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Music - Musicians - Interview | by SuccoAcido in Music - Musicians on 24/02/2014 - Comments (1)
Thollem McDonas

Thollem McDonas is a pianist, composer, improviser and teacher. He travels perpetually internationally performing as a soloist as well as in collaboration with a wide array of artists in wildly divergent directions. In the past 7 years, he has added 30 albums to his discography on 12 different vanguard labels in 4 different countries. After graduating with degrees in both piano performance and composition, he stepped from the concert pianist trajectory to dedicate his time to grassroots political movements and ecological restoration projects. In 2005, he returned to his music as his full focus, incorporating his myriad experiences into his compositions, improvisations and teaching. He has performed extensively as a soloist as well as in piano concertos with symphonies, West African drumming troupes, Javanese gamelan ensembles, punk bands, with film makers, dancers, poets and painters and a wide array of divergent musicians, both famous and under-known.


SA: Ciao Thollem! interviewing a perpetual touring musician like you, the first question should always be: where are you right now?
TH: Ciao Jacopo! Iím at the Frog Farmin Takilma, Oregon in the Siskiyou Mountain Wilderness!

SA: This interview will go on the printed (and of course online!) version of SuccoAcido. I think it would be great to list here the major activities of your last 18 months. As latins used to say ďScripta manentĒ!

TH: My last 18 months have been pretty full. Iíve toured with Tsigoti†in Italy plus we released two new albums. I toured with 10.000 Tigers†(my duo with Arrington de Dionyso) in the U.S. in support of our newest album Ten Thousand Tigers. I also toured with the films of Tuia Cherici Manucinema†in the U.S. Iíve released in total 9 albums since Jan. 2012 with a very wide array of musicians including Nels Cline and William Parker (Thollem/Parker/Cline), Mike Watt, John Dieterich and Tim Barnes (The Hand To Man Band), Jad Fair and Brian Chase (Whispering Joy Jumpers), Edoardo Marrafa and Stefano Giust (Magimc), and an archival album of mine of recordings from my high school and first college years (Dear Future). Iíve developed many more projects as well, including Estamos Trio which is coming out soon on Relative Pitch Records, Thollem Electricís KEYNGDRUM OVERDRIVE, an all electric album with some great musicians in Nashville including Ed Petterson, Tracy Silverman, Ryan Norris, and Dylan Simon, a quartet album with Daniele Roccato, Marco Rogliano and Francesco Dillon, a 2nd Hand To Man Band album has been recorded, started Hot Pursuit Of Happiness with Brian Chase and Todd Clouser, duo albums with Hafez Modirzadeh, Sabrina Siegel and Gino Robair, and a solo album called Thollemís Confluence.

SA: Getting to the core of some questions: you are known manly as piano player, but in your musical experiences thereís a lot more, and for lack of time and space everybody always skip the fact. Having played (at least) trumpet and percussions, not to mention being a singer/songwriter as well, how all this elements are present in your piano music?TH: Well, Iíve always written songs and sang them, even though I didnít release an album of songs until 2006. I need to create some opportunities to play trumpet and percussion. These have not been prevalent in my music for a long time.
Of course, I sing in Tsigoti and will be in some upcoming projects as well. Iíve always been interested in the voice since itís right there ready at all times. Itís the most accessible of sound producers whether or not you think you have a Ďgoodí voice. Itís a direct connection from person to person. This also means there is too much information sometimes though, too much connection with the personality or the message of a singer. I love the abstract aspects of music that allow and encourage the imagination in the minds of the listener. Then again, I also learn a lot about my piano playing through my voice. So, itís a complicated relationship!

SA: You spent almost your whole life playing acoustic pianos, and now you are exploring electric pianos and keyboards. First of all, could you tell us the main reasons for it?
TH: Iíve always been interested electronic music and my composition teacher in college, Allen Strange, is a very well known electro-acoustic composer. Iíve always felt I needed to stay true to the piano though, in the sense that if I went too much into electronics then I would find ways to realize my ideas away from the piano, and I felt I would develop much more as a pianist if I really explored the acoustical properties as well as the physical relationship that I have with the piano. Now, for the first time, Iíve owned my own keyboards and effects with the sole purpose of finding my way with these sounds. Itís the right time in my life, and my arch as a musician. Also the electronics are now informing my piano playing and gives me greater flexibility of where I can play and audiences I play for.

SA: And then, how this instruments changes your compositional approach? and the improvisational one?
TH: Simple sounds that are incredibly boring, to me, on the piano pop out in technicolor with a little distortion. It feels a little like cheating nowÖ but then thereís the other end of it which is having some control of these sounds as I otherwise let them run on their own, in a sense. Itís a whole new world, and Iím constantly being surprised by my own playing, which is a great experience! I feel that I can get closer to improvisation in this way. Same as if I am playing a differently tuned piano. Iím finding now that I want to simplify with the effects actually again, and work with just a distortion and wah. Thereís so much that can be done with these two pedals. I had worked my way up to a frequency modulator and a Polyphonic Octave Generator. I was playing a Rhodes through them for the last 6 months or so. But thatís a lot to travel with and so now Iím simplifying again. Itís a constant state of Ďwhat if?í and Ďwhy not?í and listening and adjusting. The first album of me playing anything but an acoustic piano was just released (The Whispering Joy Jumpers with Brian and Jad). Now Iíve got several more on the way, and a whole new project called KEYNGDRUM OVERDRIVE which is me on electric piano and distortion playing with different drummers along my travels!

SA: Thereís a link between being a traveling musician and playing improvised music: traveling you meet many other musicians, coming from other cultures, and the common ground to share a musical experience is improvisation. What have you learned from the thousands of improvisations you played?
TH: Traveling is an improvisation and improvisation is a sonic adventureÖ where youíll end up you donít necessarily know when you start. We have this great opportunity of the concept/philosophy/approach of what we call free improvisation now in the world, unlike any other time, and Iím constantly meeting new musicians and playing with them, sometimes not being able to speak the same verbal language, or playing instruments with completely different intonation. I find often that I learn as much by playing with an inexperienced improviser as playing with a master improviser. Itís a great way to challenge myself as a musician, both in my concept of what music is or should be, and also in my abilities to respond to others in the moment, through a very pure communication device. I am perpetually on the road, without a house or apartment for many years now. This allows my the opportunity to play with so many different musicians, and artists of different disciplines as well. I also stop here and there for more extended periods and develop projects. Tsigoti, for instance, is a band that happens primarily when I come to Italy. We have a few days to make a new album and a few more to do a tour. We have made all of our albums pretty much in the moment together. In many ways utilizing the concepts of free improvisation in the overall approach, then codifying what we come up with in the moment into a song that we can re-perform. So, I see improvisation as a tool for so many different approaches to music. It has a lot of applications...

SA: Do you think improvising must stay in an opposition to composing, or have you found a way to ďcomproviseĒ also with occasional musical partners?
TH: I think only comprovisation exists when there are people involved. 100% improvisation is impossible and so is 100% composition if the composition is being performed by a person. So, from there itís a matter of deciding for myself as an individual or a collective where on the spectrum we will meet. I donít compose in the traditional sense anymore. Very rarely do I even write out phrases or a rhythm, but thatís not because Iím opposed to composition, itís because I find so many amazing experiences through improvisation and Iíd rather be playing music than writing it on a piece of paper or a computer. I also love about sound is that it doesnít exist, then it does, then it doesnít again. Music is a sound painting and a great reminder/meditation that everything is in constant flux, evolving, dying, decaying and recycling the life energy force. I also love the egalitarian possibilities of improvisation and there are structures that can emphasize this aspect which then starts to become more and more composition. So, Iím curious about the point where composition and improvisation meet and enhance each other. Here†is a page devoted to live collaborative concerts with a wide variety of great musicians along my travels.

SA: Compositionally, what are the inner (maybe unconscious) rules that will create a new piŤce ďŗ la ThollemĒ?
TH: Ďwhat if?í Ďwhy not?! Other than that, Iím not aware of any compositional rules that define my approach. I really am curious about approaching each individual musical event as a unique experience, especially when collaborating with others in the creation of a new work.

SA: Your travels often bring you back in places where you have been before, allowing you to create projects or even bands with other people. Is that something that just happens, are you looking to make it happen, is it something you deeply want?
TH: This is definitely something that I have carved into my life on purpose, and itís the great benefit of being on the road perpetually. We live in this amazing time, musically, to be able to connect in ways that were much more difficult before. Of course, this can happen now through technology, and I do often collaborate with people through the internet, but itís not the same as crossing political/linguistic/cultural borders and getting out of your comfort zone. I really am kind of compulsive for my need to collaborate with others. I learn so much this way.

SA: Whatís the line between a band and a project?
TH: I think of a project as more of a short term collaboration, I guess. Thereís also ensemble or group. I think these words are more cultural than anything. In English they have certain definitions colloquially. A jazz band, for instance, is different than a jazz combo, and weíd never say my rock ensemble, but you might say rock group. Definitely not rock orchestra but you could say jazz orchestra and that would be different from a jazz band which is different from a jazz combo. A string band is definitely different from a string ensemble which is just smaller than a string orchestra. Thereís no such thing as a piano band but there is a piano quartet but not because there are 4 pianos.

SA: In your latest releases thereís a lot of music played with other people, after a consistent series of albums of solo piano.
It would be great to get in the details for each one of them, as each album always has an entire book of experiences that should be written! But for now, I am interested in knowing if thereís a pattern of reasons, motivations and feelings that can be common to the idea of recording and releasing music made with other people.

TH: I really have been collaborating with many different people for a long time. I am a serial collaborator and I am primarily because of what I learn from the experience, the personal connections, and the wide variety of results possible. With Hand To Man Band for instance, I thought it would be interesting to create an album that would be different than anything any of us had done before. So that any listener who knows any of our individual output would think, wow, thatís a totally different band for Watt, for instance, or for Dieterich, etc. Iím also really interested in stretching my fellow musicians as Iím being stretched myself. I also love figuring out how to approach my playing in a way that will encourage my partners to highlight aspects of their playing that I love. Obviously though, the joy has to be there. Itís really important to enjoy the experience of collaboration. So, more importantly than anything I have to like the people Iím working with and like being with them. This is the most important criteria for anyone I work with. Secondly, that they are willing to open up and be free to explore new terrain that can only be created by the combination of these individuals coming together.

SA: And then, of course, what it is behind entering in a recording studio (whatever you call a studio!) with the idea to work on a precise musical idea or project.
TH: I rarely have a precise musical goal in any project except to create together. With Tsigoti we approached our recordings with a particular attitude, which was very different than my approach with Scodanibbio on Debussyís Piano And...†which I was working on simultaneously with the 2nd Tsigoti album. Also, I do record in many different environments. It is great to be in a great room, with great equipment and a great engineer. I also think we can place too much value on that as well. Great performances have been captured in mono, then in stereo and so on. Bob Olhsson mastered my trio album with Nels and William. He was one of the original engineers for Motown! During our mastering session he paused at one point and said, ďI remember when we went from 3-track capability to 8-trackÖ we were the 2nd studio in the world to have 8-track recording capability.Ē

SA: Whatís still to be done in Thollem (artistical) life? what do you miss most at the moment?
TH: Mostly I miss money at the momentÖ right now the money is being squeezed out for independent musicians, as well for many others, of course! Artistically, I donít feel anything is missing. Iíd like to tour with Tsigoti again, but the problem is money. Other than that I feel pretty fulfilled artistically.

SA: A few impressions about this works: Estamos Ensemble, Debussyís piano, Stefano Scodanibbioís duo, Bad News from Houston, The Hand to Man Band, The Whistling Joy Jumpers
TH: Estamos Ensembleis a group of improvisers and composers from Mexico and the U.S. I started this ensemble to help facilitate more collaboration across the border between the U.S. and Mexico. We released our first album on Edgetone Records. The next installment of Estamos is a trio with Carmna Escobar and Milo Tamez plus myself. Our newest album will be released on Relative Pitch Records the end of June. Itís called Peopleís Historia and features artwork by Postcommodity ( which is an Indian arts collective out of New Mexico. My duo with Scodanibbio was a great highlight of my life. We became very good friends and I helped provide a means for him to improvise (publicly). Of course, performing and recording on the only piano Debussy owned the last 14 years of his life was pretty remarkable too. Bad News From Houston is the 2nd incarnation for John Dieterich and I as a duo. We had a whole architecture in mind when we recorded then lost our notes, or blueprint, for the design so created then from what we had. It was a process impossible to recreate, I think. I love working with John, weíre very compatible, often with the same ideas simultaneously while editing and mixing. The Hand To Man Band continues! Itís been pretty amazing working with Watt and becoming good friends throughout this. Weíre all sorry Tim Barnes is not with the group anymore, but weíre happy to have Mike Guarino along now. Strange music, indeed! Jad is more Jad than anyone else is their selves! Something like thatÖ Improvised songs! Great having Brian in the mix, and now he and I will be continuing our work on Hot Pursuit Of Happiness!

SA: And the question we all were waiting for: two lines about your italian collaborators! Stefano Giust, Edoardo Marraffa, Nicola Guazzaloca, Tsigoti, Squarcicatrici and I sure forget another tons...
TH: Stefano Giust brings the swirl of the universe through his drums and straight into my brain. Marraffa brings the big bang! Nicola and I could joke until we die from lack of oxygen. His carries into our playing as well. SQUARCICATRICI!!! One of my all-time favorite bands...

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Bibliography, links, notes:

di Jacopo Andreini

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  posted by Nessun untente on 26/06/2015 17:40:05
Grazie per questi interessanti consigli forte, Ť bello venire attraverso articoli interessanti come il vostro! Vi auguro salute, la longevitŗ, il successo, la felicitŗ e la pace del cuore.

voyance gratuite ; voyance par mail gratuite

Thollem New-Orleans © Angela C Villa
Thollem In Box © Angela C Villa
Thollem Hand Sunset © Angela C Villa
Thollem LaCite colour © Angela C Villa
Thollem Livorno Vertic © Angela C Villa
Thollem Maxxi © Angela C Villa
Thollem Monitor Mush Maus St. Louis © Angela C Villa
Thollem Music Hands © Angela C Villa
Thollem Pacifica Pier © Angela C Villa

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