Scott Miller- Tipping Point (New Focus fcr 161)
ADDENDUM: Mr. Miller kindly supplied the correct composition dates for the pieces in this album and they have been placed in the text. Also I was pleased to receive a link to their discography:(http://www.zeitgeistnewmusic.org/discography.html) I hope that is a recent addition and not my oversight (apologies if it’s an oversight).
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.