Deep listening: the haunting sonic world of Cassandra Miller

Estimated read time 8 min read

“I steal people’s souls”, says Cassandra Miller. The 47-year old Canadian composer sits in her light-filled living room at the top of a London block of flats, looking tranquil and as unlike a master of the dark arts as it is possible to imagine.

Miller’s intimate and engaging compositions take as their starting point existing melodies, which she variously deconstructs, loops, magnifies and utterly transforms. The act of transcription is an inherently creative process in her hands, and the physicality of a performance – ornaments, notes, pauses, breaths and even sighs – is a vital part of what she transcribes.

“When I start with source material, I’m interested in the entirety of somebody’s performance,” Miller says. “I’m sort of stealing part of their humanity. It’s like making a portrait of somebody.”

‘Up for anything’ Sean Shibe, who premieres Miller’s newest concerto this week.View image in fullscreen

In the past decade, Miller’s profile has risen rapidly. Her works have been performed in concert hall from New York to Warsaw and Oslo to Barcelona; last year’s Aldeburgh festival premiered her “quietly captivating” La Donna, and her 2015 Duet for Cello and Orchestra was named one of the Guardian’s Best of the 21st century – “A strange but profoundly haunting piece,” wrote Andrew Clements. Like most of her compositions, it is a piece of expansive and luminous beauty whose apparent simplicity belies its complexities.

Inspiration has come from sources as various as Bach, birdsong, Kurt Cobain and Bellini. In 2023’s The City, Full of People, she transcribed herself singing a passage of Thomas Tallis’s 16th-century setting of lines from Lamentations and expanded the transcription into a score for 16 singers. “On its journey with Miller, Tallis’s somber austerity has been gently blurred, taking on a circling, overlapping, dreamlike melancholy and a surprising joy,” said the New York Times.

Thanksong, written for Quatuor Bozzini and singer Juliet Fraser, is based on the third movement of Beethoven’s late Quartet Op 132 (the Heiliger Dankgesang). Miller sang along to the four individual string lines of the quartet, many times in repetition, transforming the material into gentle pendulum-like repeated gestures. The composition is held together by the pacing and breath of Fraser, singing the distilled essence of Beethoven as slowly and quietly as possible. The piece feels organic and fragile. The shimmering Daylonging, Slacktide, written for viola player Lawrence Power, is the work of Miller’s that first stopped me in my tracks, its melodic origins in a traditional song about the beauty of Georgia, but the unmooredness of 2020’s lockdown also brings its emotional impact. “All is suspended now – time is dilated, and like many others, I’m like a sailboat at sea with no wind,” wrote Miller of the composition’s mood.

“I love to explore the idea of accidental, she says. “It’s like the source material is a question because I don’t know at first what I’m going to do with it.”

This week sees the premiere of her latest work, a concerto written for guitarist Sean Shibe. Named Chanter after the part of the bagpipes on which the melody is played, it takes as its source melody a performance by Scottish smallpipes player Brìghde Chaimbeul of O Chiadain an Lo, an old Highland air that Chaimbeul herself had transformed by translating it for her instrument and into a minor mode.

“Sean and I started by sharing music that we liked,” says Miller. Their mutual love of Scottish music quickly became a focus, they both knew Chaimbeul and loved this plaintive track. “There’s something really magical about how she plays it, like she’s singing.”

Singing was precisely what Miller then asked Shibe to do, which can’t have been what the virtuosic guitarist might have expected. Luckily Sean is up for anything, she says.

She recorded him singing along to O Chiadain an Lo. He then sang along to his own recorded voice again and again, reclining on the sofa, until he was somewhere between sleep and song, a process she calls automatic singing-in-meditation.

And yet we don’t hear Shibe’s voice – at least not literally – in the final work. “The goal of the transcription process is to transform the source material into a new melody informed by the physicality of the source material, but also by the physicality of the person who is transforming it. So in this case, it’s Sean singing,” she says. This combination of Shibe singing Chaimbeul’s melody, and of Chaimbeul’s own playing infusing it, formed the skeletal architecture for the guitar part of the final concerto.

Cassandra Miller with the BBC Philharmonic at the Aldeburgh festival 2023 after the premiere of ‘La Donna’View image in fullscreen

Layers. Ghosts. Echoes? Yes and no. “It’s hard to describe, and whenever I try, I feel I’m not doing it quite right,” Miller admits. “Chaimbeul’s tune – used, of course, with her permission – has been transformed into something new, but without her work, nothing of the concerto would exist. Small ‘truth-window’ moments of her melody can be heard in the string ensemble, as occasional shafts of richly coloured light.”

Miller has been composing since she was a student in British Columbia. She went to the University of Victoria to study harp, and on the first day took a composition class. “By the end of the 45-minute class, my heart had changed and I was like: ‘OK, this is what I’m doing now.’” She went on to study with Richard Ayres and Yannis Kyriakides in The Hague and in the UK with Michael Finnissy and Bryn Harrison. Her home is London these days, and her listening and influences are omnivorous.

“I do love classical music, but it’s not my home base any more than any other type of music,” she says. Every evening over dinner in the flat she shares with fellow composer Leo Chadburn , 6 Music is on and she loves how she is always hearing things she didn’t know. So what else excites her? Free jazz – “for its vibrant physicality, in particular Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane”, plus music from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and northern Greece; Brazilian jazz, and Italian and Sardinian folk. Closer to home, folk musicians she listens to include Richard Dawson, Stick in the Wheel, Aidan O’Rourke – “because of how they make work that somehow sounds like it always existed – which is often also what I go for in my own way.”

Her teachers, colleagues and collaborators are her main influences, she says. She works frequently with the same musicians: Fraser and Power, and improvising violinist Silvia Tarozzi, and she has a longstanding relationship with the Quatuor Bozzini. “They have taught me about half the things I know about music in a practical and spiritual sense. And Sean [Shibe] is becoming a really important person on that level too.”

Classical-wise, early-20th-century French composers Satie, Debussy and Ravel – “from a time when musical ‘pleasure’ was expressed through the colour rather than the trajectory of harmony”, are influences. She also cites fellow Canadians Linda Catlin Smith and Martin Arnold, while US experimental composer Pauline Oliveros and her philosophy of deep listening is very close to her heart – “a massive influence”.

If you file Miller under M for minimalism, she is OK with that. “People need labels – it helps you navigate and certainly what I write often involves a kind of repetition, recognisable harmonies and an expansive sense of time.”

Collaborators Quatuor Bozzini: Alissa Cheung, Stéphanie Bozzini, Clemens Merkel and Isabelle Bozzini.View image in fullscreen

Really, though, what she’s doing and how she does it, feels quite unique. “I think of the primary tool of composition as listening. So if I develop myself as a listener, then that’s the main way to develop myself as a composer. If I hear some music in the world and it moves me, then I want to go deeply into that. It’s become how I work.”

But there’s no prescription for how to listen. “A piece of music is just a sort of a place to live in for a while,” she says. “I wouldn’t ever want to impose how an audience member has to listen. When I’m in a concert, my mind is usually wandering, and I love it. In a concert hall, someone in row A is going to have a different experience to someone in the gallery. And it’s not just where they’re sitting in the hall. It’s about who they are as a person and how they have felt about every single piece of music they’ve ever heard in their life, and what they had for breakfast that day and everything! The piece exists in the person’s ears, right?”

  • Sean Shibe and the Dunedin Consort perform Chanter at Milton Court, London on 11 April, then Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden (12 April), Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (13 April) and Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh (14 April).

  • This article was amended on 12 April 2024. Cassandra Miller studied at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, not Victoria University, which is in Australia, as a previous version said.


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