The Muse in Music - In the Key of Connection: Perspectives from Pianist Tammy Miller
By, Dan Perttu
This week on the Muse in Music blog, I am interviewing pianist Tammy Miller. Tammy and I met over the internet, and after I shared some music with her, she invited me to collaborate with her on a piano concerto project. I was and am beyond thrilled to do so. For me the dream is to write concerti, possibly even more than symphonies, because I get to write for special soloists and orchestras. This is really a dream come true. So, I am grateful to Tammy for her enthusiasm in collaborating with me.
So, a little about Tammy. Tammy is quickly gaining a reputation as a performer who is “artistic” and “highly emotive.” She has performed throughout the U.S. as well as a recent solo performance in the Esterházy Palace located in Eisenstadt, Austria, where Haydn served as a composer. Passionate about commissioning music, she is working on a large-scale recording project with composers such as Libby Larsen, Noelia Escalzo, William F. Montgomery, and Daniel Baldwin. Over the next couple of years, Tammy will give the world premiere performances of piano concertos by Daniel Perttu and Eric Ewazen as well as “Impressions of Yellowstone” for piano and string orchestra by Daniel Baldwin in Granada, Spain. Tammy has appeared in recitals and commercial recordings with principal instrumentalists from the National Symphony Orchestra, San Fransisco Symphony, and Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional of Mexico. She has given collaborative recitals at colleges and universities across the Midwest, the International Double Reed Society Conference in Appleton, Wisconsin, and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Dan: So, I love starting with the following question because I don’t think we ask it of each other enough, and we certainly don’t hear people’s answers enough. Why do you love performing? What inspires you about what you do as a pianist?
Tammy: The first thing that comes to mind when asked this question is connection—to the music and to people. When you perform a work, you have to live with it and know it to a higher level than if you are just playing something recreationally—I love having that deeper connection and understanding of music.
I have been fortunate to meet many great people from all over the world through performing. I always appreciate connecting with audiences and sharing music that I am passionate about.
Dan: I love this; what a great theme: “connection.” Music is not just about communication, and it’s not just about emotion, but it’s actually about the thread that links those two, which is “connection.” When I talk to people about this in general, similar themes bubble up, but I think your emphasis on “connection” is really resonant. So, what music do you like to use to connect with people? What music inspires you as a pianist, particularly what contemporary music inspires you?
Tammy: I’ve gone through phases with this. It started out with an infatuation with the piano works of Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven, then Debussy and Amy Beach, followed by Ginastera. However, for the past decade, I’ve settled in to finding my voice as an artist through contemporary music (particularly contemporary American), little known and underrated piano music from the beginning of the 19th century to the present day, and music by female composers. Currently, my greatest passion is for commissioning new works. There is an even deeper connection to the music because it is being written for me with my strengths/desires being taken into account. I love being a part of the creative process from conception to premiere that you can only get from commissioning new works.
Dan: A performer who loves commissioning new works—we composers love you, of course! So often I feel like I am a leper when I approach conductors or other performers; I almost hate to say I’m a composer, because I imagine their internal monologues saying something like: “Oh, God, another composer.” Then I have to remind myself that not everyone feels that way. But, there is still a stigma against composers now, and, frankly, I think the radical avant-garde of the 20th-century was, whether intentionally nor not, responsible for this. So, on this subject, do you have preferences for certain aesthetic orientations or styles in new music? What does this imply for your programming and for your audiences?
Tammy: I have a pretty adventurous musical palate. I can think of several examples of music that is neo-romantic, impressionistic, neo-classical, atonal, serial, 12-tone, pointillistic, bitonal, or incorporates extended techniques, etc. that I enjoy listening to and/or performing. The common thread between all of these styles that determines a piece’s appeal is if it is well constructed and it paints an aural picture/tells a story. When programming, I select music that is expressive in some way regardless of its aesthetic orientation. A side note: I hope composers don’t just follow what is trendy at the expense of losing their voice and what makes their music unique. I can think of a few highly regarded composers whose music lost their charm over the sake of them emulating a trending aesthetic at the time. I believe you can find and create good music in any aesthetic language.
Dan: I agree. This kind of thinking is commonly associated with post-modernism, and we live in a friendlier, more embracing era when it comes to composers’ pursuing what they believe in. However, in the earlier and middle part of the 20th-century, there was very much an aesthetic snobbism among many of the avant-gardists. I have run into that with some composers I have met, though I must say it was earlier in my career as compared to now. I appreciate the fact that you are not a snob about aesthetics and that you are more concerned with whether a piece of music is effective within its own aesthetic language or internal logic. That, I think, is the most enduring and important way to approach such a rich diversity of music that is able to be performed. So, on the subject of performing, particularly with orchestras, what is it like trying to find orchestras to collaborate with? How do you do it?
Tammy: The age-old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” applies here. I start with my friends. I am very fortunate to have many talented friends out there doing wonderful things with whom I enjoy collaborating. When approaching new orchestral contacts, I look for organizations that are interested in performing new music and have similar goals to myself.
Dan: Yes! But this is easier said than done. At least for me, it’s so hard to meet the right people! And sometimes it feels like some people are evasive or even hide from composers. That, of course, could be just my imagination. I wonder what your perspective is on this? In what ways do you think conductors should interact with contemporary composers, and what does this imply for the future of art music?
Tammy: I think conductors should always be open to collaborating with composers through either commissioning new works or programming existing works. There is a lot of great new music out there that deserves to be performed and promoted! Audiences should be made aware that art music is very much alive and still relevant. If new music does not continue to be programmed by orchestras and performers, then the voices of composers today will not be represented like they have in the past.
Dan: Well, so much more could be said, but this is all we have time for. Thank you so much for appearing on this blog!
As Tammy leaves, Guy, the snarky imaginary journalist from the fictitious New Bostonian, enters.
Guy: Tammy is really quite open-minded as a performer. That's truly refreshing. Are you as open-minded to different aesthetic perspectives, especially avant-garde ones, as Tammy is?
Dan: Well, you certainly have a penchant for zooming in on loaded questions. [Lifts a single eyebrow.] As one of my composition teachers, Robert Xavier Rodriguez, said, "There is nothing right or wrong in composition; there are only consequences." I stick with that. There's nothing wrong with being an avant-garde composer. The consequence of writing in such an aesthetic is that one's audience might be more specialized.
Guy: Very diplomatic. But, do you like to listen to avant-garde music for pleasure?
Dan: Depends on the music. Avant-garde styles themselves are so disparate. I would have to give you an answer on a case-by-case basis.
Guy: Do you enjoy listening to Boulez's Structures for two pianos?
Dan: No. While I respect Boulez's intellect and how the piece conforms to its own internal logic, I hate listening to it. But, going back to Tammy - I also like what she said about collaborators. We all need to embrace the music of our time in various forms because we don't want this era to be lost on the map of history. I really appreciate that perspective.
Guy: She is indeed wise. Well, off to write.