the Public Theater (NYC); they have held artist residencies at Avaloch Farm (New Hampshire) and Mount Tremper Arts (New York).

TAK is dedicated to working with young composers, and has collaborated with a number of university composition programs to produce concerts of new commissions. Among these institutions are the Oberlin Modern Music Guild, the graduate composers of the "First Performance" student organization at New York University, and both the graduate and undergraduate composers of Columbia University for their Columbia Composers Concerts.

Dedicated to the commission of new works and direct collaboration with composers and other artists, TAK promotes ambitious programming at the highest level. TAK fosters engagement both within the contemporary music community, through bringing in guest artists and collaborators, and the musical community at large. Through working with installation artists, theater companies, and video artists, TAK aims to broaden the scope and diversity of their audience interaction.

http://www.takensemble.com

Joshua Rubin

Joshua Rubin is a founding clarinetist and the co-Artistic Director of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), where he oversees the creative direction of more than sixty concerts per season in the United States and abroad. As a clarinetist, the New York Times has praised him as, "incapable of playing an inexpressive note."

Joshua has worked closely with many of the prominent composers of our time, including George Crumb, David Lang, John Adams, George Lewis, Philippe Hurel, Kaija Saariaho, John Zorn, Magnus Lindberg, Steve Lehman, Nathan Davis, Tyshawn Sorey, John Zorn, and Mario Davidovsky. His interest in electronic music throughout his career has led him work on making these technologies easier to use for both composers and performers. Joshua can be heard on recordings from the Nonesuch, Kairos, New Focus, Mode, Cedille, Naxos, Bridge, New Amsterdam, and Tzadiklabels. His album "There Never is No Light," available on ICE's Tundra label, highlights music that uses technology to capture the human engagement of the performer and the listener.

In the past season he has been featured as a soloist with the Seattle Symphony (under Ludovic Morlot) and at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, in engagements with the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and has given solo performances of new music in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, São Paulo, Rome and Berlin.

He received degrees in Biology and Clarinet from Oberlin College and Conservatory, and his Master's degree from the Mannes College of Music. His clarinet studies were mentored by Lawrence McDonald, Mark Nuccio and Yehuda Gilad.

http://iceorg.org/about/staffbios/rubin

Meaghan Burke

Hailed as “outstanding," with a “street-smart, feline voice" (New York Times), Meaghan Burke is a cellist, vocalist, and composer working in the space between contemporary music, improvised music, and songwriting.

Tristan McKay

Celebrated for his “dramatic" and “assertive" playing (New York Times), Tristan McKay is a pianist, multimedia artist, and scholar based in Brooklyn. He holds a PhD in Piano Performance from NYU.


Reviews

5

Gapplegate Classical Modern Music Review

According to my records, this is the fourth review article I have written on the music of Scott L. Miller (see the Gapplegate Music Review, 2015, and this blog, 2017 and 2018). His music lays out well to my ears. So now I am back with a new one to talk about, Ghost Layers, TAK Plays Miller (New Focus Recordings FCR253).

First a bit on the TAK Ensemble, who distinguish themselves markedly on this chamber program. It is ordinarily a quintet. For this program the four founding members hold sway--Laura Cocks (flute), Marina Kifferstein (violin), Charlotte Mundy (voice) and Ellery Trafford (percussion), augmented at various points in the program by Meghan Burke on cello, Tristan McKay on piano, and Joshua Rubin on clarinet. Collectively they tackle this advanced and difficult-to-play music with ease, with dash and even a heroically dynamic demeanor. TAK happily specialize in the Contemporary of yesterday and today through commissions, collaborations and dedicated New Music concertizing. A listen or two will no doubt convince you that they are near-ideal proponents of the music at hand, stars in today's Modern firmament.

So what, then, of that music? There are some five Miller chamber compositions featured, four of which combine instruments with electronic sound. The works exhibit Scott Miller's "eco-systemic" approach, where the music takes on something analogous to the function of ecosystems. This has to do with found environmental sounds, their analysis and then the establishment of paradigms within the musical structure of a given work.

So for example the opening work "Accretion" (2015) for flute, violin, clarinet/bass clarinet, cello, percussion and electronic sound has its initial basis in the composer's field recordings of waterfalls and ice floes, both subjected to spectral analysis which then provides data that figures in the instrumental and electronic components of the composition.

In the end what matters is that each work feels as a kind of natural organic entity where timbral choices and the interlaying of sounds have a feeling of inevitability without providing the listener with an obvious expected result acoustically or syntactically. Everything has an element of surprise yet gives the satisfaction of rich textural presence.

I will not try to run down each piece individually because the deep complexities and emergent form seem at this juncture better heard than subject to more words. The instrumental-electronic interfaces have a remarkable quality born out of the frisson of an exceptional collective grasp on the part of performers, electronic sounds that have a built-in logic and poetics in their interactive presence with acoustic instrumental sounds, and a totality that convinces, comes across as genuinely new, and makes for increasingly absorbing hearing the more one repeats the program.

All praise is due Scott Miller and TAK and company. This is a chamber program anyone with an interest in the latest Modernities should not miss. Outstanding music.

— Grego Applegate Edwards, 3.11.2020

5

Chain D.L.K.

“Ghost Layers" is a collaboration between electro-acoustic composer Scott L. Miller and the critically acclaimed TAK Ensemble, a quintet that delivers energetic and virtuosic performance of “21st century chamber music that combines crystalline clarity with the disorienting turbulence of a sonic vortex.” (WIRE Magazine). The group consists of Laura Cocks, flute; Marina Kifferstein, violin; Joshua Rubin, clarinet/bass clarinet; Meaghan Burke, cello; Ellery Trafford, percussion; Charlotte Mundy, voice; Tristan McKay, piano. Throughout his work, composer Scott Miller demonstrates a reverence for observation — of the sounds of the natural world, the nuances of the electronic realm, and the intricacies of acoustic instruments. On 'Ghost Layers' we hear this quality manifested in several chamber works, all but one of which include electronics. In much of his recent work, Miller has written what he terms eco-systemic music. Through the use of found environmental sounds, subsequent analysis of those sounds, and the establishment of paradigms within the structure of the music, Miller builds musical structures that mimic ecosystems in the way they function. The music on 'Ghost Layers' manifests these characteristics of Miller’s music in ensemble pieces that balance kinetic intensity with subtle examinations of pitch and timbre.

Those already familiar with Miller and/or TAK Ensemble will likely not be surprised with 'Ghost Layers' overall, but within each piece there is a certain amount of subtlety that may cause some chin-stroking. Beginning with Accretion, (9:19), a lively orchestral piece with nearly all hands on deck, seemingly freeform chaos gives way to a kind of order of a series of little playful events. Originally written for Estonian based Ensemble U, Accretion grew out of initial field recordings Miller made in 2015 of waterfalls on the Grand Portage Trail and ice floes in the Grand Marais Bay. That becomes evident 2/3 through the piece as the sound of water transforms Accretion into an ambient work with drones and gentle orchestration. Eidolon was inspirited by a transatlantic flight Miller took, and the phantom sounds he thought he heard during it. Beginning with a (cabin) drone, there are occasional seatbelt pings, and lengthy woodwind notes, cymbal zizzes, light percussive tapping, and other elements that could be considered ghostly. The drone turns to airline hum and you really do get the feeling that you're flying. This piece is extraordinarily well done, and you might not feel like flying for a while after listening to it.

Chimera No. 2 is a duet (or perhaps a duel) between the electronics of Scott L. Miller and the violin of Marina Kifferstein. If it was a duel, Kifferstein wins hands down on a TKO dominating the piece, although Miller gets in some good shots himself. That isn't the point here however; it's spatialization as the lines between the acoustic and the electronic are frequently blurred throughout. Katabasis (for Four Instruments, More or Less) is the only purely acoustic work on the recording. It consists of three parts – 1. Relaxed but Persistent (5:01); 2. With Direction, Not Urgency (6:15); 3. Brittle and Delicate, With Precision. On 1, Charlotte Mundy's voice serves as drone mirroring Kifferstein’s minimal violin to some degree. This is by far the most minimal aspect of ‘Ghost Layers.’ Part 2 begins with Mundy humming a melody into which the woodwinds follow at a safe distance. There are occasional elements of percussion, minimal, discreet and subdued. There’s an aura of melancholy here, and the general impression is akin to surveying a post apocalyptic scene. Part 4 is a series of combined held tones with rests that seemed more like an academic exercise than anything else and failed (in my mind) to resolve the dichotomy with voice and instruments.

Ending with Lovely Little Monster, the listener is jarred from the passivity of the previous piece with a tumult of percussive elements and expressive woodwinds chirping, hooting and cawing like birds in trees while Miller’s electronics add nearly cartoonish elements, making this a rather fun excursion into the absurd. ‘Ghost Layers’ is a multifaceted work that would be really hard to pin down into a unified theme. Miller and the TAK Ensemble seem to work very well together and while not every composition on the album was my particular cup of tea, I found the majority of it very enjoyable and rewarding, and it’s hard to ask for more than that.

— Steve Mecca, 4.30.2024

5

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, 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, 5.26.2020

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