Friday, November 4th, 2016
ACF’s summer development intern, Henry Dykstal, conducted a series of interviews with our incoming cohort of board members. This month, we’re featuring Stephen Miles. After reading his interview, learn even more about him here.
1. How did music come into your life as something you wanted to pursue as your life’s calling?
From the time I started guitar lessons when I was eight years old, music has been the center of my life. I played rock and jazz in high school, and was introduced to classical music through choral singing. Like most composers, once you experience the power of beautifully crafted music, you want to create it yourself.
Many years later, I decided that I only wanted to pursue music if I could use it to make a social contribution. A life in academe proved to be the ideal environment for approaching music as a social practice through composing, performing, teaching, and writing.
2. What is your history with the American Composers Forum, and how did you make the decision to accept becoming a board member?
I’ve known about ACF for years, dating back to its origins as the Minnesota Composers Forum, and have always been impressed by its spirit as a collective and its impact on the national scene. I’m thrilled by the prospect of learning from other board members and sharing the lessons learned from New Music New College, which I’ve directed for the past 18 years.
Your most recognized works are vocal ones. What sort of process do you have writing for voice as opposed to say, an instrument?
Years ago, when composing conventionally notated choral works, I used medieval and Renaissance techniques such as isorhythm, which I modified to include additive and subtractive procedures, such as those used by Messiaen. Though these works used texts, the vocal writing was essentially instrumental: you wouldn’t miss much if you substituted a string ensemble for the voices. I no longer work this way.
The voice can function similarly to instruments, but it has properties that not only distinguish it from instruments, but that even point toward different conceptions of music. In my solo works, such as LTG (Lips, Tongue and Glottis) and The Anatomy of Gesture, the musical structure is developed from the anatomical structure of the vocal tract. LTG moves gradually from unvoiced articulations of the lips, to those of the lips and the tongue, to voiced articulations (engaging the glottis), and then to vocal harmonics. The Anatomy of Gesture structures the articulatory positions of the vocal tract in ways that contrast openness (unimpeded flow of air) and with various degrees of closure (glottal stoppage, plus consonants and tighter vowel formation). Neither of these works use language per se and both involve bodily movement. The Anatomy of Gesture specifies movement throughout the performance space (including the audience area) as part of the structure.
3. Why do you focus so much on the voice, to begin with?
Since the voice is part of the body—and is connected directly to the nervous system—the relationship between mind and sound is immediate. This has huge ramifications for performing and listening. When we sing, our entire body is engaged, and the unmediated character of the experience makes it uniquely intense. When audience members activate their voices in experimental music, their personal investment in the process is greater than if they, say, strike a drum. With respect to listening, we respond to vocal music through proprioception: when we hear someone vocalize, we not only hear the sound, we instinctively imagine the physical process of making that sound. We experience the bodily character of vocalizing much as we do when watching a dance performance or athletics. A similar process is involved with instrumental performance, but the additional mediation between body and sound lends the experience somewhat more objective.
4. You’re also a professor. What is your approach to teaching music? Does what you teach vary from your own process?
We’re influenced by ideas but we’re changed by experience, so I encourage lots of activity, including singing, as well as composing. I ask all my students to compose, and it’s amazing how much that affects their investment in learning. I also emphasize that music is a social phenomenon and a social practice, and has to be understood in a historical context.
What happens in the classroom should not be replicable in any other way. If you’re going to lecture, why not give students the text or present it on video? The classroom setting offers the potential for collaborative learning, so, whenever possible, I employ a dialogical pedagogy, lecturing only when absolutely necessary. New College is a remarkable institution, combining the honors and experimental strains of liberal arts education, and has been an ideal place in which to teach and learn. Several of my courses, including Music, Language, Voice: Contemporary Issues and Problems and Experimental Music in Theory and Practice and Music, feed directly into the projects of New Music New College.
5. Your biography says that you focus especially on the social aspect of music. If I may ask, what does that mean to you?
Music is social output and input, and is connected ultimately to struggles in the world over meaning and value. Given that music is nonlinguistic, the connection between sound and social meaning is highly mediated through the institutions of criticism, pedagogy, and presentation – all forms of discourse. This is why I approach music as an institutional practice, in which composition, performance and the production of discourse are intertwined.
More concretely, music organizes social experience in many ways. In live performance, there is the relationship between performers and performers, performers and audience, and the audience with each other. When I compose or present music, I always try to think about these multiple relationships, and how they are shaped not only by experience in the performance space but also by the build-up (advertisements, preview articles, even the parking experience) and post-performance socializing, informal discussions and published reviews.
6. What are some goals you want to bring into the American Composers Forum as a board member?
I’ve seen how experimental music can open the minds and ears of audiences of all ages, so I will certainly look for opportunities to promote experimental music. Obviously, given my background, I will want to contribute to educational projects both within and outside of the academy.
7. What projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on couple of essays. “The (e)X Factors: What every educator can learn from John Cage,” is based on my keynote speech for the Eastern Educational Research Association. A second, “New Arts, New Audiences: The Mediating Function of Liberal Arts Colleges,” shows how arts institutions such as New Music New College establish a genuine dialog between experts and lay audiences, resulting in shared insights and mutual influence.
Serving as provost for the past five years has severely limited my time for composition and performing. However, after completing my second three-year term in 2017, I’ll go on a year’s sabbatical. Yes!