By: Darida Rose
Darida Rose, Phoenix Journal (PJ): Could you tell us about the concept for the video?
Arty Sandler (AS): The music Milana Zilnik (my wife) and I compose and produce together is rather eclectic but I like to perceive many of our musical projects as a journey to some magical land; a journey that requires some sort of a transformation from something ordinary to something extraordinary. These themes of a journey and a magical transformation are present in a few of our music videos, including "Time". Each journey starts in our studio and ends there - the place where our music is born. Everything in between is a fantasy told by the music itself. "Time" is set to the opening track of our "Abracadabra!" album but I tried to capture the themes of most of the other tracks. Obviously, there is a "Journey" (the 2nd track), there is a land "Behind the Mirror" (the 4th track), there is some "Witchcraft" (11th) and "Alchemy" (12th). And, of course, at the very end there is "Returning" (the closing 13th), which is about coming from the fantasy back into the real world. So, in a sense, this music video tells the story of the whole album.
(PJ): The video is visually stunning. Could you tell us a bit about the production? How did you find the location?
(AS): I am happy you found it stunning :) My approach to filmmaking is somehow inspired by what I heard in one of the interviews with David Lynch. One of the actors from Twin Peaks said this about David Lynch (or maybe it was Lynch himself): that it all starts with some images for him; the story connecting those images together comes later. Similarly, first I got the idea for these images: going back and forth through the mirror, musicians in glass globes, multiple "Milana"s running in fast motion across the scene, Milana getting older as time goes by. I got those images in my head but I had no idea about how I was going to implement all that at the time. I just thought, "These are cool scenes, I need to put them all into the story". So, I went through a dozen of YouTube tutorials to learn how to do those effects, realizing that it's all actually doable. From the theme of "Time" came the idea for the costume - gears, metronomes, the whole "steampunk-ish" vibe. All the parts for the costume we got on Amazon: the skirt, the hat, the leggings, the corset, the boots, the gloves - it was like ten different orders just for the costume. Then I drew a quick sketch for the steampunkish set followed by several visits to the local Home Depot to get all those copper pipes and coils, bolts, nuts, screws etc etc. Then was a bit of cutting and drilling to put it all together. Speaking of the location - we didn't really look for it, Lime Kiln Ruins (in Ottawa) is one of our favorite spots for local hiking. The main problem was that this place is a favorite spot for many others, so it was crowded quite often. I needed this place all for ourselves without any strangers in the background. That was quite tricky to the extent of forcing me to look for some alternatives but at the end I decided to risk: our set was relatively small, we didn't bring a crew with us and didn't use any dangerous pyrotechnics. So, well, I thought that if someone would pass by we could always wait few minutes or ask them to move. That said, to minimize the chances for such encounters, we did plan to take a day off from our day jobs and film on a week day. That put another challenge on us: we needed some assistance and due to Covid we couldn't ask anyone but our kids. That meant we had to film before their school started in September. The timing was very tight and August was so hot and humid that it made it truly difficult to film outdoors. We waited for almost three weeks until the weather showed some sympathy and played in our favor. And then another three weeks to edit all the effects. I even had to upgrade our main computer, it just refused to process all the effects in 4k.
(PJ): What was the songwriting process like for Time?
(AS): The idea for the whole album started with the Hang drum. Both Milana and I were quite fascinated with its sound when we first heard it in some YouTube video. I can't even remember what video that was but hearing that Hang's sound made me want to get one. Well, it was more like a dream, like "Ah! One day I want to have it!" without any particular plans. Another couple years passed until we got some extra money and decided that it's time to buy one. We spent some time looking online, found the one we liked on eBay and by a strange coincidence, out of all places on Earth, the maker of that Hang drum turned out to be from the same birthtown as Milana. Isn't it magic in action? Anyways, January 2019 we received this Hang, started playing with it and instantly composed a couple pieces. This is when the idea of composing a full album for the Hang appeared for the first time. By the way, I am not a musician, Milana is. My role in the composing process is limited to coming up with some crazy ideas. So, I dropped this "bomb" on Milana: "let's combine your piano, vocals and Hang". This is how it started but later on the project grew beyond this concept because we chose to add a cello and some other percussion. All the tracks were composed digitally at first, i.e. each and every line was played on a keyboard using sampled instruments. It took about half a year in between our day jobs to finish composing 13 pieces. Then it took another two months to transcribe all that into 300 pages of sheet music for the live recording. Speaking of "Time" specifically, it was based on a very simple melodic motif that I played on the Hang drum - the one that opens the track. Beyond that motif it's all Milana's magic as a composer/arranger. Among my ideas that went into this track were the "tick-tocking" part, the cross-rhythm cello pizzicatos (I wanted it to sound like a crazy cacaphony of a clock shop), the thrilling cello glissandos toward the end, the "tolling" piano chords during both culminations ending with a loud abrupt "Bang!" at the end of each crescendo (we did worry about our piano when recording that).
(PJ): In the video, the other musicians only appear in glass globes. This reminded me of a zoom conversation. Were the parts all recorded remotely for this song because of the Covid-19 pandemic?
(AS): We were used to remote recording sessions even in pre-Covid times. In the past years we arranged and recorded piano and vocals from the comfort of our studio for over a hundred composers and songwriters from all over the world. So, when the time came to hire session musicians for our own album, we "knew the drill" (i.e. we did plan to hire musicians remotely even before Covid). That said, the idea to "put" musicians into the glass globes in our music video - that was indeed an allusion to the quarantine realities. In fact, Covid did affect the recording of the album because not every session musician had recording equipment at home, many were used to going to nearby recording studios. Back in the Spring, all the studios were closed and that was one of the reasons that put our plans to release the album on Halloween in jeopardy.
(PJ): Could you speak about the use of the mirror in the video? Are you checking to make sure the magic or alchemy, or scientific devices are working to keep you young?
(AS): The concept of several of our music videos revolves around the act of transformation. For "Time" it was about going through the "mirror" to turn into a steampunk witch. Why a mirror specifically? There is no one exact reason for that, but many little indirect ones. Well, first of all, there is a mirror in Milana's studio that she likes. Then again, I was a big fan of Michael Cretu's Enigma, and "The Screen Behind the Mirror" was one of my favorite albums. I guess that was the inspiration to call one of our tracks "Behind the Mirror" and that was how the mirror appeared in the video. Oh, yes, we did drag that same mirror all the way to the filming location. And back.
(PJ): Time is the title track on your new album, Abracadabra! Is there a thread that links all the songs together?
(AS): Of course! This is how we composed most of our albums in the recent years - they all are devoted either to a particular theme or a particular story. "Abracadabra!" is one of the latter. Each track is a chapter in the story of going to that magical land behind the mirror and back. It starts with the realization that it is "Time" (the 1st track) to start a "Journey" (the 2nd track). Each magical journey starts with pronouncing a magical word "Abracadabra!" (the 3rd track) that takes us to that magical land "Behind the Mirror" (4th track). Of course, the journey is not without some "challenges" (the 5th track) but it was "imminent" (the 6th) that we would get there. We face some "encounters" (the 7th track) with magical creatures, we reflect on what was "Lost" and what was "Found" (the 8th). We feel "enchanted" (the 9th) by finding the "Enchanted Spirit" ("Spirito Incantato" - the 10th). Of course, it requires some "Witchcraft" (the 11th) and "Alchemy" (the 12th). And, as in many magical journeys, we do "return" (the 13th) back to the real world.
(PJ): Art is one way human beings try to defeat time - by creating something that will last beyond themselves. Could you say something about the relationship between time and music?
(AS): It's a difficult question really. For Milana music stops time, she doesn't feel how time goes by when she is in her musical zone. For me it can be a more pragmatic one - how to find the time for making music. Well, also music itself can only exist while time is flowing. Unlike a painting, for example, which captures a momentary "snapshot", music needs the flow of time to exist.
(PJ): With live music outlawed for the time being, what do you see as the role of musicians during the pandemic?
(AS): Although live music is truly an important experience, there have always been other ways of reaching listener's ears. So, music is still there, people still need it in their lives, pandemic or not. I'd say without live music the role of all other musical "channels" became even more important nowadays. And we are lucky to live in the times when musicians can play music for the entire world from the comfort of their homes.