Andy Milne’s Dapp Theory has been a constantly evolving musical organism for nearly two decades. The current iteration, Dapp Theory + 5, just released a new record, described by Pop Matters as a “daring, gorgeous achievement.” The new record is The Seasons of Being, an evening-length suite commissioned by Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works grant. The album has also been nominated for a GRAMMY in the category of “Best Jazz Instrumental Album.”
In this project, Milne explored the body, spirit, and mind on music, using the diagnostic principles of homeopathy while working with homeopath David Kramer to capture the emotional characterization of each soloist. According to Milne, “My composition process was empowered by the principles of homeopathic healing, helping me identify the musicians’ emotional lineage. My objective was to place each featured improviser in a musical setting that would support their unique emotional characterization, creating a pathway for participation in their own healing.” In a conversation with Jazz Speaks, Milne dives into the origins of the homeopathic musical process, as well as his thoughts on the evolution of Dapp Theory.
The Jazz Gallery: Let’s jump right into the new album, The Seasons of Being. Reading the section of the liner notes where you describe the homeopathic listening techniques you used, it completely blew my mind. Would you mind explaining the backstory of how that technique, that way of thinking, came onto your radar?
Andy Milne: It’s funny that you use the word backstory because, no pun intended, it started when I had issues with my back. Through a series of different healers, I found my way to homeopathy, and while I was undergoing observation–if you will–with a homeopath, I began to learn a bit about the way a homeopath diagnoses a person. Our bodies and spirits are always dealing with something, and our emotions tell us about different points in our lives. It’s a holistic approach, literally considering the whole body. If you go to a Western doctor for pain in your back, they may not be terribly concerned with other things going on in your life, because that’s not what they’re looking for. With this particular homeopath, the investigation was broad. He talks about how elements within the body, and the way disease can move through the body, has musical overtones, in terms of material, texture, cadence. That idea sparked my curiosity.
On another level, I had this observation about how musicians respond to requests from bandleaders. This is going back about eight year or so. Usually, a bandleader writes a bunch of music, brings it to their band, and distributes activity based on their vision. They’ll say “Take a solo here,” or “Try soloing here,” and ask for the musicians to do this or that. I had an experience years ago in Dapp Theory, where one of the musicians basically said, “No, I’m not feeling it.” It felt like they were being difficult, but at the same time, I’ve been in the same position. I’ll often think, “I’m not really feeling a solo here.” I was curious to see if there was something deeper happening, aside from just musical taste. So I began to build models for trying to figure out how either a musician or non-trained layperson might respond to sound, to music. I worked on this idea with the support of this homeopath, and began crafting questions and music to essentially ask: “You’re a musician, you’re going to solo on this piece; what’s the sweet spot based on your emotional lineage?” I spent a lot of time thinking about which aspects of my music I could sculpt to build a better picture of what it might sound like from the point of view of an emotional space, rather than trying to convey a certain emotion or thinking about the way a certain musician might play.
TJG: So when your back hurt, and you went to the homeopath, did you go that route because traditional or Western medicine wasn’t working? It’s interesting, because if you hadn’t seen that homeopath, this project and musical inquiry may not have happened quite this way.
AM: Well, my father was a doctor of conventional Western medicine. I never really had a “doctor” growing up, because my dad was my doctor, so I didn’t have to interface with conventional medicine in the way people usually do. That set the stage for my relationship with formal medicine. Because my relationship with my dad was so personal and matter-of-fact, that changed my relationship with how I view healing. As I grew older, I felt committed to seeking an alternative to mainstream medicine, especially once I began to have back problems. Now, I was concurrently seeing a few doctors, because I recognized I had a complex problem to solve, but as I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t getting the understanding of the results that I was seeking in Western medicine, so I was trying everything.
TJG: Back to the idea of diving into each musician’s psyche: Was it startling to look at your bandmates that way, especially after playing together for so long? Did this kind of analysis come easily to you?
AM: In the formal aspects of the analysis, I had the help of the homeopath. As we were walking through the process, he would ask me questions about people to see if we were on the right path. For the most part, I was able to say “Yes” or “No,” and if I couldn’t say either, we just moved on. Generally speaking, his characterizations were spot-on, and the process was essentially just assembling perceptions I already instinctively had about someone, but that I would never formally collect. In one case, the homeopath came up with a very accurate physical description of a person, and I was so amazed that I had to pull up a photograph to show him, because he didn’t know these people. He picked everything up based on the information they provided in their handwriting, and the way they responded when listening to different musical examples I gave them.
TJG: That’s truly unbelievable.
AM: [Laughs] Yeah, and yet it happened several times. I did multiple iterations of these questions.
TJG: So the next step was that you approached the piano, the blank staff paper, equipped with a huge amount of personal and emotional knowledge about your bandmates, trying to build music around these emotional spaces?
AM: Yeah. I had that huge amount of knowledge, but at the same time, it’s a bit buddhist, because I tried to throw it all away and just write. While I was writing, I wasn’t actively thinking about all of that information phrase-by-phrase or note-by-note.
TJG: The information became a part of you?
AM: It became another perspective that helped direct the purpose, the sensibility, rather than just writing. Certainly, it’s not music that you’d listen to and go “Oh, this doesn’t sound like anything Andy has written before.” It’s still music that I would write, it still came from me. The process wasn’t intended to produce sounds that wouldn’t normally come from me, it just directed the sounds based on a different purpose.
TJG: The first track of the album, “Surge & Splendor,” begins with this lyrical invocation: “Bear witness to musicians sharing an intimate part of themselves, draped in a blueprint that acknowledges and incorporates their emotional characterizations.” You’re explicitly saying what you did, and what you’re doing, on the album and with this music.
AM: Yeah, it was an introduction to the album. I decided, when we were going to premiere the work and record it, that I wanted to have a little bit of narration.
TJG: It makes me wonder, did you have any theatrical or operatic models in mind for how the suite unfolds?
AM: Not models, per se, just people I’ve worked with that have influenced forms and presentation. I have colleagues who have worked with poets, so it wasn’t that I was looking at a specific model; sometimes too much text can be off-putting, it can feel preach-y. So there was mindfulness about the volume of verbal information.
TJG: Speaking of verbal information, I was checking out an older interview with NewMusicBox, where you mentioned that one of the early sparks behind Dapp Theory the lyrical fusion of hip hop and R&B you heard in the 90s. Given that seed of an idea, and how the music has evolved today with The Seasons of Being, what’s your perception of how Dapp Theory has grown over the last two decades?
AM: It’s funny, I was giving an interview a few days ago, and was also asked about this. Regarding the trajectory of the band, Dapp Theory has had lots of iterations and personnel changes. Each iteration, each new person, brings something that wasn’t there before. The band is kind of like a big prism that keeps accumulating light. You add to it, turn it around, and the light shines through in a different way. Things change. Even before writing this project specifically, I was already writing for these different improvisers’ emotional spaces, where you develop a sense of the strengths of these different people. But sometimes you don’t know those strengths until the musicians start providing them for you, showing them to you. Then you have to reverse course, or at least take an additive approach, thinking “Okay, now I have this option as well.” As new members join, we don’t shed the earlier iterations of the band.
Imagine you’re mixing an album and you have different faders up on the mixing console. Each fader is a different thing, and you’re refining and balancing. Something might be there, and if it’s at a lower level, you don’t necessarily have to shut it off. You just say, “Oh, I only need a little bit of this,” you know? And the other bands I’ve been in have influenced Dapp Theory’s evolution. So the band, for me, bears similarity with where it started, but in some ways it doesn’t sound like earlier versions of the band at all.
TJG: You’ve just started a new position at University of Michigan. How was the fall semester, and what does it mean for the future of Dapp Theory?
AM: Dapp Theory isn’t my only project, and we took a bit of a breather over this past year. This gig at the Gallery will be the first time the band has played for close to two years. That’s nothing related specifically to Michigan, I’ve just been focused on other things I’d been hoping to accomplish artistically. It’s a continuing juggling act, growing as a musician and with other musicians, and that will continue in Michigan. This group, Dapp Theory + 5, which is not a very manageable number of people to take out and play gigs, is a special project. I don’t know if we’ll do this a lot, because it’s just a heavy lift, you know. Even the core group is dispersed, everybody has been working in different directions, so it made sense for me to focus on some other things, like a trio project that that I haven’t quite been able to focus on without the right creative space.
Out at Michigan, it’s been a great semester. I’m only there a few days a week right now, and when I’m there, I’m really busy, with all the travel while still teaching in New York. So I’ve been running around, but I’ve had really positive experiences thus far. I’m only now beginning to get to know other faculty members, and am approaching different people about ways we can collaborate. I’m stoked. It’s a great school and there are fantastic people here, great students. I’ve been fortunate with this opportunity, and at this time in my life, I’m able to see it with a lot of perspective.
Andy Milne and Dapp Theory + 5 celebrate the release of The Seasons of Being at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, December 19, and Thursday, December 20, 2018. The group features Mr. Milne on piano, Ben Monder on guitar, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Michael Attias on saxophones, Aaron Kruziki on reeds, La Tanya Hall on vocals/narration, John Moon on vocal poetics, Chris Hoffman on cello, Chris Tordini on bass, and Kenny Grohowski on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.