+ 1, Guest Contributor, Wayne Horvitz, April 2015
Wayne Horvitz. Photo by Daniel Sheehan.
Mark Miller: “The Listenable Years” - A Remembrance (Part I)
Our friend Mark Miller, aka M.E. Miller, passed away recently, and I thought I'd write a few words. Mark and I had not been particularly close for many years, but we kept in touch and saw each other from time to time. But for a few years, long ago, we were essentially best friends, and he was in many ways my first true musical partner, and a seminal part of my early years as a musician.
People familiar with Mark as a musician most likely know him from his time in New York City, his work with Charles K. Noyes and Toykillers, his involvement with Studio Henry, aka One Morten Street, and so on. But a core group of musicians and artists, many of whom also became involved in the New York scene, first met Mark in Santa Cruz, and it is there that I will begin.
In the late 70's Mark and I were part of a general migration from Santa Cruz to New York City that included a disproportionate amount of folks that contributed in ways, large and small, to what often gets referred to as "The Downtown Scene". This included the musicians Dave Sewelson, Lesli Dalaba, Doug Wieselman, Polly Bradfield, Bill Horvitz, Peter Kuhn, Geordie Gillespie, Robin Holcomb, Dana Vlcek, Carolyn Romberg; visual artists including Mark Uriu, Patti Trimble, Beverly O'Mara, and Jill Hoy: dancers Mia Borgatta, Annuel Dowdell, Merle Matsunaga, and Joe Hannon, and writers, thinkers and activists including Anne Hemenway, Marian Moore, Tom Maderos and Gordon Knox. It also included theater director Mark Lutwak, who worked frequently with Mark and myself, and designer Allison Conner who became Mark's first wife, and is the mother of Mark's daughter Devin. In addition the actor, and bass player, Joe Casalini, who stayed friends with Mark for years, plus important friends who never made the move, but stayed part of our lives, personal and artistic, including the photographer Tom Chargin, and the poet F. A Nettlebeck. Not everyone was new to the East, many of us were east coasters and in a few cases New Yorkers. But all of us were either students at UCSC, (Mark and I included) or transplants from the Bay Area, who joined us in Santa Cruz, primarily because of a very active improvised music scene. (My brother Bill, Lesli Dalaba, Dave Sewelson etc.)
I don't remember how I met Mark. It must have been almost immediately after my arrival as a freshman at UCSC. I hadn't declared a major, but I was taking some music classes, and I believe we met in a jazz class of some sort. Mark was a transfer student; he was two years my senior, and I think he had gone to community college previously, somewhere over in the valley. All I know is we started playing together shortly thereafter. It was pretty simple, at first it was all about Weather Report and electric Miles Davis, and then it soon became all about The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Cecil Taylor. At the end of our first year he started dating a girl, and through her I met her best friend, and she and I starting going out as well. It was typical college stuff.
The next year I moved off campus. That fall Mark was a senior. UCSC did something unusual in those days and allowed seniors, with approval, to teach a class for credit. It was called a "senior-directed seminar", and Mark created a class in world percussion. (As an aside I met the great pianist and composer, Chris Brown, when I took his senior-directed seminar in "Systems of Intonation".) Class size was limited to 20, and I didn't register. Instead I just went to all the classes and hung out. We basically just jammed on percussion instruments. Mark would show us a rhythm associated with a style of world music and we would be off. On the first day of class, two young women walked in, both of whom immediately grabbed my attention. One soon became my girlfriend, on and off, for the next year or so. The other was Robin Holcomb. Robin and Mark starting hanging out and that is how Robin and I first became friends. The day I heard Mark had died, I was trying to explain to my son, Lowell, who Mark was. I finally just said, "If it wasn't for Mark Miller, you probably wouldn't be here."
By winter Mark and I had taken a little house together on the north end of town, and we were roommates the rest of that year. If memory serves we were playing a lot, and Mark was a great drummer. Oddly, we never really found a bass player who was at the core of our scene, and now that I think about it we had a number of interesting ensembles that were without bass. But the first group I recall was with the great and vastly under-appreciated Dana Vlcek on sax and bass clarinet, Mark on drums, myself on Fender Rhodes, and a bass player who I haven't seen since. I recall we played Wayne Shorter's "Tears", a few pieces of mine, and I don't know what else. I guess I would describe the music as steeped in Weather Report and Miles, and fairly open structurally. We played on campus and off, and I remember feeling like I had begun to find my music.
A lot of people knew Mark as a percussionist/fire artist/wild man but its important to note that he was a great drummer in the "normal" sense, whatever that means. We played all sorts of music. We played a lot of jazz. Mark, more than I, picked up gigs in cover bands and top 40 bands, and we improvised a lot, and also worked on our own music. I don't recall Mark bringing in a lot of his own tunes, but he was a vital collaborator and instigator. A high school friend of mine, the cellist Joel Stern, came out to UCSC and we formed a trio of cello, rhodes and drums. In what was the start of a lot of unfortunate band names to come we called it the "Sonny V Washington Quartet." There was no Sonny V. Washington and it was not a quartet. As twenty year olds will, we found this hilarious. Doug Wieselman reminded me recently that in our repertoire was an arrangement I had done of "Big Fair', from Bartok's Mikrokosmos. Mark and I also presented, with three horns, including Doug, a concert of the music of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. There was a lot going on.
Somehow we got hold of a key to the concert hall at the music building. Thinking about security on most colleges today, I look back at this in amazement. Most of that year we would go up, many nights a week, and often with assorted dancers and people with sketchpads etc., and just play all night. We would arrive after midnight, when there was no chance of faculty being around. The security guard would come by and share a joint, and we would wrap up around five a.m. We religiously trooped off to "Farrell's Donuts" and walked in just as they opened, surrounded by truckers and early risers. We would eat donuts, drink gallons of coffee, and go straight to bed. I am not sure when we ever went to class.
By the following year Robin and Mark had stopped being an "item", and over time Robin and I started seeing each other, and with a few false starts we have been together ever since. Undang Sumarna, the great and influential teacher of Gamelan, had arrived at UCSC. He has been there ever since, but when he arrived he was barely older than we were, and soon Mark and Robin both became his best students, and good friends. He wasn't a traditionalist, and I think Undang really treasured Mark's irreverence in equal proportion to Mark's talent and passion. I recall an early composition of Undang's for the gamelan entitled "Gending Star Wars."
We moved to another house that summer, out by the beach near Aptos, but Mark had graduated and I still had two years to go, and it didn't last very long. Mark was in and out of town. I know at some point he was living back over the hill, and then he went to Indonesia for, I believe, a serious chunk of time. I think Undang was with him at least during the summer, but he may have been there as long as six months. My senior year I had a "band-house" together with Dave Sewelson, who had moved down to Santa Cruz to make music. My brother and his wife Patti were living nearby, and Robin moved into our house after a period of time. We had a piano in the front room, and drums, and I was in a band with my brother Bill, Dana Vlcek, Dave Sewelson, and a drummer named Pat Costello for that entire year. The band was called, unfortunately, "The Santa Cruz Natural Music Band." We also collaborated with a wide group of players, including Carolyn Romberg, Doug Wieselman, and Polly Bradfield, who would become a critical player in our evolving scene. We played a lot, in town and in the Bay Area, and we were beginning to cross over into the scenes from around there-and meeting other people-including Eddie Gale, who had played with Cecil Taylor, the bassist Jay Oliver, and others. There was scene of little lofts and store fronts, the kind of places Leroy Jenkins or Lester Bowie might pick up a solo gig, and we were proud to play in these same venues, and we started to see ourselves as part of a larger community, and began to look towards New York.
As soon as I graduated Dave and I packed up my van, Robin and I said farewell without much plans for the future, and moved to New York. Or rather Dave moved to New York. I spent the summer travelling in South America. Robin came out to visit me in New York on my return, and despite planning to stay, I had a change of heart and returned to Santa Cruz to be with Robin while she finished her last quarter. Mark had returned to Santa Cruz as well, and was living, with Mark Uriu and Mia Borgatta, in a large house that was a historic landmark, called Windham Market. It had a large front room that they kept empty, and often used for dance. Polly had moved to New York, she was definitely in the first wave (as was Peter Kuhn), and she called one day and asked if we could find some sort of gig for these two guys named Eugene Chadbourne and John Zorn. They were touring by greyhound bus, had a gig with Henry Kaiser in the Bay Area, another gig in LA, and were looking for something in between. On such short notice there wasn't much we could do, so we had them come play at Windham market. Long before we had heard of a "house concert', we indeed had one. I remember Miller cooking delicious Indonesian food for all of us, and Chadbourne mumbling something about getting a hamburger. I had heard, vaguely, of Zorn through Philip Johnston, and our friend Jay Clark, who had known John when they lived together briefly in Eugene, Oregon. I remember Jay coming over to our house to use the phone to try and reach John. I think he was trying to sell him a mouthpiece.
A few months later Robin and I arrived, on a freezing and dreary New Years Day, on E. 7th Street, where Dave Sewelson had an apartment. The plaster was falling off the walls, butts of cigarettes were everywhere, and sheet music was scattered throughout. When Dave gave up that apartment a few months later Zorn moved in, and he's been there ever since. We started a band, unfortunately named "White Noise", with Robin, Dave, Carolyn Romberg, Mark, and myself. At first Robin and I had a loft and we rehearsed there, but that did not last. We then spent the summer traveling around the west, spent a month in Seattle, joining some dance friends of ours who were attending a residency/workshop, and then down to SF and Santa Cruz, where we crashed with friends and played some shows, including a bizarre double bill with Art Lande at the Keystone Korner. We basically had a three-month tour with seven gigs. I guess it was the improvised music version of a working vacation. The van was tight and Mark was always a trip. He was tall, broad shouldered, and blonde with a surfer haircut. He had these shorts that were almost like hot pants, and no matter how redneck the truck stop it never seemed to occur to him to wear anything else. We headed home via LA, where we played at the Century City Playhouse and met the Cline brothers et al. Travelling back to New York via the south we connected for the first time with George Cartwright in Mississippi, LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams in Alabama, and a scene that included Pippin Barnett and Tom Cora in Richmond, Virginia. Back in New York, Robin and I moved onto E. 7th. Polly was upstairs, as was Zorn and Lesli Dalaba. Mark and Joe Casalini were next door. Peter Kuhn, Mark Lutwak, and Carolyn Romberg were all in the neighborhood. My first gig with John and Eugene was playing bass with them in Michelle Butchko's loft on Charlie Parker's birthday. Dennis Charles lived down the street and we started playing together, and before we knew it we were part of an incredible scene that blossomed over the next few years.
"White Noise" needed a placed to rehearse so we found a basement in the West Village; it was filled with trash, mostly old TVs, radios and appliances, and had a dirt floor, literally. It was $125 a month, which we split five ways. We spent a week filling two dumpsters with the trash. Our friend Paul Chilkov found old wood and bricks and made a floor and a slightly raised stage. Somehow we got a baby grand piano down the stairs and through the doors. The place had a sign outside that said, "Appliances Repaired-Call Henry" (plus a phone number). So we called it "Studio Henry." Anyone who arrived first in the day had to make sure the rats scattered before descending the stairs. In the beginning we just rehearsed there, but almost immediately little performances and other rehearsals began to happen. There was no bathroom so a bunch of bands played and we raised money to put in a toilet. I believe the flier said "A benefit for your benefit". It is safe to say that Mark and I were the most proactive as the place became an actual venue of sorts, albeit extremely loose. But it was Mark who ended up being the most important contributor to the short lived legacy of Studio Henry, and in fact in the third year the rest of us bowed out and he took over. By the end of that year, the neighbors had had enough, it wasn't the East Village, there were too many folks hanging out on the street, and the music was too loud. One Morten St., as Mark had re-christened it, was no more. It had died of success.
I have recently begun listening to a series of tapes that our friend Bruce Levinson recorded, mostly at Studio Henry. This is the beginning of a project I had imagined collaborating very closely with Mark on, and the regrets I have that we didn't do this earlier are massive, and irreparable. I saw it as a way to connect again, after many years, and now that will never happen. As this project evolves I hope to write, at length, and with the voices of many others, about Studio Henry. I will save that for Part II.
But briefly Studio Henry was the epicenter, at least for us, of a scene that included, in addition to all the aforementioned people, William Parker, Butch Morris, Bill Laswell, Arto Lindsay, Anton Fier, Ned Rothenberg, Shelly Hirsch, Joel Forrester, Philip Johnston, Dave Hofstra, Joe Gallant, Stew Cutler, Fred Frith, Bob Ostertag, Jim Katzin, Elliot Sharp, Bobby Previte, Ned Rothenberg, David Moss, Jody Harris, and more. And on to people that I am not sure were ever at Studio Henry, but that we all met soon thereafter, including Ikue Mori, Jim Staley, Steven Bernstein, Martin Bisi, Samm Bennet, Zeena Parkins, Syd Straw, Peter Blegvad, George Lewis, Bill Frisell and on and on. And especially Charlie Noyes, who played often at Studio Henry. I loved playing with Charlie. Leslie Dalaba had a quartet, "The Edge of Night", with myself and Jim Katzin and Charlie. I still recall it as one of my favorite improvising ensembles of all time. But Mark and Charlie were meant for each other, they stayed close and made incredible, even indescribable, music for years, and I know how keenly Charlie feels Marks loss.
In many ways the demise of Studio Henry was the beginning of the end for Mark and me as close friends and collaborators. Our aesthetics went in slightly different directions, though not vastly. He brought me in briefly on some projects he was doing with Arto Lindsay-Robin as well. And until he moved back to California we still did a lot of stuff together. After that we lost touch for a while, but over the years we have had some nice times together, but never enough.
I always felt that New York made Mark feel a little self conscious as a drummer. He felt a little out of his league sometimes and, I believe, he didn't need too. I may be totally off base; it's just a feeling I had. I know he felt strongly that he needed to find a place, a personal voice, and a unique identity, and he did that-brilliantly. But I missed just playing with him, like we had back in the day. Sometimes he was incredibly intense, and he almost seemed frustrated, even frozen, by what he wanted to do and what actually happened. I actually coined the term, "personal vendetta improvisation" after a gig we played once. We talked about it sometimes, and we could laugh with each other, even at each other. He often puzzled me, but I loved him from the moment I met him, and the world is a little colder without him.
When our friend Carolyn Romberg was very ill, and close to death, many of her friends helped out, visited, and kept in close contact. But Mark was in touch with her every day, and was above and beyond in his generosity. Honestly the end of Carolyn's life, and the experience her son had during that period, was utterly transformed by Mark's care. I could say that this was a side of Mark I never knew before, but honestly it wasn't all that surprising. He was a soulful man with a huge heart. All of us were so grateful for what he did for Carolyn.
Mark was funny as hell. His wit was so dry you could die of thirst. And it was hard just to keep up. His head would cock down, and he would almost be mumbling, and what he said was so right on, so hilarious, and sharp as a knife. He saw the absurd in just about everything, and his patience for ego trips or pompousness of any sort was nil. I miss his humor, his peculiar and particular world view, and I just plain miss being kids together, excited about music, and trying to make something happen.
When Toykillers released "The Unlistenable Years" I almost died laughing. I don't know who thought of the title, Charlie or Mark, but it's classic M.E. Miller. And it's far from unlistenable. It's brilliant, and you should listen.
Composer, pianist, and keyboardist Wayne Horvitz is the leader of Sweeter Than the Day, Zony Mash, The 4 Plus 1 Ensemble, the Gravitas Quartet and co-founder of the New York Composer Orchestra. Collaborations include work with Paul Taylor, Gus Van Sant, Butch Morris, John Zorn and many others. He has produced CDs for Eddie Palmieri, Fontella Bass, Robin Holcomb and Bill Frisell among others. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the 2008 NEA American Masterpieces Award, and the 2003 and 2011 Rockefeller Map Grant.