Friday, February 24, 2012

Miller time: Busy cellist back ... with some surprises

Kristen Miller kicks off Women's History Month at the Actors Studio.
Been a busy time for Kristen Miller, even by the Georgetown cellist’s crazy standards, all quite possibly explained by her previously undisclosed and apparently unquenchable jones for tea, although, granted, she did hint about that as far back as 2003, on "Later that day," her debut album: The past two years have been steeped in creative work.  She's released two albums — “Walk,” a distinctive solo release that mixes world beat rhythms and Eastern melodies with a rock attitude and a beat sensibility, something she calls "cellobrew," and “Winter Loves Company,” a collaboration with Port sound guru Tom Eaton that mixes cello and piano with a Windham Hill sensibility. She’s also written soundtracks for three Maya Deren films, fascinating, mesmerizing silent films that are stubbornly interior, with little in the way of linear plot, and even toured with them. She's also created an original score for “No More Gloomy Sundays,” a short film by Robert Newton documenting the history of the WPA murals in Gloucester, and kept up her own busy performance  schedule. And toured with Ken Bonfield, a Gloucester-based multi-instrumentalist who, like Miller, has developed a style that's difficult to pin down, combining elements of folk, Celtic, classical and blues for acoustic guitar.  And, considering the creative workload, Miller has decided to take a short break from writing,  to catch her breath and regroup before the next big thing, whatever that might be — and if she knows, she’s not telling. But it will be only a break of a sort, seeing how she’s got session work lined up with Liz Mitchell, Conor O’Brien and What Time is it, Mr. Fox? And, before that happens, she’s got something else going on, something that incorporates all the disparate elements in her work, and throws a couple more into the creative stew, for the Actors Studio celebration of Women’s History Month, four weekend performances putting the spotlight on wimmins. And she’s happy to report that a few days ago, when she sat down for, errr, a cup of tea, she “realized how insane that is.” Which, of course, is the first step toward recovery.

The new show is called Cello Alchemy because using the cello in non-traditional ways, in film scores, in performance art, with dancers, creating something new —  and a bit magical. "I wanted this show to be an amalgamation of all the different ways I've pushed the boundaries of the cello,” she says. “I think that what we celebrate in Women's History Month is the way women have broken down old expectations, and built on what's old to make something new."  The centerpiece will be “H2O,” a 1929  short silent film by photographer Ralph Steiner — a cinematic tone poem, of sorts, that shows water in its many forms. The film, which in 2005 was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," is essential, because this is the kind of stuff we are all missing because we are moving too fast to see it in our daily lives,” she says. “I mean, when was the last time any of us just sat by the water and got lost in the patterns it made? And of course, it is so ripe for textural multi-layered cello.” She will also debut two new songs: a cover of”Ladies Tree,” a tune about Joan of Arc by  Brian King, frontman for what time is it Mr. Fox, the Gloucester based band — and the guy who pushed Miller down the film score path by turning her on to Deren and suggesting, insisting, that she follow up on it. She has also recorded his tunes in the past — “Deep Waters” in on “Walk,”  for example. They are sympatico, creatively. And pals. He "writes in a voice that I am apparently very comfortable with," she says. "It feels like my own, only smarter."  The King tune also provides a kind of critical balance to the emotional frivolity of "Mad Hatter," an unreleased Miller composition that she will do unplugged, without the usual assortment of electronics and effect boxes that marks her performances. It's about Alice, of course — and Millers tea addiction. "And," she says, "what the less silly addictions are like." The sound is dark, the vibe is  meant to be a little tongue in cheek.

And then there are the dancers, Billbob Brown, associate professor in dance at UMass Amherst, part of the Five College Dance Department, and Miller's second cousin in law, if there is such a thing, and Megan Van Dyck, who has performed with Dodge Dance Company and Sorvino Dance Project — both of whom are "incredible to work with — very creative and always looking for that new edge to push," says MIller. They will mount pieces that they have performed in the past, but remain fresh because "we're always changing them," she says. One is an improvisation called “Places,” where Brown chooses different places to go on the stage and every time he changes places, Miller plays something. "The catch is, neither of us plans what is going to happen, so the music is new to him each time, and his moves are brand new to me," she says. "We have to read each other. It feels more exciting every time we do it."  Van Dyck and Miller will do a piece called "Lying,”  a performance art piece that deals with, well, telling lies. All three will  perform ain "Cello Theory Dance," a play on their dance troupe's name of Chaos Theory Dance, and a piece that's difficult to explain, except to say  it is very very funny. “Something I love about the way we all work together is that we are able to be very deep one moment and then very silly the next,” she says. “It is often hard to keep a straight face.”

The project came about during a performance of the three Deren films — “Ritual in Transfiguration,” "At Land" and "Meshes in the Afternoon"  — last year at Hamilton College and Cornell University. Not being busy enough, she was digging around for a new project, and learned how lucky, and spoiled, she was by the Deren — and how difficult it would be to come up with something as engaging as the films, which, she says,  are so rich in detail and so beautifully photographed.  She flirted with the idea of working with Man Ray's "L'Etoile de Mer,"  which made her heart go thumpa-thumpa, but has already been done. So for a long time, she  didn't have a film to work on Then, in Cornell, three different people suggested that she tackle the  Steiner. "I took one look at it and knew it was my next project. It is 12 minutes of different shots of moving water. Which she admits, sound like a bit of a snooze, but “is anything but ... The images at the beginning are simple, and as the film progresses, the scenes get more and more detailed and the patterns in the water become more intricate."

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Kristen Miller performs Cello Alchemy:  Where Cello meets Dance and Film — Cellist Kristen Miller premiers a brand new live score to Ralph Steiner's short 1929 film H2O, as well as several new pieces with performance artist and dancers Billbob Brown and Meg Van Dyck. Showtimes: 8 p.m. March 2 and 3, 3 p.m. March 4. To make reservation call 978.465.1229 and or go to


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