Black Truffle is pleased to announce its first release from celebrated London-based Canadian composer Cassandra Miller. Though her body of mature work stretches back almost twenty years, many listeners were introduced to Miller through the success of her astonishing 2015 Duet for Cello and Orchestra, which sets an imperturbable two-note cello part against a series of increasingly dense orchestrations of an Italian folk melody; in 2019, it was selected by The Guardian as one of the ‘best classical music works of the 21st century’. Traveller Song / Thanksong, the first release of her music on vinyl, presents a pair of compositions for voice and ensemble that exemplify Miller’s gently absurd, strikingly beautiful, and utterly unique work.
Like many of Miller’s compositions, these pieces originate in existing music. Traveller Song (2016/2018) begins from a 1950s song of an anonymous Sicilian cart driver recorded by Alan Lomax and Diego Carpitella, which Miller recorded herself singing along to, going on to then record herself singing to her own layered voices. Miller’s untutored voice is an unsteady, wavering wail that has, in her words, ‘more in common with a quasi-shamanistic keening than anything Sicilian’. Heard sometimes alone, sometimes layered, her pre-recorded voice is accompanied by a chamber sextet drawn from London’s Plus-Minus Ensemble. In the first section, Miller’s exposed warble is set to a spare piano accompaniment, somehow both faintly preposterous and magisterial. Following the voice note for note, the piano part often makes use of almost mechanical sequences of parallel chords, reminiscent both of Satie’s Rosicrucian period and the abrupt harmonic movements of a chord organ. The orchestration then opens up to guitar, clarinet, and sliding strings, a delicate environment for Miller’s voice, which, especially when it begins to be layered, generates a powerful sense of intimacy. In its concluding minutes, the folk roots of the original melody return in the form of a glorious full ensemble setting dominated by accordion, clarinet, and strummed guitar.
Thanksong begins from recordings of Miller singing along to the third movement of Beethoven’s late quartet in A minor (Op. 132), the ‘holy song of thanks’ the composer wrote to express his gratitude for (temporarily) recovering from illness. Recording herself singing along repeatedly to each of the individual parts of the quartet, Miller created an aural score where each member of the string quartet listens to their own part on headphones, playing by ear. Performed on this recording by Montreal's Quatuor Bozzini, with whom Miller has a decades-long relationship, they are joined by the British soprano Juliet Fraser, who sings material from the Beethoven quartet ‘as slowly and quietly as possible’. The atmosphere of the opening of Beethoven’s Dankgesang, of hushed reawakening and thoughtful reflection, is sustained throughout the fourteen minutes of Miller’s piece, building at points almost to sentimentality before the five individual parts again fall back into a gentle burble of unsynchronised melodic gestures. Like Traveller Song, here the use of the voice is a long way from the mannered performance of much contemporary music, reaching for a human and bodily presence more connected to the reality of the everyday, albeit suffused with wonder. Presented in a stylish sleeve adorned with photography by Lasse Marhaug and liner notes by Cassandra Miller, this is a key release from a major contemporary composer whose work challenges and dazzles in equal measure.