Thollem McDonas Interview (part 1/3)
After seeing Thollem McDonas playing several times it was only this January when I had the chance to saw him in Florence for a solo piano and met him by person.
I was soon interested in his path in music, the thoughts and approaches of such a great musician, so we agreed for an interview and this was recorded few days after, a long and friendly conversation.
I want to say thanks to Thollem for being so open and disposable, and also say thanks to Jacopo, Matteo and Andrea of the Tsigoti project.
If you visit the Tsigoti page, you’ll see that their US tour is starting today. I’ll try to follow it as possible as they’ll be sending feedback.
Meanwhile, here is the first part of the interview.
Let’s start from the present: I would like to know about the Tsigoti project, their ongoing trilogy about war and the US tour with the record out on ESP-Disk.
We’re in the middle of recording a third album together while the second work is out on the ESP-Disk from New York.
It all started two years ago with the four of us who had been playing in various bands before. We do a lot of improvisation and a variety of music… Andrea Caprara, who plays drums, said to me one morning in the house where there’s our studio: When I was a kid I grew up playing drums in punk bands, now I’m an old man in the country playing free jazz (LOL) and I never recorded a “punk album”…
So I said: Let’s do it!.
I was there since three days, coming from Prague and doing nothing except drinking beer and writing about war and my disgust of war, so I had a bunch of work – which wasn’t meant to be songs necessarely, but I had it – and in three days we made an album! We had a great time in doing it and when I came back to Italy we did a tour and decided to record a second album and continue with this.
But how did you met?
I met Jacopo Andreini in Washington, at The Experimental Music Festival: we were both playing there and got immediately attracted to each other’s music. We stayed in touch and then he invited me to come to Italy where he set up a ten days of solo piano concerts for me. Then I was invited to come to Nipozzano, the house where the studio is, and I recorded an album with Edoardo Ricci. Through that I met a lot of people in Pontassieve, lots of musicians and artists… I feel like I’m part of their family now.
For what I heard the first step of the trilogy project, “War Is Terror Terror Is War” , was centered on the point of view of people “making war”, while the Tsigoti issue adopt the point of view of the ones who are victims of war…
It’s true, more or less…I think that all albums we made focus on “all the elements it takes to make a war”, which includes government liying, people believing the lies, people benefiting by a war because they get cheaper products, the enviromental and the human costs of war… even if a single album do focus a little bit more on a single aspect it’s all part of the whole thing.
Which is your musical education? A classical training, very deep, since you were a child?
Yes, my mother was a piano teacher and I was kind of “forced” to play the piano, to study and practice every day, studying theory and music history… It was a “regress training”, a classical and traditional training.
And did you enjoy it?
Not at all… not untill I was 13 or 14, then it became “mine”.
Before of that I was kid and wanted to be out playing with other friends, like any kid wants to do…
How did you melt these studies with the musical scenes around you such as the punk issues or the improvisation area? Was it gradually or something made you suddenly change?
I think I was curious, and to me curiosity is one of the most important element to make any type of music. Experimenting has always been a part of me, but obviously there has been a point when I stopped playing classical music, as a main focus, and started to focus on composition and improvisation.
In the classical music tradition improvisation has always been an important part untill about a hundred years ago, and composers have always played and performers have always composed… But then I started to discover that in the classical tradition there was a lot of music written in the 20th century people are not aware of, even people who are involved in classical music, and that’s because so much of the emphasys is on the 17th, 18th and 19th century… So I started to discover Henry Cow, John Cage of course and Harry Partch and many others, and I discovered that I had an “affinity” with them, that their music, their way of thinking was “parallel” to mine. I started to met people older than me who had already “broke” with the classical musical tradition and who gave me some inspirations and guidance.
I see that you enjoy writing songs and sing them, thus confronting the song form with your “energic” style of playing: this are elements of rock music, so are you trying to bring this in every aspects of your making music or do you keep things distinct?
I guess for the most part they’re distinct.
There’s an improvisational element in Tsigoti, we’re all improvisers and we all come from experimental background and interests. And this is present in our music.
When I’m not with Tsigoti most of the time I play solo piano -and I don’t sing- and/or I play free improvisation with the musicians that I met travelling…
So there really is a lot of separation, i would say.
You mentioned the musicians met while travelling, and I know that you’re practicing this “continuous tour”: is it a life choice, a necessity, an experiment? More a life choice or a musician choice?
It’s both and also my nature. It’s very natural for me to be in motion and it helps my music flow; it would be also impossible I guess, to make my living with my music if I would stay in one place. But mostly it is very important for musicians and artists and free thinkers to travel and bring ideas “by person”; we have computer and internet but for me is much more “integral” when you can touch, feel, smell each other…
… and playing together… I’m aware of this and for sure it is a way to enlarge and assimilate influences: do you also have permanent influences, which is the “core” of your musical approach?
Well… my mother. I’m sure that without her pushing me like she did I would be doing something completely different with my life, then if you’re asking me about a particular pianist or a particular composer…
… not really, my question was about your main relation with music, the emotional side, so your answer for me is very clear!