Cassandra Miller: Songs about Singing

Tuesday 22 October 2019

I’ve been waiting a year for the next batch of releases from All That Dust. The first bit of great news is that one of the new CDs is dedicated to Cassandra Miller’s works for voice. Last year’s pair of Miller albums on Another Timbre took a great step in addressing the need for her music to be more commercially available and this addition gives us some important details of the bigger picture of her music, casting her work into a different light.

Songs about Singing focuses on the voice, particularly the soprano Juliet Fraser, one of the co-founders of All That Dust. Two of the four works on the disc were premiered by her, the results of a continuing close collaboration. I was lucky enough to hear the premieres of one, plus another of these pieces at Kammer Klang a couple of years ago, where they left an indelible impression. I may as well quote my impression of Traveller Song pretty much in full:

Traveller Song, in which the Plus-Minus Ensemble accompanied a tape of ragged, keening voices. Again, it seemed to be a documentation of some vocal ritual, with Western musical tropes laid on top. She’s from Canada, it must be something indigenous so I guess we better put up with those scratchy voices. But the ensemble – first just piano four hands, then clarinet, violin and cello, finally just an accordion – were playing some sort of game. At times deferentially minimal, then fulsomely mournful, astringently avant-garde and then, at inopportune moments, flamboyantly romantic. It just seemed to keep going, trying out different costumes and poses. By the end, I didn’t know if it was amazing or terrible.

Tonight I pulled up the programme for the concert for the first time and holy guacamole if the whole thing isn’t a headtrip that would do Kagel proud. The voices are Miller’s own, singing along to Sicilian folk-music without being able to hear herself, then attempting to accompany herself. She describes it as an attempt “to explore my own bodily impulses related to melody” and admits it sounds like “quasi-shamanistic keening” but the whole work is a tour de force in the creative potency of cultural transmission and reproduction. More than any simple cross-pollination from an “exotic” culture, the act of transmission itself is a necessarily distorting process; in which imitation becomes a transformative act that creates something strange and new.

The new recording, again with the Plus-Minus Ensemble, benefits from the cleaner acoustic conditions of a studio over a crowded bar in Dalston. The listener’s more sober surroundings and the performers’ greater familiarity make the piece seem more confident and accomplished in the adoption of its various guises. It may sound a little more disingenuous now and more of a pose (but then I’d forgotten that I invoked Kagel in my first write-up) but those themes and issues raised by the first hearing are now more focused; more importantly, the emotional content of the ensemble accompaniment is also clearer, more powerful and coherent, even as it plays upon the listener’s consciousness with its contradictions. The simple sentimentality, so pervasive in other found-voice-swathed-in-strings compositions, is affectionately and cruelly lampooned.

For the remaining pieces, the voice is presented live by Juliet Fraser. Tracery: Hardanger and Tracery: Lazy, Rocking are part of a continuing project between Fraser and Miller, where the singer is accompanied by tapes of herself. Hearing Tracery: Hardanger live, I commented that “if there was a process, it seemed to be part of a meditative rite.” It is, indeed, a type of ‘automatic singing’ in which Fraser “performs a body scan meditation whilst listening on headphones and (perhaps) responding vocally to a piece of source material.” The multiple takes add another layer of complexity to this feedback loop. In recording, more attention can be paid to the harmonising, drones, microtones and inadvertent canons that emerge from the weave of vocies. Fraser’s voice has the right mix of vulnerability and resilience to call up an equally complex array of potential meanings and interpretations from the listener.

The thing I hadn’t picked up before is that both Tracery works, like Traveller Song, are made out of other music. The reflexive title of the disc starts to make sense. Hardanger, unsurprisingly, uses Hardanger fiddle tunes as the ‘input’ for the vocalising feedback process, while Lazy, Rocking takes a movement from the late Ben Johnston’s Eighth String Quartet. This unusual form of musical quotation underpins a lot of Miller’s music, but wasn’t so evident on the Another Timbre discs except for the string quartet About Bach. The use of quotation and of cultural transmission through distortion of a pre-existing model comes here through direct experience, subjectively interpreted through the act of singing itself, whether by the performer in the Tracery project or the composer in Traveller Song.

The oldest work in this album, Bel Canto from 2010, takes a similar approach. Fraser is joined by the Plus-Minus Ensemble, playing as two distinct trios, each independently playing in response to the soprano as she adopts the vocal affectations of Maria Callas. She swoops and sighs, and each little group of instruments sighs and swoons in sympathy. The sliding tones are falling, seemingly always falling, in a presentation that is both mournful and noble – in ways that the singer may not have expected. (To hear the piece in this way is to acknowledge that Fraser is playing Callas as a character, or a type, adding another layer of meaning to the musical texture.) As a composition, it works simultaneously as a clear-eyed exercise in analysis and as a study in pathos, in the same way that Berio’s Rendering presents such a troubling double image; but again, the emphasis here is placed on the interpretation over the message. Understanding can reveal so much, without ever explaining.