Caleb Miller emerges from isolation with 67-track opus 'Portage'

The local composer recorded every day from March to May of 2020, creating a routine that helped him get through a long, lonely pandemic

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Caleb Miller

In the first couple of months of 2020, Caleb Miller was gearing up for the debut performance of “I was wrong about most things to do with other people,” which the multi-instrumentalist and composer wrote while meditating on the idea of intentionally spending more time with other people in physical spaces — connecting with other human beings in the flesh, unmediated by screens, “just for the sake of it,” he told Alive.

Miller’s octet planned to perform the piece at the Vanderelli Room on Saturday, March 14, which happened to be the same weekend Ohio’s health orders shut down all nonessential businesses across the state. Needless to say, the show was canceled, and for the next year-plus, the act of spending quality time with other people in the same physical space was a risky, ill-advised endeavor. The idea that fueled the creation of “I was wrong” felt like a quaint, distant memory. 

At first, Miller was in shock. But soon a “desperate, visceral energy” filled him, he said, and he turned again to the act of creation, recording at home from mid-March to May of 2020. “I decided I was going to try to make something every day until I got tired of it, and then try to make something out of that,” Miller said. 

The absence of the octet performance ignited a desire to make something new: Portage, a 67-track collection documenting Miller’s time during those first several weeks of COVID shutdowns. “The record was possible because [the show] wasn't possible,” Miller said. “It became like food, making that record. It was an aspect of my routine that really, really helped me during the pandemic.” 

Normally, Miller’s music is driven by live performance. Sometimes, as in the duo Conrad/Miller (which also released an album during the pandemic), the music is improvised in the moment. For Portage, however, Miller was his only collaborator, so he provided himself with ideas and constraints for each day’s session. “It was very prompt driven,” Miller said. “What if I took these six instruments and just tried to play the same melody on them?” 

On the songs with lyrics, Miller often manipulated his voice, creating the illusion that Portage is populated with a cast of characters. “My voice is the thing I use the least,” Miller said. “It’s part curiosity — How can I manipulate it in audio? — but also, a naked voice by itself is the most vulnerable thing I can think of.” 

As he wrote and recorded, then whittled the 110 tracks down to 67, Miller noticed a few recurring themes: sleep, portaging and the Great Black Swamp, an area of northwest Ohio that was drained in the 1800s. Miller, a native of the Toledo/Maumee Bay area, grew up navigating and portaging waterways with his family. For the CD and cassette artwork, he scanned and assembled multicolored cutouts of the Great Black Swamp. Miller also commissioned a short story from friend and author Trek Micacchione centered around the album’s themes. 

And sleep? The record wouldn’t have been possible without that, either. “The pandemic put my sleep right in front of my face,” Miller said. “There's been a slow, evolving thing over the past few years for me, realizing how much sleep has changed my brain. I used to identify certain personality traits that I had, but it was actually just, ‘Oh, I'm not really sleeping.’” 

While the daily process of making Portage provided a routine and a necessary creative outlet for Miller, he also had a nagging sensation throughout: "I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be doing this. ... I'm on the moon, so to speak, and I can't leave,” Miller said. “I felt like an astronaut.” 

Looking back, Miller is proud of what he made. It’s a stylistically diverse act of perseverance and an honest document of a difficult time. But Miller is also back where he started. “I want to be with other people again," he said.