Marcus G. Miller, Grace Farms’ first Music Director, began studying saxophone at the age of nine with the help of world renown saxophonist Bruce Williams. By 13 years old he was performing, and he would go on to graduate from Harvard University with a degree in Mathematics. Marcus has performed at the Obama White House, Madison Square Garden, The World Economic Forum at Davos, The Montreux Jazz Festival, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert alongside Jon Batiste, and Carnegie Hall. As Music Director and long-time collaborator at Grace Farms, Marcus is bringing diverse voices to the community such as pianist Serene and on February 25, also part of Grace Farms’ Voices of Culture series, saxophonist Irwin Hall will perform with his jazz trio the Irwin Hall Organ Trio. Marcus also continues to engage the public with discussion on the beauty and logic of mathematics at Grace Farms. How can mathematics be beautiful? Does music have an underlying logic? What does one reveal about the other? Below Marcus offer his perspective on music, mathematics, and how he curates our Voices of Culture series.
Prior to opening in October 2015, Godwin Louis, left, and Marcus perform on the construction site. Godwin began playing saxophone at age nine and is a graduate from the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz Performance.
Q: You began studying the saxophone at the age nine, learning from renown saxophonists such as Bruce Williams, and you also graduated from Harvard University with a degree in mathematics. Why did you pursue these two disciplines?
I pursued saxophone because my father played it in college and in fourth grade, when my public school began music education, he went up to the attic and got his old sax repaired in lieu of us buying or renting another instrument. He taught me how to play tequila for the first day of school which impressed the band director who in turn, offered me private lessons after school. I grew up in a household full of music due to my father’s enormous record collection and his enthusiasm for music combined with the lessons I was receiving and made me want to practice and learn. My growing skills led me to teachers, like Bruce Williams, and youth music programs that afforded me enough skill to start playing gigs at 13 years old. However, I was also academically gifted and when it came time to choose colleges, my music mentors encouraged me NOT to go to music school. Their thinking was that I could play pretty well already and could pick up whatever I was missing by being on the scene. In addition, for most people, jazz doesn’t pay enough to justify the debt I would take on at conservatory.
So, with enthusiastic encouragement from my family, I decided to go to Harvard. At first, I was pretty aimless to be honest as I didn’t really have an academic focus and didn’t adjust well socially. However, in the summer after my first year, I decided to take my education seriously and as a start, went through the course catalogue and made a list of all the courses I would ever want to take. This included fields as far flung as Norse mythology, geology, and literature. But the best represented departments on my list were math and physics. This was odd because while I had loved and excelled at math through 5th grade, a disagreement with my 6th grade teacher had me stop thinking of myself as a “math person” and I rarely did more than was asked of me in school. Still words like “Noetherian ring” and “Riemannian manifold” looked cool to me and I figured that If I didn’t learn about this stuff now, I wouldn’t ever again have the chance. So, after a year of meandering, I joined the math department, where I struggled mightily and graduated in 4 years. These two disciplines are still important in my life. My career has leaned far more toward music, but I love mathematical ideas, proofs, and problem solving. Both languages, music and mathematics, give me a sense of joy and challenge and humility and wonder that keep me balanced and happy.
Q: When you curate musical performances, what’s your intention or thought process?
When I am curating a musical performance, I am of two minds. The first is that I believe beautiful music, lovingly crafted and executed has a transformative potential for people. As a professional musician, I have trained myself to be sensitive to this kind of beauty and I want to share with audiences the transformation that certain compositions, or performers, or traditions have evoked in me. But I recognize that most of the audience are not professional musicians and so to really share the love of music, I also have to take some ownership in guiding them in what is there to appreciate and enjoy. There is a lot going on that is easy to miss out on if you haven’t spent time in the musical weeds and that’s some of the goodness that I want audiences to leave with. So, the first step is choosing artists or styles that really move me and then shaping the performance so that the audience can enjoy things they may not have noticed if they weren’t pointed out. In this manner they can continue to appreciate the music in their own lives long after the concert is done.
The second “mind” is practical and focuses around budget, timeline, institutional demands, and the constellation of artists that we are hosting. Is there enough variety? Is the music enjoyable for children? Is the artist a good fit with our budget? Does the artist hold a discernable tradition with some authority?
Harmonizing the desire to share beauty and the need for structure and institutional viability is basically the puzzle of curation for me at the moment.
Q: To start the year of curating musical performances at Grace Farms, you selected the classical pianist, Serene. What intrigues you about Serene and her music?
Serene and I first connected through a mutual friend at a jazz club years ago. As we were describing the music we were hearing, I noticed that we had some of the same specialized sensory language. Then, in conversation, I found out that she was a classical pianist who played repertoire that I really enjoy. AND THEN, I found out that we shared the math/music brain as she was a computer programmer. Since then, I’d always wanted to find an opportunity to work with her. In looking at her repertoire I noticed that she performs Alban Berg’s sonata which is a piece that I think is unusual but extraordinarily beautiful and important to the tradition. Basically, a perfect candidate piece to bring an audience to an unfamiliar and wonderful space. Given that she really loves that piece, I found to be a perfect candidate.
I think Serene is a brilliant and special person. She has moved the needle in the decentralized internet world and has done something nigh impossible in music. As such she has my admiration. The only thing better than hearing her play is hearing her practice as you can get a sense of how she solves problems. Observing a mind like hers at work is a rare a precious opportunity!
Q: You were quoted in Scientific American as saying: “Math can be experienced as play in much the same way music is.” For those who struggle to see math as play, can you help us understand why math can be playful and how math and music are related?
This is hard to say in words but it might make for some interesting video content. Say you had a bunch of marbles scattered on a carpet and you were asked to count them. Let’s say there are a lot of them and they are arranged such that it’s easy to lose count. But it’s really important that you get the right answer. Then apply this principle: “If there is a hard problem you can’t solve then there is also a related easy problem you can’t solve either. Try the easy one first.” And now you have a game…Try to make this problem easier! Do you organize the marbles into even groups separated on the carpet and then count the groups, making the counting task simpler? Do you pick them up as you go and place them in a jar, so that you keep track? Do you weigh one marble and then put them all on a scale, dividing by the weight of the one to get the number of the total, turning the process of counting a bunch of nonsense into a single division problem? There are many routes to solving the problem and finding the one that resonates best with you is the game. It is quite similar to many other creative processes when framed that way. I think most of us struggle to play with math because we are trained to memorizing facts and formulas without similar training in the use these tools to investigate our own habits of thought or the world around us.
Q: You’ve remarked that as “we consume more music as a society, the ability to really hear and understand music can give us many advantages.” Can you discuss this?
Sure. Perhaps I’m speaking from my own sensitivity but I believe that music has an effect on our internal emotional state, our language, our aesthetic choices, and our sense of self. One could sum this up as saying it has an effect on the human soul. Like food, it is wise to be discerning about what we feed the soul and to develop a system of what constitutes soulful nutrition. Hearing and understanding music, having a relationship to the history of a genre, its sonic ingredients, the messages and subtext of lyric, understanding the technical work needed to put sounds onto record, and the imagination and creative processes which call sounds forth, give us insight into what we consume. Because music is a broader part of culture, this same insight can give a sense of what is inside the “cultural soul” and where we stand with regard to it. This understanding can give us a sense of place in the world, which is precious as our media becomes less information rich, more advertising and persuasion dense, and our technology pulls us into more digital individualized experiences and away from collective interaction.
Q: What are some of the highlights you have planned at Grace Farm for the remainder of the year?
We have Irwin Hall on the 2/25 who will take us for a ride on the Organ Time Machine. We have a short performance by the Hummingbirds, Design For Freedom’s architect band on the day of the summit. We have the first installment of Beauty and Logic on 4/29 (which I am formulating now!). We have Jazzmeia horn on 5/20, who will blow us all away with her talent. Then we will have a few more installments of B&L, a summer music moment, a special performance for Latin Heritage month, and then a whole new spate of performers for Songs of the Season and the end of the year. I am really excited to start work on 2024. The music program has grown so quickly that I’m sure we can achieve something really remarkable for the org and the community over the next several years!
About Grace Farms
Grace Farms is a center for culture and collaboration in New Canaan, Connecticut. We bring together people across sectors to explore nature, arts, justice, community, and faith at the SANAA-designed River building on 80 acres of publicly accessible, preserved natural landscape. Our humanitarian work to end modern slavery and foster more grace and peace in our local and global community includes leading the Design for Freedom movement to eliminate forced labor in building materials supply chain.
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