Daniel Miller forged a fascination with the connection between art and the natural world at a very young age.
Inspired by a recording of the children’s story “Mr. Bach Comes to Call,” which dramatized the famed composer’s life and described how the space probe Voyager 1 carried Bach’s music as well as sounds of planet Earth on its deep-space mission, a five-year-old Miller took take his first steps as a composer by imitating the shapes of music notation.
“Even as a child, it was an exciting idea that these few pieces of music, along with sounds of the planet itself, were chosen to represent the best of humanity,” said Miller.
Eighteen years later, Miller is an accomplished composition and music theory major at Lawrence University, specializing in computer music and its potential to incorporate the power of natural soundscapes.
Beginning in August, he will spend a year traversing the globe as a 2013 Watson Fellow, seeking out communities of fellow computer-music composers who are working outside the traditional boundaries of classical art music.
A senior from Redmond, Wash., Miller was one of 40 undergraduates nationally awarded a $25,000 fellowship from the Rhode Island-based Thomas J. Watson Foundation for a wanderjahr of independent travel and exploration outside the United States on a topic of the student’s choosing.
His proposal —“Experiencing Nature Through Computer Music”— was selected from 148 finalists representing students from 40 of the nation’s premier private liberal arts colleges and universities. More than 700 students applied for this year’s Watson Fellowship.
“I want to experience some of the most moving natural settings in the world along with the communities and artists who work closely with the environment,” said Miller, who was home schooled by his parents. “During my Watson year, I want to explore the unusual synthesis of the ancient and the high-tech, the natural and the synthesized in the form of modern computer music.”
First Stop — Japan
To that end, Miller will travel to Japan, Australia, Ecuador and Iceland, immersing himself in the local communities of composers and performers working with computer-assisted concert music to learn how nature and local ecological concerns have influenced them as artists.
“I also want to visit unique environments in each of those countries and explore how I, as a classically trained composer, can channel the experience of nature into my music,” said Miller, who has written about 30 pieces of music to date, including four chamber pieces that were performed by members of the Seattle Symphony and another that was accepted and performed at the 2012 national conference of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States.
In Japan (Aug.-Oct.), Miller would find himself in one of Asia’s oldest computer music communities.
“I’m eager to see how computer music developed in a place where art and technology frequently draw on ancient and traditional themes,” said Miller, a member of Lawrence musical improvisational group IGLU. “I’ll also hike into the Hida Mountains to reflect on the influence nature has had on Japanese music.”
Miller will spend November through January in Australia, meeting several noted composers and recording sounds of Tasmania’s endemic wildlife, including sub-sea fauna off Australia’s southern coast.
The next three months ending in April will take Miller to Quito, Ecuador. Having visited neighboring Colombia during his sophomore year, Miller is eager to return to the Andean region.
“My project would not be complete without experiencing how computer music has developed in South America,” said Miller, who spent a transformative year studying abroad in 2010-11 at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam in The Netherlands.
He closes his journey in Iceland, which, famous for artists such as Björk and the groups Sigur Rós and múm, is experiencing a musical and computer-music renaissance. He will time his visit to coincide with the Reykjavik Arts Festival as well as the breakup of ice in the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon.
“I plan to hike out into Vatnajökull National Park and camp by the water and record the dramatic sounds of glacial calving.”
A Life-Changing Experience
Brian Pertl, dean of the conservatory of music and Lawrence’s campus liaison to the Watson Foundation said Miller’s Watson year will “most definitely be a life-changing experience ” for him.
“Daniel has created a most unusual and exciting Watson proposal which explores how high-tech electronic music composers interact with, and are inspired, by their natural surroundings,” said Pertl, a 1986 Watson Fellowship winner himself. “This proposal perfectly combines Daniel’s own dual loves of nature and electronic composition. Let the adventure begin.”
As for Miller, he sees possibilities that go far beyond his first tentative forays in computer music.
“It’s not just about recreating a particular sound but creating an environment in the concert hall that gives the listener the experience they would feel in the natural landscape,” said Miller, recipient of Lawrence’s James Ming Scholarship in Composition in 2012. “By exploring how culture and environment shape the lives and music of composers around the world, I know I’ll learn more about how my own life experiences can contribute to who I become as a composer and as a person.”
Miller is the 69th Lawrence student awarded a Watson Fellowship since the program’s inception in 1969. It was established by the children of Thomas J. Watson, Sr., the founder of International Business Machines Corp., and his wife, Jeannette, to honor their parents’ long-standing interest in education and world affairs.
Watson Fellows are selected on the basis of the nominee’s character, academic record, leadership potential, willingness to delve into another culture and the personal significance of the project proposal. Since its founding, nearly 2,700 fellowships have been awarded.
About Lawrence University
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2013 and the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.” Individualized learning, the development of multiple interests and community engagement are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries. Follow Lawrence on Facebook.