Album Review: Roger C. Miller’s “Eight Dream Interpretations for Solo Electric Guitar Ensemble” — Fancy’s Furies
By Scott McLennan
As fluid and experimental as Eight Dream Interpretations is, the album’s rambunctious sonic palette is nothing if not inviting.
Eight Dream Interpretations for Solo Electric Guitar Ensemble, Roger Clark Miller (Cuneiform Records)
We more or less know what dreams are, but really — what are dreams? Are dreams a different kind of thought? Freudian scenarios of desire? A parallel reality powered by the mind to engage us when our bodies are at rest? Nothing at all — just imaginative sparks given off by restless synapses that trick us into thinking something happened while we were sleeping?
Roger Clark Miller’s Eight Dream Interpretations for Solo Electric Guitar Ensemble entices the listener to contemplate these explanations and others. The eight instrumental pieces Miller presents on this recent release pay homage to the mysterious nature of dreams. Predictably, the tracks make no attempt to answer the questions dreams raise in my mind (or anyone else’s mind I imagine).
But it is fair to say that Miller is not trafficking in conventional, soft-core representations of “dreams.”
A “solo ensemble,” eh? Welcome to Miller’s more tough than tender dream world. In this realm, dreams are mostly brash and tumultuous — not in frightening ways, as one would associate with “nightmares” — but in powerful ways that upend comforting depictions of dreams as gentle, airy, and warm.
Miller applies his formidable guitar prowess to a setup consisting of tricked-out lap steel guitars and a customized Stratocaster electric guitar. He also draws on a looping device to capture and replicate musical passages, to which he adds contemporaneous performance, some orchestrated, some improvised. So there really is an ensemble of sound; it just happens to be performed and sculpted by a solo artist.
In his liner notes for the project, Miller likens these recordings to ones he made in the late ’80s using prepared piano, guitar effects, and a sound-looping device. Moving from prepared piano to similarly manipulated lap-steel guitars, Miller entered a new sonic space where he could explore ideas he notes in a dream journal he keeps.
The eruptive musical textures he 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.
These dream songs demand that Miller cross the borders of rock, jazz, and orchestral music, a cross-fertilization of genre he has been exploring since the ’70s with an array of celebrated projects, including Mission of Burma, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Binary System, Trinary System, and Alloy Orchestra.
As fluid and experimental as Eight Dream Interpretations is, the album’s rambunctious sonic palette is also inviting. A familiarity lurks behind the strange patterns that are pushed front and center, an adhesive anchor that keeps this music from drifting into that ether of abstract art that initially attracts your attention but fails to hold onto it.
A discernible sonic texture unites these eight pieces, each titled “Dream Interpretation,” each assigned a number that has nothing to do with tracking order. Some of the tones and weaves are very much from the traditional guitar family. But there are also lots of percussive and ambient tones in the mix. Each piece has its own distinctive character, but there is a rough-grained through line that unfolds over the record’s 40 minutes.
The opening track, “Dream Interpretation #16,” begins with an oozing, ominous tone that sounds like Miller’s guitars are being stretched like so much Silly Putty — before some traditional strumming and picking kick in to establish order.
That weaving of sounds and approaches, all aided and abetted by the looping options, is central to the album. Still, Miller also gave himself narrative parameters. There may not be conventional beginnings, middles, and endings here, but there is very much a feeling of being led through a defined space from which the listener may glean different emotional impressions after each trip through these songs.
Miller balances (or juxtaposes, in some cases) otherworldly guitar playing with meaty, primal rhythms. No matter how far out the music goes a connection is usually maintained to the most basic and fundamental aspect of music — the beat.
None of this is meant to suggest that Miller has a set of neat rules for making the compositions on this album. Rather, the performances here smack of playful intent rather than surreal capriciousness — Miller is using music to analyze his dreams.
By framing this as a work about dreams and dreaming, Miller tantalizes the listener with a reference point that can’t help but entice. If these eight pieces of music were simply dumped into your lap, the album would still be interesting to explore. But, by declaring that the record is a way to converse about a psychological mystery — in this case, dreams — Miller mounts a kind of roiling inner drama, and he lives up to its promise. Perhaps Freud would not recognize it, but this is art doing some valuable dream-work.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.