Thoughts

Dave Milligan

LATEST NEWS

Ever Since It All Clicked

Ever since it all clicked, creating original music has been as important to me as anything else I do, as elemental as breathing. I do it nearly all the time, even when I’m not composing or playing. 

At the age of six, I was sent for piano lessons. I remember being very excited; it seemed like a fun thing to do – my great aunt had showed me how to play a simple tune on our piano, and I loved that. So I guess the idea of doing more – and being able to play ‘properly’ – was very appealing.

As a professional musician and educator, perhaps I’m not expected to say this: but I hated it. After one or two lessons, the magic, fun, joy all disappeared. I pleaded with my mum & dad to let me stop. Everyone seemed to think I showed promise and had a talent for the piano, but I didn’t get it. For almost ten years I was made to go, every Wednesday, despite my efforts to convince my parents that I’d be much happier playing football with friends than stumbling through Bach and Czerny pieces. This is not an uncommon story. Of course, I liked music – as most youngsters did, I listened to the pop charts and bought albums of my favourite groups and dreamt of being in rock bands. But as a teenager I heard Jazz – and something changed. My desire to avoid my Wednesday lessons didn’t change, but it was around this time that my parents finally gave up the fight to get me to go. I realise now that the problem all along was lack of connection – with my teacher, with the music, with the piano. But after almost a decade I could, actually, play. And besides – it had just all clicked.

My dad had a modest but varied record collection. One of the records I remember in particular was “Satch and Josh”, a 1974 recording by Oscar Peterson & Count Basie. This was a record that made we want to play the piano; I started teaching myself some of the melodies I heard, learning to play bits of solos. Other pianists that I remember featuring in the collection included Meade Lux Lewis, Alan Branscombe, Dick Hyman and Art Tatum.

Luckily for me my older brother was slightly ahead of me on his voyage of jazz discovery and even as a teenager was a prolific collector of music (He still is). He always seemed very hungry for new things and I got to hear a lot of things that blew my mind because of him. Weather Report, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Frank Zappa

When I left school I went to study at Leeds College of Music.

Composing music always feels like a deeply rich and rewarding process. I have listened to and loved so very many different pieces of music, from so many different genres (even Bach!), that the language I draw inspiration from is so diverse that it can only be hugely exciting. And it is a language. I think that a composer’s vocabulary is the thing that can define his or her work. When I write, I sometimes think of it as answering; the idea of articulating a response to a conversation makes more sense if you think of music as a language. And it can be a conversation that’s been going on for years. Or maybe it just started that day. I’ve been a musician for over two decades and, oddly, I feel like I’m only just starting to speak.

Music and culture have never been as diverse as they are today. It’s incredibly interesting to witness. Yet in parts of our culture (including music) we’re starting to lose a sense of connection, tenderness and belonging.

One of the more curious aspects of my own writing process that I’ve noticed recently: I’m quite often inspired by rather dark, dissonant and oblique music. Yet in those moments, when I’m moved to write something – respond to it – I very often create something that’s quite the opposite, something almost vulnerable.  Of course, that’s just my take on it, but I guess I’m beginning to get a sense of what moves me to compose music; the desire to communicate or connect – to be in the conversation.

* * * * * * * *

As an improvising musician and composer, my aim has always been to create music that makes me, and others, feel good. At this point in my life, I would say that my aim has become somewhat transfigured: I aim to create music that makes me feel something. While I’m fairly certain I’ll never write anything with the intention of making anyone feel bad, I am now very clear about embracing an approach to creativity that doesn’t involve fear – fear, that is, of producing something that ‘people won’t like’; that’s ‘too dark’, ‘too sad’, ‘too inaccessible’ – or even ‘too happy’. Emotional response to music is personal and unique to each of us. I think I’ve developed as a composer to a degree where I take my own response as the one that matters most.

Spring Can Really Fire You Up The Most

Here we are, Spring.

I spent last week at Ardkinglas House by Loch Fyne. I was  hanging there with some pals from the Pathhead Music Collective, writing, sharing & practicing music. Turned out to be a very creative and inspiring week. Not difficult for me when the view from the piano stool was this:

And, lucky ol’ me, heading off to another residential weekend in Galloway to do some mentoring for the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of The Year finalists.

So, one of the things I’m working on at the moment is a new solo piano album. Can’t say when it will appear, as I just don’t know. But I’ll do my best to make it sooner rather than later. But have to say I’m excited about it – it’s been a long time since I really connected with playing solo piano, but I feel like I have recently. And the decision to make a solo record  happened almost unconsciously.

Been playing the piano in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall quite a lot this last year.

I. Love. That. Piano.

If anyone knows of another piano to rival their Steinway, do let me know.

Also working a lot with choirs at the moment. (I didn’t see that coming).

Currently in the studio with the Big Big Sing project, recording choir resources with fantastic Stephen Deazley, Fraser Fifield, Graeme Stephen, to name a few. All very good for the soul, as are the Big Big Sing live days we’ve been doing around the country. (Next up: South Bank Centre in London on April 20th). The events are led by Stephen along with the incredible Eugene Skeef, who seems to be followed wherever he goes by awesomeness.

Very much looking forward to revisiting some projects and bands later this year: Playing with the Corrina Hewat Band (watch out for some TV we did for BBC Alba recently), returning to the great Førde Festival in Norway with String Sisters in July as well as renewing some projects with my friend Enzo Favata from Sardinia.

But let’s get April done first, shall we? Wonderful.

The Problem Sweet

ADULT’S AGENDA vs. FOUR-YEAR-OLD’S AGENDA

Yesterday I found myself with an unexpected childcare dilemma. Actually it wasn’t a dilemma at all – my four-year-old daughter got chicken pox last week, and naturally she couldn’t go to nursery as she usually does on a Monday. I reckon she’s past the infectious stage, but rules are rules and we have to wait. Normally this sort of thing is fine – stuff happens and we deal with it. But on this particular Monday I had way more work to do than I should ever have taken on, and with my wife working in the US for two and a half weeks, my options were… well, limited.

I’m faced with some large-scale music to write and arrange; brochures, postcards, posters & CD artwork to design and multiple rapidly-approaching deadlines… and instead of the free day I thought I had to heroically nail each and every one of them, I suddenly have a spotty, but otherwise very happy, active, energetic and eager child to entertain.

So. I made a brave, but ultimately foolish decision to attempt to do both. That is, work and care for my daughter at the same time. The first hour or so was bearable for both of us – I probably got about sixteen bars written and she got dressed up, made tea and cakes for all her toys, followed by some half-hearted colouring. But as lunch time approached, it became clear that neither of us would make it to the end of the day on that particular course, so there was only one thing for it. “We’re going out!” I said with great resolve.

After a bit of wandering and a few dawdles in to various shops, I had a great idea. The Zoo! We hadn’t been for over a year, and what better way to spend the afternoon? I would just have to abandon any notions of prolific creativity (there’s always night time, right?), and Ella would have a hugely exciting adventure – “Think of all the amazing animals we’ll see!” I said to her in the car. She seemed pretty excited.

When we arrived I paid the small fortune it costs to park and enter the zoo, thinking – “It’s worth every penny”, “she’s going to love this” etc. etc.

We wandered in, and the first enclosure we came to was empty. Ella peered through the glass and said, “What is it?”

I read out the sign that informed us they were preparing for a new exhibit: ‘coming soon’ it said. “But look over here – Flamingos!”

“I don’t want to see Flamingos,” she said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t like their beaks.”

“Oh. Well look at these guys over here – they look pretty cute, don’t they?”

“What are they?”

“Um…” I read the sign: “Oh, they’re Chinese Goyals. They look a bit like…”

“CLIMBING FRAME!!” screamed Ella, as she started running toward the play area.

Temporarily resigned, I sat and watched her for a few minutes on the climbing frame, trying to compose some music in my head. The part of my brain that processes musical ideas and remembers them was continually being interrupted by the part of my brain that processes the fact that I’d just paid over £30 for Ella to clamber up a climbing frame and hurl herself down a slide, over and over again – an activity that can be done for free within a 5 minute walk from our house.

“Come on Ella. Let’s go see the penguins!” I said, virtually rubbing out the score in my head.

“But I want to play here”

I hunkered down to her sightline, and tried to convey the very adult-orientated notion of going somewhere that costs money and making the most of it – and not spending the time doing things we can do almost anywhere, any time. I could hear myself talking and wasn’t even buying it – it’s no wonder she wasn’t.

But we made our way toward the penguins. We got about 100 yards, and Ella sat down on the knotted roots of a large tree by the side of the path. She was in full role-play mode now. “Pretend this is my house, and you’re a monster coming to visit me for tea.”

It’s one of the things I love most about her – her ability to completely inhabit any make-believe world she conjures up. But I’d hit a wall of tiredness. And frustration. I wanted us to be looking at penguins, because that’s what I’d paid for. I wanted to be spotting weird and wonderful creatures we’d never seen before and saying “what is that?? Wow!!” And I really wanted to be getting my work done.

I sat down on the grass next to her. “I think we should just go home Ella.”

“But I don’t want to go.” she said, busying herself with her new house. I realised that I probably hadn’t made a very good job of hiding how distracted I was all day.

I lay down on my back and looked up into the tree. I’m pretty sure I sighed.

Then she did something amazing. Now, when Ella is in role-play mode she very often ‘chats’ in a sort of adult-mimicking way. She acts out the motions of having quite an expressive and animated conversation, and it rarely makes any sense. This is exactly what she was doing here, but what happened next made more sense to me than anything else that had happened all day. The conversation went like this:

Ella: “Dad?”

Me: “Yes?”

Ella: “I want to talk to you.”

I sat up.

Me: “OK…”

Ella: “There’s problems. You have problems. Everybody has problems.” She was waving her arms about.

At this point I wonder if she even knows what the word ‘problem’ means. I said nothing. Ella reached up toward a branch of the tree and pretended to pull something off it.

Me: “What is that?”

Ella: “It’s a problem sweet.”

She put it in my mouth. I pretended to chew it and made the obligatory ‘Mmmm’ sound.

She looked me very intently in the eye, arched her eyebrows and said: “Do you have a problem?”

I stopped chewing and shook my head.

She pursed her lips, gave her head a firm nod and said: “Good.”

I smiled. The pointed, knowing look in her face turned back into the wee cheeky one from a few moments before. “Can I have an ice cream?”

The rest of our day was beautiful.

Once she was fast asleep in bed, the very fact that I sat to write this down instead of furiously scribbling new music tells me that, once again, my four-year-old daughter has taught me a valuable lesson about what’s important in life.

I think it might be ice cream.

Friday 13th, a Small Elephant and a New Trio

This was a blog post I did for MySpace, which I thought I’d put up here too in the absence of any other blog contributions in the last 13 weeks. Even though it has nothing to with the Trio. At least not this trio.

Friday the 13th has come and gone. Just another day for most folk, but some really do think it’s unlucky. I met someone this morning who told me that she’d made her son stay at home today, because on the last Friday 13th he crashed the brand new family car. I found myself imagining her getting home from work to find her son frantically trying to repair the completely demolished greenhouse, which he crashed into with the lawn mower.

I guess i don’t believe in luck.

This was also the day my wife Corrina was ‘due’ to give birth to our first baby. There’s not much sign of any action though, so it looks like the bump is refusing to join the select group of babies who arrive on their ‘due’ date. Apparently only between 3 and 5% of all births happen on their ‘due’ date. (I keep putting the word ‘due’ in inverted commas. Sorry if you find that ‘annoying’.) Man, I have learned so many statistics recently. Did you know that 74% of all statistics are made up? 23% are based on unqualified research, and the last 5% are put together by people who can’t count. All true.

Most of the parents I know talk about how incredible it is having a baby. I can’t really comment as we haven’t had ours yet – but the whole build up to it has been kind of amazing. Our families have been busy making stuff. Sewing, stitching, knitting… (There’s even been curtains made!) It’s great to see how everyone has been kind of ‘rejuvenated’ by the prospect of a new addition to the family – a sense of optimism is definitely in the air. Maybe it’s all a wee bit more amplified because we both have fairly small families with hardly any young’uns. Who knows. And our pals have been fantastic too – we are completely kitted out for the new arrival having not spent a penny, thanks to donations of little-used (and in some cases, never-used) newborn baby stuff. I still don’t know what half of it’s for.

Actually, the not-spending-a-penny thing isn’t entirely true… A lot of the advice we got from friends when we told them about having the baby was along the lines of “Don’t buy anything! We’ve got buggies/cots/seats/clothes etc we don’t use anymore…” Great stuff, we thought. A lot of the stuff you only use for a few months anyway… But a couple of months ago I was talking to one pal, who is already a father with another on the way, and I was given this single bit of advice: “Buy something!

Huh? But everybody else said…

“No, buy something – even if it’s just a wee thing. It makes it real.”

That struck a chord with me ‘cos it certainly wasn’t feeling very real at that point. So the other day, we finally got round to it – “Let’s go buy something for the baby” we said.

Now it sometimes feels kind of like we’re one of the last couples I know of to have a kid, but just in case anyone out there is yet to go through this fantastic journey, one small, humble piece of advice I would give is to be wary of the big-brand shops.

We made the mistake of going to one of them. Not mentioning any names, but let’s just say it’s not called Fathercare. We really did intend to just buy something wee, but all of a sudden we got totally taken in by the “Look, what’s that thing? – oh, we’ll be needing one of those!” scenario. The whole layout of these stores is unreal – you’re immediately confronted by this bewildering array of stuff and you’re given the impression you just won’t be able to survive having a baby without them. After what seemed like an entire weekend wandering round the store, we got to the checkout. I couldn’t believe it – the till showed a total of nearly £100. The assistant asked if we wanted a store/rewards card. When we eventually regained the ability to speak, we asked why. Noticing that the bundle of items we’d picked up were all for a new-born, she said: “Well, let’s face it – you’ll be coming in here for probably the next seven years, so you’ll save money in the long-run.” Are you KIDDING?? You think we’re coming back? We just bought £100 worth of stuff that I’ve never heard of before! (Apart from the small elephant – I’d heard of those.) Now, I’m aware by this point that we’re the mugs for actually falling for the “This stuff is absolutely CRUCIAL to your successfully looking after a baby” routine, but the staff actually seem to believe it too! We started to get the picture of what everyone was talking about with the “Don’t buy anything” advice. Where would it end? “Baby’s 2 years old now, time we bought a self-moisturising, temperature-controlled, safety-bath-hat & activity centre.” (Available in a choice of colours, of course…)

Another friend (and parent) asked me recently, knowing that the due date was very near, if we were ready. I said I didn’t really know.

She said: ” Do you have nappies?”

Yes.

“Do you have somewhere for the baby to sleep?”

Yes.

“Then you’re ready.”

I guess that sums it up. (I may have simplified that conversation for effect, but you get the point…)

But if you have loads of money to spend, then absolutely, go and spend it on your baby. Why not? I’m sure I would if I could. You’ll probably never feel there’s a more worthy reason for spending such a huge pile of cash. If you don’t have loads of money, does it matter? – Do you really have to spend £20 on a pair of shoes for a baby who can’t walk yet, and won’t fit in a couple of months?

Of course, all this talk of spending (or not spending) money is all pretty insignificant in the big scheme of things.  Needless to say, I’m very excited about the impending augmentation. Corrina and I have been together for 18 years now, and I kind of thought we’d always be a duo. This was a somewhat unexpected adventure, but now I cannae wait.

Trio it is then…