Track premiere: Alexander Elliott Miller’s “Zanja Madre” from To….Oblivion
Composer/guitarist Alexander Elliott Miller‘s debut solo album, To….Oblivion comes out everywhere on October 20. The record and historical photography project deals with lost spaces in Los Angeles, and to celebrate the release Alex is playing three sets at the Bendix Building that day as part of the LA Conservancy‘s architecture walking tours. A few standing room tickets are still available.
I first heard To….Oblivion in its nascent stages at a What’s Next? Ensemble show a few years ago, and then caught the full piece at Oh My Ears! in Phoenix back in January. My favorite track/movement was the “Zanja Madre,” which is the original aqueduct that brought water to El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Rio Porciuncula (L.A. is a useful abbreviation, isn’t it?). I asked Alex if we could premiere the track when the album was ready, and he said yes. So, feast your ears!
Alex also had time for some interview questions about the project. Here’s our conversation:
Okay, so talk to me about To….Oblivion
To….Oblivion is an album all about historic landmarks in Los Angeles. It’s for solo electric guitar, which I play myself, with electronics and a video slideshow. The electronics include both live processing of the guitar as well as recorded sounds which aim to capture an impression of the acoustic environment of each site. The album will be released along with videos of the recording with the slideshow both projected behind me and intercut directly.
There are six historic sites: the Belmont Tunnel, Dunbar Hotel, Zanja Madre, Tower Records, Long Beach’s Pike Amusement Park and Anaheim’s Center Street.
When you were writing the pieces for the record, were there any direct or obvious connections between the places and your composing (for instance, tracing the curve of the LA river in a melody), or was each location more of a loose inspiration for your work?
There’s nothing as literal as tracing the curve of the river and interpreting it as a melody. With each movement, I found myself wanting to make the slideshow and soundtrack first, finding the right order for the photographs to convey the story of each site, then matching up the sounds to those images where appropriate. Usually the guitar part was the last thing to be written, almost like a film score, though I usually had pretty strong ideas of what I wanted beforehand.
Some of the movements suggested particular types of guitar playing or sound worlds. Certainly the movement about the Dunbar Hotel, at the hub of LA’s mid-20th Century jazz scene gave me a chance to try my own take on jazz as a composer, and the Tower Records movement let me return some classic rock guitar playing that I grew up with.
The Belmont Tunnel, about an abandoned subway tunnel from the early 20th Century suggested certain sound effects: there’s an effect I create with an eBow and some pitch shifting that is a heavy, loud, roaring sound that reminds me a train, there’s a ton of reverb, almost like the echoes I imagine down in that abandoned tunnel.
Was there anything in particular that acted as a deciding factor in whether or not to use a location? Did any places not make the cut?
I was interested in locations that either seemed like symbols of larger issues in the city, or perhaps had interesting sonic or even musical implications.
The Belmont Tunnel, for me, is a symbol of public transportation’s role in shaping the city, and presents a great “what if:” what if LA’s original subway had been allowed to grow, in place of or in addition to expansion of the freeways, how would the city have been different?
The Zanja Madre movement was written at the heart of the drought, and deals with LA’s complicated relationship with water. I also liked that the original Zanja Madre was a project that dated from 1781, constructed within weeks of the original establishment of the city. It was right there at the beginning of Los Angeles, and dealt with our major problem: water.
Two movements venture further outside downtown LA, to Orange County and Long Beach, but these are also two of the sites to which I have a more personal connection. “Anaheim’s Center Street” looks at urban blight and redevelopment, and has a scene were the heart of the old downtown is demolished with bulldozers. I loved the idea of including bulldozers in the soundtrack, and felt that scene, perhaps more than anything else in the piece, captured the sadness of the title “To….Oblivion.” I live on Anaheim’s Center Street and got to know my own neighborhood much better by doing this piece. The Long Beach movement tells a similar story of urban decay, but I left out the violence of the bulldozers in this movement, and focused more on the happy memories of the old amusement park. I’ve worked in Long Beach for six years, and I think this movement is probably the most hopeful in the set, being a sort of expression of my gratitude to the city.
Then there are two sites in which music itself is an important part of the historic site’s identity. The Dunbar Hotel was at the heart of LA’s Central Avenue jazz scene. This location also has a complicated history representing the status of race relations in LA, as the Dunbar was one of the few hotels were African American celebrities were welcomed. One has mixed feelings about it: on one hand, it’s an exciting cultural focal point where numerous jazz heroes were present (Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, countless others all stayed there), and yet, a regrettable place, existing primarily because of segregation laws. Secondly, the Sunset Strip’s Tower Records obviously represents a kind of celebration of music in its day, but also may have become, since its closing, a kind symbol of all of the changes the music industry has experienced in the last two decades.
When I first started the project, I think there were some other historic sites that I considered very briefly, but the shape of the piece with the six now part of the final version emerged quickly. Still, other locations that I may have considered at the beginning which didn’t make the cut included the Nestor Film Studio (the very first ever movie studio in LA), the Pan Pacific Auditorium (which burned to the ground and is now the site of Pan Pacific Park), and, of course, the Ambassador Hotel. I discovered Gabriel Kahane’s album “The Ambassador,” after this (it’s an album I love and one which shares an “LA location” concept with my project), so honestly, I’m glad I didn’t include it. I already had a hotel in the project anyway, in the Dunbar Hotel.
You once told me that when you visit places you like to enter via different modes of transportation to give yourself a different perspective or idea of “home base” for a city. For instance, coming into LA on the 10 from the desert is a very different experience than taking the train down from Nor Cal to start at Union Station or arriving by boat in San Pedro. Could you talk a bit about your perspective on LA now that you’re often coming up from Anaheim, or your take on the city as a person raised in the midwest and northeast?
Well, I was born in Boston and raised in Kansas City. I still have family in both places, and I’m fortunate to have lived in other places as a student or for temporary jobs in my twenties, but most of my life as an adult has been here in the greater LA area. I’ve never taken a boat into San Pedro or Marina del Ray, but obviously driven, flown and taken trains into LA many times; I think I see all the same problems that everyone else does, first the strangeness of its location coming out of the desert when you drive here from the east, and then once you’re here, the high rents, homelessness, gentrification, traffic and access to water.
On the positive side, LA has always seemed like a place that is what you make of it (or how much you’re able/willing to drive through it). Maybe what I mean, more specifically, is that LA is a place where I feel I’ve met many people who share my interests – like you if I may say so – a place where I feel I’ve been welcomed into a communities both with musicians in the city and the schools where I work. I haven’t had the opportunity to live as an adult, work, pay rent, and be a working musician or teacher in Boston or Kansas City so couldn’t compare those experiences.
Lastly, part of the joy of writing this piece really had to do with exploring LA itself. Much of the time when I’m composing, I’m isolated at home with a computer, piano or guitar. This piece presented an opportunity to get out into the city, partly because I wanted to hang out at each site a little bit, but also because I needed to record so many sounds of the city for the soundtrack and wanted to do everything authentically. So for the Belmont Tunnel, for example, I found a Saturday to take a handheld mic and record subway sounds while circling the system all day, exploring new neighborhoods all the while. For the Dunbar Hotel, I took that mic to a jazz club and recorded ambient crowd noise during a set change between bands. The water sounds in Zanja Madre are actually the LA River in Los Feliz, and the sounds of the Sunset Strip were actually recorded on Sunset near Tower Records’ site, with some of the sounds of CDs clicking against each other recorded at Amoeba Records. For Anaheim’s Center Street, I went to a mall at 1:00am where an old Macy’s was being demolished and recorded bulldozers; the amusement park sounds for Long Beach were a mixture sounds of the Santa Monica Pier, Knott’s Berry Farm rollercoasters and the Griffith Park Merry Go Round. The whole thing took years, but experiencing LA in so many places and different ways was one of the things that made the experience of writing this piece so much fun.
Who are you working with to present this project live?
On the day of the album release, Oct. 20th, I’ll be performing the work as part of an event co-presented by two organizations: Synchromy and the LA Conservancy.
The LA Conservancy organizes frequent walking tours of various neighborhoods in the city, exploring historic architecture. This October, their Walking Tour will go through the Fashion District downtown, and include the Bendix Building. My performance, which will be on the penthouse floor of the Bendix, will essentially be a stop along that tour, so I’ll be playing selections from the album all day long for various groups coming and going. The tours themselves are sold out but a limited number of concert-only tickets will be sold. It was the idea of Synchromy’s director, our friend Jason Barabba, to get in touch with them about this project.
Two weeks later I’ll be playing selections from the album in San Francisco at the Center for New Music. I’m splitting the program with a wonderful guitarist in the Bay Area, Giacomo Fiore.
What’s next for you? Although the album is finished and coming out this month, are you continuing to add tracks to the project?
I think I’m happy with where the project is now. I like the six movements I have, I’m not opposed to adding more but am not ready yet. Also, once, the idea occurred to me that I could, instead writing new movements about new locations, perhaps revisit these same locations in ten years or so to see how they’ve continued to change. Just a thought….
I will say this is the first work I’ve done that had a video component, and even though it is a simple video consisting of a slideshow, I did greatly enjoy having that element to further the storytelling potential of each work. I don’t have plans for new video works, nor plans to collaborate with a video artist, but that’s something I’m interested in. And the electric guitar, that will remain an important part of my voice as composer. That ain’t going anywhere.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I got a lot of help on this project! Rychard Cooper, my colleague at CSULB, recorded the project and edited the final video, and there are also a number of other musicians who play on the soundtrack in the background of the movements about the two “musical” locations. On the Dunbar Hotel, underneath my guitar playing, you’ll hear recordings of jazz musicians: that’s Jamond McCoy on piano and Zaq Kenefick on saxophone. And in the Tower Records movement, you’ll hear Tom Kendall Hughes on drums as well as some singing from Mikey Ferrari. I recorded all of them, giving them minimal instruction, and they definitely all gave me a ton of inspiration, steering me in particular directions for my own guitar playing.
Lastly, thank you, Nick, for the interview and everything you do for our new music community on this site and around town!
Keep up with the release over at Alex’s website, alexanderemiller.com.