Ann Millikan: On The Move

Ann Millikan: On The Move

Eight years ago, Ann Millikan, who was born and bred in California, relocated to Minnesota. While the change has not affected her music per se, it’s completely changed her working process and her sense of community.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

At the home of Ann Millikan, East St. Paul, Minnesota
June 15, 2012—12 p.m.
Photography and video recording by Philip Blackburn
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Oversimplifications about the kind of music that composers write based on where they live have persisted for centuries. The age-old myth of a clear dichotomy between French and German composers still lives on in many people’s minds, as do even quainter notions such as the idea that all Italian composers write operas or at least are always lyrical. A closer look reveals a landscape in which it has always been impossible to make generalizations. (Music history is littered with composers like the “Italian” Francesco Antonio Rosetti, an 18th-century composer who briefly worked in France and was later a Kapellmeister in Northern Germany, but was actually born František Antonín Rosety in Bohemia.)

Here in the United States we continue to talk about East Coast vs. West Coast composers, and then there’s “Minnesota nice.” But a composer such as Ann Millikan, who grew up in California and is now based in East St. Paul, writes music that completely defies such one-dimensional geographical typecasting. That said, she does acknowledge that her relocation to the Midwest has had a profound impact on her capacity to write the music she wants to write:

I think the biggest difference is the ability to not juggle so many things as I had to do in the Bay Area, because the cost of living is a lot higher out there. So what’s changed is the amount of work that I’ve produced. The intensity with which I’m doing it has really changed, because I’m working full time as a composer here. [But] I don’t think my voice has really changed that radically. I think I’ve deepened it, though, because I started writing for orchestra since I’ve been here. I wasn’t doing that out in California. I didn’t even really have a desire to at that point. I was very focused on chamber music.

Since her move in 2004, Millikan has created four orchestral works. Her first opera—based on the true life stories of immigrants in St. Paul’s Swede Hollow neighborhood—was produced earlier this year. She has also released two CDs devoted exclusively to her music on Innova. The first disc, a collection of music she created for the E.A.R. Unit, offers a great introduction to her aesthetic range. In the six compositions contained therein, a keen sense of timbre combines with influences from Brazilian and many other world music traditions as well as a rhythmic punchiness coming out of jazz (and even funk on the uproarious 221B Baker Street), no doubt the result of her many years of work as a singer and jazz pianist before devoting herself exclusively to composition. The second disc, featuring three orchestral works, expands her palette without sacrificing any of the idiosyncrasies of her compositional vocabulary. For example, in Ballad Nocturne—commissioned by Orchestra Filarmonica di Torino for Italian virtuoso pianist Emanuele Arciuli (who loves jazz but who is not an improviser)—she wrote a solo piano part that frequently sounds as if it were being improvised even though it is completely written out.

Before she jots down a single note for a composition, Millikan typically constructs a prose narrative outlining her basic conception of the piece. As she explained when I visited her home in June, “Colors, shapes, sounds, durations—I describe everything as if I’m doing a review of a concert, and I listen through it. I describe it as clearly as possible. Then, by the time I’m actually composing, it goes really quickly.” Sometimes, these narratives emerge directly from her dreams. Each day she wakes up at 5:30 in the morning and jots down the unconscious narratives she remembers from the night before. “Internally, I think in story form, whether it’s instrumental, opera, orchestral, chamber, choral—it doesn’t matter” she acknowledged. Such a process means there’s always a story behind her music even if it isn’t always sonically apparent to listeners.

What she does hope listeners are always aware of, however, is that composers can be vital contributors to society at large. Since establishing herself in the Twin Cities, she has set herself the goal of escaping what she describes as “the new music ghetto.” In works such as her opera Swede Hollow and the House of Mirrors project, she has made overtures to local people who initially had no idea about what composers do but who are now engaged fans.

I think our whole view of the composer is so limited. It doesn’t need to be that way. I think being involved in the community is a really important thing to do, because of the way we think. We’re problem solvers. You know, we solve puzzles: thinking things backwards and forwards and forming all these different angles. That’s kind of what our job is as a composer. So I think we can be involved in the community in non-traditional ways.

How she and other composers interact with the public where they live and work and how those local audiences respond to their music is perhaps the most viable way to assess the significance of a composer’s personal geography.

Frank J. Oteri: All of your pieces, even the instrumental ones, have wonderfully elaborate narratives that inspire them. These pieces all tell stories. One piece, Red Migration, is about your coming to live in the place we are in right now, Minnesota. You’ve been here now for a number of years, but you spent most of your life in California. You were a California composer. Now you’re a Minnesota composer. Do those geographical associations mean anything to you? Do you feel that moving has changed your music in any way?

Ann Millikan: Well, I lived in California my whole life until I was 40, and moved here in 2004. It’s much more of an academic-oriented scene in the Bay Area, a lot of the things going on are connected to what’s going on in the universities and the conservatories and so on. Whereas in Minnesota, it’s a lot looser; there’s a lot more independence. And the weather here is a lot more intense in the winter time. But I think the biggest difference is the ability to not juggle so many things as I had to do in the Bay Area, because the cost of living is a lot higher out there. So what’s changed is the amount of work that I’ve produced. The intensity with which I’m doing it has really changed, because I’m working full time as a composer here and I’m devoting many hours a week to it. I’ve been able to focus and produce a lot more work.

FJO: It’s interesting to me that you haven’t mentioned the music changing in any way, just the amount of it that you’ve been able to create.

AM: I don’t think my voice has really changed that radically. I think I’ve deepened it, though, because I started writing for orchestra since I’ve been here. I wasn’t doing that out in California. I didn’t even really have a desire to at that point. I was very focused on chamber music. But coming out here, that was something I wanted to have an opportunity to delve into and develop. So I wrote a grant application to the Contemporary Music Fund out of the Argosy Foundation to do an orchestra CD—that was three years ago—and then I wrote only music for that. Those were actually my first orchestral compositions, starting in 2008. So that’s probably the biggest change, having the opportunity to develop that aspect of my voice since I’ve been here.

FJO: Returning to Red Migration, that’s a piece that exists in two versions. The original is for chamber ensemble, which is how it’s recorded on your first disc with the E.A.R. Unit. But it also exists for symphony orchestra. Did you start writing for orchestra by re-working that piece?

AM: Yup, that was the first thing I did.

FJO: But you didn’t include it on your orchestral CD. I’m very curious to hear how that sounds compared to the chamber version, which is how I know it.

AM: Well, it’s very dense. It actually hasn’t been premiered. I just did it.

FJO: But it’s interesting that it was your starting point for orchestral music, since it is also a piece about your coming to Minnesota. I always wonder when composers attach programmatic associations to pieces how much of that is perceptible to an audience. Sure, people can read the booklet notes for the CD, which is how I first learned the back-story, and I think this information is also on your website. But how much of this could people intuit if they didn’t read the notes? Does it matter to you? The narratives seem to be central to your own creative process, but how important is it for listeners to know the narratives behind your music?

AM: You’re right that a lot of my music has a narrative because that’s the way I work. Internally, I think in story form, whether it’s instrumental, opera, orchestral, chamber, choral—it doesn’t matter. There’s always that element for me because my process comes from a written background. When I set up to write a composition, I’m often spending a great deal of time writing on paper.

Millikan Composing Studio

Millikan in her composition studio

I get up at 5:30 in the morning, and that’s when my ideas just start coming, and I just write, write, write, write, write, write, write, and then go compose. They come to me very much in a descriptive form. So narratives are a very natural extension of that. A composition being a specific duration of time and how you’re taking the listener through that journey is of great interest for me. So I always like to share what that is for me because for each composition, it’s really different. And if the person gets that, I’m very happy. I think they exist on their own without them, but I do like them to have program notes.

FJO: One piece of yours that has a particularly amazing story is Trilhas de Sombra. In your description of the story behind this piece, you wrote about music coming from a sound that’s hidden in the earth under the snow. It’s a wonderfully rich metaphor. I guess it’s from experiencing a Minnesota winter, although there are all these Brazilian influences in it and I know that Brazilian culture has been very important to you formatively and still is. So I’m curious about that story. Is that your own invented story? Is it a folk tale? Where does that story come from?

AM: I started writing Trilhas de Sombra in 2008. It’s based on this whole series of snow-related dreams I had when we had this massive amount of snow in December of 2007. I started writing this story based on that, and very much wanting to think of it in terms of a composition eventually because it was a whole sound world that this character entered into. My relationship to sound is very physical, so when I create sound worlds, I’m thinking almost three dimensionally when I hear it in my head and when I’m trying to create it orchestrationally. So in a way, that story is sort of me as a composer. You know, it’s really the journey into that world, and where it comes from. It’s sort of allegorical on one level, and very personal on another.

From Trilhas de Sombra

A page from the orchestral score of Ann Millikan’s Trilhas de Sombra, © 2009 by Ann Millikan and reprinted with her permission.

FJO: Another personal level is that it ties to your niece Gabriela who lives in Brazil; several pieces of yours have been inspired by her. What’s her story? Is she a musician? Is she musical?

AM: Well, Gabriela and Pedro are my niece and nephew who live in Brazil, and I don’t get to see them very often. She just turned 18. They’re really amazing kids. It’s a way for me to connect with them through my work, and she’s very musical. I remember sitting down with her at the piano when she was about five or six and improvising with her, and she was just picking out things. And she would direct me to what to do. Their dad is a jazz guitarist, but they’re not musicians.

FJO: You started out as a jazz musician. On your website, you state something like: “I used to do jazz, but then I decided to be a classical composer, so I no longer do that.” Whenever I see something like that, I think: Why give up one and do the other? Why not do it all? I’m curious about if there was sort of a transition period, where you were doing both. Why did you feel you no longer wanted to be involved with jazz? Of course, jazz still surfaces in your music in other ways. I’m thinking of your Ballad Nocturne, which sounds somewhat like jazz even if the performance practice for it is not jazz.

AM: I made that leap to becoming a composer really because I was spreading myself very thin. I was playing piano, I was singing contemporary music and early music, and I was composing. I was sort of jumping between them from the time I graduated—my undergraduate was 1986—to the early ‘90s. I made a decision basically to go back to graduate school and focus on composition because I wanted to catch up with what I was hearing. The sound worlds that I was hearing in my mind compositionally didn’t fit into jazz at all, and I wanted to further my training and develop my skill level so that I could write what I was hearing. I stopped playing pretty much because I just didn’t have time to do everything. So I kind of gave up piano, and I was singing a bit for a while, but I gave that up, too. It’s an odd thing, but in terms of the worlds themselves, they’re often separated artistically. In the Twin Cities, the jazz musicians here are very open to crossing over, and I’ve worked with a lot of them in my House of Mirrors project, which was really fun. So that’s probably the closest I come to continuing to use that. But my sound world, the way I hear rhythm, the way I hear harmony, all of that is very much influenced by jazz. It’s the language that I come out of. I didn’t grow up in classical music and then learn about jazz, it’s the other way around, so it’s very indigenous to how I think.

FJO: You used to play the piano all the time, but unless it’s hiding somewhere, I don’t see a piano here.

AM: I know. I sold it when I moved here. I didn’t drive it across the country, so I don’t have one.

FJO: Do you miss it?

AM: I do. If I had a grand piano, I would play, I promise you that. I do miss it.

FJO: Although I guess it would be somewhat problematic to be banging on a piano at 5:30 in the morning, although early in the morning is a great time to compose.

AM: It just sparkles.

FJO: The phone isn’t ringing; nobody’s trying to get you to go out somewhere. But since you’re not banging things out on a piano, what’s your process? Is it all in your head? There doesn’t seem to be a physical intermediary. What is the process of getting from the sounds you’re hearing to the notated form?

Millikan Working

Millikan at work

AM: It goes straight from lines on a paper notebook to Sibelius. But the written process is very, very important for me, because it’s the opportunity for me to really describe what I’m hearing in my mind as clearly as possible. Colors, shapes, sounds, durations—I describe everything as if I’m doing a review of a concert, and I listen through it. I describe it as clearly as possible. Then, by the time I’m actually composing, it goes really quickly. Whereas if I just went straight to composing, I would just think, “O.K., what note comes next?” I like to think through a composition so that I really have a sense of it in its entirety first: Beginning, middle, and end. Where does it rise and fall? What are the high points and low points? Where are the cadences? It really feels like an organic whole before I write a single note.

FJO: It’s interesting that you do this as soon as you wake up in the morning, because you’ve just talked about one of your pieces as coming from dreams. I know on your site you talk about many other pieces coming out of dreams. So dream is an important element in your process and, of course, the best time to capture a dream is when you first wake up, right?

AM: Yeah, because it’s a time of day before you get the onslaught of emails, and news, and so forth. Your ability to listen internally is at its height, at least it is for me. So that’s a really important time. The first few hours in a day kind of set the whole rest of the day in motion. I can interrupt myself at any point, but if I’ve already done that, then I can come right back to it, whereas if I start the other way, it would be very hard to get to that concentration.

FJO: So how long does it typically take to compose a piece?

AM: It really depends, especially on the deadline. I mean, this opera, I had so little time to actually compose it. I wrote it in seven weeks, the entire thing, libretto and music. It’s a forty-minute opera. That was not a very comfortable pace, but it varies. For my orchestra CD, I wrote all of that music in eleven months.

FJO: Aside from ideas that will carry over from your dreams once you’re awake, there might be something that’s in your head when you’re out somewhere and you want to get back and get it on paper. Maybe you have these ideas for a line, or a harmony, or a timbral combination.

Millikan Washing Dishes

A musical inspiration can happen anywhere for Millikan, even while she’s washing dishes.

AM: Those things I can hear at any moment. Like the middle section of the Ballad Nocturne, where it has the bass melody, I wrote that washing dishes. That’s when it came to me. I just hear it in my head, and try to remind myself of it, until I can go upstairs and get it on paper. Things can come at any time, and I have to just be diligent about remembering them. I always try to keep that awareness open. That’s an issue. That’s one of the most interesting things I think about being a composer. Those feelers that you have are always alert, and so even when you’re taking time, going for a walk or whatever, your compositional mind is still working. It’s still coming up with things, pulling ideas from the environment.

FJO: I’m curious about how you structure your music. How important are structures for you? Do you work with structures? How much is intuition?

AM: It depends on the piece, but I think structurally, and that’s definitely part of my process. I can get very heady and techie about it, but I don’t tend to put that into my program notes.

FJO: You can get heady and techie with us. We want to hear it.

AM: Well, I’m very interested in the way timbre works, and intervallic relationships like stacked ninths, and how they can create layers of sound, clusters, the way they poke out. Creating those dimensionalities between things is something I mess with a lot, and the expansion and contraction of time, moving durations that way. That’s all part of the pre-compositional process for me. I think through that stuff really carefully. Just sort of intuiting my way through something doesn’t work. I get blocked really quickly. I know some composers just sit down and they write. But I really have to plan it and have what is going on structurally in my mind really clearly.

FJO: One thing I find really interesting is that these narratives that inform these pieces don’t necessarily lead intuitively, at least to me, to where I think they should go in terms of the sound world. I’m thinking specifically about 221B Baker Street. I love that piece. I listen to stuff before I read the program notes, usually, but then I always read the program notes afterwards. But after that first listen through, the last thing I probably would have thought of was Sherlock Holmes for that one. It was sort of a funk, jazz, rock, kind of sound world, and there’s all this quintuple versus duple stuff going on. So what’s the connection?

AM: Well, that really was just plain fun. It was basically writing an encore piece for the album, something that would be really playful. So, in terms of why I did it, or how I thought about it, that one was definitely more intuitive. That one was something more fun to write. I wanted to do something that used electronics and it was a fun vehicle for the E.A.R. Unit to put an octave divider on the cello and use sound manipulators on the woodwinds and so forth.

FJO: Now in terms of writing for that ensemble: E.A.R. Unit is a quasi-Pierrot-type ensemble. They have two percussionists, so it’s not exactly the official Pierrot plus percussion instrumentation, but it’s pretty close. Anything written for them could easily be done by another one of the many Pierrot groups actively performing; just add an extra player. I find it interesting that despite all these groups, and the richness of that combination, so many composers write only one Pierrot piece. So it’s nice that, because of your residency with them, you were able to really develop a whole repertoire. Yet you tweaked the instrumentation in slightly different ways in each of the pieces; you never did the exact same thing twice.

AM: Right. Well, when we were together for that residency in 2001 at the Berkeley Arts Center, and I had a chance to work with them that whole week and write a whole bunch of new material for them, part of it was wanting to think about creating an interesting program that wasn’t always the same, and also wanting to highlight the ensemble in different ways and bring out different aspects of them and the way they interact.

FJO: And of course the danger in writing for a very specific ensemble is that it’s so tailor made for the group it was written for that no one else can ever do it. While that’s not necessarily true for the E.A.R. Unit, because their instrumentation is ubiquitous, not every other group would probably be willing to work with electronics or even know how to do so. Have other ensembles picked up those pieces?

AM: Trens Coloridos para Gabriela has been performed by several other groups. So has Three Reflections. But Baker Street hasn’t been performed by anybody else. The Woodcarver & The Blacksmith they did in L.A. So some of them have had other groups do them.

FJO: Of course these questions always come up when writing for the orchestra. Orchestras theoretically are equipped to do anything that is written for them, yet ironically orchestra pieces tend to be the ones that get done by one orchestra and then never done by any others. You talked about initially thinking of yourself as a chamber music composer and thinking that the orchestra was out of your reach. The orchestra is out of reach for most composers. But you had a change of heart on this and not only wrote several works for orchestra, you got them performed and recorded in Bulgaria of all places. That’s a bit of an odyssey.

AM: Well, I tend to have these huge ideas, and then I just find a way to do them. That was just one of them. I wanted to give myself that challenge, and the combination of funding, Innova support and foundation support, and my desire to go into it all lined up. In a way, it was my Ph.D., but I didn’t get a degree for it. Typically what people do in a Ph.D. program is they focus on writing for orchestra. So I just had to do it on my own.

What was really exciting for me was having the opportunity to write the things that I’ve wanted to write for a good 20 years, in terms of my sound world. [As a member of the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus] I recorded [Morton Feldman’s] Rothko Chapel with New Albion in 1990 and that was really my introduction into contemporary music. It had an enormous impact on me: those sonorities and the sort of melody within those sonorities. It just stayed in my mind for years and years. And it wasn’t until I got to really focus on the orchestra for that year that I had a chance to go as deep into those sound world possibilities as I had been imagining for a long period of time. People say, “What do you mean Morton Feldman’s an influence on your music? I don’t get it. You’re all over the place.” The rhythmic punchiness of my music is much more connected to jazz. But the textures, the layers, the way he orchestrates, those are all things that I spent a lot of time studying in the early ‘90s and then kind of developing my own style around. It’s really across all my music if you follow the thread. I’m working with rhythmic juxtaposition and layering. That interdependence of modal line and melody within really dense textures is something that I’m very fascinated with. So getting to do that with full orchestra was just—wow—it was incredibly exciting. I loved it!

FJO: But of course the other side to this is that it’s very different from working with E.A.R. Unit or other chamber ensembles, which are more often willing and able to work with somebody, allow pieces to gestate, and rehearse them a million times until they’re right. Orchestras all over the world function on a clock. If you’re lucky, you get two rehearsals and then you get a performance which might not be ideal. Good luck ever getting that composition done again, unless it miraculously finds its way to other orchestras. Some recent pieces for orchestra have had such luck, but there are so many other terrific pieces in addition to the ones that get played. How was it working with the Bulgarians? Did you have an opportunity to interact with them individually, or was it a situation like so many composers have where they only get to talk to the conductor for a few minutes in between run-throughs?

AM: It was pretty much a traditional recording session set up. I had a chance to meet with the conductor, to go through the score and trouble shoot. But then, you know, the clock’s running and they’re just doing it. They rehearsed and recorded at the same time, so they were running stuff and then doing takes. So that was not the most ideal situation in terms of getting a chance to really hear the pieces as a whole live. It was done in chunks. But they did a terrific job, I thought.

FJO: I imagine all the music you wrote for them is completely notated out and there are no graphic notation elements or indeterminate elements in the scores, even though that has been an element in other pieces of yours.

AM: I think when I first started graduate school, coming from jazz, I was used to giving a certain amount of freedom to the performers that I was working with. But over time, especially working with classical performers, who are less comfortable with improvisation, I tended to just write it out if I knew what I wanted. So more and more, I was through-composing absolutely everything that I did. There have been projects where there was some sort of aleatoric element. Then it was sort of a different process, like with the House of Mirrors piece. Ballad Nocturne was commissioned by the Torino Orchestra for Emanuele Arciuli. He’s not a jazz pianist, but he appreciates jazz very much, and so I wrote it to sound as if it were being improvised, to sound like the piano soloist is developing something very organically. He’s actually championed that; he’s performed it with a couple of different orchestras in Italy.

FJO: You’re working in theater and opera now, that’s another whole world. I’m curious about how people in that community are responding to your music. How willing are they to take chances and how much are you trying to push the envelope with them?

AM: Your primary objective as an opera composer is to tell the story. The story has to come first and you want to always make sure people can understand it. So in terms of the way the recitatives are written, the way the singers are interacting, the way I orchestrate, all of that is very much in service to making sure that it’s coming across. It’s simplified way, way, way down. I didn’t take risks. But I still enjoyed what I did. I didn’t by any means cheat my voice or anything, but I kept it as simple as possible, so that we could actually do it. There are so many factors when you enter into the opera world. You’ve got singers who not only are having to learn the music, and memorize the music, they’re also acting. And that’s a tremendous amount of processing that the singer has to go through in a very short period of time. It’s remarkable to witness: to see them on book, and the next night they’re off book, then to see them perform it where they just become those characters. I have so much respect for them in their ability to do that, because that’s a very tall order. If you’re a chamber musician you’ve always got a score in front of you. But they’re learning blocking, and they’re having to be in character, and they’ve got to listen to the conductor, and they’ve got to follow what’s going on, and they’ve got to remember everything. So you want to be as giving to them as you possibly can be. If you’re doing big tonality shifts, make sure they’ve got things to listen for. You know, create cues. If I create dissonances, I’m always backing it up with something that they could anchor with. You always have to be aware of that. You can’t just be as completely free as you are with instrumental music. With a chamber piece, you’ve got somebody who’s going to sit down and really study your score. If you’ve got crazy intervallic relationships, they can take the time to learn that. The opera objective is very different.

FJO: Now in terms of writing with texts, I know you’ve done some choral pieces, too. I wonder how much working with a text changes what your process is. In the case of your opera, you’re setting your own texts, so you have different liberties than if you’re setting, say, Rilke or scripture. Those are texts that you can’t really mess around with that much.

AM: Exactly. Yes. That’s a nice liberty of writing your own text: if you don’t like the scansion of something and you want to change a word, you can. But when I worked on the libretto, I was always thinking about how I was going to set it. So I was pairing that very closely together. When I’ve written choral music, it’s often been a very separate process: be a writer and write the text, come back to it as a composer and look at it fresh. The opera was much more simultaneous. And it was very character driven. It was very much focused on who these people were, how they would express themselves, how they thought, how they felt, what their motivations were, what their arc was in the story. So that’s very different than just writing a choral piece. A choral piece is much more one dimensional. You’re just telling whatever that message is for that piece. It is less nuanced than if you’re writing for a particular character.

FJO: So, now that you’ve gotten your feet wet in both the opera and orchestra worlds, are these places you want to return to? Where does it go from here?

AM: Well, opera’s been a goal of mine for a long time. I think it comes naturally to me, because I’ve been a writer and think about story so much. It’s just part of how I’m oriented, so it was a natural. To me there’s no deeper connection between classical music and theater than opera. You asked about why I decided to write for orchestra, that’s really one of the main reasons why I did it because I wanted to write an opera. The way that the orchestra can express itself can really come alive with opera. So, yeah, I want to do more. Absolutely.

FJO: I’ve gotten to know your music through these two fabulous recordings on Innova, but I’ve never heard any of it live. Luckily we’ve got these great technologies that allow us to hear much more music than we ever could if we could only hear it in person in a live performance. But with opera, you really need to be there. So I’m hoping that these pieces get picked up by lots of ensembles so that people will have an opportunity to hear them live. At the same time, I hope it’s all being well documented with audio and video recordings that will be available for people to see and hear.

AM: Thank you. I would love that. Swede Hollow, the opera that I just did, was very well received by the local community, and there was immediately talk that we should do this every year because it’s indigenous to this place. It’s a fascinating history, and I was amazed that people didn’t even know about it. Between 1839 and 1956, immigrant populations came in waves through Swede Hollow. It’s a ravine in the eastern part of St. Paul, and it was an area sheltered from the wind. It was a place where people could live very cheaply, if they didn’t have any means. So starting in the 1850s, immigrants from Sweden who were escaping the famines and pressures that they had under their agricultural system were starting to come to Minnesota. As they settled and could do a little bit better, they would move north and they would start farming; that was the pattern. Waves of immigrants came. In the first 50 years, between 1850 and 1900, it was mostly Swedish. Then around the turn of the century, it was mostly Italians. Railroad barons would go to Italy and get workers to come over. It happened in Sweden a bit, too. So you had all of these communities that settled there for periods of time and then would move on. The last wave of immigrants was from Mexico. They came here to work the farms.

For the past two years, I’ve been very closely aligned with the community around Swede Hollow and have gotten to know some of the people that lived there. I interviewed them, worked with them, and did this little series of concerts and storytelling with them. So writing an opera based on their story was sort of the next thing that I wanted to do in that process. For a good five months, I did a lot of research at the historical center, did in-depth interviews, read books, went online, and was just compiling this wealth of experience from over the 117-year period of this evolving community. People that lived there [many years ago] are still around today. They still know each other. People have portrayed it as a slum, a ghetto, and that people were evicted, and then there was this whole finding that there was contaminated water. There are all of these things that have been perpetuated over the years. But the truth is very different than that. These were very close-knit communities. Everyone looked after everyone’s children. People worked and had different odd jobs. Sometimes they were actually doing quite well. Their homes are actually quite nice. They did have electricity. They did have telephones. They did have water pumps in their homes. There was a lot of misconception about it; I was hoping that in the opera I could tell some of the other side of the story. So I brought all of these things together with fictionalized characters that told different aspects of the story.

FJO: So to bring it full circle, it sounds to me like you’ve now internalized being a Minnesota composer.

AM: Well, I’ve certainly gotten very local in the last two years. I’ve planted myself very much in the east side and am even growing the native plants of Minnesota here on my land. I’m getting to know the community in a very personal way. Getting out of the new music ghetto was something I very much wanted to do, to interact with people that really had no idea what I was doing. I think our whole view of the composer is so limited. It doesn’t need to be that way. I think being involved in the community is a really important thing to do, because of the way we think. We’re problem solvers. You know, we solve puzzles: thinking things backwards and forwards and forming all these different angles. That’s kind of what our job is as a composer. So I think we can be involved in the community in non-traditional ways. That’s something that’s very interesting to me, integrating my work as a composer with the work of the community that I live in.

Millikan In Garden

Millikan in her garden among the native plants of Minnesota

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