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Scott L MILLER (b. 1966)
05 IX
Scott L. Miller (kyma)
rec October 2020 – April 2021, US and UK
Reviewed as a digital download with pdf booklet
RARESCALE RR06 [48:48]

It used to be that improvisation was part of every performing musician’s bag of tricks. I am not sure when precisely this art declined in classical music. Little improvised introductions to piano pieces seem to have just about survived into the recording era but I suspect the generation of Liszt may have been the last expected to perform large-scale improvisation in public. Most famously it remains the bedrock of jazz and plays a role in the performance of rock music. The best we can hope for in classical these days is the odd flourish in a Mozart concerto or something by a Baroque composer.

I say all this by way of introduction to this intriguing new CD from Rarescale and Scott L. Miller. The composer here, Miller, wrote this score with room left for improvisation by all the performers. Instead of a precise set of instructions the score becomes a jumping off point for the musicians. In contrast to, say, a cadenza of a classical concerto where only the soloist was intended to improvise, here all three of the interpreters are expected to respond as they see fit to the imprecise instructions of the score. In practice this means that they respond to each other’s flights of invention within the loose confines of what the composer has put down on paper. I haven’t been able to see the score produced for this music, so these observations are based on my understanding of the liner notes. What I can’t say is how much of what I am hearing is precomposed and how much improvised.

Covid added an extra dimension to this already complex undertaking. The recording here was made with one of the performers, Miller, in America and the other two in separate UK cities. The liner notes refer to this process as “telematic musicking”. As anyone who has tried to make music with others online during lockdown will vouch, coordination is a big problem. Rarescale, comprising Carla Rees (flutes) and Sarah Watts (clarinets), and Miller have decided to make a virtue out of a necessity and let the technology add another random element to the music making.

While Rarescale employ a range of exotic flutes and clarinets, Miller’s “instrument” is a piece of software called Kyma that enables the creation and manipulation of sound. If anyone wants a more technical explanation, I suggest they refer to Miller’s own website.

Reviewing an earlier recording by Miller and Carla Rees, one half of what is called Rarescale here, for MusicWeb, Dominy Clements wondered if everyone was taking themselves a little too seriously. That certainly isn’t the case here, as one of the joys of this CD is the quirky humour. The performers bounce off each other’s ideas with real glee. There is a delight in noise for its own sake and whatever Miller can come up with, the virtuoso wind players can more than match in response. This sense of play runs through all the works recorded here.

That isn’t to say that everything here is jokey. I think the second track 05 IX is a good place to start. To my ears, it is a night piece and seems an extension of the Nachtmusik movements of Mahler 7 or the fluttering bugs in Bartok’s nocturnal music. Of course, it doesn’t particularly sound like either but it shares their sense of almost mystical strangeness. It also builds to a most impressive climax without recourse to the techniques of Romantic music.

The spirit of Stockhausen seems to hover close to this music, particularly in relation to its elevation of the means of making sound to a compositional principle. The bewildering range of ways of getting a sound out of a flute or a clarinet are not just colourful effects but part of the structure of the music as the pitch or harmony or rhythm might be in more conventional music. Again, I hear this in a clear line from Mahler through Webern to Stockhausen and finally to this CD. To begin with, this can make the music sound disconcertingly like a lot of random noises but the ear quickly adjusts and the patterns in the music start to emerge except often the patterns are of types of sounds rather than melodies or harmonies.

On the other hand, this seems to me music that connects with something ancient. Amidst the sophistication of the electronic music, we are taken back to the very beginnings of music with bone flutes and tapped rhythms. It forces us to think about the basic building blocks of music and the impact that they have. The origins of music appear to lie in spiritual and ritual practices, something that connects cave-men blowing bone flutes to Wagner’s Parsifal. The music on this CD seems to me at once incredibly sophisticated and yet primitive. At numerous points I was reminded of the music of Malin Bång. This Swedish composer often makes music using everyday objects and, in the process, challenges our view of what constitutes music and makes the listener think of the musicality of everyday sounds. Another point of comparison might be the soundscapes of Annea Lockwood, though the music of Bång and Miller/Rarescale is more purposively “composed” in the traditional sense.

I have mentioned in passing the electronic dimension of this music, which is a significant element of it. Again, this grows out of the experimentation of the likes of Stockhausen and the IRCAM composers but I also heard similarities to more mainstream acts like Tangerine Dream normally categorised under Rock. There is a real delight in sound for its own sake and a curiosity about its possibilities. The software used allows the composer/performer (the distinction is blurred in more improvisatory music) to take sound into areas normally out of bounds to conventional instruments. In a sense this is not so different from Mozart or Beethoven pushing piano makers to provide instruments that could keep pace with their musical imaginations. In the movement entitled ‘25 May’ the computerised sounds take the character of unearthly birdsong which is both striking and beautiful. This is one of the notable aspects of this recording: for all that it can be abrasive and angular, often it is very beautiful in ways that are surprising and new.

The most powerful impression made upon me by this music is the simple joy of creation. Its style will not be to all tastes but what we have are three musicians engaged in pushing at the boundaries of music and, by the sounds of it, having a whale of a time doing so. I certainly did, listening to it.

David McDade

1 23 May [3:57]
2 05 IX [7:25]
3 25 May [5:09]
4 Sonata II [4:26]
5 Piano-Forte II [4:22]
6 Short-Long [4:14]
7 Piano-Forte III [5:04]
8 Round II [4:52]
9 Rarecats [4:35]
10 Round I [4:46]

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