Under the Influence: Brent Miller

I’ve been kicking around a blog series where I talk about my influences. Not in a “I studied with this really famous person” kind of way or a “I really like this composer’s music” kind of way but in a way that acknowledges some of the people who were truly the most influential on my creative work: my peers. Like any composition student, I spent a lot more time with my fellow students than I did with my teachers. This time was largely spent doing what we composers do: talking about music and art. Usually while drinking beer. I consider myself fortunate that I have been places with not only good teachers but also interesting students who were, in many ways, more influential.

I’m going to start with Brent Miller, largely because he is coming to campus tomorrow. Brent and I met in the fall semester of 2002 at UMKC. I was starting my doctorate and Brent was finishing his masters. Brent was the president of the UMKC Composers’ Guild, a student organization responsible for putting on composition recitals. Friday mornings were the studio classes and composers took turns giving presentations on new music topics. My first Friday, Brent was setting up for his presentation and I got there early. Brent was spinning some rather aggressive rock-inspired stuff. I mentioned that it sounded like Faith No More and Brent said that he was, in fact, presenting on Mike Patton that day. I knew a little Mister Bungle, too, but clearly Brent and I operated on similar wavelengths (although he was much more steeped in that world than I was).

In December of 2002, Brent had gotten a car and hotel funding from UMKC to attend Electronic Music Midwest over at Lewis University. Brent was performing a piece by UMKC student Tim Place and got enough funding to support interested students who wanted to learn more about electronic music and attend the festival.

Well, one of the main reasons I wanted to go to UMKC was to learn more about electronic music. I had experimented a bit but didn’t think I understood it. Going to a weekend-long festival of the genre sounded like the right thing to do. So I went. Nobody else did, though, so Brent and I drove the 8 or so hours to Chicago by ourselves. Turns out we had a lot to talk about and that weekend pretty much cemented our friendship.

Brent was critically important to my development as a composer. Over the next year, he’d introduce me to the films of David Lynch, the music of John Zorn, The Dillinger Escape Plan, The Ruins, The Melvins, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Brent told me about Sealab 2021 and Aqua Teens Hunger Force. He acted out the opening of King Crimson’s album The Power to Believe. He taught me Risk 2210 (the greatest Risk variant ever). We talked a lot of sci-fi, too. Specifically Dune and Neuromancer. My contribution to Brent’s world was getting him to watch Babylon 5. He got me to watch Twin Peaks.

Brent was big into Schnittke at the time and also had/has a real subversive streak in his musical philosophy. He told me about a solo violin piece that got Steven Stuckey so mad he yelled at Brent in a master class. He told me about various rock shows he did and performance art/music events that sounded like manic chaotic collages of things. Most importantly, Brent is probably the one I can cite as starting to chip away my Carter/Boulez style of thinking. That interesting music could be made without making complex grids and pitch collection charts. I saw and heard music that was more aggressive than Lachenmann (who’s music Brent also told me about) and was selling out clubs around the world. While I couldn’t at the time articulate why I was so dissatisfied with the music I was writing, I think Brent is the one who showed me a musical world which was more genuine to my existence. Now I knew there were options to atonal expressionism that were, to me, just as visceral and satisfying.

So Brent is coming to Michigan tomorrow and Wednesday we are featuring 3 of his pieces. Two are for electric guitar trio (including an arrangement of 4’33″) and one is for fixed media. I have no idea what is going to happen but I do know this: it is important for the students to hear what he does. I wouldn’t be the composer I am today without having his point of view in my life.

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