Milana Zilnik

Pianist, composer, singer-songwriter




It never ceases to amaze me how music finds its way to come through us from the world and back into the world. Anything that surrounds us can become the inspiration that ends up being a musical story, a journey on the ivory keys: a sight from a window, child`s laughter, bad weather, good weather, tranquility of a forest, rumbling storms, pain and happiness, madness within and falling in love. Every time I get a chance to escape to my world of music with a touch on keys, I feel like I discover another improvisation hidden in my effort to compose. These improvisations of mine are purely accidental: they are moments in time that never repeat.

Milana is an accomplished pianist, composer and singer-songwriter, who has been a performing and recording artist since her childhood. A strong lyricist and composer in her own right, Milana’s style is reminiscent of Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Michael Nyman, Keith Jarret and Chick Corea. Milana enjoys playing by ear, improvising and using whatever inspires her to create her own style of playing. She is known as an adept improviser, catching melodies on the fly and expanding them into her own creations. Milana was born in Ukraine, lived in Israel for many years and moved to Canada in 2008. Having lived in different countries has enriched her musical experiences and storytelling. Her songs touch on issues of belonging, identity, the inner child, war and peace, and life and death. Soulful singing and complex piano melodies are Milana’s signature, but she embraces a variety of styles – everything from folk, blues, opera and Middle Eastern, to her soft spots for rock and jazz. Milana has released eight albums (solo piano, original songs and New Age) and published a book with original scores for solo piano. Since 2012, in addition to performing live and releasing original albums, she has also taken piano and vocal performance in a commercial direction by doing session recordings, arranging, composing for films and online music libraries in her own studio located in Ottawa's suburb.



What does music mean to you personally?

Music to me is like breathing, I need it constantly, and change myself through it. As a child, I was completely absorbed inside my own world of secret life, full of stories and songs that I sang even in my sleep. I didn’t feel the need to communicate with other children much, unless I could sing or play piano for them. My closest family members would always surround me by various recordings, shows we went to together or my dad’s shows. So, I associated music with a close relative, some Spirit that is always guiding and guarding me through life. In short: music is my remedy and my best communication skill.

Do you agree that music is all about fantasy?

Despite of using the phrase “What is music if not a dream?” here and there myself, I am not sure if I agree with this statement. In my opinion, music is more primal and universal to human nature than, for example, Visual Arts, which are interpreted subjectively. So, I would agree that we add imagination to performing different styles and musical compositions, but musical “ingredients” are quite physical to me, especially the rhythm, vibrations of sound that move our body subconsciously.

If you were not a professional musician, what would you have been?

I was studying Visual Arts, especially photography, and really loved drawing. I also think that fashion design or home decor would really suit me too. I also hoped to study therapy through Arts, which I now apply in my piano and vocal lessons. Aesthetics in life in general are a “must” for me: I can only perform, teach or practice in very well organized spaces, I guess I am Feng Shui oriented musician.

The classical music audience is getting old, are you worried about your future?

Classical music to me is about performance legacy. I believe now, when we have a new generation of artists like Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Emily Bear, the classical music is attracting young people again. Personally, I’m not strictly classical myself: I respect classical music but I focus on absorbing various styles and forms of music (like jazz, blues or rock) to blend and create something new.

What do you envision the role of classical music to be in the 21 century? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role?

I am guessing that some roles wouldn’t change much: people will still want that special energy you may only get coming to concert halls and listening to live performances. However, nowadays, there are other fields where classical music can be used to support something else, e.g. films, games, theatrical shows and so on. There are also researches of how classical music affects studying and relaxation processes, so, there might be another role in that direction as well.

When I say that classical music is searching for new ways or that the classical music is getting a new face, what would come to your mind?

I immediately think of “Baby Mozart” (a part of “Baby Einstein” series) and lectures for children by Leonard Bernstein (although, it’s not “brand new” but to me it was quite revolutionary). Now, in Canada we got Music for Young Children program, which involves even youngest in the process of ear training, composing and improvising with parents, which is super cool. In other words it turns from a “conservatory”, “academic” discipline into a vibrant and playful experience.

Do you think that the classical musician today needs to be more creative? Whats the role of creativity in the musical process for you?

I do think so. With all the broad spectrum of music that is available now, one needs to be creative to find their own style, without even thinking too much about how to classify their it. Take “The Piano Guys” as an example – among others, they take existing classical masterpieces and create their own unique versions. Classical music is quite often perceived as a set of strict rules, the creativity to me is about finding new unexpected ways of using those rules.

Do you think we musicians can do something to attract young generation into the classical music concerts? How will you proceed?

Depending on the age, there might be different approaches. For the youngest ones I’d focus on the playful experience: let them learn instruments by touching and improvising with their families. For teenagers I’d focus on helping them to compose their own pieces and make attending the concerts as a part of the learning process. Also, there is a lot of modern classical music used in popular movies and it might be very attractive to the young generation to see how this music is performed live. E.g. many of my students were introduced to Debussy’s Clair De Lune through Twilight Saga and that made them want to play it. Or, coming from a different direction, my own children were all tears when we took them to an open rehearsal of an orchestra, playing John Williams’s famous soundtracks. Not strictly classical but inspired by Richard Strauss and Antonin Dvorak.

Tell us about your creative process. Do you have your favorite piece (written by you) How did you start working on it?

Most of my pieces start as improvisations on simple motifs. Quite often these motifs are given to me by my husband, who is not a musician himself. However, this might be exactly what helps him to think “out-of-the-box” without bothering if his motifs are musical at all. So, he hits some keys and then challenges me with his usual request: “What can you make of it?” and I take it from there, instantly turning it into a full composition. Many of my albums happened that way, especially the one called “Accidental Etudes”, which name reflects the essence of this creative process: “Etudes” because the main motifs are pretty simple to be like a practicing exercise, “Accidental” because they happen spontaneously. Oh, and another reason for “Accidental” is because we both have the tendency to love black keys. So, it’s kind of playing with double meaning of words.

Speaking of the favorite piece, it’s hard to choose one. But one of my personal favorites is definitely “Moonlight Stroll” – a bluesy ambient piece in the rhythm of slow relaxing stroll with a nocturnal vibe to it – thus, the name. Btw, a couple of years ago we put this piece on SoundCloud and invited everyone to create different remixes and remakes and we were quite surprised to receive over 70 different versions ranging from hard rock and electronica to orchestral pieces and R&B songs with lyrics. The latter inspired me to write my own song (called “Pale moonlight”) based on the same instrumental piece.

We, Moving Classics TV, love the combination of classical music with different disciplines: music and painting, music and cinematography, music and digital art, music and poetry. What do you think about these combinations?

To me it sounds just natural to go in those directions and I really appreciate it when someone follows this path. You asked about “creativity” before, so, to me these kind of combinations are an essential part of the mentioned “creativity”. I see it as some kind of a “synesthesia” in Art: how a painting sounds? What color is this musical passage? And so on. First time I encountered it back in 90s, when I was studying Visual Arts, specifically, Wassily Kandinsky.

My recent album, “Yet another love story”, actually, belongs to the list of such combinations of different disciplines. It started as a mere attempt to create improvisational pieces for different emotions like “surprise”, “sadness”, “joy”, “anger”, even “disgust”. But after that my husband and I got the idea to turn it into a poetic story about our love and life together. We wrote lyrics for each and every track of the album and posted this story on YouTube, week by week, chapter by chapter, accompanied by musical emotions. Also, my husband and my daughter love to create cinematic videos and animations based on my musical compositions.

Can you give some advice for young people who want to discover classical music for themselves?

I’d recommend to start from… YouTube! It’s a terrific source for discovering everything, Classical music is not an exception. There are numerous channels that are extremely friendly and less formal, explaining styles, giving names of famous and less famous composers, teaching basic theory and helping with daily routine for any level of musicianship. E.g. “pianoTV”, “Classical Nerd”, Rick Beato. And, most certainly, do attend live concerts – once you get into the energy of it, it won’t be a “dry discipline” to you anymore.

Now it is a common practice in the media to talk that the classical music is getting into the consumption business, do you agree? We are speaking about the supply and demand rules and how to sell your “product” in your case your compositions. How do you see it?

I don’t think it is specific to the classical music and I don’t think it is specific to the present time. I mean, it’s always been like that with any kind of art to one extent or another. E.g. in the medieval times minstrels were paid for their performances, artists were paid for their paintings, so, how is it different nowadays? However, there are couple of reasons why it is, actually, different. In the digital era it is relatively easy to produce new music: all you need is a regular computer and an affordable keyboard. It is also relatively easy to distribute it via Internet. So, I guess, due to these reasons, nowadays there is more supply than demand.

For selling your “product” these days you need to find your specific audience, the one that is going to love not just the music itself but also your story, your personality. Somehow, it correlates with your previous question about the combination of different disciplines.

Do you have expectations what regards your listeners, your audience?

I’d really love to see more people to learn about my music and I’d love to find those whom I can work together with on bigger projects. For example, to compose music for films full-time is one of my dreams. Right now, alas, it’s about sporadic opportunities only. Oh, and I am definitely excited to see people performing my compositions. So far I got this experience with one of my original songs – it was performed by a choir in a church. To say that it was an overwhelming experience to me is to underestimate it.

What projects are coming up? Do you experiment in your projects?

Right now my husband and I are all into one big project: filming a theatrical video for the song I wrote last year. It’s been quite a project, starting from writing the orchestral arrangement for the song, taking vocal lessons to learn about operatic singing, writing a script for the video, finding a location for the video shoot, designing the decorations, working with theatrical makeup artists, finding the right costumes and so on. These days we are working with a choreographer and a group of dancers who will be there in the video. So… talk about the combination of different disciplines ;-) Whoever wants to read more about this project, here is the page about the whole story: