Jared Miller wasn’t even thinking about the fact that Juno Award nominations were going to be announced that day.
He was in Winnipeg, anxiously awaiting the rehearsal of his new piano concerto – a work that was commissioned by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and was to be performed, with pianist Sara Davis Buechner, as part of the orchestra’s New Music Festival.
Miller had five or so minutes before his piece would be on when he got a text from his Dad, Stephen, telling him to turn on CBC.
He texted back: I can’t, I’m in rehearsal, why?
His Dad replied: Because you’re going to the Junos.
“I said I didn’t believe him,” Miller recalls with a laugh. “He sent me a photo of my headshot on the TV, and I still didn’t believe him for some reason. I started to get notifications on my phone and on Facebook of people congratulating me, and I knew it was for real.
“My phone was just blowing up. It was buzzing every two seconds.”
The 31-year-old composer, who hails from Burnaby, is one of five nominees in the running for Classical Composition of the Year for his work Under Sea, Above Sky – a work commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra of Canada for its 2019 tour. (See sidebar at end for more details.)
On the phone from New York City, where he now lives, Miller is still overflowing with enthusiasm about that January afternoon when he learned of his first Juno nomination.
Under Sea, Above Sky has since been broadcast on a few radio stations, and Miller has fielded a few calls from orchestras about the possibility of performing it (though nothing has yet been confirmed).
The Juno nomination is another addition to the resume Miller has been steadily building since 2009, when the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra commissioned him to write a piece in celebration of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. That piece, 2010 Traffic Jam, was performed by the VSO for its Symphony in the Park concert at Deer Lake Park, right here in Burnaby, in the summer of 2010.
“That piece, much to my surprise and delight, is still getting played,” Miller says.
Miller, who did his undergraduate work at UBC, has been in New York City for seven years now. He earned his master’s degree at the prestigious Juilliard School, then his doctorate of musical arts in 2017.
Miller is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, born in the States but having spent his life from the age of one to 18 in Burnaby. He attended Gilmore Community School and then Alpha Secondary, where he graduated in 2006, and pursued music throughout those years.
He started taking piano lessons and writing music at age seven.
“I was always into music. I took piano lessons growing up and was really seriously into piano for a while,” he says.
It was his Grade 9 year, he says, when he decided that music was really what he wanted to do. In Grade 8, he’d been thinking of quitting piano, and he stepped away for a break.
“But I really, really missed it that year, deeply missed it, so I started up again in Grade 9,” he recalls. “I guess I came back with a little more fire and a renewed passion.”
Miller is grateful to his parents for supporting his desire to study music and for insisting that he also learn to teach music along the way.
“They were very aware of the realities of being an artist and how challenging that could be,” he says, noting he started teaching at the age of 14 or so. “I actually now really love teaching. I’ve had opportunities when I could have given up on my teaching, … but I chose not to because I need that sort of variety in my life.”
These days, he balances his work as a composer – working on commissions from a variety of orchestras and ensembles – with his work as a teacher. He teaches piano, composition and music theory, mostly to adults but also to a few gifted young people.
“I’ve had such amazing teachers in my life who have given so much to me that I want to pass that on, as well, in the spirit of generosity,” he says.
Plus, he says, teaching helps to keep him grounded and gives him a chance to interact with people.
“I’m definitely more of an extrovert, and composition is definitely more of a reclusive, introverted activity,” he says with a laugh.
His current composing project is a piano trio, which he’s writing as one of five finalists in the Graham Sommer Competition for Young Composers. The work – for piano, violin and cello - will be premiered at McGill University this September.
“It’s a really interesting challenge for me, after writing a few orchestral pieces in a row, to write for an ensemble more limited in size and in variety,” Miller notes.
In the shorter term, he’s looking forward to jetting off to Saskatoon, where the Juno Award festivities will be underway from March 12 to 15.
“I’m not even really expecting to win, because there’s some really, really amazing people in my category who’ve written some really just awesome pieces,” he says. “It’s just such an honour to be included amongst them.”
He’s looking forward to getting more acquainted with Canada’s non-classical music scene – which he admits he hasn’t really kept abreast of since moving to the States – and to meet and mingle with musicians of all kinds.
“Being in a room with so many talented musicians all at the same time is a very rare opportunity. I think it’ll be a very, very incredible experience,” Miller says. “It’s going to be such a great weekend regardless of the results.”
MORE ABOUT UNDER SEA, ABOVE SKY
Under Sea, Above Sky was commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra or Canada for a 2019 tour of Canada and Spain.
The 10-minute work draws inspiration from the climate change crisis.
Composer Jared Miller notes he found a starting point in the sheer size of the orchestra, with its 100 musicians – the largest he’s ever written for.
“I wanted to explore that aspect of size, both in the creation of really large, resonant sounds and also extremely delicate, fragile sounds, where everyone in the orchestra is playing but it still sounds very transparent, very fragile.”
He saw parallels to nature and to the planet itself – huge, beautiful, majestic, but increasingly fragile as climate change starts to wreak havoc on it.
Miller notes the work juxtaposes “passages of thundering resonance” with passages of ethereal tranquility and fragility.
“It’s sort of like an ode to Planet Earth, and a reminder of what’s at stake,” he says.
Miller notes one reviewer referred to the piece as a “love letter to Planet Earth” – and although Miller says he doesn’t often quote reviewers, that phrase stayed with him.
“I couldn’t have put it better myself,” he says.
Now, as other orchestras are showing interest in the work, Miller is considering ways to reduce the instrumentation to make it more performance-friendly for ensembles of many different sizes.
Intrigued? You can listen to it on SoundCloud.
For more about the work, and about all Miller’s projects, see Miller’s website at jaredmillermusic.wordpress.com.