MacPhail Faculty Performs Sarah Miller’s Composition “Aquatic Animals” for Piano, Woodwinds & Brass
Aquatic Animals Program Note – Sarah Miller
The creative seed for this composition came from a remark by Mark Sullivan, one of my major professors at Michigan State University. He said, “Those schools of fish. . . they swim around so close together but never run into each other.” I immediately visualized melodic lines in parallel motion that move up and down but maintain a steady distance from each other. The piece opens with that gesture but then shifts into actual whale songs as recorded by Dr. Roger Payne in the 1960s.
What surprised and fascinated me about the whale songs Dr. Payne recorded is how tuneful they are. The pitches are clear, and the first rising interval is a perfect 4th. I decided to take melodic dictation of what I heard and then created a harmonic accompaniment to it. At first, just the horns accompany the whale, but later the other instruments join in. In order to incorporate pre-recorded sounds into my composition, I had to learn how to use Ableton Live, a DAW (digital audio workstation) that worked especially well for this purpose. I thank Krysta Rayford for her tutelage on the ins and outs of the program.
The next section of the piece is aleatoric, meaning it has an element of chance. For this section, I watched videos of different aquatic animals swimming including small darting fish, sea turtles, and an octopus, and then created melodic snippets that mimicked their motions. The musicians were each given their own set of these snippets and then instructed to dovetail their entrances so that we heard one animal after another in the way we would see them if we were snorkeling on a reef.
I felt that there needed to be some reference to the fish-eat-fish nature of living in the ocean, so the next idea features a melody based on the letters in barracuda. (b = Bb, a = A, r = re/D, c = C, u = ut/C, d = D) The resulting pattern of 9 notes, Bb A D D A C C D A, was played very softly and low on the piano making it sound predatory. The fish respond as expected by quickly swimming away!
The next section returns to the whale song, but this time as a waltz! And I was able to map the whale song onto the keyboard so that I could play chords. It is a languid waltz because that’s how whales move.
The final section returns to the schools of fish from the opening and then closes with a coda featuring one more recorded whale song.
The musicians featured in the performance were:
- Mike Alexander, horn
- Allison Akins, horn
- James DeVoll, flute
- Julie Johnson, flute
- Nina Olsen, clarinet & bass clarinet
- Sarah Miller, Piano
Sarah Miller has been an instructor of composition, theory and piano at MacPhail since 1996, and our Composition Coordinator since 2001. She also teaches songwriting.