A Conversation with Lisa Cay Miller

Posted on March 23, 2012

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Tonight at 8:00 at the Music Gallery, Torontonians will finally be able to hear Lisa Cay Miller live. The Vancouver-based pianist, composer and jazzista is performing in town for the first time. On the program Lessing Stories, a series of solo piano miniatures inspired by the composer’s favourite writer. Event info

How did the work come about?

There is a great Vancouver playwright Tom Cone who happened to have heard me play and said to me that I should do some solo piano. I am an improviser and a jazz pianist and yes also a composer, but I haven’t thought of really doing solo piano until he mentioned it. So far I performed the piece in Vancouver, Seattle, and in Belgium and this will be the fourth time before an audience. It’s evolved since the first performance, as it’s part improvisation, part composition.

I always loved Doris Lessing. I’ve read everything she’s written; I think I started reading her 20 years ago. She’s always been my favourite author.

I chose the stories because, although I love her novels too, with the short stories it was easier to focus on one image, or one kind of mood. In the novels it would be equally easy to find beautiful passages to choose from, but I don’t think they would fit in the miniature form.

There may be a general feeling or a general mood to a story that I’m trying to express with the music. Among the stories that I included are The Anthill, An Old Woman and Her Cat, A Mild Attack of Locusts, Through the Tunnel, The Story of Two Dogs (which convinced me never to own a pet), How I Finally Lost My Heart… Some of the stories, like The Anthill and Through the Tunnel, left such an impression on me… and others, like A Year in Regent’s Park, are there for their  mood and tone.

Are they all on a prepared piano or using extended piano techniques?

Only some. The other ones are compositions, and there will be a few that will be improvised, and for those I don’t know if they’ll be on prepared or not. What I’m finding out is that rather than prepare the piano, I prefer using the extended piano techniques; I prefer putting things on the strings rather than in the strings, it’s easier to move things around, and the playing is more spontaneous. It makes more sense to me. Preparing a piano also takes quite a bit of time and great care is required in order to avoid damaging the instrument.

I was going to ask you about your recordings – the clips on your MySpace page are enthralling. How many recordings are currently available?

The quartet Q has made another recording recently, that is about to be released. Already available are the previous Q recording, the Sleep Furiously with the octet (which is basically an avant-jazz quartet together with a string quartet) and the jazz trio CD.

Sleep Furiously was actually my doctoral thesis. (NB: Miller is actually Dr Miller, with a PhD in composition) I was interested in the process of language emergence, in this particular case in my son who was then a baby. The work goes from crying to pre-grammar to scribble talk to first words.

Do you often seek out the “found sounds” for your composition?

Not so much. I may be inspired by something outside music — I wrote quite a bit of music inspired by light and how we perceive light – but don’t look to incorporate the outside sound.

How do you decide to set as oppose to improvise in a particular piece? Once you set something, you respect your old dictums when you perform it again?

I actually manage to do that. For instance, Through the Tunnel, which I’ll play at the Music Gallery, is all written, everything is on the page. In other cases, there are varying degrees and ways of improvisation. It’s particularly interesting to find ways to improvise with musicians with different experiences and coming from different genres. Classical musicians improvise very differently than the jazz musicians, and some of the ensembles that I have consist of both.

Jazz musicians have certain styles under their belt, certain skills and procedures that are common to jazz and you can rely on that. To classical musicians you may have to give a very clear idea of what literally you’re gonna have to play. But although there’s a bit more freedom with jazz musicians, you may have to avoid asking them to play some complicated parts because they probably won’t nail it.

There’s a certain kind of “push and pull” when you’re playing with other musicians. You should be autonomous and sure of your self to the degree that if everyone suddenly stopped playing, you can go on. At the same time, you don’t want to be a jerk and play on top of other people. You should be sensitive, and respond and react. It’s a very interesting balance between being strong and being sensitive.

Free improv is really fun; composing can be arduous and it takes a lot of time to get 5 minutes of music. I like them both, though.

Will you ever base another work on a text, on another writer, the way you did with Lessing?

It may not happen again in a similar way, because Lessing was so important and so influential in my development as an adult. But maybe it will happen differently, maybe as an older adult I’ll find another writer who will mean to me as much as she did.

I do read other people, though. I like Margaret Atwood. Hermann Hesse. Oh, Martin Amis: one of my favourite books is Time’s Arrow.

You’re currently in New York City?

It’s a professional development grant. I’m there for a month, studying with the composer Bunita Marcus and also working with the “hyper-pianist” Denman Maroney. I’m working and doing concerts there.

Do you ever play the composers of the Western classical canon, privately, or in concert?

I played a lot of Chopin when I was younger. And Bach and Bartók. I think I am about to embark on a major practising stage, I’ll see where that takes me. I’d like to spend some time with Ligeti’s piano pieces and… work on Maessien modes… and play a lot of Thelonious Monk.

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Posted in: Piano