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.

The New Yorkers Invade


Like (I assume) the majority of you reading this post, I am a wholehearted, certified, 100% choir nerd. And for us self-professed, dedicated dweebs, nothing rivals choir tour. Not only do these trips allow you to show off your latest musical tips and tricks to a fresh audience, but you also get to “bond” (*party*) with your choir BFFs. Think “Pitch Perfect,” but dorkier. And then think dorkier than that.

Fun and games aside, there’s something profoundly special that inevitably appears during tour, and that’s why I was beyond excited when the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus (YNYC) made the decision to embark on the adventure this year. Like our fantastic DC hosts the 18th Street Singers (ed: aw shucks), we’re a volunteer choir made up young professionals; amazing, exciting people including full-time musicians, computer whizzes, wolves of Wall Street, teachers, students, and more. These members already give a great deal of themselves to the choir, so their desire to commit further time and energy to the ensemble demonstrates their love of the music and the group. The theme for our 2013-14 New York season has been RE (our winter concert was RE/Mix, a selection of classic Christmas songs done in new ways by our young composer friends), and sticking with that, I think there are a range of RE words that capture our thoughts behind this tour:

- REset: Tour always serves as a great way to get your bearings. As an ensemble, you’re able to put so much focus into your traveling repertoire, and since we're hoping to REcord a CD within the next year, having an opportunity to reset ourselves and approach all our music with renewed dedication is an invaluable one.

- REinvent: Another benefit of tour is the exposure you get to the rest of the ensemble. YNYC is already a tight-knit group, but spending a nonstop weekend together is bound to increase that connection even further. This deeper level of friendship allows you to transform and reinvent your music-making because you’re so in tune with your fellow singers. We also can’t wait to hear the incredible 18th Street Singers, and I know that their musical mastery will inspire us to reinvent parts of our music, too.

- REsonate: Perhaps most of all, we’re thrilled at the prospect of sharing our music with a new audience and seeing what resonates with them. The beauty of music is its ability to touch every person and place differently, and we can’t wait to see what DC has to offer us.

This invader guest post was written by Young New Yorkers’ Chorus marketing/social media manager and parallel-universe-Mike-Rowan Lucy Mathias.

P.S. What’s this DC performance that Lucy speaks of? Well, since you asked, here are the deets:

The Young & the Freshest: Young New Yorkers’ Chorus + 18th Street Singers
Saturday, March 8 | 7:30 PM
The Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes
1217 Massachusetts Ave NW
Washington, DC 20005

Tickets: $12 advance | $15 door

Click here to buy