Pianist Lisa Cay Miller embodies different two worlds
Intuition is a curious thing. It’s not infallible; sometimes a hunch or feeling can lead the unwary down dark and tangled paths. But that odd sense of recognition, of meaningful chance, is just as likely to shed light on complex matters, as I recently found out while listening to Lisa Cay Miller’s new album, waterwall.
This is music that demands concentration. Although occasionally shot through with luscious melody, much of it is abstract, atonal, or even sometimes unpitched. Yet, while immersing myself in it, I kept getting mental images of some undeniably beautiful locales: Reifel Island, at the mouth of the Fraser; the Sacramento Delta; the south shore of the St. Lawrence, east of Quebec City.
These are estuarine landscapes all, meeting places between fresh water and salt, between foreign ecosystems, and, here at least, between the mountains and the sea.
The comparison between her music and the estuarine environment surprises Miller at first. She is not, she reveals on the line from her East Van home, an aficionado of river mouths and marshes.
“Not particularly,” she responds. “Why do you ask?”
But when I fill her in, she agrees that there might be something to the notion. There’s her new album’s title track, to start with.
“ ‘Waterwall’ is about swimming—about doing the front crawl, when you’re looking down into the water,” Miller explains. “I’ve done a lot of swimming and it’s been very healing for me.
“In ‘Waterphone’, the sounds that I was making on the piano sounded like a waterphone to me,” she adds, referring to an arcane instrument invented, appropriately enough, by the American sculptor Richard Waters. “And then ‘Waterburning’, the original title of that tune was ‘I Think the Water’s Burning’, but that was a bit long.…It’s really a beautiful, fitting image that you were thinking of estuaries, because a lot of it is about water.”
There’s another dimension to the estuary idea, which is that Miller herself embodies two different worlds. Her bio on the Canadian Music Centre’s website lists her as Dr. Lisa Cay Miller; she’s the proud owner of a doctorate in composition from UBC. Yet she often refers to herself as a jazz pianist, fully in the tradition of Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and McCoy Tyner. Even her upcoming release concert for waterwall reflects this division. The first part will find her quartet, Q, playing music from the album. After a break, they’ll be joined by four more string players for a session that might lean more toward chamber music.
“We’re going to be playing new music by members of the ensemble,” Miller says of her larger band, Sleep Furiously. “I’m bringing in an arrangement of a piece that I’m writing for the Tetzepi BigTet, an ensemble in Amsterdam. And then we’re also going to play a piece by [her bassist and husband] Steve Smith, and one of [cellist] Peggy Lee’s pieces, and one of [guitarist] Ron Samworth’s pieces. I told everyone in the ensemble that they could bring a piece or an idea or whatever, because I wanted to take a little emphasis away from it all being mine. I want to share the responsibility, and share the creative input. So I’m looking forward to that.”
Even when Miller’s not writing the music, it seems to be about something. With the octet, she’s looking to strengthen the sense of community that is starting to exist here between chamber musicians and jazz-tinged improvisers. And on waterwall two of the most striking pieces arise from the pianist’s conceptual musings.
“Pneumatikos”, she explains, is an attempt to reimagine some of the earliest written music, based on an ancient composition she found in Theresa Sauer’s collection of graphic scores, Notation 21.
“There’s a reproduction of this parchment, which is believed to be from the fifth to the seventh century, and from Egypt. There’s 12 circles on the side, and it’s thought that those are the 12 pitches, and then there’s a score, moving from left to right, with smaller and larger circles that are interpreted as representing time.…It’s quite simple, but whenever we play it, it feels really spiritual, like we’re entering another dimension, another time.”
And while “Snail’s Law”, with its luminous introduction from Seattle violist Eyvind Kang, is one of the most immediately accessible pieces on the new recording, it’s actually rooted in physics.
“It’s a play on Snell’s Law, which is the formula that’s used to describe the relationship between the angles and incidence of refraction,” Miller says. “In that piece I attempted to do a musical portrayal of the refraction of light, so the music is presented in a straightforward way, and then it starts to bend. And the way I did the bending is through the distortion of time: as the first part of the piece goes on, it distorts, and some parts slow down. And of course other parts don’t slow down, because with the refraction of light, the different frequencies refract at different times.”
Miller is, she admits, “a bit of a geek and a nerd, for sure”. But she’s also making some of the most intricate and beautiful music that can be heard in Vancouver today.
Lisa Cay Miller hosts a CD release party for waterwall at the Western Front next Friday (October 26).