Cassandra Miller is all process. It’s not the same word that Steve Reich thought a gradual, directional inch through time, but something more all-encompassing, that goes far beyond any finished product. In the past few years, process and its verb-y associates–transcribing, improvising, collaborating, balancing, musicking–have become the primary concerns in Miller’s creative life.
Though this doesn’t stop listeners from being moved, in some cases extremely profoundly, by the stuff that comes at the end. Responding to her viola concerto “I cannot love without trembling” (premiered by Lawrence Power and the Brussels Philharmonic), New Yorker critic Alex Ross enthused about “music that reminds us how to cry.” Always possessing a lyrical quality—understandable given the vocal filter her source material travels through on its transformative journey from recording to sketch to eventual performance—Miller’s music can also be calm, serene, and sometimes simply blank. Perhaps that blankness has the Rothko effect: a minimal canvas that sits there, looking back at you, until it feels like it’s prying into your soul.
That effect can be beautiful, and also maddening. One of the most distressing experiences I’ve ever had in a concert hall was desperately needing the toilet during a performance of Miller’s string quartet, “About Bach.” A piece suspended in time, that forces the audience’s mind to wander out into the world and back into their own heads, my internal monologue decided to construct a pained, 25-minute-long speech about the exact consequences for my livelihood if I was to wet myself in the Wigmore Hall.
Ahead of a series of concerts at the Aldeburgh Festival focusing on her work, I met Miller in a coffee shop near her home in Leyton, east London. We spoke about end results, appropriation, breaking points, and daydreaming.
VAN: Your PhD thesis describes a fundamental change in your practice, involving a move away from notation and towards a source-based process you call “transformative mimicry.” Was that out of frustration with notation?
Cassandra Miller: There are a bunch of things that are difficult about notation. But the thing that sort of broke me was having really successful outcomes while having a really unsuccessful writing process. My writing process would be unsuccessful in the sense that I would lose my physical and mental health, I would harm the relationships with the people around me, and it was really very, very unhealthy. Then I’d write something, and I would go on stage, and everyone would be like, Oh wow, that’s so amazing, and I’d be like OK, I guess I should do more of that.
At the time, I was also worried about identifying too strongly with the success of the end results. But I think I’ve figured that one out over time; one of the ways I tried to get out of that was to try to disengage from needing the end results to be so successful, so I could step away and focus on the process more.
At the time I had some thoughts about anti-capitalist models…
It’s quite a subversive idea: If you move where you find “success” backwards in the process, away from the object at the end, it has the potential to disrupt the whole model completely…
I mean, it’s not a dichotomy, but if we want to look at it like one, then [this idea] is a way to prioritize health and relationships over money, basically. But it’s not really a dichotomy, because you also have relationships with the people who are listening, if you’re aiming for an end result. So, as long as you’re aware of what you’re doing and you’re able to make those choices… [but] at the time, I wasn’t really able to make those choices without stepping away from notation.
Was it specifically down to notation that these bigger issues occurred?
I’m sure it wasn’t, but it felt like it was. Because the thing I would do the most while I was the least healthy was notate. Especially when you’re writing orchestral music, the notation side of it is so heavy. You spend two months trying to notate it properly. Then there’s [getting] the parts ready and all that stuff. And that would have been done when I was the least happy, closest to the deadline, sometimes quite a bit past the deadline…
Notation has a kind of fixity in the sense that you have a score at the end that you can give somebody. But the actual fixity of “you write this chord and therefore it’s a C major chord”? I don’t see it as fixity at all. I see it as shorthand for somebody’s very alive, very physical experience.
In an ideal world, would you be happiest if notation didn’t exist?
I think when I did make a break from notation, I was trying to imagine a world where it didn’t exist.
I should say, I’ve returned to notation and I use notated and non-notated music together. And it’s interesting because that means I’ve come back. I’m prioritizing this world where there’s an end product that I’m selling (or Faber is selling on my behalf).
The healthiest music is collaborative, non-notated music; whenever I finish one of those projects, I’m just like, wow. But—and this is a work-in-progress idea inside of me—I think I’ve made slightly more peace with the idea of making money.
Often people accept money in a way that means they’re denying something that’s meaningful, and that’s a problem with money. At this point in my life, I don’t make that much money, but I almost make enough money to live, if you combine it with the huge amount of credit card debt. It’s not really extravagant; it’s enough to share a small apartment with somebody. My relative stability, financially, might disappear in about eight months, it’s very precarious. But within myself, I’m quite proud of being able to have that stability. And I had a certain point where I realized there’s nothing wrong with that.
But I do have to constantly watch that I don’t get carried away and think, Oh, this is a really great financial opportunity, and forget to think about what my values are. I do have a real degree of privilege, but not enough not to be constantly worried that I’m going to run out of money.
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You say that the composition that “broke you” was the “Duet for Cello and Orchestra,” a work that was named by The Guardian as one of the best classical works of the 21st century.
And believe me, I’m quite proud of that.
I suppose that’s another example of how that system perpetuates itself; people will have seen that, and gone, Can you write more like that?
Yeah, definitely. That’s the thing: Success begets more success, so you have to be careful that it’s not harmful.
Given you’re signed to a big publisher in Faber, how do you approach things like royalties and sales in conjunction with your source material?
Often the source material is so transformed that you can’t really tell, but whenever you do any kind of work with anybody else’s stuff, the very first basic question to ask is, Who did the work, and who is getting paid? If I’m getting paid because somebody else’s work is awesome, that’s very tricky. But if I’ve transformed it enough that it’s a completely new experience, that was my beginning inspiration, I’m careful to credit it thoroughly.
The one time I didn’t, when I was starting to do this, I was like, This is crappy.
I have a piano piece called “Philip the Wanderer” and its source material is a mbira player from Mozambique. It doesn’t sound at all like that by the end, but in the program note explaining my process, I said it was based on a recording of a stranger from Mozambique. And like, two years later, I went back, and his name is totally listed. I was really quite embarrassed about that within myself; it was a wake-up call to really clearly credit people.
It’s embarrassing to say “a stranger from Mozambique” because it’s as if all Mozambican mbira players are the same. Also in that piece, I was really specifically stealing his musicality; every phrase was speeding up and slowing down, and I had the gall to pretend that everyone from Mozambique did this. Like any kind of racism, you have to be careful you’re not generalizing. The more general we are, the more mistakes we can make.
When you decouple success from the object at the end, you also end up moving other stuff to the foreground—like program notes, and who gets credited.
In the collaborations I’ve done with Juliet Fraser, “Tracery,” it’s really important we’re called co-creators. But interestingly, everyone still assumed that I had a composer role. Actually, no. All the work happened in a room together, she’s at least as present as I am. It’s difficult to work against people’s assumptions. You have to go as far as possible to credit the other performer; if their name is in 80 percent bigger writing and mine is small, people are still going to think it’s my piece.
Your piece “About Bach” (which is featured at Aldeburgh) is anti-developmental in form. How do you decide when it stops?
There are two answers to that. With “About Bach,” it’s all a process of subtraction; at the end of a phrase, I take out one pitch from the beginning, and move all the rest of the pitches along. The rhythm stays more or less the same, but we’re losing pitches, and the piece finishes when all the notes are finished.
But that’s not the real answer, because the real answer is that I created a piece that was 45 or 50 minutes long. [The listed duration is 25 minutes–Ed.] And when I listened, I decided that was too long for my listening, for my physicality as a human being.
I thought this piece has more potential to unlock something in myself that’s meaningful if I shorten it slightly, so I just took out probably every fourth phrase. (I did a listen to make sure i didn’t delete any of my favorites.) I guess it’s still very long. A little bit longer would be too long: it’s right on the edge.
Is there an ideal listening experience for somebody listening to your music?
I always base it on my listening. So I’m never actually trying to get them to listen in a certain way; if I hear it, and it makes me excited, bored, or, you know, something, that’s how I make my decisions. And if I’ve done that in an honest way, then maybe it provides an opportunity for them to have any kind of experience.
I quite like emotional responses. If I’ve made an opportunity for anyone to have any kind of emotion, that’s a positive thing for me. I’m quite interested in going into a lower level of myself; a feeling of becoming more settled into myself; the upper level falls, the busyness feels less real.
Is that place an area of intense concentration?
No, but concentration can lead you there. With Juliet Fraser, we were watching a clip of Pauline Oliveros and Robert Ashley, where she’s talking about how she stopped calling improvisations improvising, and she started calling it “attending to a task.” The idea is that if you’re really closely attending to a task that it’s sort of the same as meditation. It disables you from thinking your normal worrying thoughts. It’s a place where you can lose yourself.
I really like daydreaming in concerts and some of the stuff that has affected me most strongly is like, I’ve just been daydreaming and then sometimes it goes in, and then I’m shocked by it. Since we are so distractible, constantly, maybe when we’re in a concert, it’s a moment where we get to actually just be. ¶
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