Two clarinets wander into a museum

Sarah Miller’s composition, “Wandering Clarinets,” will premiere at the Weisman on Sunday.

Joe Cristo

The Weisman Art Museum swells with potential inspiration for artists of all stripes.

Inspiration stemming from a certain painting — “Star Cage” by David Smith — birthed a new creative music performance, “Wandering Clarinets.” Sarah Miller, the composer, wrote the clarinet trio while studying the painting at the Weisman. 

“I looked at it, and it looked like counterpoint,” Miller said. “It looked like melodic interplay. That’s what made me want to write pieces about the artwork at the Weisman.” 

Miller, who has worked in Minneapolis for 17 years at the MacPhail Center for Music, teaches composition classes and piano. In addition, she writes original music for various grants, youth orchestras and now the Weisman. 

“The main thing is to give the students an opportunity to work with a living composer,” Miller said. “They are so often playing the classics, but they get the chance to play with someone who is doing it right now.” 

Previously, Miller focused diligently on piano performance, receiving a master’s degree from Michigan State University. After cutting her teeth in a new field — composition — she fell in love with the discipline and received her Ph.D. 

After moving to Minneapolis from Dagmar, Mont., and following a brief stint working in data processing, she began teaching at MacPhail. Since then, composition has been her main creative endeavor.

Balancing a steady job with various art commissions and grants is typical in the field. Some artists apply for grants despite continual rejection. Other times, composers will pay their players out of pocket or not at all. 

“I like to get paid, and I like to pay the players,” Miller said. “If I didn’t get the grant, I would’ve maybe started a Kickstarter.” 

In November of 2015, after two failed attempts, Miller finally scored an individual artist grant through the Minnesota State Arts Board for “Wandering Clarinets.” She had to wait until January of the next year in order to begin working — one of the stipulations of the grant. 

The idea behind the event is simple: short, two-to-three minute pieces are performed in front of artwork that inspired them. Functioning as a tour, the band moves from piece to piece, guiding the guests around the Weisman and creating an interactive art environment. 

“Having a piece that’s three minutes — it seems short,” Miller said. “But it’s longer than people are used to standing in front of a single piece of art and makes them encounter it on a deeper level.” 

Comprised of clarinetists Janet Greene, Pat O’Keefe and Nina Olsen, the trio plays Miller’s original music. The eight pieces are called bagatelles — short, airy compositions. Since there are only three instrumentalists, each player is vital to the piece’s emotional minimalism. 

“Wandering Clarinets” is primarily concerned with what Miller refers to as “melodic interplay” — a transcendent dynamic in which multiple art forms and distinct voices meld together.


Performance of “Wandering Clarinets”at WAM

Where Weisman Art Museum, 333 E. River Pkwy., Minneapolis

When 1 p.m. Sunday

Cost Free

Ages All ages