Buckley Mills, a Violinist and Composer Who Works in Various Genres
In late December 2012, I spoke with violinist and composer Buckley Mills, who was at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. He said it was only about 20 degrees Fahrenheit that morning, but there was little snow. He wished for another snowfall so they could have a white Christmas. Then he noted that the oncoming holiday season and some of my questions had flooded his mind with thoughts of the past.
Q: When did you first begin to play the violin?
A: I was born in Illinois, but I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa. I had a violin in my hands when I was three years old, and by the age of five I was already playing classical music, jazz, and country music. I would say that the earlier a child begins playing an instrument, the better. If he or she can play the violin, piano, or another instrument at the age of two, then the parent should go along with it. I haven’t thought about my childhood in a long time. My father, who was also a violinist, composer, and teacher, began to teach me violin when I was three. He was a musical Jack-of-all-trades, so to speak, and he did not restrict me to any one genre. He started me out on classical, jazz, and country music. I began to study piano when I was nine or 10, but at that time I was so overloaded between school and the violin that I didn’t want anything to do with it. By the age of nine I was already playing strolling violin gigs with my mother and father at least once a week. I was also playing in string quartets for weddings and other events. At that time I could play several styles of music, so I was in the local and state youth orchestras as well as my school’s orchestra, jazz band, and concert band. I sang in the school choir and I played violin, guitar, bass, and several other instruments. After a while I found that for me there was just too much going on, so I thought the best thing I could do would be to take the thing for which I had the most talent and go with it. I had a pretty great run musically when I was a kid until I was about 13. At that time, my father was diagnosed with cancer and everything changed. For years after that I had to put a lot on hold. It wasn’t until 2002 that I moved to Nashville so I could pursue my musical dream.
Q: I’m told that you have perfect pitch. Is that true?
A: Yes, I do. There is something I’d like to clarify when talking about perfect pitch. I have known a few people who claim to have perfect pitch because they are able to name one out of three or four notes on their second or third try. That really isn’t perfect pitch. It isn’t even good relative pitch. I have read about people who can name the note of a car horn or a similar sound. If you can do that perfectly every time, I would say you have perfect pitch. I can do that in my sleep. My ability to detect pitch is such that if you hit nine notes on a piano at one time, I can name every one of them. You could hit a note per second or faster on the piano for a week and I could name the exact note every time for as long as you wanted to keep playing them. I doubt that many people who claim to have perfect pitch can do this for a sequence of more than five or six notes with any degree of efficiency. I can do it forever. That is why I wish there was a perfect pitch contest.
Q: What did you do after high school?
A: Let me say that where I come from a lot of people know me for playing the violin, but not for being a composer. At the age of 19, I had already been in the Sioux City Symphony for five years and I had won prizes in a ton of violin talent contests. I was also playing it in a Celtic band that had a CD being played on regional radio. When I was offered a full scholarship to attend our local college for music, I accepted it and enrolled. About a month into the school year, one of our professors wanted us to write a piece of music for our class. It could be in any style we chose. I decided to write a string quartet, so I reserved time at the recording studio of one friend and asked another friend to come over and play my composition’s cello part. To complete the recording, I overdubbed both violins and the viola part. I had composed classical music before this, but up to this point it had only been for my own amusement. Anyway, when our professor heard the string quartet I had written, he went absolutely mad over it. He literally ran around the school telling all of the other music professors to listen to it. Of course, he told the students as well. I thought it was funny because this guy was a serious musician and it was not easy to impress him. That incident really made me think about going down a classical path, but that’s easier said than done. That teacher definitely had a major impact on me as a composer, however. He made me realize that what I could do with classical music was something out of the ordinary.
Q: What does it take to be a composer?
A: First of all, to be a true composer, you have to have the right creative talent and you have to have your head in the right place. You can be influenced positively by a number of factors, but those two aspects are the most important. The talent to compose is very rare, but you need time and money, too, if you want to pursue it seriously. It takes a whole lot of time and money to organize a classical recording and subsequent radio release. I signed my first real recording contract in late 2008 with Chacra Music of Canada and we released a jazz disc to radio stations across the United States in January 2010. It stayed on the charts for four months straight but then it dropped off and that was the end of it. I knew right away that I needed to seize the opportunity to release a classical CD and that is exactly what I did. We narrowed down the orchestra. I wrote all day everyday until my writing chops were in tiptop shape and, fortunately, everything fell into place.
Q: What kind of musical form do you prefer?
A: I will probably end up writing more symphonies than anything else because I love the symphonic form. Most of what is going on inside my head is symphonic, but every so often a piano melody pops up and I write it out. I could write string quartets all day long, but one of them requires the same amount of mental energy as a symphony, so I would much rather write the larger work. I’m also working on concertos for several instruments, and you will see those in the near future. I will probably write some violin sonatas as well. I like to compose symphonies for strings and, for a change of pace, solo piano pieces or almost anything else, really. I doubt I’ll write a timpani concerto anytime soon, but never say never.
Q: How do you go about composing?
A: It’s more like how could I go about not composing. My brain is wired to configure music and melodies constantly. It really has been switched on all the time since I was 12 or 13 years old and I have learned to live with it. I do a bit of sketching at first, but I find that the real key is to have a great melody in mind. Then, you need to have the ability to write an entire piece of music around it that is really fresh and good. I want the listener to say, “Wow that’s awesome!” When I’m in full composing mode, I like to write immediately after I wake up. It takes a ton of mental energy to compose something great and it will wipe you out after a few hours if you’re really cooking. All of the work is in my head before I write it down. I write from my head directly onto paper with no instruments involved and no cheating or anything else. It’s pure. My main techniques involve staying healthy and getting lots of rest. Living life the right way is the key to everything. It took me a while to figure it out, but that is number one in importance.
Q: What emotions do you find most easily aroused by your music?
A: I would hope that I could touch upon as many emotions as possible. I think that’s the point really. I want everyone, including myself, to have something special to listen to. To me, it’s 100 percent necessary that my music be easily accessible to the listener. First impressions can make or break you. I hope that anyone who listens to my CD will walk away happy, energized, and ready to take on the world again. I have an endless supply of classical melodies and they are all different. Sometimes you hear several selections from an artist that start to sound the same after a while. You won’t get that from me.
Q: What do you see yourself doing five or 10 years from now?
A: I expect to continue lavishing 100 percent of my efforts on the symphonic form. The power of a symphony can be out of this world if it is done right. My Symphony No. 2 is already in the works. So are more piano pieces and some concertos. The Nashville String Machine will be recording my Second Symphony in 2013 and the CD should be played on the radio in early 2014. Although I doubt I would ever write specifically for film or television, all of what I compose could be used in a film or on TV without modification. Five or 10 years from now I expect to be composing more music and possibly raising a family. I hope I will be lucky enough to be a part of the future of classical music because I have so many melodies ready to go that I think I could keep composing forever.
Q: What is your advice for a young composer starting out?
A: New composers need to learn how the music industry works. Most importantly, they also have to learn never, ever, to take “No” for an answer.
Q: How would you characterize the new music scene in the U.S. today?
A: I love the classical and country music scenes of today. I love living in Nashville because the country music that you hear there is unreal. New artists, like the beautiful and talented Jana Kramer and Hunter Hayes, are amazing. I always go to the Country Music Association Awards, the Grammy Nominations that are held in Nashville, and other events like that when I can. We also have an amazing group of classical musicians here in Nashville and thank God for that. They did a tremendous job recording my symphony, Piano Sonata, and Lullaby.
Q: How much modern technology do you use in your work?
A: When I compose, the music goes from my head to paper but that paper is digital on my computer. It’s much easier to work that way and save the results on a computer than to put them on actual paper. I prefer scores that can be downloaded. Computer generated scores allow us to work at a speed that enables us to shoot music from conductor to orchestra to publicist, etc., with great efficiency. It would cost us far more time and money if we had to do it the old school way.
Q: What do you like to do when you are not composing?
A: Believe me. I’m always composing. The flow of music in my brain is like a faucet that never shuts off. I have a classical music factory in my head that’s open 24-7. When I’m not actually sitting around working on music, I spend time with some really cool friends. I collect high-end Paul Reed Smith guitars and I have one of the best collections in the world. Also, living in Nashville is the best. I absolutely love country music and the stars that are associated with it. They are some of the finest people in the world.
Q: Do you manage to have much of a private life?
A: I have a 100 percent private life. Nashville really offers the best of both worlds for both private and public musical life. I see famous country musicians out and about all the time and nobody bothers them at all. It’s just that kind of place. You can go about your business and people leave you alone.
Q: What is your best music business story?
A: In October 2008, the president of Chacra Music Canada flew to Nashville to meet me and hear me play. I was determined to not let this guy go back home without giving me a recording contract. We met at the home of my producer, Jeff Nystrom, and we all went out to dinner. At the restaurant I told him everything I could about what I could do musically because I was trying very hard to impress him. He knew what I was after and said, “When we get back to the house, I will hear you play and then we’ll talk.” So when we got back I got the violin out and ripped on it wildly for about 15 minutes. He looked at me and said, “What planet are you from?” Then he said, “Congratulations! You have a record deal.”
Piano Sonata in C. Symphony No. 1.
Steve Kummer (pn); Chris McDonald, cond; Nashville String Machine
BYM MUSIC 84061 (34: 07)
Buckley Mills is a Nashville Tennessee musician who has been playing music professionally since childhood. Now he is also composing melodic classical music in a rather unusual style for this day and age. For the most part, his Piano Sonata in C Major follows the tradition of Haydn, Clementi, Mozart, and Beethoven. He seems to have a feeling for the structure of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, but his inventive melodies are totally his own. Like the works of Beethoven, Mills’s music was designed for eminently skilled players. Well-known pianist and music director Steve Kummer plays the sonata and the
with consummate musicianship. Kummer, like Mills, is known to work in several different genres. Mills’s Symphony follows tradition in that it has four movements, but he goes his own tremendously interesting way when it comes to developing themes. A devoted melodist who rarely uses dissonance even for contrast, he likes bright happy music and major keys. Although the style of this piece is similar to those of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven, he clothes it in modern dress and adorns it with lilting tunes, each more hummable than the last.
Since he does not use much dissonance, Mills uses rhythm to differentiate the second movement from the first. His second movement is an excursion into the world of folkdance that makes you want to tap your toes. Later on, the rhythms and melodic variations become more intense as all the members of the string orchestra join together to reach a high point in the piece. It resolves into beautifully orchestrated dénouement that leads into the next, more lyrical movement. The third movement floats on air like a dreamy bel canto aria. Here the models are not only Mozart and early Beethoven; this music also has some of the graceful arching lines we associate with the operatic music of Vincenzo Bellini. The fourth movement wakes us from our reverie, however, and it embarks on a much more modern form. Still using his long-lined lyrical melodies, Mills states them in a repetitive, hypnotic way that makes the listener realize that he is not totally absorbed in the past. Here, he uses his many-colored melodic tapestry to adorn a set of variations that holds one’s attention in a vise because he keeps increasing the tension by means of dynamic changes. Not only is this symphony interesting in itself, it offers us great promise for the future. Mills says he is already working on a Second Symphony and I think we can expect a great deal more fascinating music from this fine composer.
These pieces were recorded by some of the best engineers in Nashville and the sound is absolutely pristine on this entire recording.