Pianist Thollem McDonas has been on the road almost constantly for the past 5 years, having covered much of the North American continent and Europe. In the past 6 years he has added 21 albums to his discography on 9 different vanguard labels in 4 different countries, including the historically auspicious duo recording with bassist Stefano Scodanibbio, with Thollem performing on a piano owned and operated by Claude Debussy.
Thollem will be performing at Issue Project Room this coming Friday. The following interview with James Ilgenfritz provides some great insights on Thollem’s activities, theories, and experiences.
How did the project come about where you performed duo with Stefano Scodanibbio on Debussy’s piano?
On tour in France a few years ago I met a wonderful musician named Evelyne Moser who is the daughter of the director of Musee LaBenche where Debussy’s piano is on exhibit. It was partially an invitation and partially a very official proposal by me for approval from the city of Brive-la-Gaillarde. This was the only piano Claude Debussy owned the last 14 years of his life. The first half of the concert I performed works of his that he wrote on the piano. The second half of the concert Scodanibbio and I performed structured improvisations that I invented for the occasion. We considered our approach as a 21st century homage to Debussy. Stefano and I had had some e-mail correspondence previously but it was Terry Riley that ultimately encouraged Stefano to play with me. Terry had become aware of me through my album RacingTheSun ChasingTheSun, which is two live solo concerts interwoven with each other released by Creative Sources from Portugal.
Your duo partners have included rock musicians like Jad Fair, John Dietrich, Mike Watt and Arrington deDionyso, saxophonists Faruq Z Bey, Vinny Golia, John Butcher, Rent Romus and Jon Raskin, and contemporary classical musicians like Scodanibbio. Do you find that there’s a great difference between how you approach these different settings?
Actually, I really don’t necessarily feel there is a great difference in approach. The intention of creating together in an equal collaboration is the same always. Obviously different musicians bring different skills and attitudes and experience to the table, but in the end the essence is the same. When I was practicing for the concert on Debussy’s piano I was in the studio then on tour in Italy with my anti-war punkarolla band Tsigoti. We ended our tour at a squat in Milan called Torchiera at 2:30 in the morning or so (as a side note, I remember Damo Suzuki was in the audience). That night I flew straight to Paris then a train straight to meet Scodanibbio and Debussy’s piano where we played the concert the following night. It was a pretty schizophrenic experience because of the attitude and sensibilities of the venues but I loved each equally even though the respective musical results really couldn’t possibly be more different. Ultimately, I’m intrigued and inspired by playing with a wide variety of musicians and settings.
You, much like Tatsuya Nakatani and Jack Wright, are something of a serial collaborator and traveller. Are there certain long-term projects that you feel demand the same type of energy from you as this state of constant discovery/renewal?
I have been on perpetual tour now for about 5 years running. My music at this point in my life is very flexible, simultaneously always coming out of a desire within myself to move somehow in this crazy world. On my travels I perform solo a lot, as well as in free improv situations with musicians I have never met as I will when playing at The Blue Note June 10th with Andrew D’Angelo and Greg Saunier. Though I have played with Greg, particularly with the NY based filmmaker Martha Colburn whom which we will actually be playing June 4th at the Anthology Film Archive. I also have projects/ensembles/bands in different parts of North America and Europe where we pick up where we left off each time when I am in that area. For instance, Tsigoti, we have just begun recording our fourth album even though we have only met once a year as a band. Each year we meet, we create an album together and tour. This last month we circumnavigated Italy playing 20 shows and at the end spent a day recording new material that came out of this time together. It is a band that we are all really dedicated to even though we live on different continents. I also facilitate improvisation workshops that focus on creating structured improvisations around discussions of social justice issues. All of this work, for me, is constantly interrelated and inspires and influences each of the other. Ultimately, I see my entire life, each breath and note I play as one long composition that may or may not conclude with the end of my life.
First of all, I started this ensemble in 2009 with the intention of facilitating more collaborations and dialogue across the U.S./Mexican border between improvisers and composers. In my travels around the U.S. I began to realize there is a profound disconnect with our counterparts in Mexico. I think it’s very important for artists to participate in the world particularly in this way, by creating real life examples of how people can work together, emphasizing our commonalities without sacrificing our uniquenesses, individually and culturally. So, I invited musicians from either side of the border, who are improvisers as well as experienced in interpreting modern scores. Our first album jimpani kustakwa ka jankwariteecherï, which is Purepechan for compositions and improvisations, was just released by Edgetone Records. Our next meeting will be in San Luis Potosi at CANTE institute of Arts, where we will be in residence for a week giving workshops and performing. Our previous performances were in Puebla, Mexico at the Puebla International Festival of Music the fall of 2009, and a week-long residency in San Francisco last August performing free improvisations at SIMM Series, a concert with Rova Saxophone Quartet and premieres of compositions written specifically for us at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
You are playing works by various composers, intended specifically for improvisers. How do you approach the divergent improvisational vocabularies that each composer presents?
William Parker, Joan Jeanrenaud, Pauline Oliveros, Nels Cline, Vinny Golia and myself from the U.S. and Ana Lara, Jorge Torres Saenz and Juan Felipe Waller from Mexico all wrote specifically for the ensemble. Everyone was inspired by the spirit of the cross-border exchange realizing the importance of such a group at this moment in time. For sure, all the composers approached their pieces differently and of course, this is great and exciting. Some were VERY open, without determining number of players or instrumentation, others with very specific instrumentation and a lot of notation but with a lot of room to interpret order and duration of sections etc. No matter the approach of the composers, however, each piece is different every time performed and at the same time still retains the characteristics to maintain it’s own individual identity.
You have worked as a solo artist often, and have a couple solo records out already. How did you get so deep into this process, and what are the creative influences that inform your work in this context?
I am equally influenced by non-‘musical’ aspects of existence as by ‘musical’. First I was influenced and inspired by the birth canal, then by the questions of death and everything in between. Somehow or another I continue to become who I am both as a person as well as a musician. Certainly there were people along the way that I am very aware of, that were great teachers both in positive and negative ways and almost infinitely more than I am not aware of. I grew up studying and performing the keyboard repertoire from the Renaissance through the 20th century. I listened to a lot of jazz and rock and early punk. Along the way I became increasingly interested in music from outside America and European influences and played in a Gamelan ensemble and a West African drumming troupe. I was fortunate to be able to take classes in Indian music, Chinese music and Persian music. In between it all I lived as a vagabond with a backpack demonstrating against war and ecological devastation, guerilla farming and playing very little music for several years. Now, I have 4 solo albums out and a 5th recorded ready for release. Possibly a 6th that was recorded on 3 pianos all differently tuned microtonally by Clem Fortuna in Detroit. It’s important to me that when i release a solo album, in this case, I am representing a different path or approach to the piano, and/or a continuation or evolution of a previous album. I have a solo concert at Issue Project Room June 3rd and will play with the intention of meeting the piano, the space, the people and the day within the context of the previous 13.5 billion years according to our sun and calculations. So, it’s really impossible for me to talk about my influences and without mentioning eventually every second of my life and everyone I’ve met, and the propaganda in the media and quantum physics and 35,000 year old cave paintings and the end of oil, children starving to death, water wars or butterflies.