Listening to Robert Miller's hauntingly beautiful orchestral compositions, the last thing you'd expect when meeting him in person is a denim-clad 42-year-old with a boyish grin. Miller acknowledges the dichotomy of the brooding composer and the affable commercials music guy with an even wider smile. "Yeah, I'm from the Bronx and I love the Yankees," he says. "My dark and complicated side just shows up in my notes."
His moving music, heard in spots for clients like Sony, Intel, Toyota and Mercedes' acclaimed "Modern Ark," has put him at the forefront of the big, cinematic commercials sound via stints at JSM, Amber Music and Sacred Noise. But this summer Miller went out on his own, launching RMI (Robert Miller Inc.) in New York's SoHo, and his lyrical creations are currently being crafted in his "command module" - a tiny light-pink room filled with electronic equipment and a comfy tan loveseat. "I don't like big spaces, I like closed-in spaces - they make my mind expand." he says. He similarly doesn't like fancy or kitschy company names, hence the basic initials approach. "I'd rather have the music speak for itself."
Which is partly why Miller, who was always the resident "guy who does the orchestral stuff," is going it alone. "I think it's just a passion for wanting to control my own destiny. I've always been a little bit of a satellite, because orchestral is a very focused, specialized area. It's in my nature to be the boss - I conduct and orchestrate. It feels like a logical progression."
There's also been a logical, if unfortunate, progression, of course, toward DIY digital music production, often leaving live instruments in limbo. Are the big shops no longer interested in orchestral specialists? "Not at all," he insists. "It's a facet that rounds out a music company very nicely." Miller is, understandably, mainly an orchestral purist, using synths only as a last resort. "There have been a couple of cases where the budget's smaller and I've done some mixing and matching. But if there are no unusual issues, I always use a live orchestra. I'm deeply dedicated to it."
As you might expect, Miller is not some jingle writer who stumbled upon an orchestral style; he's the real deal, classically trained at the Mannes College of Music in New York, and he studied privately with both Aaron Copland and William Schuman. His "serious" works have been performed by some of the top orchestras in the country. While his love for the orchestra is as sweeping and passionate as the scores he creates, he's far from pooh-poohing other styles of music; he's just as excited discussing Bj"rk as he is Brahms. And for a really heavy pop-cult credential, at the tender age of 19 he played Ringo in the Broadway production of Beatlemania. Yeah, he can bang a drum and play a load or instruments, but, as he points out, "when you're a composer you have to focus," and his focus is on the wide side: "I just consider the orchestra to be my instrument."
Is there any part of the snooty composer in his artistic temperament that resents the commercialization of music? "I usually forget I'm writing a commercial, and if you're keeping the bar high you can do great work," Miller insists. Rachel Novak, senior producer at Merkley Newman Harty, who worked with him on "Modern Ark," agrees. "His music is different and not really commercial, which is very important - even though we work on commercials."
OK, but what do his composer contemporaries think? "I was discussing advertising with a classical composer and he wanted to see how and what I was doing," recounts Miller. "He's saying, 'It's 30 seconds it's no big deal,' but then he began to realize what a discipline it is. It's incredibly hard to do it well - it's an entire musical idea encapsulated in 30 seconds."
While Miller is happy composing for half a minute at a time, he gets his full-on composing ya-ya's out writing and conducting for the New York-based Jupiter Symphony, where he's been Composer In Residence since 1996. He's also interested in scoring for feature films (one is on the horizon, but still under wraps at press time). Despite big-screen dreams, he has no plans to leave the commercials biz behind. "I would gladly score advertising throughout my career," he says. "You're constantly writing and recording and listening to new music - it's all fresh, there's something exciting day after day."
Miller usually creates his music in the aforementioned command module on a digital keyboard while watching the spot, on the lookout for moments that indicate changes in mood or tone, or just a cue that calls for something extra. He then leaves technology behind and with a few sharpened pencils he writes the music on a traditional score sheet in full-out analog mode. His biggest charge is playing the finished product for the client with the full band. "You hear the demos over and over again, and you just get anesthetized," he says. "Then you hear the orchestra, and people go, 'Wow!' "
As for the composing end of the new RMI venture, "it's just me right now," he says. "In the future, I can't say it would be impossible to add to the staff, especially a sound designer. My music matches up very well with sound design." Though he loves what he does, Miller admits to one major drawback when he compares ad work to traditional composing: the freedom to look to the world for inspiration. "Beethoven could take a four-hour walk in the afternoon, but if I do that I'll miss my deadline," he laughs.