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Elma Miller: Biography

Elma Miller
1954 -
Region: Ontario

Elma Miller

Elma Miller, composer, music typographer, writer and teacher, received the B Mus and M Mus from the U. of Toronto. She studied composition with Walter Buczynski, John Beckwith, Lothar Klein and John Weinzweig; electronic music and theory with Gustav Ciamaga and William Buxton. Studies in aesthetics with Geoffrey Payzant and media with Marshall McLuhan also have had a considerable influence on her thought processes.

She used her Sir William Erving Fairclough composition graduating scholarship to take part in the Stanford U. computer music workshop studying with John Chowning and Leland Smith, whose notation programme she was to adapt as her main computer music typographical tool. In the summer of 1980 she was in the composition master class of Polish composer Boguslaw Schaffer at York U. (England).

In 1980 she won the Els Kaljot-Vaarman Prize (Sweden) for chamber music along with Arvo Pärt. In 1981 she won the Sir Ernest MacMillan Award for orchestral composition for Genesis. In 1997 her Butterfly Garden received Honourable Mention in the R. Murray Schafer International competition for Music and Play (Poznañ, Poland). In 1999 her essay on Elaine Keillor was the winner of the inaugural Canadian Women’s Mentorship award in Arts and Culture (sponsored by Trimark).

Throughout the past 30 years Miller’s varied interests have converged into definite streams: she has been inspired by astronomy, archeology, Buddhist meditation, language, ecology and her ancestral heritage, all of which have been featured in her music and continue to be a fount of inspiration. Most recently her Voices in Stone for solo piano appeared on a CD By a Canadian Lady featuring the piano compositions of Canadian women composers from 1841 - 1997, performed by Elaine Keillor. This work was inspired by the decipherment of cuneiform script found in Behistan from almost two and one-half millennia ago. Voices in Stone/Kivihaldjate Hääled was given a performance in Estonia last year by Peep Lassmann at the Estonian Music Academy, Tallinn.

Lend Me Your Kannel for voice, clarinet and kannel (a Laidlaw Foundation commission) weaves the traditional story of Kalevipoeg into a saga with the accounts of Estonian refugees who escaped the aftermath of WW2 in boats across the treacherous Baltic Sea. It uses the traditional folk 12-stringed psaltery-like instrument: the “kannel” and the ‘lellotamine’ style for the voice.

Characterized in her works is her sense of drama, intrigue, humour and irony. Her pallet is expressionistic and colourful using at times some freedom in notation to allow for more spontaneous interpretation. What the critics have said:

“... Miller’s Jabberwocky, (for voice and piano), a rascally bit of fun that had lunatic drive, joyful exploration of textures and wild imagination.”
Hugh Fraser (Hamilton Spectator, Feb. 1985)

“Miller’s piano work Through a Narrow Window ... It is elastic, muscular and has a strong structural and intellectual integrity that allows her a great range of expression.”
Hugh Fraser (Hamilton Spectator, Mar. 1988)

“udok asem ets ... is scored for three voices speaking in complex, carefully controlled rhythms. Although it stretches the customary definitions of music ... it is entertaining and an impressive achievement. It was performed as a catty coffee clutch (sic) ...”
Richard Todd (The Ottawa Citizen, Jan. 1997)

“Elma Miller’s gutsy udok asem ets which explodes with male singing, conversations cursing, chatting, found the perfect room. With the light and sound, Miller’s invention exploded.” (This performance took place at the Button Factory in Waterloo.)
Colleen Johnston (The Record, Kitchener, Apr. 1996)

“Oracle is an extraordinary piece. Based on a Greek text, it is pointed and forceful, constructed of pulsing rhythms and disquieting dissonances. It was the highlight of a fine evening.”
Richard Todd (Ottawa Citizen, Jan. 2002)

“Even more challenging and undoubtedly the finest offering of the evening was Elma Miller’s Oracle. The (Seventeen) Voyces premiered this powerful, evocative work last month ... and presented it even more convincingly last evening.”
Richard Todd (Ottawa Citizen, Feb. 2002)

Miller has been commissioned through the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, Stephen B. Roman Foundation, Laidlaw Foundation, Alliance for Canadian New Music Projects and others. Her works have been broadcast in Canada and performed world-wide. She is a member of the Canadian Music Centre, Association of Canadian Women Composers, Canadian League of Composers, SOCAN and World Federation of Acoustic Ecology, and lives in Burlington, Ontario.

Feb. 2004


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