This Electric Guitar Album Puts You Inside 6 LA-Area Landmarks That Are Long Gone
Alexander Elliott Miller wanted to take pieces of the Los Angeles area's history and turn them into sound. The result is his electric guitar album, To....Oblivion: Historic Landmarks Around Los Angeles.
LAST CAR TO OBLIVION
Inspired by real pieces of local history, each of the instrumental songs creates a soundscape, rooting you in a place through the use of ambient sound effects layered into the guitar work.
"We want to have an auditory experience where we imagine what that place might have sounded like, or at least the spirit of what it might have sounded like," Miller said.
The suite of songs is named for a banner from the last of the Red Car subway cars to carry passengers, moving through the Belmont Tunnel. The tunnel has its own song on the album, with some of the most pronounced effects — the feel of being inside a train tunnel comes through alongside the guitar.
Miller's been part of L.A.'s experimental music scene for more than a decade as both a composer and a guitarist. He also teaches the next generation of musicians — he's on the faculty at both Cal State Long Beach and Chapman University. He created the music for this album during his summer breaks for the last several years, piece by piece.
PICKING THE PIECES OF HISTORY
The locations chosen for the album are the Belmont Tunnel, the Dunbar Hotel, Anaheim's Center Street, Long Beach's Walk of a Thousand Lights, the Zanja Madre (the original aqueduct), and the Tower Records on the Sunset Strip. They're all locations that have experienced a significant change, or an ending.
"Some of them have changed for good reasons, some of them have changed for bad reasons," Miller said.
Anaheim's old downtown was demolished, for instance, while Long Beach's old Pike amusement park was shut down and replaced with outlet stores, and the Dunbar Hotel changed from a jazz hotspot to a retirement home.
The songs also represent larger societal issues — ranging from white flight and where our water comes from to public transportation's impact on how the city developed. You can hear that concern on the Belmont Tunnel track.
"It's not necessarily a protest that we don't have better public transportation, but it's definitely a way of saying, 'what if?'" Miller said. "What if the city had evolved differently? What if we had had these trains that we used to have all through the '50s and the '60s, instead of all the freeways? How would the city be different?"
There are other locations that were considered but didn't make the cut, including the Ambassador Hotel, the first Hollywood film studio, the Pan-Pacific Auditorium that burned down, and the Santa Monica Mountains' Murphy Ranch — an abandoned Nazi encampment. Those that did make it all evoked a specific auditory landscape for Miller.
EXPERIENCING FOR HIMSELF
Miller visited each site first, even before making his final decision about whether it would be included. He took photos and walked around, trying to get a feel for the location.
"I think I needed to hear the sounds before fully committing to each of these locations, to make sure that they would really resonate and speak to me," Miller said.
He said it was a different experience for him, shifting away from the solitary experience of composing.
"You're often just working in isolation in a room, and just imagining sounds, and hoping that they'll reach someone outside of that room one day," Miller said.
On this project, Miller carried a portable microphone as he set out into the world, experiencing the city and recording sounds from all over.
"That was an adventure," Miller said. "Probably the most exciting thing was the bulldozers for the Anaheim movement. I had to get bulldozers, destroying."
He wanted all the sounds to be raw, so he recorded everything himself, avoiding the use of sound libraries. He found out there was a mall with an old Macy's being destroyed to make room for smaller stores — and that they were working on getting rid of it overnight.
"I showed up that night in the parking lot at 11 — I was the only car there," Miller said. "I even ducked at one point as a mall cop drove past me and wondered what I was doing with my life. And finally, about 1 in the morning, the crew showed up and they started tearing this Macy's apart."
He took out his microphone, hid behind a tree, and held it up over a fence. That night was when Miller realized the piece would work.
"Once I heard them, it felt like they were kind of composing half of the piece for me," Miller said. "I just heard all of these beautiful sounds that I loved. I mean, it was what I wanted for that part, which was that violence, that destruction — that kind of heart-wrenching feeling of seeing a town that someone may have grown up in ripped apart."
MUSICAL STYLE HOT POTATO
Miller utilizes a wide variety of styles to communicate the places and the issues, including rock, jazz, experimental, and contemporary classical.
Miller had been experimenting with some of the guitar effects that ended up on the album before he got the idea for it.
"I didn't quite know what I wanted to do with [the sounds], kind of like a painter who is mixing colors but doesn't quite know what sort of picture he wants to paint yet," Miller said.
He was heading to a concert in Long Beach but got there early, so he walked around and ended up at the lighthouse. That's where he saw historic photos of the Pike amusement park that used to be there. He realized that almost nothing in those photos remained in the area he'd just walked through.
Miller isn't the only musician you hear on the album. In the songs inspired by locations that had a musical component, he brought in additional artists. For the song about Tower Records, for instance, he brought in a drummer and a singer-songwriter, and on the track about the Dunbar Hotel, which was at the heart of L.A.'s jazz district, he brought in jazz musicians.
"I had some jazz musicians playing on the soundtrack for that just to evoke the feeling of being on a street with numerous jazz clubs, all around," Miller said. "You just hear me playing over this background of other jazz musicians that I'm not entirely playing in synchronization with, but it's instead creating an atmosphere."
It's one of the inspirations that's also the most problematic, with the Dunbar's success being a product of segregation laws. It was one of the only nice hotels that black musicians could stay at in that time.
"You don't want to feel like you're nostalgizing that part of L.A.'s history, but you don't want to sweep it under the rug either," Miller said.
For the song about the Zanja Madre, the oldest landmark on the album, Miller uses classical guitar.
"Somehow just playing this very gentle, almost more classical guitarist kind of style felt appropriate," Miller said.
Though he plays with an electric guitar, he drops in classical-style finger picking and musical layering, while giving it all a folk atmosphere.
PUTTING THE MUSIC OUT THERE
As a composer and a teacher, Miller is also allowing his music to spread — he's made the full sheet music available for free online, along with instructions for the more technical parts of the suite.
Miller will be playing it throughout the day as part of the L.A. Conservancy's Fashion District walking tours on Saturday, Oct. 20, the album's release day. He'll be playing the songs accompanied by photos of the places that inspired the songs, with images of both the past and present.
The electric guitar and sound effects act almost like a live film score with the images, Miller said.
As for what he hopes to communicate, he said he'd like people to get a new way to look at their city.
"Maybe that inspires people to wonder what's the story of their own neighborhood," Miller said, "what are they missing, what's the story of the ground beneath their feet."
In addition to Saturday's performances, Miller's also set to play at San Francisco's Center for New Music two weeks later.
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