Interview with Elma Miller
Estonia, Estonia!; Fürbletter & Mosconi: Ivory Bumper Stick Pong
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #108/109, 14 and 21 June 1997. Kalvos & Damian on the road in Toronto at the Amblecote Bed & Breakfast. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast: Audio Part 1 [0:34:05–1:18:00] / Audio Part 2 [0:40:25–1:21:20].
Elma Miller studied composition with Walter Buczynski, John Beckwith, Lothar Klein and John Weinzweig and electronic music and theory with Gustav Ciamaga and William Buxton. Studies in æsthetics with Geoffrey Payzant and media with Marshall McLuhan also have had a considerable influence on her thought processes. Astronomy, archeology, Buddhist meditation, language, ecology and Miller’s own ancestral heritage feature in her music and continue to be a fount of inspiration. Characterized in her works is her sense of drama, intrigue, humour and irony. Miller has been commissioned through the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, Stephen B. Roman Foundation, Laidlaw Foundation, Alliance for Canadian New Music Projects and others. Her works have been broadcast in Canada and performed world-wide. She is a member of the Canadian Music Centre, Association of Canadian Women Composers, Canadian League of Composers, SOCAN and World Federation of Acoustic Ecology.
Audio Part 1 [0:34:05–1:18:00]
[Kalvos] We are here on our second day in the Amblecote Bed & Breakfast. Our guest is Elma Miller, the formerly Canadian, now Estonian-Canadian composer.
[Elma Miller] Ambling right along.
[K] [Laughter] Ambling in here.
[Damian] What brings you here to Estonia?
[EM] The political situation here is a lot better than it used to be, it’s independent now.
[D] Yes. Does that mean you are an independent Estonian, or do you have ties to other ethnic groups?
[EM] Actually, that’s an interesting question, it’s a small country. My parents all ended up being from the same little island off the coast of Estonia, from Saaremaa. As far back as I can tell, according to them, they’re all from the same island. Now, since I’m married a mainlander, it’s considered a mixed marriage. So, for a small country of a million and a half, half the size of Toronto or less, that is possible. What is really incredible, is that just before my grandmother died, we were going to make a tape of her voice. Apparently, my husband never told me that he never could understand the version of Estonian that she and I spoke together. For the longest time, he was very polite and he’d sit in the room, because men used to do that, and he had the best spot, he wasn’t expected to say anything. Whereas we gabbed on, and for two hours, she would do most of the talking, and he never understood. I was completely amazed when she died, when he said, “You know, I never really did understand her.” And I thought maybe it was, he couldn’t understand her, or he couldn’t understand her… the language! [Laughter] Yeah, it’s a very heavy dialect. People who come here from Estonia tell me that I have preserved such an old dialect, because of course the old immigrants here, they had no interaction with any of the people in Estonia. So, a really ancient kind of a dialect, which I still have, and it’s as if, here’s this woman under a 100 years old, me, stepping out of a museum and actually talking, like they can’t believe it. I was so embarrassed that I stopped talking Estonian…
[K] It’s confounding to me, because the number of dialects in small geographic areas, particularly in New York, is just amazing to me. Here we are in this vast continent, and you have to go from one end to the other, from the most rural town imaginable, and you still have no trouble understanding someone.
[EM] That’s right, and Hungary is just like that, I think your background…
[EM] Could be, yeah, the Ugric-Finn connection. Starting off with Estonian is a red herring in my case. The Canadian scene, when I was in university in the mid-70s, was definitely that you were a Canadian. I was Canadian, my name is definitely Canadian, except for the first part, Elma, it’s a perfectly typical name. But the rise of multiculturalism, the ethnicity of people, this was a Canadian policy that was actually started by the Ukrainians, in the middle part of Canada, where they have no country left. They wanted to maintain their heritage in Canada. Now, other countries that had their own perfectly intact and had already a growing identity didn’t really need the secondary support, but jumped on the bandwagon, and Canadian cultural policy at the time didn’t realize for about 20 years down the road what would actually happen. So, in this last 20 years, Canadian multiculturalism has risen to a point where it’s become — even if you read today in the Globe & Mail — a cultural issue in cabinet: what do we do with it, do we dismantle it? Because even the Greeks in Danforth, with all the Greek names, they live out of Toronto and they can’t read Greek anymore, for instance. In that period of time, this is where I was going through university, and after that the years following, ethnicity was in, so even people were digging in their background, “I’m Scots,” or “I have a French background,” they just grabbed at straws. So, I didn’t have far to go, I thought, “Okay, I guess I’m Estonian.” And many people didn’t know. Well, they knew I had a funny accent, but…
[D] But it didn’t seem to carry though, you didn’t find the Estonian composers, folks that you necessarily wanted to emulate, based on their music, in your music.
[EM] Oh, none at all. I mean, I liked Arvo Pärt’s early works. When I met him, he was really into himself, he changed styles, all the stuff that Neeme Jarvi and Arvo Pärt could do now, I mean, they would have been fine for the Communists. You know, they wouldn’t have argued, they wouldn’t have had boycotts or anything like that. I didn’t know much about the Estonians there. I had old Melodiya recordings. You know, everyone’s gone through that at the library, where you have I think Kuldar Sink, or Jaan Rääts, Ester Mägi, they were strangers, Estonians, I’d never been there, still haven’t been there. It’s a foreign country, as far as I’m concerned, and the first Estonian composer I really heard was Arvo Pärt. Of course the Estonian that we have here locally is Udo Kasemets, who lived in Hamilton at the time.
[K] Well, we met you on the internet. Until we started seeing the connection in the names of the pieces and the references, we had no idea, and that’s why I was saying, “What is this connection?” And now we heard the accent, and here you are.
[EM] Well, yeah, the internet is really amazing. Those small countries, all of the satellite countries of the Soviet Union, and the Baltics generally, boy are they ever connected! Look at the home page of Mari Elferiscan, it has every bell and whistle you can imagine. Blinking lights, new scrolling, colour, I mean everything! [Laughter] So, you know, now people know where it is, or what it is. Or, that it even exists.
[K] Let’s get to your music!
[EM] What do you want to know? [Laughter]
[K] Everything! We want to know everything, we want to know how you get these performances, and we want to know why you write the way you do, all of those questions, and…
[D] And what’s your favourite note?
[EM] Only one?
[D] Your favourite.
[K] You can line them up in order, actually, select your top three.
[EM] Oh, geez… well, I like E. When I was writing in an apartment, the humidifier was on, and it ended up showing up in my pieces, and when someone says, “I guess the tonal center is E,” and I thought, Why would you say that? It’s completely 12 tones. [Laughter] And they’d say, “No, no, no, if you look at the score, your tonal center definitely is E.” So I went back and actually looked at the score, completely in an analytical, objective point of view, if the fallacy exists. Sure enough, when the double bass came in, it always came in on an E. So, that’s why I’m assuming E. Then, as I moved out of that place, it became kind of random, until an A came along, and then it was a C, I think. In the most recent work, I decided to be nice, write a more tonal-sounding work, something more melodious, and I actually gravitated to the middle of the keyboard, C, in the orchestra. Sort of more winds in that area. So there you have my top three.
[K] Well, let’s talk about vocal music. What would you choose among your vocal pieces to play first?
[EM] Well, it’s odd that you should ask that right now, because I just had a piece done in January in Ottawa. The critic called it, because three women were singing it — this is for udok asem ets — he thought it was a coffee klatch. You know, it was cleverly manipulated and structured. But three months earlier in Kitchener, it was done by three men, and the critic said it was “urban,” “powerful,” “masculine.” It was the first time I’d ever heard it with three men. I thought that was interesting, but the time before that, in Montréal, it was done by a mixed group, where they thought it was Estonian rap, so…
[D] It’s good to have critics to tell you what your piece is about.
[EM] It’s nice to know, exactly. Therefore, I pick that piece, and see what your listeners’ feedback is.
We listen to udok asem ets by Elma Miller [0:45:45–0:52:08].
[K] Well, what do you think think about it? What’s your take on your own piece. This is a terrible question to ask.
[EM] It is a hard piece, but I brought the score with me, so you can see that. The first performance was done with a friend of mine, another Estonian from the audience (because I thought that would be neat), and me. I never did ask the person whether he could read music. I figured that he could wing it and it would be alright. Because it’s actually written with that in mind. You can open this piece in a bar and do it, and that’s exactly the way it’s always been staged. It’s using the name Udo Kasements, and concocting 328 or so words from his name. I did it by hand, I just sat right down over dinner and breakfast the next day, just trying to figure out all the Estonian words I was hoping that I’d be inventing, real words, and I double-checked in a dictionary, and those are all real words. It’s an old language, you can do amazing things with it. Of course, it’s all nonsense, I mean, it doesn’t mean anything. I just used it because I wanted people to sing, or dramatize, in a language that they couldn’t understand, and yet do something dramatic. That was the challenge.
[K] They didn’t have any preconceptions about what the words meant, that way?
[EM] No, they asked, and I gave some hints, like the last word, “ots,” means end, and there’s no “t” in “udok asem.” There was one word in there that was not a legitimate word. Someone out of the audience came and said, “You know, that’s not in that group,” and I thought, “So what?” So what, you know, does it matter?
[D] To that person, apparently.
[EM] Yeah, apparently. You know, it’s a moot point. Just, who cares? It was interesting, because — especially when they didn’t understand, and they followed the instructions in the score — they’re going to do it, whatever. And that’s why I like that piece, and I think that’s why it gets performed a lot. It’s weird.
[K] How many performances has it had?
[EM] Geez, I’d say it’s upwards of 20.
[K] That’s very good.
[EM] It’s shocking, yeah, when I look back at performances and just trying to look at the life of the piece, it’s had an amazing amount of performances.
[D] Has it been performed in Estonia?
[D] Could you have it done there?
[EM] Well, I’ve sent several scores, but I guess they don’t know what to do with it.
[K] So how do you get performances of it, I mean, do people come to you and say, “We heard that piece, we’d love to do it?”
[EM] Well, in the case of that piece, they go to the Canadian Music Centre. And they just look at it. It’s usually by word of mouth, or friends who are in programming, who say “We need a kind of a short, different piece that’s a bit spunky, and what do you suggest?” I say, “Well, there is this one piece, and… I think you might find it interesting,” that’s what they tell me, and they they email me, saying, “We found your piece in the library. We’ll be playing it, we’re going to give it a dramatization. I hope you don’t mind.” And so, well, “No, why, what did you have in mind?” And they all think they’re all very unique, and this is what I find interesting. “We’re going to do it as if it’s in a bar, with three people having an argument.” I thought, Well, that’s great, because there’s no indication in the score. I say nothing about it, and people end up doing that, and I’m continually pleased of course, and they always apologize. Even the most recent performance from Ottawa, they called and wanted to make sure I wouldn’t mind, which is very nice. But of course I wouldn’t mind! Play it, I don’t care! [Laughter] Get three kids to do it. It was interesting that they would always pick that venue, a bar, and three people having a beer, or wine, and having an argument. Or, a discussion. And that’s exactly the way I realized that piece.
[K] Let’s go to another one, let’s go to… a controversial one! Let’s go to Jabberwocky.
[EM] Next year is the 100th anniversary of Lewis Caroll. I really should say that my one of my very first pieces under a legitimate teacher was a voice piece, and I had to [perform] it myself, couldn’t find anybody else. And I’d say that in the æsthetic of that, and continuing my eccentricity “theme” (I was always considered odd or eccentric), I wrote Jabberwocky, and I wanted to put all the Borogoves and all the curly Q’s into the score, so when I did the score, I don’t think I would ever spend the time doing this in the computer. And this was a kind of a score that would just have fun showing off my pen technique, showing off what the piano can do, and having a terrific gas in the voice part, where you could act this out, and really just ham it up and have no worry about the piece falling apart. And that’s the way they do it.
[K] Well, we had an instant reaction to the piece that said, “Take it off, we hate this piece!”
[EM] [Laughter] Oh, good.
[K] We said, “Oh, we’ve heard that, it’s been done, I never want to hear a voice do that kind of thing again, take it off!” And I had that reaction, and when we were coming up here I said to David, “Did you listen to the Elma Miller tape?” and he said, “Yes, I hated that!” [Laughter] And then we spoke to another composer and then they said, “Oh, who else are you interviewing… oh, are you gonna do that Jabberwocky piece?” [Laughter]
[EM] Yeah, well, kids in the audience (it depends on who does it), but usually if it’s a person who’s very dramatic and into the audience, the kids just don’t know what to do. They scream, they laugh, they don’t know it’s me in the audience, I might be laughing too. And it gets always a tremendously broad response from the audience: very positive, or they hate it. It’s interesting, they think, “Oh, God, that Elma…” or they love it, and that’s the way it was at U of T, I remember, when I went through school it was the same thing. They always identified my work, and then, “Let’s talk about some of the others,” if you could tell them apart. Many of the composers are so similar sounding, but not me. And, that’s why I wouldn’t be surprised that you’d get some interesting comments, and strong comments.
[K] [Laughter] Fun comments.
[D] Time for our audience to hear this now?
[K] Yes, now that we have given them no prejudice whatsoever in listening to it.
We listen to Jabberwocky by Elma Miller, performed by Amy Doolittle and Catriana Brockett [1:01:04–1:08:18].
[K] How do you compose in general? Because it’s such a variety. We have heard a half a dozen pieces, and every one is unlike another one. How is that, why is that?
[EM] Actually, if you analyze them and go through them in detail (there’s a paper being written about my music), and there is a certain æsthetic that goes through it. There’s a line, and I guess it’s the wicked sense of humour, but there is a certain type of language which I use in my music which makes it pretty much identifiable as my music. Although, I find that hard to imagine, I don’t analyze my own works, I just go on to the next one. But I’m inspired by many things, I go to the museum, I’m a member of the art gallery, and I enjoy certain favourite artists. I’ll be be going to the Münch show, which will be here in the Art Gallery of Ontario, and if there’s a new exhibit of Chinese tomb findings, I’ll be there. I’m just interested from a wide background. I read archaeology texts, where you get my Margarita Anguisque, based on the snake and the pearl discoveries in Bahrain. My background is very varied and mixed, I’ve read a lot of things and poetry. I broaden my inspiration base by also not living in Toronto.
[D] In Burlington, near Hamilton, apart from the Toronto scene, or do you mean privately?
[EM] Yeah, it is quite apart. There’s no orchestra, no symphony series, no opera, no music almost of any kind in Burlington. It’s a bedroom community. Hamilton, well, they celebrated 150 years, and the orchestra died. After 112 years, you know, and so this year, in fact this Saturday, was the revival of the new Hamilton Orchestra, and there were no Canadian composers on there, and I didn’t go. So, that’s the community I’m coming out of. Sports, hockey.
[D] We understand donuts are very big.
[EM] Very big, very big. [Laughter] That mentality. I mean, they’ll go down and spends thousands of dollars on a franchise for sports, but they don’t see their cultural background in the arts. They have a wonderful art gallery in Hamilton, and that is not considered important in the political scene, and unfortunately for the audience, I don’t know where they stand. They packed Hamilton Place, and if you read the review on the Internet from Hugh Fraser at the Spectator, it was packed to the rafters, in a program which I thought was very boring. [They played a] Prokofiev class symphony, something by Mozart with Angela Hewett playing, uh, Haydn’s symphony, and Siegfried Idyll. Paints you a picture, right?
[K] Yes sir, nice and sweet.
[EM] And it’s great. People like it, I suppose. The reviewer was very careful not to say how they played, or whether it was good or bad, it was a wonderful time, everybody loved it, great, go game go! If they had a Canadian work on there I don’t know what the critic would do, but I think it would would have been really nice, there’s so many Canadian works that could have been put on there. Anything by Godfrey Ridout. Murray Schafer I think would be just perfect, with all the dramatic background people like a narrative, they’re drawn to that, so that would have been perfect. Srul Irving Glick — they used to always play his music in Hamilton —, could have even been a token work, a short work, but still… missing from the program. So, I’m standing behind the Canadian composers and didn’t go. Not that anybody missed me. [General laughter] But I have this point of view, and I firmly believe that, and that’s the background from which I come. I feel like I’m a “voice in the wilderness.”
[K] Well, you know, it’s not atypical though, I mean, certainly in the States it’s worse than here in general. Where we are in Vermont, the chances of a Vermont composer being in the Vermont Symphony’s repertoire is almost non-existent. Once a year, they will consider doing a piece by a Vermont composer, but lately it’s been people who come for the summer in Vermont, and are, you know, film composers or composers from other places, who do fairly easy stuff, nice light, curtain raiser, and off with the composer, on to the Brahms.
[EM] I know… Well, then you get the Hamilton Symphony, a community orchestra, who has the nerve to put on a work by Paul Hoffert. He’s in the Ontario Arts Council. Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, I don’t know how they’re going to do that. I can’t remember what else was on the program, but that’s interesting at least. I’d go, and I will go. It’s curious, anyway, I’d like to hear what Paul Hoffert does with this violin. And it would be interesting, but it’s a contradiction. The established orchestra, or the newly-established orchestra, should at least give a nod to the people who actually live here, or used to live here, many of them are dead. Play dead composers, that’s fine! I don’t mind!
[D] Shall we turn to something orchestral, since we are in the orchestral mode?
[EM] Okay. to light one candle. It was just written before the independence of Estonia, and in a big article in the New York Times, where Marju Lauristin (I think she was the UN representative for Estonia) had indicated that this one chant the Estonians have is the equivalent of “to light one candle,” and she was referring back to the 1343 St. George’s Uprising, which is now called St. George’s Day. The history of that country is broad, and so they had this chance in the late 80s of independence, and I thought, “Okay, if I’m going to write just one, this is going to be the only Estonian-inspired piece. This will be it.” And it was also written for the 70th anniversary of the Tallinn Conservatory, so I figured I should try to be Estonian. I just, in the garbage of my brain, childhood, ditties all cropped up around the campfire we used to sing them. So they’re all in there.
We listen to Margarita Anguisque by Elma Miller, performed by the Canadian Contemporary Music Workshop [1:18:55–1:26:05] before moving on to the second part of the interview. [to light one candle could not be found and was therefore not played.]
Audio Part 2 [0:40:25–1:21:20]
[K] Let’s talk about your other activities. The music typography. You did hand inking of scores for a long time.
[EM] Oh, yeah, drawing the lines, everything, the works. That was sort of my second job. I didn’t like teaching, although I taught that. My students are all now with well-paying jobs in the States, editors and whatnot. I fell into it, in a way. I enjoyed it, I liked being alone, working away, doing people’s scores, doing parts, and I got a reputation for accepting the most unusually difficult scores. Scores nobody wanted to touch, like Sorabji scores. You know, like 64 notes per measure, or a 34 and a half to 2, stuff like that, and people would just say, “No way.” I took it on, I talked to him, he had to call me, and gasped over the phone, that there were no mistakes, maybe just that one note, and I thought, “Oh, yeah, I know the one you mean, we talked about that.” He was quite nice, very short call. I told Paul Rappaport, I guess I wasn’t thinking to be enough in price. At the time I was naïve, I didn’t realize who he was, but told Paul, “You know, guess who called?” And Paul Rappaport is the musicologist who worked with me, with whom I argued every section for hours before I even started on it. We had to agree, and I knew, I had the composer’s original. The original, hand-made paper. Not many copyists have the luxury of actually working from the original. It’s always a copy of the original, which I had too, but that one, I insisted on it because it was so poorly copied. So I actually handled the original. It was the only composer I’ve ever copied for, with me handling the original, which is something you never let out of your hands. Just don’t leave the original out of your sight, put it in the bank. But that was quite an incredible amount of work. That was a highlight, that actually made my reputation. So that work came in, and when I went to computer, everybody was worried stiff, but I got the benefit of the doubt from the composers who had always worked with me, and they wanted their scores now all computerized, so I bought the equipment, agonized over it, and then became completely computerized.
[K] What do you use, what software?
[EM] SCORE, IBM. And the publishers all like that program. Now, they’re my employers, and other composers are slow, some of them have it, some of them don’t, some of them have the Macintosh, but I couldn’t afford the machine at the time. So it’s a combination of money, and what did the publishers want, and what was also practical in the long run, and I went with all those in mind. I bought an IBM type of machine, and ever since then, I’ve been using that program. It’s allowed me to do the most incredible things. My own orchestral scores, well, they’re in shambles, but for other people, I usually have to send out parts from other composers, but in the most recent orchestral works that I’ve started to put onto it. It’s the usual case, like the mechanic’s car is the worst klunker on the lot, right? So people assume that, “Oh, God, just send off the disk!” And I thought, “I don’t have it.” “What do you mean you don’t? You just did so-and-so’s, I saw your parts, wow!” Yeah, well, he paid for it, who’s going to pay me to do my own parts, excuse me. But to light one candle, that’s all hand done. And, since there’s been so much of a demand for the score and the parts, I’ve decided to spend a year and put that all into the computer, despite the graphics. The graphics are going to be difficult, but I’m getting there, it’s something I’ve already learned to do, it’s in my repertoire. It’s just that I do more difficult things with some of the composers who assume that the computer can’t do it, so they sometimes gear their scores to the computer, where since I use the computer, know what it can do, I don’t care. I just do and write whatever I feel like, and then figure out, “How am I going notate this in the computer, so it looks exactly the same.
[K] Does working on other people’s scores provide you with maybe the missing piece, because you’re not going to a lot of concerts?
[EM] That’s true, sometimes, yeah. I also find it’s interesting, you learn an awful lot about their own way of thinking. You see, I have to look at every single note that the composer put in, and you start to come up with — whether they’re pianists, whether they know their orchestral instruments, despite their reputation — the mistakes they make. If I know them, and I know they don’t mind, I’d say, “Well, you know, these notes are not on the instrument, you might want to rethink this…” Or “The French horn up there, that’s not a good idea. Respect what you’re trying to do. The MIDI program probably does it…”
— “Oh, yeah, it’s in the MIDI, ooohhhh, yeah.”
— “Well, yes, they do breathe.”
— “Oh…” [General laughter]
I don’t think they would mind if you help them there, they would rethink it. Sometimes I’d get some very interesting combinations in people’s scores of orchestral instruments, and those I would jack, borrow. If it’s a good idea, steal it. That’s what I maintain. But you never improve upon another composer’s score, even though you’d like to. But usually, it’s some ideas for orchestration or pacing.
I think in Canadian scores in general, the composers are still working too hard on the standard notational practices from the middle of the century, and some things could be done easily in a different way. So, I have had some composers come to me — well, there was one composer in particular, and I don’t get this request frequently —, but what he wanted was this effect, this effect, and can I do that, or can I help him out? Do I designed the graphical score for him for three pages, invented a few notation symbols as I was going along, gave it to him for proofing, mapped it out in pen and pencil, and told him that this is what we’re going to do. He ended up changing the music, and so now you wonder where’s the copyright, and where did I get my inspiration? Well, I don’t know. I read a lot of notation books, and I’m the resource person for when people get stuck, so I give them ideas based on other scores, or you know, “Berg did it that way, don’t you think that’s still valid?” They’d say, “Oh, he did? Where?” Or, “Berio did it that way, what about trying that effect?” Or, you know, “Did you look at Kagel’s ‘X’?” No? Well, that was an interesting effect and it still works, so try it.” Or, “I think this will work here, if you put the conductor going on, and then off, and then tell them to play that in a certain amount of time, then how to get that other instrument,” and it’s really practical in the way I explain that. So, that does show up in my scores, too, it’s very practical. There’s no time wasted in rehearsal [wondering] “What, uh, she means?” There’s no such thing, there’s no mistakes, it has to be there. And that’s what I have these repeat customers who appreciate that, and who know that their scores are up for grabs. Well, they’d be hard pressed to find it, in my score, but that’s how I get performances too, just out of the blue, people look at the score, they look at the great parts, they figure “Sure, we’ll try it.” Besides, it’s funny, or it’s a great name, or I don’t know.
We listen to Synedesis XII by Elma Miller, performed by Elaine Keillor and Christina Petrowska, pianos [0:54:30–1:06:10].
[K] Synedesis XII, I can say it now since you’ve said it. I looked at it the first time and I couldn’t read the words.
[EM] Yeah, it’s Greek. It’s like Greek to me. Now that’s a profound loss I had when I was writing that, of Robert Langstadt, who did these huge woodcuts. I think I bought one of his last works, and when he died, he was a mentor to me. He was a great artist, a Prof. at Concordia for I don’t know how many years, a great background of students. His wife, Anne Kahane, moved back to Montreal, where it was really more of a civilized atmosphere than Hamilton. When I retire, I want to move to Montreal. [Laughter] Great restaurants, great atmosphere. The best performances of works I’ve had have been in Montreal, just a crazy audience, fantastic audience, immediate response.
[K] How do people find your music, I mean, how do they discover you?
[EM] Well, I don’t know. I had a reputation in Montreal from about 20 years ago, I went there as a student in a university exchange, and had a piece called Chick. I was the only woman coming out of U of T, no one believed that this three percussion work from, “Where? U of T? You’re sure?” And they thought, “Unbelievable, U of T, humour?” It never would have happened. “It’s who? Elma? Miller? Oh, God, I’ve got to hear this.” Chick. And it was over and over, I had no idea of the reputation U of T had until I went to Montreal, and I heard the rest of composers that were in our contingent… I don’t know why I never thought of it. There they were, you know, “Booooooring…” and then there was Chick, they didn’t know what to think of it. I had the most incredible composers pumping my hand at the end, saying, “That was weird,” or “funny,” or “great,” and the audiences all there, they couldn’t believe it, this U of T composer. Ever since then, I think I’ve had very good performances. It’s just based on a sort of an idea that they have, or something they remember, and people still remember that. Student piece. Well, it was pretty funny. **Twit, chicka, chicka, click, chicka, boom boom** [Laughter] I remember that. That was very funny.
[K] What’s the deal with the humour?
[EM] I don’t know. Maybe it was a reaction to what I was hearing. Maybe it was I felt like it, maybe my instructor let me be me, maybe I skipped a lot of competition classes I shouldn’t have, I don’t know where it comes from. I’ve been a rebel in that I’ve always done exactly what I felt like doing, and I’ve heard all of my works, they’ve all been performed. There aren’t that many that are in the œuvre that I haven’t heard. The feedback from performers had been very positive, or “Crazy Elma! When are you writing another one?” Or, “Yeah, I like this.”
[K] Based on some of your notes, you don’t seem to have a reeeeeeeaaaal deep respect for the academic compositional world.
[EM] No, I made fun of it ever since I started writing music. Of course, I’m a product of the academic world, there is the schizophrenic aspect of it, this love/hate I suppose, musicologists will have lots of fun (you’ve gotta leave something for them too!). But in order to write humour, it’s very much like a standup comic. You have to know what is humour, why people laugh, how to people laugh, and what are you laughing at? Are you laughing at them? Oh, no, not a good idea. Are you laughing at the audience, you know? Or, are you laughing at yourself? Or are you making fun of the whole aspect of a contemporary composer? What does that mean?
You get composers side-by-side writing completely tonal works, for instance, Larysa Kuzmenko. The most recent work of hers was this fabulous piano concerto, and it got a really negative review. Not because it was well-written, not because it was compositionally great and well-paced, put together beautifully, but because it was written in a style dating from a hundred years ago or more. That’s not good enough for me, I find. It was a good piece, because it worked, it hung together, but just because it’s a tonal language that’s out of date… You know, John Tavener, Gavin Bryars, Arvo Pärt. I mean, look at Hildegard von Bingen. In style again, unbelievable. I find it boring. [Laughter] Or you know, odd at that.
I can’t stand it, but certainly respect good compositional technique, and I’ve always respected that. And that’s why I make fun of it. It is so strong in people’s heart, what they like or what they hate, that it’s so much fun, to know, “Now we’re going go into our tonal mode, fasten your seatbelts. And now we’re going to go out of it, here’s the fun part, everybody wake up, it’s okay, that was only three seconds. Now, we’ve got to have a buildup, so we’re gonna be tonal, get everybody excited so I can end nicely. Now, do we have a fast ending, slow ending, high, boring…” You know, and that’s the way they think.
Young composers will come to me for the first time to get their pieces copied. The first two pages, you look at their score, and you think, okay, this is for a grand jury competition, so you’ve got to blow your bolt in the first two pages, and after that, you’ve read this orchestral stuff. First two minutes, it’s like everything in the entire arsenal, then after that it dribbles out to the end, doesn’t matter, they don’t go that far, they don’t look at it anyway. I can’t help it! I can’t help it, I see it. I don’t think it exists, but there it is. Another score, I think, “Oh, God…” it’s amazing, I can’t help but write funny pieces, I look at the score, “There you go again.” Or, how do you make a 20-minute commission last? Repeat, repeat… thank God for the computer. Cut and paste, sequencers, I mean, it’s a blessing. Or, I hear the same from alcides lanza (I hope I quote him correctly). [Laughter] He’s in Montréal, a Prof. there at McGill. He said, “Elma, the worst thing that was ever invented was the sequencer. When you have an eight-minute piece, does anybody think of development?” Look at Francis Dhomont’s development. Look at alcides’s scores and developments. Even his colleagues can’t turn pages to read them. It’s amazing, but very regressly written pieces. Solid! Then, you get the other works, where they ran out of ideas at the four-minute mark, it’s an eight-minute commission, so super, they figure, for two minutes, just repeat a few things, nobody will notice. Except, when, you know, when you do. [Laughter] Then it’s like, the sequencer just got turned on.
[K] Or the copyist will notice it.
[EM] Or the copyist will notice it and it’s a real pain. When I do phone up and say, “Well, there’s a lot of repetition here. Would you like me to use repeat marks? Would that look good in the score?” “No, no, no, could you just copy it, I’ll do mine?” Fortunately I had all these macros already signed up and I could just repeat it all because I assume that’s what would happen. Because it looks good in a score nowadays to have all the notes written out. Some people are not score-oriented, they don’t read the score. And any jury, they just look at the first two pages, flip through it, sometimes from the back, but you know, “Oh, God, I wonder what program he used.” And that’s it for the score. So, if you write that way, you’re going to sound that way, and, well, what can I say, you’re hearing it on the radio all the time. Some composers work better, but I do appreciate good compositional technique, whatever style it is.
[K] What is the state of composition then, today? I mean, where do you think the substance is right now? Aside from your own.
[EM] I’m gonna be biased here. I’m more [interested in] a commentary — in my own works — on the compositional state. That’s where the humour comes in, the sarcasm. I find that composers are sometimes not honest. Sometimes they are, but we’re not hearing them. They’re not on the radio, they’re not on concert programs, so it’s dangerous being funny, it’s dangerous being honest: you must give them what they want. As a good example, I’d like to bring up the most recent commission, Seven Sisters Rising, a commission by the Windsor Symphony to seven composers, from the conductor, asking for a short, five-minute piece with the theme of morning. So all seven composers had to write this orchestral work based on morning. That’s a very specific commission. Not only do you get the time, you get the instruments, and it has to deal with morning. They wanted a piece that had the idea of a morning on it, it’s going to be on a morning program, so what are you going to write? The rest is up to you! And can we have it in three weeks?
The state of composition is very much in a state of flux. There’s a lot of cutbacks, people are turning to the more conservative, turning to the tried and true, and so a lot of scores are going to reflect that. Also, I’d say 80% of the Canadian composers now have a computer program. There’s no excuse now to have lousy parts, so there should theoretically be a lot of performances. Looking at the Canadian Music Centre’s statistics, borrowing and lending is up, but we’re not sure whether that’s because they’re on the Internet, that’s another variable that comes in there. And now, of course, you can just put in, well, my name on the computer, at the Canadian Music Centre, type in Miller, you’ll either get Michael Miller or Elma Miller [Laughter] and all their works. Or, you’re looking for flute, double bass and banjo… you might not get that on the Internet, because we work on the Library of Congress type of filing system, but you can send an email to the librarian at the Canadian Music Centre, and they’ll come up with say five pieces featuring that instrument, or works with that instrument combination in there. And that’s again the beauty of the Internet.
I don’t know how much that will impact on the style of writing. I doubt that. But I do think that in general, there’s this sense of conservative writing. I don’t really believe the Toronto Symphony’s conductors… [Jukka-Pekka] Saraste is saying that Canadian composers aren’t up to par in the international scene. I don’t agree with that, but I do believe that if you gave the Canadian composers a break, and played a lot of them, different ones, across the country, long, short, I think the audience will give him a break, too.
[K] We have one more piece about to happen, so let’s get to it. We thank for joining us on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar.
[EM] Well, thank you for letting me.
We listen to Circumstantial Evidence, for ten instruments, by Elma Miller [1:21:20–1:40:20].