Milana Zilnik is one of those rare and unclassifiable artists who both excite and confound nerdy music writers like me. Her catalog is deep, diverse, wildly creative and practically impossible to adequately describe.
Her music has been compared to artists as vastly different as Alternative singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan and Jazz great, Chick Corea. In case you are unfamiliar with either, they both play piano and are both human beings alive on the planet Earth today. That is the extent of their commonality.
Milana is a pianist as well, but saying so seems limiting. The composer, singer and songwriter’s talents extend far beyond a single instrument. Her YouTube channel is an excellent testament to her broad range. Browsing through dozens of videos we find the eclectic artist covering Radiohead songs and Jazz standards as well as performing original classical pieces for solo piano.
The multi-award winning musician has been a performing and recording artist since her childhood. Born in Ukraine, Milana lived in Israel for many years before moving to Canada in 2008. Her life experiences and global origins inform every aspect of her songs which touch on issues of belonging, identity, the inner child, war and peace, and life and death.
To date, she has released fifteen original full-length albums and published three books with original scores for solo piano. In addition to performing and recording her own music, she also works as a session musician, arranger, and composer for films and online music libraries. Like a musical alchemist, Milana Zilnik brews an organic and often mystical sound from her studio in the Ottawa suburbs. Her latest experiment, the concept album “Abracadabra!” is her most ambitious to date.
The idea for “Abracadabra!” was first conceived in 2018 when Milana and her husband (Arty Sandler) picked up a Hang drum. If you are unfamiliar, a Hang drum (or simply “Hang”) is a bit like an inverted steel drum. Although Hang purists would no doubt be thoroughly offended by my oversimplification.
The two searched for many months to find the right Hang. They wanted one built on a full scale, containing a complete octave of notes. Most Hangs consist of only the five notes of the pentatonic scale. Amazingly by chance, the seller they finally connected with was from Milana’s birth town of Chernovtsy, Ukraine.
As soon as they received the Hang, Milana started writing songs. It did not take long for Arty to recognize that an album was coming into view. He suggested to his wife that they incorporate her piano and vocals into the mystical new sound they had discovered. Eventually they decided to add Cello to the mix and the “Abracadabra!” potion was born.
The otherworldly music Milana was composing ultimately lent itself to a fantastical story. As the pieces came together, the duo created a narrative for the tale. The record grew into a concept album following the story of a mysterious journey to a magical land. Each track represents another chapter in the saga:
- Abracadabra! Track List (with composer’s notes)
- Time – it’s time to break the routine and start the journey, the decision is made
- Journey – the journey begins
- Abracadabra – Every magical journey begins with a magical word to be spoken.
- Behind the mirror – The word was spoken, we find ourselves in the magical land behind the mirror
- Challenge – we are facing the first challenges of meeting what’s there in that land
- Imminence – it was imminent that we will get there but what is there exactly? we shall see.
- Encounters – in the magical land there are magical encounters with magical creatures that live there
- Lost and Found – reflection on what we lost in our “regular life” and what we found there behind the mirror
- Enchantment – we found ourselves in this magic land, it’s an enchanting feeling of being a whole.
- Spirito Incantato – this and the following two tracks are some kind of a “triptych”, they are parts of the whole – we feel empowered now to change the world. “Spirito Incantato” – we are pronouncing the magic words, we are bringing the “Enchanted spirit” to life..
- Witchcraft – … of course, it requires some witchcraft
- Alchemy – … and alchemy
- Returning – returning to the normal life, nostalgia and melancholia of leaving the magic land but also some major parts for what we are bringing with us back
The record almost never happened. The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic dried up the team’s funding. Milana explains, “Then a miracle happened. My piano albums exploded on Apple Music, being included into numerous editorial playlists and bringing millions of streams. This is what basically funded “Abracadabra!”
When it came time to record the album, Milana and Arty contacted their friend and producer, Matthew Shell. Regular readers of The Static Dive will remember Shell from his work on The Groove Project and others. The three assembled a team of musicians to bring the vision to life. With Shell’s guidance they recruited; Phil DiMercurio (percussion arrangement), Yoed Nir (cello), Alexa Ray (vocals) with Milana Zilnik on piano and Hang.
The resulting recording is a beautiful and mesmerizing piece of work. Like the artist herself, the record defies easy classification. As the story unfolds, the ensemble weaves Classical, Jazz and New Age elements together into an entirely new sound. From the hypnotic rhythms and ascending/descending harmonized melodies of songs like “Time” and “Journey” to Jazz explorations of “Encounters” and “Enchantment,” the album moves musical genres around like puzzle pieces for the sake of the
Wordless operatic vocals emotionally narrate the tale without the encumbrance of written language. Enchanting circular Hang rhythms and melodies harmonize with mesmerizing Jazz and Classical piano arpeggios. The melodies travel a mysterious terrain of high peaks and low foggy valleys created by deep, earthy cello and percussion arrangements.
As has become common practice among recording artists during the pandemic, the performers on “Abracadabra!” recorded their parts in a separate studios around the world. The tracks were then sent to Matthew Shell for mixing. Shell’s production expertly captures the intangible organic magic that flows through the ensemble as they travel this mystical path. We can feel the wood resonate as cello strings dance with the low bass of piano chords. Hang notes morph into vocal arias. The record is deeply satisfying and successful as both a literary narrative and musical exploration. Do yourself a favor and set aside fifty minutes of your day to take the journey through “Abracadabra!”
Check out the video for “Time,” above. You can also hear the song “Encounters” on the Deep Indie Chill playlist. The latter track was recently nominated for a trophy at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards in the Jazz category. Follow the links below to connect with Milana Zilnik. Stay in the know on all of the many current and future projects from this visionary artist and her talented friends.