Layers of Composition: An Interview with Andy Milne
You might consider him a jazz artist, but Milne continues to incorporate new forms into his work, teaching himself when he isn't teaching students.
The composing roots of jazz composer/pianist Andy Milne were sowed and then began to grow when he was seven years old. But as he explains during a phone conversation from his home in Pennsylvania, he hasn't lived in his native country of Canada for almost 18 years.
Our conversation about his composing work as a solo pianist and leader of jazz quintet Dapp Theory continued after he quickly explained that prior to my call he was straightening up his house: "I've been on tour for awhile and it's been a long time since I've had time to relax and clean up a bit."
And sitting at home is not something that Milne has done too often. With a collaborating list boasting Ravi Coltrane, Steve Coleman, and Cassandra Wilson and a "Rising Star Keyboardist" nod from Down Beat Magazine, Milne hasn't really looked back that much since he was seven years old. "I didn't come from a musical family necessarily, but as the second youngest, all my older siblings studied piano. I was the one kid who was really into it at young age. I started to study the jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Arthur Peterson after I heard a lot of Beatles, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell. I was inspired by jazz to be a musician, and I then stepped out on my own quest to figure out what that music meant to me. I had a lot of people around me as a kid who were in to music but I took a lot of initiative myself to learn more and explore the kind of music I wanted to play. As I got older and graduated from university I created my own curriculum of music and began to develop my own concepts. I started learning at the conservatory with Steve Coleman and then I went to New York and then I went back to the conservatory to teach, but that time in New York really impacted what I focused on for a few years."
And during that time, Milne built upon his initial love for jazz, constructing the initial blueprint for Dapp Theory's unpredictably ambitious weaving of funk, soul, rock, and hip-hop elements into the sonic tapestry. From there the jazz-based melodic structure of the band continued to evolve in various forms, adapting to the ebb and flow within Milne's experimental and contemporary context.
His dedication to recording jazz is undeniable and remarkable, but reading in the liner notes of 2007's Dreams and False Alarms -- a collection of instrumental covers of popular songs by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchel, Neil Young, and others -- about how he endured severe back pain in 2005 and continued to play live shows, it's apparent that Milne is even willing to sacrifice his body in order to play the music he hears in his mind. "With an ice pack permanently strapped to my back and my veins pumped full of pain killers, I made the trip to Toronto and performed the gig." In those same liner notes, he writes that the album and his musical journey thus far are led by a "desire to explore the art of song through material familiar to a broad audience".
The idea of musical influence is something that Milne is always developing as he experiments by blending more funk, variations of jazz, and socially conscious spoken word into the music of Dapp Theory. "When I listen to different music I try to listen in a needle-drop way trying to understand what the essence is. I'm always trying to understand how to blend several techniques into my style of composition and then communicate those ideas. I want to understand how to master that technique. That's why I work on several projects so I can further understand what Dapp Theory is."
Keeping a steady --and at times a dizzying -- pace of ongoing projects going allows Milne to constantly push the boundaries. Even before our conversation began he explained he was working all week in the studio mixing an upcoming duel piano project with French pianist Benoit Delbecq titled "Crystal Magnets".
But for now it's all about Dapp Theory. It had been five years since the last album and Layers of Chance poses new challenges and some fresh approaches to touring and recording for Milne as both the band's composer and leader. "The personnel changed a bit, but it was really fun to get to a place where the music was becoming jazz-like when I wanted it to be jazz-like and un-jazz like when I wanted it to be, as well. It's been fun to see that flexibility take shape."
Milne explains that he approaches Dapp Theory with the mind of a producer and a composer, searching simultaneously for the right series of musical moments. "When I know there are elements of the composing that I want, I put them in there; and then I try to figure out how I want them to sound, as a composer I get the chance to retool what we recorded and decide who plays what. In the studio you have a chance to go back and change things and overdub and thicken things up."
But it's when the band hits the road that Milne finds the best chance for the songs to grow and the best opportunities to take chances with the music. "Then when you take the songs on the road you begin to ask yourself as a band, 'Okay how do we play this as a quintet live in front of an audience?' And over the course of a few gigs you start to figure things out. As a band, playing live is a matter of feeling each other out, and getting to know their parts better and then being able to cross-reference each other and expand on that with each passing show.
"Then there's those moments where the music itself takes on a new journey in certain section in a certain songs where something happens and someone takes a chance or three of us take a chance at the same time and you go 'Wow! What was that?!' And it opens up a new part of a song."
When it comes time to put words to the feelings of Dapp Theory's melodies, Milne looks to lyricist/percussive poet John Moon. "Most of the music is composed with him in mind. And in most cases, I'll come into a new place with the music where I can save each person's contribution for the right time. How I write music is much more compositional than it was three years ago in terms of forming a set. It's very calculated. For example, some of the concert, I might not bring John in until the third song. It all depends how I want to releases certain kinds of sounds, materials and emotions. I'm always thinking about what I want to represent first?"
And Milne and Moon have a particular method when it comes to blending the music and the lyrics. "For half the song it's me communicating to John what I want to say. Then sometimes I give him the music and tell him I don't know what this song is about and then we have a conversation about it and then he completes the other half of the song by responding to my music. It usually happens that way but other times the process catches up both by surprise."
Playing live is where Dapp Theory experiments the most, says Milne. There's a particular method to choosing how the music of Dapp Theory is presented live. Milne wants the music of Dapp Theory to adapt and while on tour something as concrete as the venue or as shifting as the minds and hearts of the audience will challenge the compositional flexibility of the band. "I might come in to a venue and decide not to play a certain song because I know that it won't work the way I want it too, but if I'm coming into a city where I've play a lot or have a following I know I don't have to convert as much so I'll take different steps with the set composition."
For the last two years, the recording of Layers of Chance with mostly new players has opened up the possibilities that as a composer Milne says he hasn't had until this point in his career. "With this album I had to grow more and make the material more compositional and then try to meld that with the band's new lineup. The recording of Layers allowed me to orchestrate more and really use my vocabulary where and when I wanted to."
Reflecting on the back pain he experienced in 2005, he says he's more aware of how his body affects the music he composes. And he's logged it as a crucial learning experience. "I'm still working through that, I was extremely busy and it all hit me. It doesn't affect me on every tour but on that tour I came home and it hit me really hard. It really taught me that I need to take better care of my body with all the stress of being in a band. My body is always reminding that in order to maintain this lifestyle I have to be disciplined about my health, and dealing with all the stress that comes from being in a band and running a band, too. And that's the particular thing with Dapp Theory; I don't feel a lot of the stress while were out touring because they're all really supportive, which is quite surprising because this is also a new group in terms of touring and it's been almost two years since Dapp Theory's been on the road, and really, just me and John Moon are the only ones who were touring last time."
When a band tours, usually songs get written from the experiences of living together and then playing together each night. Dapp Theory is no different. And Milne sees it as a positive to understanding each other on a deeper more personal level, which he says always impacts the music a band makes. "Most of them haven't been on a full tour like this. So everybody is getting to know each other, too. As we live together and play together each night, all the things you experience on the road have a huge impact on the music and allowed the music go in different directions and gels more."
With a specific mission to "tell passionate stories, promote peace and inspire collective responsibility towards uplifting the human spiritual condition", you can't separate the music from the message. Dapp Theory exists to say something about the world around it and Milne mind is clear when it comes to communicating the social impact of Dapp Theory. "Having that type of social goal is important to me as a musician and an academic, but also as a person of the world. I want my music to speak to that and then have it motivate people to contemplate that what I saying and how they can contribute to that, too. It's a neverending process of feeling like there's always work to be done and I don't just want to play music. I want to play music that informs because sometimes we can get too self-interested and having goals that are bigger than you are is good for your brain and purposeful, and it allows the music not to be just a selfish form of expression. But it's not like every single composition has that written all over it; but it's a guiding principle, and part of it, and having Jon in the group allows me to speak directly to whatever I want to say lyrically and with him I can get in to it immediately, as just with the music I can't speak to whatever I want to say directly; it might be more metaphoric because it's shaped to music with the music, because with music people can interpret something however they want to. You don't have a lot of control over how someone hears it when they're listening to just the music.
The social message, Milne explains, is not something that he thinks about specifically when composing, nor does he think about how or where the music can send someone emotionally one way or the other on a single note. "I don't think of consciously on a note-by-note basis. I might as I'm becoming more familiar with the composition as it develops, but I do have to stop and look at the piece to see where the dialogue is with the listener, in terms of the piece. I ask myself, 'Okay, where does it begin and where it's going?' That's the only way I know how to be able to transmit anything to someone else, musically. I have to start by having as deep an understanding and relationship as I can."
On previous albums Milne's songwriting process began to take shape and then with Layers this process became more focused song to song. "The album that started that type of 'larger dialogue thinking' was New Age of Aquarius that I did about nine years ago. But with Layers, it was more about singular experience and influences, and inspiration rather than a giant or overriding conceptual motivation. For example 'After the Fact', was about a specific experience but 'Déjà Vu' wasn't initially, but after collaborating with Jon it grew into a more concrete story. A song like 'Monk Walks' was totally inspired by sound, or 'Bird Calls', which was inspired by a sound and a feeling, less so than 'Black Out', which is really specific, and trying to take something about the world and talk about it in a generally sweeping way; 'Body Bag For Martin' and 'SOS'were like that, too."
Of his songwriting Milne says, "I don't have one way, necessarily. It's something that's evolved over the years. If I get inspired I just go with it. If you get inspired by something, you don't want to block it up. You have to jump in and just go with it and that's what I do. I say to myself 'Okay, something's happening here.' The main thing I have to be able see how I'm going to oversee the whole sonic picture and know how to balance things. It's producing in a general sense because you're constantly asking yourself, 'Okay, we have all these different elements -- how are we going to make them all work and have coherence and speak what you want to say?' And that's always my goal when I'm composing.
"For example, I was mixing a future duet album this past week with duel pianos; the big challenge was trying to figure out how the song was going to sound because I didn't have an ideas how it was going to sound start to finish. So I sit with the producer and we ask ourselves, 'Okay, what is a hypothetic order?' and then that gives a better idea of how to mix the songs as we move through them. And we're not stuck with that idea but at least we have a general idea and that helps us to stay on track but it doesn't limit us."
The initial recording of Layers began two years ago and since then Milne took the opportunity to grow and road test them. "A couple were written back in 2006 but not all of them. The album is a mix of new ones we were still figuring out and ones I had a chance to play live and develop more. For me it's easier to work with the new ones on the road and develop them than it is to take the ones that are developed and have to nail them down in the studio during the recording. It's hard to capture a song that maybe we've played live several different ways and then have to capture one version -- or a combination of several -- in the studio and say, 'Okay, this is how we're going to record it."
He applies different approaches to different songs when it comes to working with new members, and during that process he is fully aware of each person's ability and blending that with what he want the songs to sound like. "I look at working in the studio as saying, 'Alright, let's get some momentum going and start with this easy one because we have to get to the hard ones and we have to get through the day.' And then you look at everyone's energy and try to balance out everything. I don't want to start with the hard ones and spend too much time on that and not get to others and have that take a lot of the energy away from everyone. You have to pace yourself and gauge it as you go along."
But recording Layers was a particular challenge for Milne because recording funds were sparse. "We didn't have any money. We only had a shoestring budget, and I had to consider how that impacts the recording environment and make the best of it. It was a huge challenge and a hard fact. And that was what I had to work with technically. And you have to never forget that people are human and everyone can be forgiving and eventually people do hit a wall, in terms of what people can handle, so you have to figure out how to get the music out of them when that happens."
And recording Layers had its share of hit-the-wall moments. "There were a few songs where that did happen; where we did burn out, and that happens because you want to feel that you have the song just the way you want it. But like in any recording situation, especially with Layers, I listen back and think, 'Well, it's not the way I wanted it, but that's the best we could do in than moment.' And really, it's all about getting the best out of people in whatever medium and environment you're working in."
As a university instructor (when he's not touring) and a composer/bandleader, Milne sees each role as influencing the other. "Being in a band and leading a band is similar but with teaching, the motivation is much more long term. You're not so much concerned with getting the music learned and recording in a short period of time, you have a whole semester to work with, and that changes my approach. Teaching is a different animal; with teaching you're really in charge, and in a band situation you're also in charge, but you're also working as equals."
While he doesn't do it directly in most cases, Milne says he encourages his students to try to find a process that allows them to be able to find several answers to one difficult problem because one answer might not work for every situation where that problem can raise a whole set of different questions.
And the teaching is reciprocal. "I get to study myself. And how I study and communicate things. And I learn how effective I am in communicating my thoughts and motivating others, and when then those moments happen, it's a good feeling. Teaching also has a way of coming back an inspiring me after having a positive experience, so teaching tends to work in both directions."
Milne says all stress of having the numerous project plates spinning pays off in the rush of coming to fruition and the finishing of a project or piece; and it is in that moment where he strives to create jazz music that constantly pushes his boundaries as a composer. "I have several projects that aren't official projects, they're just me sort of schooling myself, and working my craft and often they're a stepping stone leading me to another place as a musician. I love the high and looking at the house and having it standing there and not falling down."
And Milne knows the odds that he and Dapp Theroy face as musicians in the 21st century, where music is plentiful and time to learn about it and listen to it is limited. "There's a challenge today because there's so much content. How do you get a chance to expose people to what you've created because you know that people will enjoy it but how to you catch them? They only have 24 hours in a day and there's only so much music they can download, web pages and articles they can read in a day, and it's tough when you've worked two years on something, putting it together and you hope that is gets to reach many people, not just those that have heard it before but new people who are looking for something like you've created. So there's that disconnect that you have to work with; when you've worked something and then trying to connect it with the audience so they can experience it."