One man bands – a single individual making all the sounds emanating from a stage – is a centuries old tradition. The advent of looping technology has updated the practice, but it still involves all the limbs in intense coordination. The guitarist and composer Roger Clark Miller, who became famous in the early 1980s as co-founder of the avant-punk band Mission of Burma, has been experimenting with the concept since pioneering his “maximum electric piano” in 1987.
Miller presented his “Dream Interpretations For Solo Electric Guitar Ensemble” at Hawks & Reed on January 12th as part of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares 12th season. Sitting in his “cockpit” around three lap-steel guitars on stands, along with his 6-string Stratocaster, Miller employed a bevy of foot pedals and stomp boxes to create a dense soundscape of abstract but musical portraits of the composer’s dreams.
The 45 minute set, shared with 55 listeners, was divided into discreet, numbered dream interpretations, which Miller occasionally detailed from the stage. Dreams are often fantastical and episodic, with non-linear leaps that belie conscious scrutiny. That description served as an apt metaphor for the music we heard on Friday. Grooves, set up by a loop, would come and go. Likewise, melodies and patterned sounds would float across the room with a randomness we associate with the unconscious mind. Miller told me he has kept detailed dream journals since 1971. Of course, all dreams are deeply personal, and the fact the music was strictly instrumental meant it was not programmatic in any direct way. Still, the overall effect had the loose trippy logic of a hallucination.
Many of the pieces we heard were recorded and released in 2022 on a well-received album on Cuneiform Records. “The eruptive musical textures Miller creates are evocative of both the manic psychedelic feedback Jimi Hendrix infused into his yearning solos and the transformative discipline that Robert Fripp uses to turn the raucous into the meditative,” Scott McLennan wrote in The Arts Fuse. Three days after his Greenfield concert, Miller was headed back to his hometown studio, Guilford Sound in Vermont, to record a new set of dream interpretations.
Although the original incarnation of Mission of Burma lasted only four years (1979-1983), it's hard to overestimate the impact the band had on American music. The list of groups influenced by the Boston-based ensemble reads like a hall of fame roster of 1980s-90s rock ‘n roll: Pearl Jam, Hüsker Dü, Foo Fighters, Yo La Tango, Fugazi. But Roger Miller’s musical interests have always been wider than the rough-edged music of Mission of Burma. Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, the group he co-founded after Burma, was an experimental band with jazz and 20th century classical musical underpinnings. Subsequent compositions for movie soundtracks and chamber orchestra, his solo work for prepared piano, and his career writing for and accompanying silent films with his Alloy/Anvil Orchestra, reveal a musician with divergent interests and serious ambition. Throughout it all, his humble, self-effacing demeanor runs counter to the rock guitar hero stereotype.
There were a few raised eyebrows when we first announced this concert. On the surface, Miller does not fit the profile of the typical Jazz Shares artist. But raised as a pitcher, I was used to throwing curve balls and keeping batters off balance, and I knew our long-time shareholders were open-minded enough to roll with it. Not getting locked into stylistic straightjackets or limited by the confines of genre keeps us young and flexible. Throughout my presenting career, the emphasis has always been on quality and innovation. By those criteria, hosting Roger Clark Miller was no stretch at all. Seeing a one man band creating meaningful orchestral music alone on stage playing guitars, pressing pedals and turning knobs in real time, was immersive and satisfying.