Composer Darren Miller smiles as he stands against a black background.
Composer Darren Miller. Photo: Carey Shaw

Talking transformation with composer Darren Miller

Darren Miller is a Saskatoon-based composer and musician who was selected as one of this year’s Here and Now cohort, a selection of artists working in live arts. As part of the year-long program, Miller was commissioned to create an original piece for the exhibition Picasso: Becoming the Faun. His work in nostalgia and in light is a four-channel digital sound composition that will evolve gradually over the course of the entire exhibition.

Miller will launch his new composition at the exhibition opening on June 2 at 8 PM, with Véronique Mathieu and a string quartet performing on the University of Saskatchewan’s Amati instruments.

We spoke to Darren about how his own practice has developed throughout the years, and what we can expect to see in his upcoming work.

Introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your practice.

My name is Darren Miller, and I work with sound and music whenever I get a chance. I went to school to be a composer and have also done some much more casual music-making in bands and experimental solo projects and the like.

I’ve also started dabbling in theatre, dance, film, and installation sound design since leaving school. I really like that sort of work because it pulls from traditional music that tends to have very predictable effects on an audience, without shying away from the much more unpredictable, open-ended, gritty, effect based, recorded and/or manipulated sounds that interest me the most as a composer.

What drew you to live arts or performing?

Like most kids I think I always had a bit of a baseline attraction to sound and music. I think that’s a pretty common way of learning about the world and especially the more exciting or magical parts of it. My introduction to local punk music as a teen was probably where I first got the idea that I could make music myself.

I also have a really clear early memory of being given tickets to the symphony by a connected great-uncle who couldn’t or didn’t want to use them. I think he had heard that I was showing signs of being into music. My dad pulled long hours as a mechanic during the day, and then working independently out of our home garage at night, so he was (and is!) always pretty tired. So he’d take me to the Centennial Auditorium and just snore through the whole show. I remember being completely overwhelmed by musical sound on that scale… so many people making such a big coherent noise together. And the building itself was really impressive to me. So I think about that a lot as a potential starting point, and really wonder about the chicken-and-egg of it all (i.e., how much did I get into music because I got the chance to check out those concerts, as opposed to there being something going on inside me that my family recognized and encouraged by taking me there?).

What is your primary medium?

I like to work in sound and music in almost any context. I find myself using at least a little bit of electronic manipulation or recording in most of my work lately, but I still love conventional instruments too.

What have you been working on lately?

Very little actually! With the pandemic and some family health developments that complicated things further, the live aspect of my practice has taken an especially huge hit over the last few years. I’ve tried to stay busy with film and studio work, but it’s been a real challenge.

Given my limited earning potential and the huge pre-subsidy cost of childcare, it’s made a lot of sense for me to stay at home as the primary caregiver for the kids a little longer than initially planned. So I’ve been starting to get a little squirrely in terms of artistic work.

Why did you apply to Here and Now?

Getting the financial, institutional, and audience support to do independent work was just way too attractive a prospect for me to pass up! This is very much the dream framework for most of the artists I can think of.

I had a teacher who described applying for big opportunities like this as similar to buying lottery tickets, and that really stuck with me. There are always way more people applying than spots to fill, and even though there are more factors at play than pure chance, there’s certainly a heavy element of that involved. For me anyway, really managing my expectations up front and then trying really hard to make the absolute most of anything I’m privileged enough to take part in has proven to be a really helpful way of thinking about big opportunities.

What are you planning to do during this project?

I’m still sifting through a few potential projects for the second half, but in the first half I’ve created a multi-loudspeaker audio installation for Picasso: Becoming the Faun, which is based around the notion of transformation. I’ve designed some software to create an evolving long-term soundscape that will last (and constantly transform) as long as the show is up.

I’m also working with a string quartet on some new music for those instruments. I’m going to record some samples of them ahead of time for use in the installation itself. Right now my goal is to have a newly composed piece to end their set and launch into the installation on opening night, which will then run until the closing concert, where they’ll play that same new quartet backwards to open that night’s set. We’ll see how that all pans out! It’s a pretty ambitious plan that might require some tweaking as things come together (or don’t!).

About the Artist

Darren Miller is a composer and musician living and working in Saskatoon. His work embraces both conventional instrumentation and its extension through the use of technology. Darren’s work has been presented in a variety of diverse, international venues; ranging from traditional concert halls and radio broadcasts, to art galleries and experimental music collectives. Studies in Saskatoon, Victoria, Banff, Darmstadt, and Buffalo have led to a PhD in music composition for work on the topic of audio morphing software. Darren was formerly co-founder and co-director of Sask New Music and the annual Strata Festival of New Music.

About Picasso: Becoming the Faun

Remai Modern’s collection of Picasso linocuts is a nearly comprehensive holding of his work in this medium, including many stages and working proofs. His 1962 linocut, Tête de Faune, and the associated series of stages is a compelling sequence. It reveals the artist’s process and his technical exploration of the medium but, when viewed in series, it also builds an intriguing narrative of transformation. These linocuts provide the starting point for Becoming the Faun, a multifaceted exhibition that explores the formation of self, processes of change and ideas of becoming.

Becoming the Faun features additional works from the Remai Modern’s collection by Bridget Moser, Elaine Cameron-Weir, John Kavik and Dominque Rey that touch on ideas related to the body, hybridity, identity and mythology.

About Here and Now

Building off the success of its pilot project in 2021, Remai Modern launched a program that supports local artistic practice in the realm of live arts. Here and Now: A Live Arts Initiative engages up to three artists for a one-year period.

Successful applicants receive financial supports, access to museum resources and opportunities for informal mentorships with guest artists, cultural workers and community leaders. The museum works in collaboration with each artist to develop a program of activities including research, artist talks, workshops, and the development and presentation of new work or work in progress.

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

The Canada Council for the Arts logo in English and French.