Andy Milne: from jazz to Star Trek & Fellow Travelers: “I was untested as a film composer; they were taking a risk”

Two-time Juno Award winning pianist and composer Andy Milne reflects on his route into the jazz world, his approach to scoring Star Trek documentaries for William Shatner, arranging for the hit Showtime series Fellow Travelers and the life changing real events that inspired his brand new album, Time Will Tell.

Milne begins the interview by recalling a piece of advice he received long ago, which at the time, he didn’t pay much attention to:

“Years ago, I had mentors that would say things like, ‘You just gotta keep doing what you're doing’. And I was like, ‘Really? You got nothing else?’ But I kind of did follow that advice in some ways, which made me come full circle because I just kept on doing what I was going to do,” the pianist and composer recalls from his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

“And at some point, I got better at it, and people started to take notice. I think overall, the arc of where I've gone with music has enabled me to be more prepared for different types of situations. So it's never one thing for me – it's this long arc of acquiring keystrokes, so I guess it just sort of happened to coincide,” he says modestly.

The arc of where I've gone with music has enabled me to be more prepared for different types of situations.

Milne’s career has indeed been diverse though. Born in Ontario, Canada, he showed an early interest in music. His formative years were marked by classical piano training, which laid a solid foundation for his future explorations in jazz. Milne's passion for improvisation and composition led him to study at York University in Toronto, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. He later pursued advanced studies at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, further honing his skills under the mentorship of jazz legends like Oscar Peterson.

“I grew up in Canada, and Oscar Peterson was a huge influence,” he nods. “He became a teacher, but seeing him at a young age was pretty profound.”

Milne's career took off in the ‘90s when he moved to New York, a vibrant hub for jazz innovation - where he quickly became a prominent figure in the city's jazz scene. In 1998, Milne formed Dapp Theory, a band that epitomises his genre-blending style, followed by forming his first piano trio, Andy Milne and Unison, whose celebrated 2020 debut release, The reMission was awarded the 2021 Juno Award for Jazz Album of the Year: Group.

His second Juno Award came in 2019, awarded for one of his most ambitious projects yet, The Seasons of Being, which showcased a 10-piece edition of Dapp Theory. Commissioned by Chamber Music America, the music explores the body, spirit and mind of music, using the diagnostic principles of homoeopathy to captivate the emotional characterisation of each soloist.

“That one's very specific,” he acknowledges with a smile on the album’s unique concept. “I started seeing a classical homoeopathy healer and at some point conversations with him led me to start thinking about the way we go about diagnosing people. Essentially, the album came into being over many years of research into ways that I could harness healing modality to write music to be in the sweet spot for the performer and the specific improviser. I tried to write based upon the ways in which the homeopathist was giving me insights on people that he had never met, but strangely enough, he was very spot on in terms of their backstory,” he considers. 

“The idea was being able to write music that could put them in a healing sweet spot and creating very tailored music for those individuals that I was selected to perform with. I got very consumed by that, and I had to really hunker down and write music. Then the album won the Juno Award in Canada for jazz album of the year, which was a huge affirmation of the long journey that I'd gone through making the record,” he smiles.

To date, Milne has released 11 recordings as a leader or co-leader, his most recent being the album, Time Will Tell, which was released this year. He reveals he started thinking about the project the day he recorded The reMission:

“It wasn't clear as to where and how it was going to manifest”’ he admits, “but I started thinking about it literally that day, as we were preparing to do The reMission. Fast forwarding into the pandemic time period and whatnot, and I had a pretty profound life change, which was meeting members of my birth family – because I'm adopted – and I've not ever had any connection with them in my whole life,” he discloses. 

“I found my birth cousin, and then eventually my birth mother – it was pretty deep. A lot of the music is a reaction, reflection and a comment on the emotional state that I was in, and it also coincided with a time when I started really focusing more on writing for film and improving my skill sets in that area. This album is a marriage of personal experience and the evolution of my trio and my writing. They all came together in a nice way; it was very hard to ignore something so massive in my life.”

A lot of the music is a reaction, reflection and a comment on the emotional state that I was in.

The TV and film world he alludes to turning his focus to started in 2011, when Milne composed, performed and produced the score to William Shatner’s documentary film, The Captains. The relationship led to Milne scoring six subsequent Star Trek-themed films directed by Shatner. In addition to appearing in one of the films, Milne released The Captains soundtrack CD in partnership with Shatner and was a featured performer at numerous Star Trek conventions with actor and singer Avery Brooks.

“I was untested as a film composer, so they were taking a risk, but they were doing it on the endorsement of Avery, who knew me musically very well, and felt that I was certainly the person that could tackle what they wanted,” he recalls. 

“At the time, they really thought they wanted an improvised score, which evolved a lot, but in certain ways, there was still a lot of improvisation that I was able to infuse into the score and be a third voice in some of these conversations that were happening in the documentaries. Some of it was definitely outside of my wheelhouse in certain ways, but in other ways, because there was an improvisational quality to things almost all the time, that was where I could really live.”

It was an important show to be made; there's a lot of gay people that really felt like they were being seen.

More recently Milne acted as the music arranger and director in the new Showtime series Fellow Travelers, where he also made a brief appearance as a cast member.

“I mean, I was acting to the degree that I was playing a pianist in a club, so something I'm pretty familiar with doing,” he laughs. “But I had to mime to my own arrangements that I had produced, and was coaching the actors in the performances and the pre-records for all the live on-screen performances. It was fun to have the experience and to be able to see it come together, because it was really well-produced and the score is beautiful. And the acting is fantastic. 

"It's a pretty intense show to watch. It's also pretty steamy, too,” he adds. “It was an important show to be made; there's a lot of gay people that really felt like they were being seen due to the fact that the show had been made. So it was monumental in a lot of ways to be associated with it.”

I've been using Cubase since I was using an Atari computer in the early ‘90s.

Milne provides an insight into his home studio, including the software he couldn't do without: “I've been using Cubase since I was using an Atari computer in the early ‘90s,” he enthuses. “I'm going way back! It was the ideal thing for a musician and was state of the art. I began to get inside the programme from the point of view as a MIDI sequencer, and it evolved into Cubase on the PC and then eventually on a Mac. 

"In the last four years I've really rolled my sleeves up to try to learn and harness the power of the programme as it’s evolved. As my needs changed, I began to start thinking about other aspects of the programme, and I really started to learn how to use the project logical editor and working with more macros, and the control room. Now I've got this crazy setup with the expression maps – I actually had somebody who's much more technically savvy in terms of coding who helped me with some fairly important lines of code for an open stage controller that talks to my expression maps,” he explains.

“It's a really beautiful way to take what's in the box and put it outside the box and have some sort of tactile, interactive relationship with what I'm doing with different articulations in my various sample libraries,” he adds. “It's been a nice journey to get more inside the programme, and having some film projects to work on certainly escalates the necessity for that.”

As soon as a friend introduced him to Cubase in the ‘90s, Milne remembers immediately liking the look of Cubase – a fact which hasn’t changed in the present day. “The layout of the programme just makes sense for me,” he nods. “I like having the flexibility due to the way it's laid out – there's a lot of options. I’m really getting into the new MIDI remote, which is a slick new development that I really dig. I also really love the Control Room and the ease in which I can have a lot of controller lanes in the key editor, which is where I spend a lot of time.”

I can't say enough great things about Dorico.

Despite not appreciating its benefits until more recently, Milne is also now a big fan of Dorico, Steinberg’s music notation software, which he recently used for a new chamber music piece using a piano quintet.

“When I was working on this larger chamber music piece, it made perfect sense, because I was able to just bring these things together after I'd worked on them individually,” he says. “In terms of the flow, all of a sudden I was like, ‘I get it’. I'm probably about 10 years behind many Dorico users in terms of the sophistication, but I'm working towards getting to that level where I'm at with Cubase. I'm way more inside the programme than when I started for sure, and I look forward to getting into expression maps in Dorico.”

In addition to his multiple projects, Milne is a sought-after educator, serving as an assistant professor of music at The University of Michigan and the assistant director at The School for Improvisational Music.

“I tell all my students and encourage them to really think about building their relationship with Dorico, because it's a long term relationship with any notation programme because you invest time in learning those keystrokes, but then you've got all this catalogue that is residing in a platform, so you’re sort of marooned if you decide to switch,” he considers. “I like the fact that, especially on a laptop using Dorico, there's a lot of power in the desktop publishing side of the programme. I can't say enough great things about it, but it took me a while to get going! I'm really happy I made this switch.”

Milne’s Steinberg studio kit extends to hardware too, as he shares that he’s also the owner of an AXR4 audio interface and CC121 controller.

“The interface was a huge upgrade from the point of view of making recordings,” he says. “I got it right when I got the gig doing Fellow Travelers because I have a beautiful Yamaha handmade S6 grand piano in my studio, so I did all the piano for the show in my studio. I was like, ‘I gotta up the ante with a better interface,’ so I decided to take the plunge because it seemed like a really well made device and I loved the integration that was baked into Cubase. I love the fact that there's two headphone jacks on it, because there's these discrete controls on it and it's a really clean-sounding interface – I wish I'd done it sooner!”