Three Free Radicals is actually two people: Minnesota electronics artist Scott L. Miller and Estonian guitarist Mart Soo. Miller and Soo have previously collaborated on two albums; for this third album, they were joined by Estonian harpist Liis Viira. The result is a sound centered within a neat triangulation of sharp-edged electronics, atmospheric guitar, and harmonically centered harp.
As becomes apparent from the beginning, adding Viira to the core duo was an inspired move. Miller and Soo are particularly adept at creating textural music, setting out shifting densities of sound underwritten equally well by the thick abrasiveness of the electronic hum, drone and feedback as by the reverb-soaked shimmering of the guitar. Soo, in particular, is able to create a brooding ambiance suggestive of empty landscapes: call it the soundtrack to unpopulated plains of the imagination. To all of this Viira brings a harmonic focus that manifests itself in chord progressions both cyclical and irregular, or in ostinatos and melodic lines hinting at modal harmony. In addition, the crystalline, staccato sounds of the harp contrast most dramatically with the denser interactions of guitar and electronics. On a piece like M12 Viira supplements Soo and Miller’s underlying polyrhythms with a set of on- and off-beats of her own, while on Sagittarius she sets the music within the angular frame of an altered mixolydian mode.
The electronic and electroacoustic music on Raba represents an updating, in its own way, of ambient music by way of contemporary art music. As composer Scott L. Miller explains, the CD began as a retrospective of his work but evolved into a reworking of some old pieces along with the creation of new work.
The title track, composed in 2015 and revised in 2017, exemplifies the paradox of tension within drift that characterizes Miller’s reimagining of ambient composition. The piece is orchestrated for a small electroacoustic ensemble of winds, strings, piano, percussion, and electronic sound. The latter is responsible for the ambience, providing as it does a textural backdrop recalling at times the electronic hum of a distant engine. Over this foundation, the acoustic instruments intervene with complementary washes of sound. The work is low-key but psychologically taut; it creates an atmosphere permeated by unresolved anticipation. The title of The Frost Performs Its Secret Ministry (2016) hints at an esoteric action hidden in an everyday meteorological event; this trio for flute (Laura Cocks), guitar (Daniel Lippel) and electronic sound keeps that action veiled in mostly abstract, unpitched sounds: the flute comes in on a gust of air notes, for example. Lippel’s agitated strumming keeps the piece from wafting into languor and instead adds an urgent, emotional edge. Lippel is the pivot for Meditation (2016) for guitar and interactive electronic sound. The piece is undergirded by a feedback-like hum on which the guitar’s coloristic fragments float; from this basic division of sonic parts Miller builds a subtle drama out of oppositions of timbre: the sharp attack, short sustain and relatively muted tones of the nylon-string guitar provide a compelling contrast to the electronics’ sustained sounds.