Scott L. Miller: Raba


Minneapolis based composer Scott L. Miller's "Raba" reflects his increasing interest over the last two decades in ambient music inspired by sounds of the environment. Miller is a pioneer in the field of eco-systemic music and in applications of the performance platform Kyma, as well as being active in many contexts of multi-media work -- accompanying this release is a limited edition DVD of original video content created for the project. The recording features collaborations with Ensemble U:, flutist Laura Cocks, and guitarist Daniel Lippel.


Over the last two decades, Minneapolis based composer Scott L. Miller’s work has increasingly been engaged with ambient sound and music informed and inspired by the environment. This recording, “Raba”, is a byproduct of this artistic direction. Intially conceived as a straight forward retrospective of Miller’s work in the ambient realm, the project has since evolved into a chronicle of his collaborations with performers Ensemble U:, flutist Laura Cocks, and guitarist Daniel Lippel as well as video artists Ted Moore, Mark Zaki, Rosemary Williams, Ron Gregg, and Paul Clipson. In addition to the audio recording, a limited edition DVD is available including premiere video content for all but one of the works, created especially for this release. Not unlike one’s experience truly being inside and hearing the sounds of nature, listening to this entire recording slows our perception to a slower rate of change. Within this context, we can hear the drastically different sound worlds between the individual pieces. The ominous rattling and swishing that opens Autumn Etude is in fact processed sounds of leaves recorded in Miller’s back yard in the autumn. The recordings are processed using a technique called “granular synthesis” wherein each sound is digitally split into minute composite “grains” that contain a seed of the fundamental sonic material of the original source. Miller deftly shapes these granular sounds into a composition with elegant pacing and shape. Raba is both the most conventional music for ensemble on the recording while simultaneously being the springboard for the most cutting edge project — a virtual reality experience that involves a 360 simulation of touring the ancient Estonian bog that inspired the piece. Drone material from an oscillator moves unsettlingly around the mix while Tallinn based Ensemble U: plays slowly shifting lines, building chords that emerge and recede into the fog of the mysterious marsh. Admiration was originally composed in 2008 as part of a video chamber opera, and is inspired by a medieval astronomical clock in Prague. To evoke the slow moving hands of the clock, Miller recorded two colleagues, clarinetist Pat O’Keefe and cellist Jacqueline Ultan, performing a Baroque Sarabande independently of one another. The material is then manipulated and processed, resulting in the ebbing and flowing of the backing track, like gentle waves lapping on the shore. Guitarist Daniel Lippel’s 2017 performance is then layered on top of this pre-existing recording, creating a complex dialogue with the prior versions of the piece and the pre-recorded material. Like Admiration, Hilltop at Montalvo was originally composed as part of a video collaboration and shares the pulsating oscillators that are heard in Raba. In Hilltop however, the dialogue is not between oscillator and ensemble, but with unprocessed field recordings of the natural environment in a interesting juxtaposition of machine made music and naturally occurring sound. Meditation posits a different relationship between live instrument and electronics, with Lippel’s structured improvisation on classical guitar interacting with a modular series of patches triggered by Miller in performance. Sections are demarcated by textural changes or subtle introductions of new pitch material, but the overall work is characterized by a series of sonic incantations or pitch mantras of sorts, intoned over a sometimes unsettling ground. The Frost Performs its Secret Ministry is another work inspired by the environment, literally the impossibly barren character of a Minnesota frost. Miller focuses here on the fragility of the flutist Laura Cocks’ breath, eliciting nearly imperceptible whistle tones that are then imitated in the electronics and guitar extended techniques in this frigid sonic world. Solstice Orrery, inspired by phenomenon of gravitational pull in our solar system, closes this inward looking recording looking out to the cosmos, with a series of episodes highlighting disembodied sounds that evoke life beyond our known reality.

- D. Lippel

  • Engineer: Scott L. Miller (#1, 4, 7); Ryan Streber/Oktaven Audio (# 3, 5, 6; 5.17); Tammo Sumera/Estonian Academy of Music (# 2, 10.17)
  • Design/layout/Mixing/Editing by Scott L. Miller
  • Mastered by Margo Kõlar
  • Liner notes: Brett Wartchow

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.

Ensemble U:

Ensemble U: is currently the most active and renowned contemporary music ensemble in Estonia. They have gained recognition for their ability to perform even the most demanding works without a conduc- tor, openness to bold experimental ideas, and sensitivity to sound. Outside of Estonia, U: has performed at important international festivals, including Time of Music (Viitasaari, Finland), GAIDA (Vilnius, Lithu- ania), Sounds New (Canterbury, UK), Nordic Music Days (Helsinki, Finland), Nuova Consonanza (Rome, Italy), Third Practice (Richmond, USA), and the Biennale di Musica Venezia (Italy).

U: performs the masterworks of contemporary composers as well as classic experimental compositions, and specializes in improvisational works and pieces featuring non-traditional notation. Their repertoire includes authors from Estonia and abroad and the ensemble values the opportunity to continuously commission new music to be written for them. In April 2009 Ensemble U: released their first album, U:, consisting of works by Estonian composers dedicated to U:; their second album, Protuberances, was released in 2011, and their third album, ALIVE (2015) features selected live recordings from 2012-14.

Ensemble U: celebrated their tenth anniversary in the 2013/14 season with the launch of a lecture- concert series, URR – 10 Years of Resistance. In this series, U: presents important themes concerning the modern music scene through concerts realized in co-operation with the Estonian National Broadcast with live transmission on Klassikaraadio.

Daniel Lippel

Guitarist Dan Lippel, called a "modern guitar polymath (Guitar Review)" and an "exciting soloist" (NY Times) is active as a soloist, chamber musician, and recording artist. He has been the guitarist for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) since 2005 and new music quartet Flexible Music since 2003. Recent performance highlights include recitals at Sinus Ton Festival (Germany), University of Texas at San Antonio, MOCA Cleveland, Center for New Music in San Francisco, and chamber performances at the Macau Music Festival (China), Sibelius Academy (Finland), Cologne's Acht Brücken Festival (Germany), and the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. He has appeared as a guest with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and New York New Music Ensemble, among others, and recorded for Kairos, Bridge, Albany, Starkland, Centaur, and Fat Cat.
13 Sep, 2018

Scott L. Miller's Raba in NYC

Scott L. Miller is bringing works from his recent album, Raba, to New York city at the end of September. This includes a virtual reality performance by Ensemble U: of the title piece at Spectrum in Brooklyn on September 28th, and a performance at Columbia University's Lenfest Center featuring works from the album, with accompanying video, performed by flutist Laura Cocks and guitarist Dan Lippel …

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04 Mar, 2018

Scott L. Miller "Raba" CD Release Event in St. Paul

Scott L. Miller celebrates the release of his CD Raba with an event in the St. Paul venue, Studio Z, on March 10 at 7:30pm. Guitarist Dan Lippel will be performing Miller's works for guitar and electronics from the album, Admiration and Meditation, and Miller will screen premieres of videos composed for the accompanying DVD release for other works on the recording. Raba is a culmination of …

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Gapplegate Classical Modern Music Review

I have increasingly found Scott L. Miller to be his own musical voice in the realm of Electronic and New Music. Going through various blog indexes I find this to be in fact the third CD of his that I have reviewed on these pages and the pages of Gapplegate Music Review. He shows no sign of flagging on RABA (New Focus Recording FCR 198). In fact this well may be his most important offering to date.

What started out for Miller as a kind of mini-retrospective of his 20-year cycle of creation rather quickly became a kind of reworking of past efforts into new effusions and novel collaborations. It is a collection of some seven works created over a significant time span (one from 1998, the others completed in their present form in 2016-7). Each occupies a particular niche in the ambient zone. There are some three for "fixed media electronic sound" alone: Autumn Etude (1998), Hilltop at Montalvo (2017), and Solstice Orrery (2016); one for Ensemble U: (alto flute, clarinet, violin, cellos, tam tam, piano) and electronic sound, Raba (2015/2017); two for Daniel Lippel on electric guitar and electronic sound or interactive electronic sound, Admiration (2008/2017), Meditation (2016); and one for electronic sound, Daniel on guitar plus Laura Cocks on flute and electronic sound, The Frost Performs Its Secret Ministry (2016).

The most striking thing perhaps in these compositions as a whole and in general is the acute sense of a vibrant sonority-timbre design that puts each work in a special place and creates memorable ambiances that feel rather organic, naturally growing and permuting. The works that interface conventional instruments and electronics have close overlaps in timbre between the two classes of sounds so that a sort of orchestral luminosity in furthered. And what completes it all is the sort of musico-logic of the sequence of each work. There is not quite a feeling of inevitability so much as there is a kind of "rightness" to the unfolding in time. The liner notes mention his tendency towards something called "granular synthesis," or in other words the breaking up of a sonic signal into grains of sound that each contain some of the audio modeling of the original. One might profitably trace some of the feeling of audio-logic to this process.

One might quibble as to whether Scott L. Miller's music belongs in the New Music category. To me such quibbles are plainly wrong-headed. An electric guitar, for example, is a contemporary instrument like, say, the pianoforte was during its first advent. It is transcendent by now of stylistic pigeonholes. And if ambiance can be found across a spectrum of various stylistic avenues, it is not to say that it does not belong as one of the characteristic modes available to New Music artists today.

What especially matters is that Scott L. Miller excels as an artist in this mode. He is one of the very best active today and one of the most original and consistently satisfying. The program is in many ways a bellwether of New Music-Electronic Music right now. I enthusiastically recommend it to you.

- Grego Applegate Edwards, Classical Modern Music, 5.2.2018



Though “Raba” was conceived originally as a retrospective of Scott L. Miller's work in the ambient field, it ultimately blossomed into a project comprising: solo electronic settings; collaborations with Estonian ensemble Ensemble U:, flutist Laura Cocks, and guitarist Daniel Lippel; and a video component, with visual content for all but one of the seven works having been created especially for the release and featured on a a limited edition DVD (not included with the review copy). In his day job, Miller's a Professor of Music at St. Cloud State University, Minnesota, where he teaches composition, electroacoustic music, and theory, and is also President of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS). Aside from electroacoustic, another term for the material on Raba is ecosystemic, a term Miller uses to describe the way activity in the natural world is translated in his works into electronic form, interactive sonic ecosystems the result.

It's a striking recording on multiple levels: rather than being purely electronic in design, much of the album's material incorporates sounds from the environment, which has been a major source of inspiration for the Minneapolis-based composer for two decades; and many of the pieces wed Miller's electronic sounds to acoustic sonorities produced by his guests. The hour-long set is enhanced by sequencing that, in general, sees solo settings created by Miller alone alternating with those featuring others. Indicative of his approach is the opening work, Autumn Etude, in which the composer uses granular synthesis to transform sounds of leaves recorded in his backyard into abstract swishing and rattling noises. Similar to the album's other pieces, environment-derived sounds become less identifiable (if not wholly unidentifiable) after processing's been applied, making for material where tensions between abstraction and representation are constantly in play. There's a steely, industrial quality, for example, to the sweeping tones in Autumn Etude that feels far removed from the leaves in Miller's backyard. Not all the solo pieces are as abstract, however: in Hilltop at Montalvo, unprocessed field recordings of the natural environment are present, such that sounds of crickets and an overhead plane are audible alongside the pulsating oscillators.

Ensemble U: plays on the title piece, with in this case the slowly shifting lines of the group's acoustic instruments—alto flute, clarinet, violin, cello, tam-tam, and piano—merging effectively with an oscillator-generated drone. Despite the presence of the latter element, Raba is the most conventional-sounding of the album's seven pieces, even if its electroacoustic drone character aligns it to the project as a whole. Minimal gestures by the players—a single piano note here, a long-held pitch by the cello there—help brand it a Miller creation, but there are moments when the glacial pace and clarinet sonorities suggest a connection, if a tangential one, to Gavin Bryars' chamber ensemble.

In Admiration, Lippel layers his angular electric expressions on top of an ebbing-and-flowing backing track Miller created by processing the playing of clarinetist Pat O'Keefe and cellist Jacqueline Ultan, who were recorded performing a Baroque Sarabande independently of one another. Lippel's second of three appearances occurs within Meditation, where his classical guitar picking interacts in real time with a modular series of patches triggered by Miller—a markedly more destabilizing soundworld than the one crafted in Admiration, with again contrast evident, in this case between the acoustic textures of the guitar and the buzz of the electronics. The marriage of acoustic and electronic sounds works especially well during The Frost Performs its Secret Ministry, specifically in the way Cocks's shakuhachi-like flute and Lippel's guitar textures are used to evoke a frigid winter setting.

The settings on “Raba” eschew the hermetic chill that sometimes shadows electroacoustic productions for a multi-dimensional presentation that feels expansive and inviting by comparison; it's certainly not every day one encounters electroacoustic material that includes the whisper of a flute or intimations of the natural world. Anything but bombastic, Miller's chamber-styled pieces are also generally restrained, understatement and nuance being key to the material's effect.

— Ron Schepper, textura, 6.2018


Midwest Record

It's a little naive to say that everything moves forward, but New Focus is showing us that ambient electronic neo classical music is moving forward in the right hands. A long time practitioner with several decades under his belt is now the owner of a blossoming catalog that is well worth a retrospective look over, especially since too many ears outside the realm have probably never heard it. Not to slag the genre pioneers, but his isn't the coma inducing noodling that so much of it was back in the day. A main stream set for left leaning ears, don't be surprised if this is the basis of your kids version of EDM revival a few years down the road.

— Chris Spector, Midwest Record, 6.15.2018


Avant Music News

The electronic and electroacoustic music on Raba represents an updating, in its own way, of ambient music by way of contemporary art music. As composer Scott L. Miller explains, the CD began as a retrospective of his work but evolved into a reworking of some old pieces along with the creation of new work.

The title track, composed in 2015 and revised in 2017, exemplifies the paradox of tension within drift that characterizes Miller’s reimagining of ambient composition. The piece is orchestrated for a small electroacoustic ensemble of winds, strings, piano, percussion, and electronic sound. The latter is responsible for the ambience, providing as it does a textural backdrop recalling at times the electronic hum of a distant engine. Over this foundation, the acoustic instruments intervene with complementary washes of sound. The work is low-key but psychologically taut; it creates an atmosphere permeated by unresolved anticipation. The title of The Frost Performs Its Secret Ministry (2016) hints at an estoric action hidden in an everyday meteorological event; this trio for flute (Laura Cocks), guitar (Daniel Lippel) and electronic sound keeps that action veiled in mostly abstract, unpitched sounds: the flute comes in on a gust of air notes, for example. Lippel’s agitated strumming keeps the piece from wafting into languor and instead adds an urgent, emotional edge. Lippel is the pivot for Meditation (2016) for guitar and interactive electronic sound. The piece is undergirded by a feedback-like hum on which the guitar’s coloristic fragments float; from this basic division of sonic parts Miller builds a subtle drama out of oppositions of timbre: the sharp attack, short sustain and relatively muted tones of the nylon-string guitar provide a compelling contrast to the electronics’ sustained sounds.

-Daniel Barbiero, 11.26.18, Avant Music News

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