Cassandra Miller interview

Cassandra Miller is a Canadian composer living in London. She combines teaching and her own post-graduate studies with an approach to composition that has been described ‘unclassifiable’ (by Music Works magazine). Her composition technique encompasses both notated and non-notated approaches, and always evolve in response to collaborative relationships with the musicians for whom she writes.

Cassandra has been commissioned to compose a new piece for La Nuova Musica which will receive its first performance at Wigmore Hall in January 2020, as part of LNM’s ‘A French Affair’ programme. It will then be repeated at the same venue in July as part of LNM’s ‘An Italian Sojourn’ programme. Both programmes revolve around the music of Henry Purcell and it is Purcell who provides the inspiration behind Miller’s piece. We caught up with her to ask how it was going.

First of all, how did you become involved with LNM and this commission?

David Bates posted on Facebook asking for recommendations of composers who write music inspired by existing works, and who write well for voice. It seems my name came up in many of the replies so David got in touch to tell me more.

I have worked several times with EXAUDI, a vocal group who specialise in contemporary music but many of the singers are trained in baroque style, so I think this experience helped.

David and I met and hit it off straight away and although it’s unusual for me to plunge straight into a project with a new partner organisation without getting to know one another first, this just felt right – a magical match.

Tell us about the piece you’re writing for LNM’s concerts at Wigmore Hall in Jan and July and how it fits into the programmes.

It’s one piece which will be played twice – specifically designed to complement both programmes, which are centred on music by Purcell and the composers who influenced him as well as those who admired him. The first programme (January) explores the relationship between Purcell and French music of the era – a style of music inextricably linked to dance. The second examines Purcell and music from Italy – with its unique blend of colour and lyricism (i.e. the ornamentation within long lines of a single breath). Both programmes reflect the bright, colourful context within which Purcell composed. I wanted the piece to be all about the voice and vocal performance, so it was natural to base it on Purcell’s vocal music.

Can you tell us about the process of composing the piece?

I like to compose using people as the starting point: in this case the two singers who will be performing (countertenor Chris Lowrey and tenor Nick Pritchard). They are experts on baroque opera and they bring this experience and skill into what’s essentially a collaborative process. The music is really about them and their own unique way of singing. I often work closely with singers and their input influences the finished work. This is of course different to the traditional method of composing, sitting alone in a room. I get to know the singers, their interests and background, and essentially, what makes them feel excited, alive and what makes their voice soar. So, it’s a lot of talking at first!

The next stage involves the singers listening to music with headphones (in this case, a specific extract from Purcell’s Fairie Queen) and I invite them to sing along. They keep doing this until they are almost in a meditative state – that’s when I start recording their voices. I then play the recording back to them and ask them to sing along again – and I record that ‘performance’. The process is repeated until I feel we have the ‘essence’ of a musical line. It’s a way of discovering what the music can be: what is captured when they are in touch with the bodily sensations as they sing in that meditative state; the unique relationship between the original piece and the piece they ‘created’. Baroque performance is such a physical way of performing and my piece demands physical input from the singers, so there’s a link there.

How will this work in live performance?

For the concerts, they won’t be meditating although I do sometimes require that from performers. In this case, the process I just described is the preparation – the research into what this music can be – then I will capture it and write it down for performance by the singers, strings and continuo. I suppose it’s a hybrid of my meditative technique and the more traditional approach to composition.

Does the piece have a title yet?

Not yet but I will think of one soon! The Fairie Queen may provide inspiration for a title. The whole aspect of sleep, night and mystery at the core of the opera perfectly suits this meditative approach to composition. The intertwining of magic and nature Shakespeare so beautifully captures in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (on which the Fairie Queen is loosely based) really works with the active florid lines of the music. In fact, the juxtaposition of this colourful, active music and the dreamy/meditative theme is an interesting one – I hope the end result will energise the audience and not put them to sleep!