By Amanda Nordqvist
With a lot of experience in composing for both film and theatre, Manos Milonakis took on the challenge of composing for the theatrical adaptation of Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film, Festen – and rose beautifully to the task. With the help of Moderna Records he released a full album on May 26th, with the intimate, uncomfortably expressive pieces that carry the listener through an intriguing story all on their own.
When did you start playing and creating your own music? Have you studied music of any kind?
I took my first piano lessons at the age of 6, not exactly knowing why or not sure if I really liked it, as you might expect. It felt cool to know basic math before my classmates at the primary school though! Things got clearer while growing up, when I first tried to put my hands on the keys with all the Beethoven books closed…I recall composing my first (shitty) piano piece at the age of 12 and recording it on my sister’s portable cassette recorder: it was an unknown, happy feeling! Later on, I taught myself the guitar and bass, and got involved in the usual high school pop/post-rock bands, while finalizing my music harmony studies. Then, I took the – possibly – wisest decision of my life and quit music school, just before my piano diploma exams. I was never interested in virtuosity – I already had all the tools I wanted – so I decided to dive into more “conscious” composing and music production; my buddy George and I formed “Your Hand in Mine”, which has been my main musical project until recently.
Could you describe your creating process for me, and tell me about the masses of various instruments you use?
It usually starts with an idea on the piano, a chord progression, or a new sound or loop I make with a new software or hardware “toy”. I then loop it endlessly and try different timbres and instruments over it. Very soon, I have a multi-track loop going on, I take it apart in groups of 2 or 3 tracks and pitch it up, down, try effects or rearrange it. Then, I suddenly delete everything and just stick with the first piano idea! So, in the end, my process is more subtractive than additive. You have to reject things to get further, I think…
To me, being a collector of instruments seems inevitable – I always think of composing being the same process as recording/producing music. There are instrument obsessions coming and going, but if I had to choose some still useful to me, I’d say: acoustic and wurlitzer piano, persephone synth, doepfer monosynth, glockenspiel, accordion, omnichord, theremin, bass guitar, music boxes, melodica…
What or who is your biggest inspiration when composing?
I’m not a big fan of the word “inspiration”, to be honest. I choose not to see it as something magical. In my opinion, the creative process could be triggered by many different things, sometimes completely irrelevant. Could be when you’re physically relaxed, or just being in the mood to do something, or being happy about some random information.
I wrote my saddest pieces while being happy. There are times when your mind just works “better” and so then you could perform better at…cooking or dancing, whatever it is you do. But still, there’s no secret recipe! You can just invent ways to raise your chances.
What can you tell me about Festen?
Scoring for “Festen”, a theatrical play based on the iconic Danish film, famous also for its dogmatic prohibition of music, has been a big challenge. I immediately felt that I could handle such a strong script only if I invented my personal rules and restraints. Being formerly in a live-looping based folk duet (Y.H.I.M.), I’m used to being surrounded by those “masses” of instruments when I work, just to have all options available. Vinterberg’s drama was “yelling” at me that this time, this would not be the case. I felt I needed to concentrate on the core of the story, take out all decorative timbres, and mostly focus on a few classical instruments and human performances. So, I kissed my zither, toypiano and stroh-violin goodbye, and headed to my summer studio, where all I have is an upright piano.
Later on, when bringing ideas to the theatrical rehearsal, my director Yiannis Paraskevopoulos had already started constructing his self-made borders and artistic alphabet. In our “dogme”, we decided not only to have music in the play, but to make it serve lots of different uses. Sometimes, it could be very discreet, completing the set as a soundscape, while at other times it could alter the sense of time, or it could come to the forefront and make a statement…We were lucky enough to have created a performance we’re proud of – it has been superbly received and these days it’s heading for a new series of shows in “Athens and Epidaurus Festival”.
I always consider that soundtrack music tells a story on its own. Usually, due to the absence of image, it is an incomplete one; however, it inevitably has cohesion and leaves space for imagination. Festen had already become an autonomous work in my ears and I thought, “why not share it to the world“? I came across Moderna Records through Soundcloud, and immediately fell in love with their concept and vibe. It seemed like a perfect fit. The guys thought so too, and we’re enjoying a wonderful collaboration so far.
Are there any significant differences between composing for film and composing for theatre?
Well, yes. When composing for theatre, you usually have to pre-design the ingredients of an experience which does not exist, but takes shape each time live, in the 3 dimensional theatrical space. That said, you’re also obliged to create something that utilizes the space acoustics and predicts their behavior…for instance, to select the right timbres even in pre-production / pre-composing level. Furthermore, you have to create something that’s open and “fluid”, something that could easily adapt to unexpected and random events. It’s very common that when the show’s running, after a number of shows, an actor’s way of playing needs to change or advance. The music must be fluid enough to permit that.
On the contrary, in film, I think the director is in better and more precise control of what the final result will be. The “live” element is missing so, less unexpected facts, more polishing and post-processing (also in terms of music). But what’s most important, in cinema there’s only one editing sequence, one pair of “glasses” (the director’s), through which we see/hear everything.
Lastly, is there any piece of advice you would have given your younger self if you had the chance?
Not really. I think there are no wrong decisions. We choose one path instead of the other for a reason, in life, every single time…Maybe my future self would like to answer this question differently, though!
We’ll make sure to ask again in a few years! Meanwhile, you can buy and listen to Manos’ beautiful album on Moderna Records’ Bandcamp.