Scott Miller: Tipping Point
New Focus Recordings

The cover of Scott Miller's Tipping Point displays two text details, but it should really show three, so integral to the release is the group whose playing is featured on it. As if to further accentuate the point, Zeitgeist has been collaborating with Miller since 2003 in a relationship that began with the release of Shape Shifting and has grown deeper over the years. Miller has written a large number of compositions for the ensemble and has produced recordings for it and its members, including three Zeitgeist CDs. And without wishing to take anything away from Miller, as it is after all his compositions that are performed on Tipping Point, the recording makes as compelling an argument for the group as for the composer.

That's especially true when one takes into account the type of music Miller creates: electroacoustic chamber music. He's no new music dabbler, by the way: not only does he teach composition, electroacoustic music, and theory at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, he's also the current president of the Society for ElectroAcoustic Music in the U.S. (SEAMUS). Zeitgeist has figured critically into Miller's evolution, as the group has helped catalyze his work as opposed to being a mere adjunct to its development. On their latest collaboration, Zeitgeist performs previously unrecorded and recent Miller compositions, plus a purely acoustic work. It bears worth mentioning, too, that he doesn't watch from the sidelines but is, in fact, credited with electronics on five of the hour-long recording's six tracks.

Premiered by Zeitgeist (and for whom it was written) at SEAMUS 2010, the title track offers a representative taste of Miller's composing style. For eleven minutes, electronic whirrs and clicks interact with piano, vibraphone, marimba, and bass clarinet expressions in a rapidly shifting setting punctuated by percussion accents. A multi-scenic setting of a poem by Catalan poet Felip Costaglioli, “Forth and Back” benefits considerably from the presence of soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw, whose singing helps humanize Miller's ponderous, dream-like reverie, and the evocative character of Costaglioli's text is complemented by an equally rich backdrop of piano, woodwinds, and mallet percussion. Shaw also appears on the suitably titled nocturne “Twilight” and, wordlessly, on the crepuscular closer “Consortia,” the latter nicely enhanced by inner piano strums and bowed vibraphone textures.

Originating out of a day-long session whereby snare drummer Patti Cudd interacted with electronics, the rhythmically charged “Pure Pleasure” proves ear-catching in featuring nothing more than crosstalk between two instruments. Something similar happens during “Funhouse,” though this time the interactions involve Miller and bass clarinetist Pat O'Keefe in a piece characterized by jazz-like spontaneity.

Throughout Tipping Point, Zeitgeist attentively navigates the knotty pathways of Miller's music, and one comes away from the recording less humming any of its melodies than impressed by the group's fastidious rendering of the composer's material. It's also worth noting that, generally speaking, Miller acts more like a formal Zeitgeist member than guest sound contributor, given how seamlessly his electronic effects are woven into the arrangements.

July-August 2015