Pianist Philip Thomas is a prolific artist. A member of Apartment House, he recently participated in their recording of Ryoko Akama’s compositions for Another Timbre. Also on Another Timbre is Thomas’s gargantuan CD set of piano music by Morton Feldman, which includes several previously unreleased pieces.
Two of the pianist’s other recent projects focus on other members of the New York School. His deep dive into Cage’s Concert for Piano (again with Apartment House) has resulted in a book, recording, and an interactive online project, Cageconcert (cageconcert.org) that also includes apps to work with segments of the piece and make one’s own versions. He has also released a recording of Christian Wolff’s piano music. Finally, Thomas has recorded a CD of composer-pianist Chris Burn’s work, including transcriptions of improvisations by the late guitarist (and author of one of the key books on improvisation) Derek Bailey. As the interview below demonstrates, Thomas’s performance and recording schedule shows no signs of let-up. (Note: Philip and I talked before the pandemic, so some of his future projects are now TBA).
How did you and
Martin Iddon come to collaborate on a book about Cage’s Concert for Piano
(1957-’58)? Were the book and recording in process before the website and apps
were conceived or was the idea of multiple presentations part of the initial
This goes back a long
way! I had it in my thoughts that, having performed the piece a number of
times, with Apartment House but also with others, including the Merce
Cunningham Dance Company for the dance ‘Antic Meet’, it was a far richer piece
than had perhaps history had credited it. It’s such a well-known piece, not
least from its visual appearance, and its historic performance value has
influenced what we think of as a Cage-ian performance practice. Plus the
premiere performance and recording is notorious from its depiction on the
Twenty-Fifth Retrospective Concert album. But I felt strongly that there was
much that is not more widely known when digging a little deeper, both about the
way it can be performed, about the graphic notations of the ‘Solo for Piano’,
and about the instrumental and conductor parts. And I was aware that
performance as both historical and contemporary practice has a lot to say about
the music, not least because of the unusually long time one has to spend with
the piano part in order to arrive at something which is playable. So I set to
thinking about this as a major research project and immediately thought of
Martin as being an ideal collaborator, particularly due to his brilliant book
about Cage and Tudor, as well as his Darmstadt book. So over lunch in London
one day we dreamt up the project, which over the following year developed and
formed to include the book, the website and apps, as well as the involvement of
Apartment House. Then there was the inevitable long wait until we found out our
grant application was successful. The grant was for a 3-year project but
inevitably aspects of that spill over into the months since – and I’ve just now
finished the index for the book! The apps grew from a simple idea that we
thought might be nice to a far more complex concept than any of us could have
imagined, forming a vital part of the project. The team expanded to include two
research assistants, Emily Payne and Chris Melen – Chris being the developer of
the Solo for Piano app – with additional help from others, including Stuart
Mellor who designed the Concert Player app.
As a pianist who
specializes in experimental music, Concert for Piano seems like a natural work
to explore from multiple vantage points. When did you first become acquainted
with the piece, and what does it mean to you as an interpreter?
I’ve mostly played it
with Apartment House. I think possibly the earliest occasion was in 2008 when I
organised a 50th anniversary concert
of the 25-year retrospective concert. My experience then was as it continues to
be, that this is an exceptionally rich and lively piece, full of surprises, and
one which is a total joy to perform – each moment is alive and fresh, and my
experience as a performer is of being part of music being made, rather than
something which is ‘re-played’. We don’t rehearse, everyone works on their own
materials, and then it’s put together, so for everyone playing the experience
is as new as it is for the audience. This is true of many pieces by Cage of
course, but this piece seems to heighten those senses and the material is so
exaggerated in its range here – noises, pitches, highs and lows, louds and
The website and apps
provided detailed and varied material from Concert. Will you share with us some
of the features you consider to be highlights?
There’s so much
there, a few of my favourite things include:
Apartment House – I love to hear the musicians of Apartment House talk about
what they do. These interviews are brimming with insight. I especially like the
films which combine their different insights, such as the ‘Performing the
film and the last 10 minutes of the conductor film.
Watching the films of
our performances of the ‘Concert’ and also Christian Wolff’s ‘Resistance’ is a particular
thrill, because, as I suggested above, there’s so much unknown in the
performance itself that it’s great to get a stronger sense of the kinds of
things the other musicians are doing.
This one is not yet
on the website but will be appearing very soon – I have made a studio recording
of the complete ‘Solo for Piano’, which has never been done. It’s completely
different from the version I play with Apartment House – for this I recorded
each notation individually, according to a space time measurement of 3 minutes
per page, and then Alex Bonney has mapped them together like a patchwork quilt,
to get a complete 3 hours and 9 minutes performance of the Solo. You can hear
it now actually on the Concert Player app as it’s this recording which we use
for the app.
For the uninitiated person
finding this on the web, what do you think they apps will demonstrate to them?
I hope firstly that
it’ll just be a great entry into the music – that this is music people play and
love to play, and is really great to play, instead of perhaps either that it is
too ‘far-out’ or obfuscatory, or, the flip-side, that it is entirely open and
‘free’! For users trying out the Solo for Piano app, I hope it’ll both be a
great way of playing with the notations and their conditions for performance,
to see what might be possible and conversely what is not possible with each,
and to play with the multiple possibilities the notation offers; and that it
will also be an aid to performance. Of course each pianist will want to try it
out in their own way, but at the least I hope that for some notations this will
be a time-saver, offering possibilities to randomly generate multiple outcomes
and to print them off in usable formats. An obvious criticism of the app is
that it removes the fun of working these things out yourself – I think it
manages to keep the fun of playing with each notation, whilst cutting down on
the work needed to write these things out. And we’ve been careful to always
show where and how we’ve made interpretative decision when others might make
other choices, so it’s clear that this is both a facility AND an
And then the Concert
player app is simply a delight to hear – there are 16,383 possible instrumental
combinations of this piece, and we have a handful of recordings available.
Clearly, a recording of a work such as this can only hint at the slightest
possibility of how this piece may sound. But the app allows users to randomly
generate or select combinations, plus select pages, their durations, their
sequence, and then hear how that might sound. We’ve taken great care to ensure
the space-time properties of the music are upheld (measuring by the pixel!) and
so really this is a pretty accurate – no matter how inappropriate that word is
to this piece!! – realisation. I still listen to it regularly and am surprised
all the time by the combinations. It’s a thrill, so I hope people will just
You have been
performing Morton Feldman’s music for over a quarter century. Still, the
recording you did for Another Timbre last year was a mammoth undertaking. How
long did it take to record? How do you keep so much detailed, long repertoire,
with irregular repetitions, in your brain and fingers?
Somehow it didn’t
feel like a mammoth task, more like a real pleasure to play these pieces again.
Perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t feel any kind of pressure to give a ‘definitive’
statement on the music – my performances on disc just happen to be a
representation of how I play this music today, after many years of thinking
about and playing it. If I were to record it all again in 10 years it may be
quite different, who knows? It was though a particular pleasure to discover a
few pieces that I hadn’t played before, namely the unpublished works I explored
at the Sacher Foundation in Basel, and the transcription I made of the Lipton
I recorded the music
over a period of about 2 years, in different sessions. It’s funny how the music
at times just sticks in terms of fingering, rhythmic detail, whilst at other
times what should be very familiar to me still seems strange. Certainly,
whereas I thought this project might draw a line in the sand for me – no more
Feldman! – I feel it’s done the opposite, opened up more possibilities, more
ways of thinking about the music. In particular, Triadic Memories, which
I’ve probably played more often than any other single piece of music, changed a
great deal for me in preparation for the recording and what I thought I knew
now feels more experimental, more curious, than ever. There’s a part of me that
sometimes tries to avoid Feldman’s music – it’s almost too gorgeous at times,
and I need to find something else, something of rougher hue, but those chords
keep pulling me back! Thankfully, there’s so much more to the music than just
beautiful sonorities, and in particular the music’s form and narrative feels to
me to be so strikingly original.
Are there surprises
among the previously unrecorded pieces?
addition of struck drum and glass to the Feldman sound is pretty surprising,
bringing to mind much more the 1940s music by Cage, and here included as part
of a set of three pieces composed for the dance. In fact there’s a surprising
number of pieces composed for dance collaborations, not just for Cunningham,
but also for Merle Mersicano, as Ryan Dohoney has written about in considerable
detail recently. One of these is Figure of Memory which sounds nothing like
Feldman and more like some kind of sketch of a Satie piece, consisting simply
of repetitions of three short phrases.
release is of music by Chris Burn, including a transcription of an
improvisation by Derek Bailey. How does that translate to the piano?
Well Chris is a
wonderful wonderful composer, and a brilliant pianist and improviser. And so he
is fully aware of the slightly perverse nature of what he was doing in writing
these pieces, not least as someone who used to play with Bailey. But these
pieces are not just really lovely pieces of music, but they also reveal
something about Chris and how he hears and thinks of music, as well as being
revealing of Bailey’s own work, and in particular of his love of Webern and his
close attention to pitch. So when the guitar-ness of the pieces is removed a
different side to Bailey’s music is revealed which is simply different but to
my ears no less remarkable.
As if 2019 weren’t
busy enough for you, a compendium of Christian Wolff’s piano music was released
on Sub Rosa. In the notes you say that “In all my performances of Wolff’s
music, I aim for interpretations that both interest and surprise me, allowing
the notations to lead me to new ways of playing and thinking about music,
the same time trying
to lead the notations toward the unexpected.” When discussing the piano music
with Wolff, what were some insights he offered? What piece will most likely
The recent double
disc follows on from an earlier three-disc set, and hopefully precedes another
three-disc set to follow. Christian’s music is, when it comes down to it, the
music I feel closest to. I love the potential for change, for surprise, for
play. On the whole I tend not to ‘collaborate’ with composers (I trust them to
do what they do well and then it’s over to me) and so I love the moment when I
begin a new piece, I put it up on the piano and I start to think ‘ok so what am
I going to do with this’. This is where I am at my most creative, and
Christian’s music works especially well to that effect. I’ve never asked him
for his approval of what I do and most often he doesn’t hear my interpretations
until after I’ve performed or recorded it. Though the very first time we met,
in 2002, I played ‘Bread and Roses’ to him, waited for his response, and learnt
fairly quickly that his typical response was ‘Sure!’. He tends not to validate
not to denigrate peoples’ performances of his music and I appreciate that. He
doesn’t want to say ‘yes, this is how it should be played’ preferring instead
for the individuality of the player to find new solutions, new ways of playing.
And so I do hope with each performance I give of his music that I might offer
something that would surprise him, that might suggest possibilities in his
music which he’d not considered.
In this recent set
I’ve included a few pieces which are not published, so that surprised him too!
So three variations on Satie, pieces he composed for John Tilbury, which he
never quite convinced himself as worth publishing but hopefully he’s convinced
now they’re out on disc – they’re wonderfully eccentric pieces. Also his
Incidental Music, which he has played and recorded (wonderfully, on Mode) but
which he’d not heard anyone else perform. He was delighted, so that’s great.
And for anyone familiar with Wolff’s music I hope that my playing brings both
recognition and surprise too.
What will be your
next recording/recital? What will Apartment House be up to in 2020?
Next concert, in Cambridge in April, features a brand-new piece that Toronto-based composer Allison Cameron is writing for me, which I’m delighted about. And Simon Reynell’s always dreaming up new ideas and introducing me to younger composers and I’m always happy to play a small part in that project. And as a result of the Feldman release we’ve been able to commission one of my very favourite composers, Martin Arnold, to write a large-scale new piece for me. But that won’t be for a while. Lots of ideas, lots of pieces I want to play, but actually I’m hoping for a bit of a quieter year this year!
Carey is a composer, performer, musicologist, and writer. His work has been
published in Perspectives of New Music, Intégral, Open Space, Tempo, Musical
America, Time Out New York, Signal to Noise, Early Music America, Sequenza 21,
Pop Matters, All About Jazz, and NewMusicBox. Carey’s research on
narrativity in late music by Elliott Carter, presented at IRCAM in Paris on the
composer’s 100th birthday, appears in Hommage à Elliott Carter (Editions
Delatour). He is Associate Professor of Composition, History, and Theory at
Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey.
On Friday, October 25th, Westminster Choir College’s recording label, distributed by Naxos, will release “Composers at Westminster,” a digital recording of works by the composition faculty. It includes music by Stefan Young, Joel Phillips, Jay Kawarsky, Ronald Hemmel, and Christian Carey.
Three of the college’s choirs, conducted by Joe Miller, James Jordan, and Amanda Quist,as well as Victoria Browers, a member of the voice faculty, accompanied by pianist J.J. Penna, are among the performers on the recording.
You may listen to a stream or download the music via this link.
On April 28th, 2018, two of my Magnificat Antiphons will be performed by Westminster Kantorei, Amanda Quist, conductor. Kantorei will be recording them the following week for release on Westminster Choir College’s imprint (distributed by Naxos).
I have been at Westminster since 2004. I am thrilled that, for the first time, my work will be featured by one of the choirs.
You can hear Lumina, the choir’s superb debut recording (long-listed for last year’s Grammys), here.
Amazing what you uncover on Google Books. A review of Cassatt String Quartet, with guest cellist Christopher Finkel, premiering my String Quartet (1999) at June in Buffalo.
“Christian B. Carey’s String Quartet (1999) is a rare effort to draw from jazz’s rhythmic style while applying an apparent serial language. The general depiction of jazz as a traditional palette (swinging, improvised-like solos) with tongue-in-cheek titles (‘Bebop a Lulu,’ ‘Elegaicism’ and ‘Lulu Redux’) makes for easily enjoyable music. Certainly the resultant serial sonorities have their own oddly saucy flavor, but all the more teeth for one’s wit.” – New Music Connoisseur, Volume 7, pp. 49.
This year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood (in Lenox, Massachusetts) was curated by three youngish stars of the new music community: pianist Jacob Greenberg (ICE), cellist Kathryn Bates (Del Sol Quartet), and violist Nadia Sirota (Q2, ACME). Each planned a chamber music concert, consisting of commissioned new works and contemporary repertory selections. The curators combined forces with the BSO in selecting pieces for the festival’s finale, an orchestra concert conducted by Stefan Asbury and Vinay Parameswaran.
Commissioned works included vocal pieces by Nathan Davis and Anthony Cheung, a string quartet (with copious use of water-filled glasses and glass bowls) by Kui Dong, and Clip, a chamber ensemble work by Nico Muhly (for which I contributed program notes). These showed a diversity of musical approaches. Davis and Cheung took postmodern textual compiling as the jumping off point for stylistically varied and technically demanding singing. Dong revelled in glassine textures, both in the strings and with the water glasses themselves, while Muhly presented one of his most rhythmically intricate works to date, in places extending the language of post-minimalism towards the polyrhythms of late modernity.
A standout on the concert curated by Greenberg on Thursday, August 10th was Columbia University professor George Lewis’s first appearance at Tanglewood (at age 65). Noteworthy for his work with AACM and a catalogue of compositions encompassing facets of concert music, jazz, improvisation, and electronics, Lewis was represented by Anthem, a 2012 piece originally written for Wet Ink Ensemble. At Tanglewood, Wet Ink’s vocalist Katie Soper, herself a prominent and creative composer, delivered a supersonic performance of a part written in Sprechstimme to Lewis’s own text about TV talking heads and subversive political commentary. Teddy Poll conducted, Greenberg contributed electronics, and the rest of the players, to a person impressive, were mostly guest musicians from ICE. Imaginatively scored and surpassingly energetic, Anthem was a rousing closer to FCM’s first evening.
Friday afternoon featured a program of string quartets curated by Bates. A detailed and fine-tuned performance of Ben Johnston’s microtonal Fourth String Quartet by the Fromm Players (for which I was fortunate to contribute program notes) loomed large, but Bates introduced other fine pieces to Tanglewood audiences as well.
Croatoan II for string quartet and percussion by Moritz Eggert, supplied the proceedings with a welcome dose of humor, treating the mystery of a disappearing colony of early American settlers with more whimsy than tragedy. Percussionist Tyler Flynt, using what Bates described as a “suitcase’s worth” of hand percussion instruments, made the quick changes both in tempo and instruments seem effortless. Rene Orth’s Stripped (2015), a piece written in memory of the trumpeter Alex Greene, her Curtis classmate, began with noise-based sound effects and traversed an imaginative pathway to soaring harmonics. Although it didn’t quite gel in the Tanglewood performance, Terry Riley’s G Song is an attractive deployment of all manner of scalar patterns and jazzy cadence-points (look for Del Sol Quartet’s next CD to hear it more authoritatively rendered).
Violinist Cameron Daly and cellist Chava Appiah performed Lei Liang’s Gobi Canticle, a piece that incorporates material and techniques from Mongolian string music. Liang visited the Nei Monggol region in 1996 to learn more about its music-making. This is deftly demonstrated in Gobi Canticle, which is at turns gently lyrical and boldly dramatic in cast.
I was most pleased to be introduced to the work of Jack Body (1944-2015), the recently departed New Zealand composer whose works synthesize ethnomusicology and composition. The wonderfully fleet and attractive Flurry (2002), in a version for three string quartets, opened Friday’s concert. Led by Bates, this all-too-brief work was immediately encored. One was glad to have the chance to hear it again and, unlike some encores, the performance was just as strong the second time around.
Later this week I will be writing more about FCM, as well as the BSO concerts that coincided with the festival. The article will appear on both my blog and Sequenza 21.
Today (Friday August 4, 2017), Bandcampsupports Trans rights with 100% of their proceed to the Transgender Law Center. There is a list of participating labels on their homepage, or you can just dig out your BC wishlist and get to shopping!
From the very beginning of Experimental Music Since 1970, author Jennie Gottschalk lets us know that her perspective is that of a “maker,” a composer. This is instructive as to the book’s approach and to its inclusion and, in some cases, exclusion, of experimental composers who have made an impact over the past five decades. These decisions are based on a particular composer’s vantage point rather than an attempt to construct an all-encompassing canon of “important” figures, which in the fragmented and various perspectives of the postmodern era no book could truly do without devolving into mere name-checking and cataloging. Happily, Gottschalk’s book is anything but a catalog — her portraits of various wings of experimental music are vivid and often detailed. It is the viewpoint of a fascinating “maker,” someone who embraces an array of imaginative approaches to musical experimentation.
Gottschalk suggests that one of the purposes of her volume is to serve as a continuation of Michael Nyman’s seminal Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Perhaps in response to the centrality of Cage in the earlier volume, she begins Experimental Music Since 1970 with a deconstruction of the composer’s 4’33”, pointing out the various pathways into experiment that the piece still affords today. Gottschalk identifies these central concerns as follows: indeterminacy, change, non-subjectivity, research, and experience. While it is quickly pointed out that not all experimental music engages all of these issues, they prove to be pivotal in the way that Gottschalk defines and describes experimentation.
With these initial precepts laid out, the book proceeds to further parse experimentation into particular spheres of activity, with each chapter tackling one or more of these. Thus we are spared a chronological overview and when concerns overlap in composers’ works, they may reappear throughout the volume. This does lead one to question certain choices of space allocation. For instances, even given all of his fertile creativity, why is Peter Ablinger so often referenced while microtonal composers Ezra Sims and Joe Maneri and hypercomplex composers Brian Ferneyhough and Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf are not mentioned even once? Apparently, the second modern school falls outside of Gottschalk’s purview. While one can fall back on her statement that she is a composer rather than a historian, it is somewhat disappointing that these significant types of experimentation seem “beyond the pale” (interestingly, there is similar neglect of American late modernism in Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s recent After the Fall: Music Since 1989). The presence of experimental jazz is also spotty, with a few references to artists such as Anthony Braxton and George Lewis but nothing about, for instance, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra. Another challenge is some haphazard copy-editing, particularly in the book’s latter half.
These caveats aside, what is covered here is a splendor of imaginative music-making that will supply much food for thought. Gottschalk is particularly in her element when discussing the Wandelweiser collective, approaches to instrument-building, ad hoc electronics, improvisation, sound art, ecomusic in general and site-specific works in particular. The book’s inclusivity in terms of race, gender, and sexuality may, along with Rutherford-Johnson’s similarly sensitive treatment of these issues in Music Since 1989, help to slay a few stereotypes about composers. Gottschalk’s website, Sound Expanse, continues to build upon the achievements and aims of Experimental Music Since 1970, providing a valuable companion to the book and a “must bookmark” resource all by itself.
Asko | Schönberg and Netherlands Radio Choir; Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor
ECM Records 3xCD 2505-07
Composer György Kurtág was born in Transylvania, but his many years of association with the Budapest conservatory have identified him as one of the foremost composers of Hungary, heir to Ligeti’s mantle as forward thinker and brilliant creator. ECM has been the label most associated with his music. Their release last decade of his string works was revelatory and one could certainly heap plaudits on the label’s celebration of Kurtág’s eightieth birthday in 2006 with a recording of his brilliant Kafka Fragments.
To celebrate his ninetieth year, just a smidge late, ECM has released a 3 CD set of Kurtág’s Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir. Even before listening, it is something to behold. ECM rightly has a reputation for lovingly curating their releases, but a number of interviews and essays (including program notes by Paul Griffiths), inclusion of the complete texts in sympathetic translations (no matter how thorny the originals), and many samples of the composer’s handwritten scores and ink drawings make this release a feast for the eyes. As for the ears, it has a remarkable dynamic range, clearly rendering everything from the softest whispers to thunderous bass drum thwacks with a sense of energetic potency.
The variance of dynamics is just one part of the multi-layered structures found in this music. From fragments of instrumental sound and disordered declamation to walls of choral sound and altissimo register vocal climaxes, Kurtág’s work encompasses a wide range of expression. In terms of desire, grief, fear, exhaustion, resiliency, and pain, there seems to be not a shade of emotion missing: his music is a complete catalog of the modernist project. Conductor Reinbert de Leeuw elicits each of these emotions and musical demeanors in turn with the surest of hands, drawing consummately detailed performances from the assembled forces. If you make it your business to get one recording of music by Kurtág, this is it.