• Jonathan Widran

MILANA ZILNIK, Abracadabra

It’s always inspiring when a beloved artist develops an intense interest in an exotic new instrument and shares the wealth of that passion/driving obsession with fans hungering for fresh and dynamic sonic energy.


Borrowing from the title of her 2012 debut album, pianist/composer Milana Zilnik has been exploring a Vibrant Universe of sounds her entire career. As we listen to her perfectly named new collection Abracadabra – a fascinating musical journey which takes us from the hauntingly hypnotic “Time” through the gentle, meditative “Returning” – we should be grateful not only that she and her husband, composer/producer Arty Sandler not only discovered and purchased a Hang drum, but found a compelling and infectious way to incorporate it into a quartet format featuring Milana on piano and Hang, cellist Yoed Nir, and vocalist Alexa Ray, whose dreamy, ethereal wordless voicings bring extra transcendence to the 13 tracks.


While a recording so richly textured with melodic, harmonic and percussive grandeur can certainly be appreciated for its uniqueness without a back story, the narrative reveals just how much thought and care went into the process. First a word about the instrument itself. Created by Swiss inventors Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer of PANArt Hangbau AG, the Hang is constructed from two half shells of deep drawn, nitride steel sheet glued together at the rim, leaving the inside hollow and creating the shape of a convex lens. Its seductive resonance captured Milana and Arty’s collective imaginations a few years ago when they saw it demonstrated on a YouTube video. It took a few years for them to get a budget for one that was full scale rather than the typical pentatonic. They bought it on eBay from a seller named “WidJana.” Later, Arty found a blog post about the maker – in a delightful bit of serendipity, he was from Milana’s hometown of Chernovtsy, Urkaine!


From visionary concept through its provocative execution, Abracadabra has been an inspiring labor of love from the moment the couple received their Hang in January 2019 and started composing songs with it. Their initial vision was a trio (piano, Hang, vocal) but it evolved with the additional emotional gravitas of the cello. Milana had longed for years to add another instrument to her repertoire, including an attempt and violin that wreaked havoc on her neck. Finding a new niche with the Hang offered her an opportunity to grow further as a composer and push her boundaries as a pianist by trying new rhythms and harmonies. Besides the Hang, another major inspiration was the music of the Cirque du Soleil show "Alegria."


Perhaps best experienced as a singular long listen rather than picking and choosing “singles” or “playlist tracks,” Abracadabra builds its (pardon the pun) magical aural narrative via the mood of each chapter/composition. They composed for several months, then transcribed the pieces for the other musicians – an incredible total of over 300 pages of scores for each instrumental or vocal line. In addition to the musicians mentioned, they also hired Phil DiMercurio to arrange additional percussion and drums.

There are several reasons that Milana and Arty chose the whimsical title Abracadabra for this work, but the one that best illuminates our path as we listen is that it reflects a journey to a magical land where, as she says, there is a “transformation from something ordinary to something extraordinary, a journey from our world to the world of the imagination. Yet it always ends with coming back to reality.”


Lifting off with the soaring piano, Hang and vocal swirling of “Journey,” we’re taken to this magical world (via the bustling jazz symphonics of the title track) that blooms in a vibrantly hopeful realm “Behind the Mirror” (expressed in lush piano glissandos over the ever-hypnotic Hang). It’s not all sweetness and roses, however. Our visit includes initial challenges as we embark on a road revealing the “Imminence” of realizing thus far ambiguous dreams (hence the cello’s mysterious and ominous darkness).

We also have “Encounters” with magical creatures, expressed via the jazzy whimsy of Milana’s scat vocals; experience the shadowy tension between what we left behind and all that is ahead (“Lost and Found”); and work our way forward towards a playful, lightheared sense of “Enchantment,” a gentle and lyrical but spiritually invigorating “Spirito Incantato,” and the need for a little “Witchcraft” (featuring sometimes clashing, sometimes harmonious vocal and piano musings) and “Alchemy” to make it happen.


The lovely though more conventional closing piano driven ballad “Returning” marks a return to normal life, where the flow and swirl of ivory, voice and cello we feel a bit of nostalgia and melancholy leaving the magic land, but are reminded that we can bring some emotional and spiritual souvenirs with us. This being 2020, it might be a good idea to hang with the Hang a little longer and listen over and over before venturing back to our personal and collective realities.


Yet that is the entire purpose of Abracadabra. As Milana says, “In hard times like this year, I think we all want something magical to happen. Something that will take us from the challenging reality and onto a magical journey. To recharge the batteries, to come back with the belief that it's all possible - to overcome challenges, to transform.”

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