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.
This is exciting. Composer Joel Feigin has his first digital-only release coming out this Friday, September 8, and was kind enough to give New Classic LA an exclusive stream of the whole record, which features the Ciompi Quartet performing his piece Mosaic in Two Panels. Here’s the stream:
Mosaic drops Friday in all the normal spots that records drop these days.
A/B Duo‘s next album, Variety Show is dropping on October 7, and includes LA composer (okay, we’ll count Riverside because the Outpost Concert Series is awesome) Ian Dicke‘s piece Isla, which has its origin in he and his wife’s old band. And guess what? We’ve got an interview with Ian, and an exclusive stream. Here’s that.
Tell me a bit about the piece on the new A/B Duo record.
When I lived in Austin, I played bass in a band with my wife Elisa Ferrari. We played fairly frequently and were usually paid in all-you-can-drink Lone Stars. We recorded two albums and my piece Isla is a remix of our song “Isla de Niños.” The electronic part includes Elisa’s singing, as well as some of the other instrument parts that pop in sporadically. Much of my work incorporates source material and I really enjoyed writing a new piece around the core of this song.
What was it like collaborating with them?
A/B Duo are so much fun to work with! Besides being kickass performers, they are very comfortable with technology and were able to navigate the piece’s intricate setup with ease.
A lot of your works deal with sociopolitical issues. Despite how disheartening recent months have been politically, are you finding a lot to drive your work? Does that ever get tiring for you?
Yes, unfortunately I don’t think I’ll ever run out of abysmal political topics to work with. I suppose part of my attraction to writing programmatic music is cathartic. But as a composer, I believe there are countless artistic impulses hidden within our daily lives and my work focuses on finding new modes of musical expression within these experiences.
In addition to composing, you’re a director of both Fast Forward Austin and UCR’s Outpost Concert Series. How do these roles inform each other?
I actually retired this as a director of FFA this past spring, but…
A composer must be a strong advocate for fellow composers and the musicians who support our work. We cannot simply write pieces and wait for the next commission (well, not me at least!). When we develop projects that do not directly serve ourselves, we discovery a whole new world of things. New audiences, new performer friends, new artists in other disciplines, and so on. Directing a concert series certainly requires a different set of skills, and I have learned a tremendous amount over the years. New music is still (and perhaps will always be) a relatively small community. We all prosper when we create opportunities for each other.
I’m always curious about Austin – what’s the scene there like? Can you compare it with LA a bit?
There is a definite kinship between the two cities. Austin has a vibrant new music scene, but it isn’t over saturated and cliquish like other larger cities. I think LA’s scene also has a welcoming atmosphere and is strangely accessible, even when the city itself often feels like an endless labyrinth of freeways and concrete.
Anything else you’d like to add?
If A/B Duo are coming to your town…go see them! And pick up their new record!
You can do just that at abduomusic.bandcamp.com/album/variety-show.
Oh boy, this is exciting. The bay area’s Aerocade Music offered us an exclusive, early stream of LA composer/violinist Eric Kenneth Malcolm Clark‘s Ekpyrotic: Layerings IV, from cellist Hannah Addario-Berry‘s record Scordatura, which comes out on May 20.
The liner note for the piece reads:
Clark’s Layerings series calls for the soloist to record the same material multiple times, allowing natural divergences to cause an indeterminate overlapping of musical material. In Ekpyrotic, the cello is prepared with miniature clothespins on the strings, creating bell tones almost like a gamelan in timbre.
Scordatura is available for pre-order now.
About the piece, Spartlan says:
The last episode of My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn’s film tribute to his father, the great architect Louis Kahn, takes place in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and features a brief interview with an elderly local figure, wherein he extols Kahn’s vision in creating the vast complex of buildings that constitute the National Assembly. He argues that Kahn’s work has given transformative hope and a sense of focus and purpose to his nation, otherwise an endless terrain of rice paddies. This piece is about Kahn’s National Assembly Buildings and their unique power.
There’s more about the piece in the video’s description, and on the composer’s website at lewisspratlan.com.
We recently reviewed a killer new record/project/thing from Desert Magic, and their saxophonist Logan Hone has already sent me a new recording from his own band, Similar Fashion. And it rocks! Give it a listen here:
The full album is available from pfMENTUM records, on bandcamp at loganhone.bandcamp.com/album/logan-hones-similar-fashion
Similar Fashion will be on tour up and down the west coast in January. Not all the details are locked yet, but here are cities and what’s available so far.
Jan 21: Bakersfield, CA: Dagny’s
Jan 22: Oakland, CA: Studio Grand w/Weiner Kids
Jan 23: Arcata, CA: The Sanctuary w/Jonathan Kipp
Jan 24: Seattle, WA: Cafe Racer Cry & Roar 6
Jan 25: Portland, OR
Jan 26: Boise, ID
Jan 27: Provo, UT: Writ & Vision w/It Foot It Ears
Jan 28: Ephraim, UT: Snow College, Clinic + Concert
Jan 29: Las Vegas, NV: The Dispensary Lounge
Jan 30: Los Angeles, CA
More info at LoganHone.com
Composer Jason Barabba just posted a video of the premiere of his huge piece Lettere da Triggiano, and it’s great. What’s Next? Ensemble, joined by actor Kalean Ung and singers Elissa Johnson, Anna Schubert, Amy Fogerson, and Sarah Lynch, put on a semi-staged performance directed by Doug Oliphant.
Of the piece, Jason says,
I inherited a small stack of handwritten letters that grandmother had kept until she died. They were from her sister-in-law, written between 1948 and 1951 and are half of a conversation between my grandmother in Los Angeles and my Great Aunt in Triggiano, Italy. The letters cover a period of time when my grandfather was dying and end about a year after his death. They are very personal and heartfelt missives from a woman who was not able to make the trip to visit her brother as he was dying on the other side of the ocean. I felt there was a good piece in there, so I’ve taken Carmela’s letters and broken them up. They are not presented complete, nor in order. I cannot even begin to know how to summarize the narrative. I never met Carmela, but I feel like I’ve gotten to know her through these letters. I cannot overstate how grateful I am to everyone that had a hand in getting this piece to the stage in October. I am in awe of the performance presented in this recording. I feel like a very lucky composer.
Populist records just posted a new record from Andrew Tholl, Corey Fogel, and Devon Hoff, entitled CONDITIONAL TENSION. As populist points out on their site, the record is a great step forward for them, as it’s their first release of entirely improvised music. It’s also their 10th record (congrats!), and they just got a great review and profile by Will Robin on Bandcamp, which you can read at blog.bandcamp.com/2015/11/10/creating-a-wide-platform
The record is available for pre-order now, and comes out on November 20. The track above is my favorite of the two extended improvisations, but the whole thing is just fantastic.
Following last week’s release of Daniel Corral’s Diamond Pulses (awesome review/interview by Alicia Byer here), I’ve been going through the Orenda Records catalog and came across this band of Cal Arts grads called Fell Runner. And I fell in love.
As per their biography, their music began as a study of the application of West African rhythms to western song forms. The resulting music is all over the place in the most coherent way possible, and I think I’m gonna be listening to this one for a while.