Category Archives: Scott Miller

The Social Dynamic of Collaboration

Collaboration is a defining element of my artistic identity; it has been since I was a student—more than twenty years, now—even if I didn’t think of it that way at first.

My interest in collaborating with performers and artists from different disciplines comes in part from my strong interest in a variety of art forms, but also because I enjoy the shared sense of purpose it provides and the fact that it creates a critical feedback loop early in the creative process. Perhaps it is because I view the artistic act as a fundamentally social construct; I enjoy doing things with other people and I value getting feedback on the development of my music as I do it.

I’ve been involved in many different collaborative projects, some wildly successful and rewarding, and some that could have gone better. My longest collaborative relationship is with poet/spoken-word artist Philippe Costaglioli. Since 2000, we have been developing experimental performance pieces with various video-artists, including a concert-length work, Shape Shifting, with the ensemble Zeitgeist. That collaboration led to a continued relationship with the ensemble and the development of a collaboration with Zeitgeist’s woodwind artist, Pat O’Keefe. Pat and I perform as Willful Devices, a real-time electronics and clarinet/bass clarinet duo, with which we explore interactive-electroacoustic music and improvisation. The collaborative relationship that I have with Philippe, Zeitgeist, and Pat are all based on friendship, a shared sense of artistic purpose and complementary visions of the kind of art we would like to create.

There are different approaches to collaborations. Who your partner(s) are and what kind of work you’re trying to create is obviously important to determining the best approach. But all collaborations depend on honest communication, and the more that there is a shared professional or personal bond, the better. Social discourse founded in listening, sharing, and intellectual curiosity is critical to success and an important element early in the process for defining goals and approaches to accomplishing them. In some collaborations, a tremendous amount of shared, hands-on work is required to realize the project. In others, the process can be done by trading back and forth work that is completed in response to the others’ contributions, more of a networked approach to creation. There’s often a degree of time-consuming, technical work that one or another collaborator needs to do, and is probably best done by themselves. This helps define the division of labor, and also allows for those times together with collaborators to be spent focusing on big picture issues and broader aesthetic concerns. Maximizing the ability to work out things in broad strokes when together seems to be the most productive approach to working with other artists, so I always try to have a palette of options I can quickly demo and work with in a variety of ways when meeting with collaborators mid-project.

It’s also good to work with other artists who have a strong sense of their own artistic vision, and who are comfortable taking turns in different roles, sometimes providing leadership, sometimes stepping back and providing criticism, and sometimes taking direction and providing what’s needed. In the end, I suppose success all comes back to collaborations between a group of friends or colleagues comfortable working towards a common goal or artistic vision, comfortable offering and accepting criticism, and open to learning how to imagine creating something in a way that never would have occurred to them outside of the collaborative process.

Next week: Collaboration as Experimental Laboratory


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Real-time Music Making

It can be very easy for a composer, perhaps especially one working in electroacoustic music, to work entirely alone and out of real-time. This approach to work can be very rewarding and produce great music. I, however, have always enjoyed making music the most when it is the reason for engaging with and interacting with other musicians and the audience as part of the creative act.

The sound and music technologies developed over the past 50 years have often been designed with this purpose in mind. Morton Subotnik has said that he dreamed of electronic technology allowing a composer to create with sound in the same way a painter stands in their living room and creates a painting. His work with Donald Buchla and Ramon Sender at the San Francisco Tape Music Center did a lot to make this a reality.

But there’s a difference between creating sound in real-time and real-time music making. If the goal is a finished object, such as a fixed-media piece on tape or CD, then the music making is still out of real-time.

Real-time music making is often a synonym for improvisation (although I don’t think this need be the case). There was a period in Western classical music when improvisation was an important and valued component of the musical style. This changed, especially in the 20th century, in part I believe because of a romanticization of the composer in society and a growing fetish with music notation, the idea that one could possess music, that the score—not sound—is music.

During the past century, there has been a renewed interest in improvisation as an element of Western classical music, although much of that history is stained by racist overtones. It is, after all, in African-American music traditions that improvisation, real-time music making, flourished in the 20th century. Sadly, many composers went to great lengths to insist that their incorporation of improvisation in music making was not, in fact, improvisation, but something else. The implication, of course, is that improvisation belonged to the “Other,” and was somehow not worthy of comparison. I believe that this was also wrapped up in the High Brow – Low Brow dichotomy that seemed to vex people to no end. I can say that when I was a student, it still seemed to be an issue for a number of folks, but, thankfully, seems to have disappeared from our cultural concerns today. I do hope that it’s behind us.

So, there are a number of approaches to real-time music making in electroacoustic music. Several of these I would include in a category of “prepared composition.” Some examples include DJ-ing, looping, and sample-based music. These approaches involve prepared compositional elements, whether appropriated or created from original material, which can then be constructed into a composition in real-time. The finished musical performance that results can certainly resemble a composition created in the studio, even if the approach is highly improvisational. As an improvised experience, working with a collection of pre-composed sound events (simple or complex) that serve as a palette to choose from and work with, really moves the use of the technology into the realm of musical instrument.

I find this approach to performing and composing in real-time to be really interesting. As an instrumental performance, it has encouraged the development and use of some very interesting control devices. Sure, there’s a history of keyboard style controllers that are used to trigger sound events, but there’s also a history of alternative sound controllers/interfaces, dating back to the Theremin and Ondes Martenot. Some that I really enjoy working with today which make use of commercially available technology include Wii-mote controllers and my iPad. Of course, there are many people building their own controllers that respond to all sorts of physical input, and as an audience member, it can be really cool to see and hear performances with these alternatives.

Aesthetically, working in real-time with pre-composed sound events opens up a wonderful new world of sonic art possibilities. I think this is especially true when working with complex sound events or samples that literally refer to other musics. I find it interesting to not focus on individual note or harmonic events, and instead to hear the collection of a multiplicity of these events as an object itself. Aspects of sound/recording/production quality, timbre, origin, and extra-musical issues can become the driving musical force in this approach. There are examples of music constructed this way, juxtaposing multiple musical performances and styles that use only acoustic ensemble performances, for example, by Henry Brant. There are a lot of logistical issues involved with an acoustic-only approach. With electroacoustic music technology, this becomes not only a simple technical matter to deal with, but one in which real-time composition, improvisation, and performance with a wide array of controllers/interfaces is ideally suited.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of the proliferation of real-time composition, whether because of the technical ease of exploring it or the aesthetic possibilities it presents, is that it depends upon live performance to happen. I’m optimistic about the future of new music, largely because I think its future is improved by more frequent live interaction with audiences. At its core, music making is a social event, whether it’s friends or professional acquaintances coming together to make music, in the studio or on stage, or folks gathering together to hear music being performed. It can be part of a rigid social ritual, or seemingly spontaneous (think flash-mob), but there’s social interaction operating at some level. My hope for the music to come is placed in this social aspect, and for this I have great respect for electroacoustic music that explores real-time music making, whatever style it may be in.

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Composing With Sound, Not For Sound

Last week, I pointed out that I’m looking forward to writing about collaboration, improvisation, and interactive electroacoustic music, all of which are important aspects of my work as a composer. And to a community of musicians, it probably seems ridiculous to talk about how exciting it is for me to be engaged in real-time music making. But I come from a Western classical music tradition, at least the majority of my formal training is traditional in that regard. The standard paradigm for composers in this tradition is of a person who labors away in solitude, probably with a keyboard instrument, certainly pen and paper, whose goal is to produce a score, which is a set of instructions to be handed off to musicians whose role it is to interpret the instructions in the pursuit of making music. Like most generalizations, there’s a lot of latitude with this description and many challenges to it in recent history, but it does fairly represent a traditional view of the role of a composer in Western society.

The most revolutionary challenge to the traditional idea of what it means to be a composer came from Pierre Schaeffer 60 years ago. Schaeffer was a recording engineer for French Radio (RTF) in Paris, and had access to recording equipment that most people didn’t. Using lacquer disc recording gear, he recorded a variety of different sounds in and out of the studio, from pots and pans to trains at the Gare du Nord. In the studio, he edited and mixed what we’d think of today as samples into what he called Musique Concréte (today it’s more frequently called Acousmatic). What was really revolutionary about what Schaeffer did wasn’t that he created music out of sounds generally not regarded as musical—there was already a long history of that in practice and philosophy—it was that he did it using recorded sounds, including some traditionally regarded as musical. 

This changed the composer paradigm completely. Before, the composer imagined the sounds they wanted to hear and wrote out directions that had to be interpreted and performed in order for the music to be heard. Now, the composer was literally able to work with the sound first, and craft it into the music they wanted to hear. Furthermore, once the piece was completed, there was no need for interpretation, one had only to play back the finished work from disc or tape to hear the music as originally conceived and intended. This shift made composing less like a choreographer creating a ballet and more like a sculptor creating a sculpture.

It also represented a different attitude towards recording technology. The name says it all, that is, a recording is a record of something that happened. The governing philosophy of Musique Concréte is that this technology, the medium used for making records of sonic events, can also be used to make a different kind of sonic art, one that’s informed by the possibilities of working with and manipulating recorded sound, regardless of what made the sound in the first place.

This approach to working with sound is a big part of my compositional background, and it informs a lot of what I create these days. What’s the attraction for me? I enjoy working directly with a wide palette of sounds, and shaping, crafting, experimenting with, and revealing aspects of sound that I maybe even didn’t suspect were there. Composing directly with sound like this is also a lot more like performing to me, although out of real-time. Related to this, I like working in real-time with performers, recording and very quickly processing their sound into another aspect of the musical fabric that we’re creating together.

In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the technology to create this kind of music tended to be in rarefied settings, in state sponsored radio/television studios, research facilities, and major research institutions. Obviously this limited access, and of course, there were a lot of societal pressures that narrowed down who had access to this technology even more. But in the 80s, this began to change with truly affordable multi-track and digital sampling equipment and the rise of turntablism (especially in communities that didn’t have access to this technology). Add in the explosive growth in personal computer power and affordability, and today an infinitely diverse number of people are exploring the possibilities of this new composer paradigm, regardless of what musical tradition, social stratum or educational background they come from.

It’s an exciting time to be a composer, especially if you’re interested in working with recorded sound, and a great time to be a listener if you’re interested in hearing a wide variety of music. 

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First off, I’d like to thank Indaba for inviting me to participate in the A.I.R. program and providing this opportunity to connect with a huge community of music makers. I am flattered to be included with so many great musicians involved in the A.I.R. program, and look forward to learning more about what folks in the Indaba community are doing and are interested in, as well as sharing what it is that I’m passionate about.

For those of you unfamiliar with my music—or me—I am a composer based in Minnesota, where I’m a Professor of Composition, Electroacoustic Music and Theory at St. Cloud State University (recent site of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the U.S. (SEAMUS) 2010 National Conference). My work explores collaborative approaches to composition that incorporate interactive and fixed-media electronics, improvisation, spoken-word, visual-media, and various compositional strategies concerning the spatial diffusion of sound. My compositions are often written for specific performers as collaborative partners, informed by experimentation, work-shopping and a shared investigation of sound.

For several years now, I have been focusing more on performing as an electronic musician with a variety of improvisers from different musical traditions. My principle effort in this regard has been Willful Devices, a collaboration with woodwind artist Pat O’Keefe (who is a monster performer and improviser). This experimental collaborative venture has become my primary outlet for exploring new ideas about working with sound, approaching interactive programming, and engaging in real-time music making.

The topics I’m looking forward to writing about in the coming weeks will have to do with collaboration, improvisation, and interactive electroacoustic music. I will also talk about some of my current projects and hope to address any particular interests members of the Indaba community may have.

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