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  • Nathan Yoder

A Chat with Ned Milligan

It's officially summer, which means I finally have capacity to publish a few posts I conceptualized last spring, but put on the back-burner since I was too busy teaching to get to anything DC-related. And who better to highlight in my second summer break post than a fellow teacher?

Ned Milligan and first I connected over email a couple years back, I think about some album promo stuff. I was drawn to his (and his label's) music and overall aesthetic, and when I learned that he was a middle school teacher just like me, I felt a sort of connection. Solidarity in the trenches, man, solidarity in the trenches.

Since that initial communication, Ned and I have stayed in a bit of contact here and there - I mailed him my DC booklet earlier this year and he sent back his excellent new album, Considerable. It's been a real nice cross-country back-and-forth. And to keep things going, I decided to ask him some questions about his music, other projects, and extracurriculars, interview-style. Read our correspondence below the pic, and really, be sure to hit those links and listen to Ned's new album. It's a dream.

Photo of New Milligan taken by Rory Milligan (who also took the cover photo).

DC: First, I'd love to learn a bit more about your recent offering, Considerable, released last month on laaps. It's such a gorgeous blend of instrumentation and field recordings, and holds this sort of calming energy. I know that specific places and spaces really inform your work, and so I'm curious: were most of the field recordings taken around your home property, or did you capture snippets while out and about? Is the album as a whole focused on a single, specific geography, or is it meant to feel like a collection of postcards sent from a number of places? Or heck, maybe your vision was something else entirely!

NM: I like that they feel like a series of postcards to you! In the album's creation, though, it was more the former: the mindset of a single, specific geography. I've been recording a lot of my work outdoors at a house in Maine for a while now. Part of that is practical--the chimes I use hang from a beam on a porch, so the easiest way to use them is to simply put microphones under them. But I also enjoy the ambient sound of the open space around the house, birdsong, occasional sounds from the road down the way. A while ago I decided that those were sounds worth including, even if some listeners might perceive them as interruptive.

I live with my wife and son in New York City--Queens specifically--so most of the time I'm actually not surrounded by any of the sounds or instruments in my music. But during the summers for the past decade, we've been able to visit family and spend some time at that Maine house. It's not my home, but I have spent a lot of time there, especially during the pandemic.

Recording there started because my mothers-in-law were happy to keep the chimes there. They liked how the chimes sounded when wind blew through--you know, the way most people use them--and their porch kind of became a space for me to experiment and record. Almost all the sounds you're thinking of on Considerable were recorded there. The big exception is the campfire that anchors "Sky Smokes & Electronics"--that was captured by Jeroen Klap, who does field recordings and shares them on YouTube--he was kind enough to let me use an excerpt of a longer recording for that track.

DC: On Considerable you play chimes, singing drum, and autoharp - three instruments which the average listener might not hear every day. If you don't mind sharing a little history, I'd love to learn how and why you got into each of these three instruments. They blend together beautifully, by the way!

NM: I'm glad they work for you that way. They do for me, too, but I'm never sure how much of what I'm doing makes sense to other people! My first set of chimes was gifted to me--there were a couple of times when my wife and I stayed at different houses that had chimes and I kept being drawn to them and making little recordings of she thought, especially since I was starting to make music in a more dedicated way, that perhaps I could use my own. Since then I've bought a few sets and look for ones that are harmonious together. This isn't a thing I know a lot about, honestly, but the ones I have are all tuned in just intonation.

Frankly, I really enjoy how accessible chimes are. It's not hard to make them sound good--they're already designed to be harmonious, right? But they're also not really manufactured with "playing" them in mind. They're way more of aural furniture or a potential marker of weather. You can find them more easily in shops that sell birdseed than at Guitar World or whatever. To me, that's part of the fun of using them. Chimes also include a limited amount of notes--most have 6 tubes. I like having this limited palette and making choices within that framework. I'm always making choices of what to play and what not to.

That's part of why Considerable is the title of the album; hopefully the music fits within the traditional meanings of the word relating to merit or size...but I'm also poking at the word a bit and engaging with the idea of what we choose to focus on or ignore...what's worthy of consideration. Small, familiar, or even banal things can be worthy too.

The singing drum is similar to the chimes--I can only make 6 or 7 notes with it, so it really becomes more about how I'm deciding to play those notes, capturing the textures of the actual drum itself, or documenting different kinds of weather landing on it. The autoharp is a new thing for me as of last year. The autoharp has a certain quality that has integrity and feels a little ghostly, too. I think I'd like to experiment more with using it as a sound source for processing, to create held passages or drones.

DC: The only vocals in the entire album come right at the very beginning of A Crack in the Sky - a home recording of someone singing a bit of Oh What a Beautiful Morning. I perked right up when I heard it, because my mom used to sing this classic tune around our home as I was growing up, so it touched this sort of nostalgic nerve for me. What is the story behind that specific snippet, and why did you choose to make it a part of Considerable?

NM: That moment is such a happy accident. It's from a friend's daughter's Instagram story. The daughter had this video of her mom singing that song to the world, looking through bay windows with open arms...she's singing and then discovers her daughter's been filming the whole time, which is what leads to the "Don't you dare!" and the laugh at the end. It felt so sincere and moving--this appreciation of nature, the intimacy of family, all of it.

So I saw this and found it to be incredibly charming, but also that it was something I would love to include on the album somehow. This goes back to the idea of choices, too--that I thought this element would somehow work with my music. Part of that is me feeling like--and I don't know, maybe you would disagree--but I feel like I don't really make "ambient" music? Or at least not music for zoning out? What I aim for, at least, is to make work that makes people feel present. To that extent, I thought that audio would be gently startling and make people wonder what they were listening to. I think it's energizing and recentering. I also think of albums in terms of A-sides and B-sides (regardless of what format they're coming out on) and thought it was a good surprise to start the B-side with. Some people seem to not like it for exactly the same reason others do and that's cool with me.

I also have to say that the work of Alejandra & Aeron is really important to me--their own albums and what they released of others on Lucky Kitchen--and so this kind of domestic field recording, if you will, felt natural to me and evocative of their projects.

DC: The first music I heard by you was 2021's Enter Outside, which I had the honor of reviewing on the site. You released that album (as well as handful of others) on your excellent Florabelle label, and I'd love to learn about that side of your creative life. Why did you start your own label? What do you enjoy about it and what is difficult? Any Florabelle releases in the works that you'd like to hint at?

NM: I think the motivation to start Florabelle came from this selfish itch--a feeling of "I want to make an album and have it be an LP and no one is going to want to do that for me, I have to do it for myself." Part motivation, part ego trip! But at that same time, my friend John Atkinson was working on solo material that I thought was really exciting...we discussed the idea of me releasing this collection of his that soundtracked a documentary and those two releases felt like a promising start for a newborn label.

It's so gratifying that some people connect with the label--looking forward to future releases, appreciating a throughline in the design, even submitting demos. The best parts of doing a label are working with people whose music I adore, getting things out on a timeline I can manage, and knowing that folks are responding to the work. The difficult part is that costs are such that, given the quantities I press records in, I'm guaranteed to never make money with the label, so I can only afford to spend so much money with each release. But honestly, I also could never picture Florabelle releasing albums at a faster rate. I try to develop a really thorough dialogue with an artist in the process of bringing an album into the world and I don't release albums I'm not passionate about. My teaching job keeps me busy and any version of Florabelle beyond what I do now seems like it would require committing less time and energy to each artist, which sounds dispiriting.

I'm in conversation with a couple artists about future releases, but the only thing that is guaranteed to come out this year is the label's first reissue! It's Lia Kohl's album from last year, Too Small to be a Plain. I am so taken with her approaches to composition, improvisation, and where the two meet.

DC: You and I share this connection as educators. I think that you teach elementary school (if I'm not mistaken), and I teach middle. Happy summer break, by the way! Teaching is creative in its own way, and I am very thankful for that, but I do not always feel that I am able to bring my extracurricular joys (i.e. this DC hobby project) into my everyday work. Do you find that you can easily share your musical projects or interests with your students, or is there a work/life separation for you like there is for me? Maybe that's not an entirely bad thing...

NM: I teach middle school now too, actually! I did elementary for almost a decade but just wrapped up my second year as a 6th grade homeroom teacher and instructor of both Current Events and Math. Honestly, I share none of what I do with my students. Maybe someday I'll rethink that, but I haven't actively sought that out...I know a couple students told me they googled me and know I make music, but that's the extent of it.

So you could argue that I keep those worlds pretty separate--I don't even tell all of my colleagues about my work. But I do think my school and my work there does impact the music in some ways. One of the things we do as a school is come together to sit in silence twice a week--I'm at a Quaker school and this is in keeping with Quaker practice. Students are given a query to reflect on and are invited to share with the group, if they are so moved. There is something meaningful about sitting in silence with a large group of people and it reflects other Quaker values of simplicity and community. I enjoy that silence, though sometimes I'm also having to be "on patrol" for kids who are, you know, trying to do a loud ridiculous fake cough during silence, purely for the sake of being disruptive. But actively listening in silence and participating in it--I do think it informs how I make music.

DC: Speaking of summer break, what do you like to do with your free time? I assume summer is a pretty great chance to get at some musical projects, but what else do you enjoy doing when you're able to carve out extra space in your life?

NM: Having the summer is important for me--it helps me find more of the balance that isn't always there during the school year. As soon as school gets out, I often have a burst of energy to see museums and movies that I've wanted to see and to reconnect with friends. Summer is also really the only time I work on music--it's hard for me to find the time and brainspace for it when I'm teaching. My son is 7 and has summer break, too--so we spend time doing one-on-one soccer or baseball, going to the beach, and playing games together--the focus for the past few years was on the Pokemon card game, but this year will be way more Mario Kart.

DC: What have you been listening to lately? Any specific artists or albums or songs you've felt drawn to or excited about recently?

NM: In the realm of what I might broadly call ambient and experimental music, this year I've been particularly impressed by Maria Moles's work--her album on Room40 from last year is really noteworthy and her Longform Editions contribution is of a similar piece, taking dronier, held tones and juxtaposing them with pulsing percussion that is super successful. As someone who's loved Keith Fullerton Whitman's music for decades now, I'm excited that he seems to be integrating the Playthroughs system back into his work--there are some excellent new tracks that have appeared on Bandcamp that go deep and are pretty stunning. The Manja Ristić album on LINE, Awakenings, is a curious thing that seemingly lives underwater and I love that. And M. Sage's Paradise Crick -- I'm obviously biased with Matt (having released an album of his), but his kind of Americana, which is both synthetic and naturalistic at the same time, is inspiring for me.

Outside of that, I have played Kelsea Ballerini's album from last year a lot--it's expertly crafted country-pop. A very specific rabbit hole I have recently gone down is Laurindo Almeida's albums for Capitol in the '50s and '60s...he's a brilliant classical guitarist who also helped usher in bossa nova in America. He made a fair share of easy listening records that I don't vibe with, but I have found 4 or 5 of his LPs that are quietly commanding.

DC: And finally, I kinda asked about this a little bit already, but what do you have cooking in the future, music-wise? I know you literally just released an album, but do you have ideas of where you'd like to go next? Wherever it is, I'll be excited to hear.

NM: Nothing's recorded yet. I am jealous of people who produce a lot of material--I'm totally the opposite, I have very few completed tracks that haven't made it to an album. That said, I imagine I'll record more this summer and I keep a document going of small ideas I have for pieces--one element of an instrument, or a feeling I'd like to evoke, stuff like that. And surprises can happen anytime. Some of Considerable was the result of simply hearing something unexpected, thinking it was interesting, and deciding it was worth capturing--so I try to actively listen to the world around me and go from there.

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A huge thanks to Ned for his thoughtful responses and the time + energy he put into this, and again, be sure to check out Considerable on laaps - it's a good one.


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