Ever since it all clicked…

Dave Milligan

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 ‘I Can Wash A Sailor’s Shirt’  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 supposed 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 just 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 charts on the radio 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. satch-joshThis 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.