Q and A with John Milne, Composer Extraordinaire

We want to share a little something about our three incredibly talented new best friends for life, if they’ll have us. They are the winners of the 18th Street Singers’ 10th Anniversary Composition Competition, and we can’t wait to introduce them to you and perform their pieces on June 20th at our concert Something Old, Something New. (They’re the “New” part!) (Also, buy tickets!)

Let’s kick it off today with a Q&A session with John Milne, who inspired us with his piece Soldier Boy, which sets to music a poem written during World War I by English soldier Siegfried Sassoon, “Suicide in the Trenches.” In this musical rendition, the haunting melody of the opening line feels like a familiar folk tune that subtly derails into the unexpected, evoking for the listener the timeless (and universal) image of innocence marching off to battle. The simplicity and solitude of the initial melodies give way to more complicated and dissonant harmonies as the piece develops, illustrating through sound the harsh realities of war and the toll it takes on the human psyche. Solider Boy strikes at a raw emotional chord in today’s global climate, and we are honored and moved to bring it to life. 

 Enough about why we love the piece, on to John!


When did you start composing?

I’ve been composing for a cappella and vocal groups since I was 19, i.e., for a very long time!

After a long career in pop (The Toons, two-time Gold Cabaret Award winners and early MTV act), alt-country (Long Gone Lonesome Boys) and a cappella (three-time Harmony Sweepstakes winners Chicago Voice Exchange), I’ve spent the last two years composing more serious choral pieces, some of which I’ve had the pleasure of having performed by wonderful choirs worldwide, including the Svanholm Singers from Sweden, the Vespera Women’s Choir from Toronto and, very soon, the 18th Street Singers from Washington D.C.!

Born in the US to British immigrant parents, I grew up in California and have lived in Chicago for the past 20 years.

How would you describe your composition style?

I would describe my style as neo-classical, maybe 80% Bach, 15% jazz chords and 5% Swedish folk music.

I would say my influences are the great Baroque composers and the Four Freshmen.

Please tell us what Soldier Boy is about. Is it similar to other pieces you compose?

Soldier Boy is a setting of a Siegfried Sassoon poem from WWI called “Suicide in the Trenches”. Sassoon was an Englishman who served in the trenches, and the only one of the great WWI poets to survive the war. It’s about the terrible injustice that nations do to their young people, pumping them up with patriotic zeal and telling them that what they’re going to do will be heroic, then neglecting them and ignoring their sky-high suicide rates and broken minds and bodies when they return home. The fact that the basic sentiment of the poem is still relevant after over 100 years is very sad.

It is similar to other poems I’ve set, including Still Falls the Rain by Edith Sitwell, who wrote it during the bombing of London in WWII. My grandfather was Scottish and served in the trenches in WWI, and my father and mother both survived the Blitz during WWII, so these poems have personal relevance to me. I’ve also set another Siegfried Sassoon poem called “Everyone Sang” – I call the piece Everyone Suddenly Burst Out Singing.

What do you enjoy about composing for voices?

The thing I love about composing for voices is the combination of words and music and, especially with respect to a cappella, the purity of chordal blend, which isn’t possible with tempered instruments. Singing is the first and most primal instrument, the one that speaks to us most directly, and it’s, uh… angelic! 

Thanks John!  

Hear more from John Milne on his YouTube channel.

And get your tickets for our 10th Anniversary Concert: Something Old, Something New!

June 20, 2015
Sixth and I Historic Synagogue
600 I Street NW
Washington DC, 20001

In the next two weeks, we’ll tell you more about our other Composition Competition winners, Michael Schachter and Matthew Lyon Hazzard.