Allison Miller wants to be clear: she is not here to hit you over the head with conservation activism. Not directly anyway. The versatile and imaginative drummer and composer – who has shared stages with a range of artists, from departed jazz organ master Dr. Lonnie Smith to Americana icon Brandi Carlile – leaves activism to the pre-show talk with local riverkeepers that precedes performances of her new suite “Rivers In Our Veins.” The 75-minute series of compositions pays homage to five great rivers of the Eastern U.S. – the James, Delaware, Potomac, Hudson and Susquehanna – exploring the history of the rivers, how they serve the communities around them and how those communities need to better upkeep them.
Miller brings the multimedia project, which includes a jazz band, three dancers and video projections, to Strathmore this Friday, February 10. Miller spoke with District Fray to discuss her inspiration and imagination.
District Fray: What is the sound of a river?
Allison Miller: (Laughs.) You know, I asked that recently. I like to ask that question too, because part of the scope of this piece is that I interview local riverkeepers when I come to a town. So, I was interviewing this woman Nancy Stoner, who is head of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, and I asked her that. And she said, “It’s like this [makes a whooshing sound, like river rapids].” And I agree!
Where did the inspiration for “Rivers In Our Veins” come from?
For this project, it started with a grant. This presenter in New York asked me to come up with a topic and I immediately went to rivers. I grew up on a little farm, and I developed my imagination and my interest in the unknown when I was out by the creek. Water is mysterious. I would make up stories; I’d have all these different storylines in my head about who was traveling on the creek.
I think for this piece, because I got this grant and had a budget to actually sit and write music, that was when I started really going deep with research about rivers and social movement — migratory movement — along rivers. Whether it was current movement or historical movement, really studying what’s happening to rivers and what’s happened to rivers in the last 100 years, and what organizations are doing to clean up the rivers, that’s what I went deep into.
How did that translate into the performance?
For me, it’s really special because I get to marry my environmentalism and my activism with music. And it’s still growing! What we’re presenting at Strathmore is an extended piece with three dancers. As I was writing the music, I realized that I wanted more visual movement to touch more on the movement of rivers, because the music is very inspired by rivers and the way I perceive them. And then it grew even more when I added video. We have a live video projector who improvises with us. We’re not tied to any set length of a piece and he’s not tied to us; so, within each piece he has a bank of footage he can improvise with as we improvise.
Is there a moment where you felt strongly about adding the visual element?
I think when I was researching the Susquehanna River and the underground railroad activity that happened on the Susquehanna. I did some research, interviewed one scholar in particular who is really an expert on the migration and the movement along the Susquehanna River and on the Native populations along the river, and how — at one point in time — rivers were vital for the survival of indigenous people. With that, I realized I really wanted a human element on stage more than just the musicians. That’s when the switch flipped for me: “I need people! I need people moving on stage and I need rhythmic music on stage.”
Part of the reason it’s called “Rivers In Our Veins” is because when you look at a map, you see the rivers and it looks like the veins of our country. Without them, our country would die; it would be nothing. That, for me, also shows the history of this country, and it’s all wrapped up in tap dance and jazz for me.
“Rivers in our Veins” takes place at Strathmore on February 10 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28 – $58, and are available to purchase here.
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