Thollem McDonas Interview (part 2/3)

On Debussy's piano

You are involved in so many projects, which is the “dimension” you prefer: in solo, in bands, in orchestra (I see that for this year you’ll be guiding the Estamos Ensemble)? In particular, I’m curious about the “duo” asset, and I refer to your collaboration with Rivera, Guazzaloca and Scodanibbio.

It’s my favourite way to improvise with others, because to me it’s like a real conversation, there is a real powerful direct connection in a duo.

The solo performance instead: is it something you totally control or you get astonished from?

I think that I’m more surprised when I play with other people, there’s more improvisation than when I’m playing alone, although there is a lot of improvisation even when I’m playing alone…so I do get surprised of what I’m doing, but it’s a totally different form of control.
When I’m playing with other people my intention is to respond to them, it creates new idea from me; when I’m playing solo, using little pieces of my own compositions combining them in spontaneous way, it creates new ways to develop ideas.

Examining the word “respond” (to others) I think to “responsability” as the ability to respond: do you feel a responsability when playing with other musician and a sort of abandon when playing alone?

I always feel a sort of responsability to the audience. I approach a solo concert differently depending on the audience and the context, as I think it’s important to partecipate in a way that is meaningful to the people as well as myself. When there’s nobody else making sounds I feel that I can go much deeper into myself.

Having you performed in so many and so various contexts and venues, how do you relate with the space and the presences around the piano when you play solo?

It’s something difficult, for sure. For instance just the other day I was playing in the Teatro Rifugio in Livorno (ndr: a “social center”), which can contain about 60 people, and they were 70, it was very compact! So that is for me the easiest way to play: a small intimate space full of people excited about what I’m doing.
It’s just impossible to compare those kind of situations with the performances I had in demostrations or even in riots… in that situations there’s so much going on, and you focus on just the music, while in this small and intimate contexts i also focus on the audience, I feel the audience and its energy, I feed with that energy and I love that energy.

Do you play only piano or other instruments?

I play trumpets and hand-drums percussion but never live. But the only trumpet I had was stolen about 10 years ago, so maybe someone is playing it now more than I did! (LOL)

Do you have any preferences about pianos? I think to the pianist as someone who’s always trying to give the best but not on his personal instrument.

I slip with a different oiano every night! (LOL)
I think is part of the training for a pianist to be able to become familiar with a different piano everyday, and quickly!
Most of my life I’ve been a little bit jealous for musicians who have their own instrument, not only for bringing it with them all the time, but because of the intimate lifetime relation they can build with the instrument, knowing it so well in its every part… I miss that a bit. But at the same time I love discovering  a new piano every time. Walking in the space where I’m supposed to play and have this encounter with the piano is always exciting to me.

Do you enjoy it also when you find a broken piano or an old one?

I love pianos that are “in decay”, with a lot of noises that good pianos don’t have, because suddenly there’s a whole new “palet” of sounds to use. For instance, the piano that we used for the Tsigoti recording is a piano found in the studio in Nipozzano, it was Samuele’s from Motociclica Tellacci… he grew up with this piano, it’s old and really in bad shape (LOL) but I’ve recorded 4 or 5 albums with it… and it’s the Tsigoti sound! It’s very hard to play, every key is different, and there’s all kind of noises that are coming out of that piano.

That makes also more difficult to record it?

That definetely makes more difficult to record it.

You had the chance to meet, among so many, also the Debussy‘s piano. There also is a documentary project on this experience you’re bringing on with Tuia Cherici: can you tell me how this came out, from the beginning?

I met the daughter of the director of a museum in a town about 4 hours train from Paris, an anthropological museum. The director of the museum found a piano herself and after doing some research she found that it belonged to Debussy for the last 14 years of his life, he wrote a lot music on this piano… When he dead, the piano went to his family members and so on and so on, then she aquired it and now it is in the museum.
I went to this town and met the director of the museum and she said “We have a wonderful object you might be interested in”, she showed it to me and said it was Debussy’s piano for the last 14 years of his life… Wow… Then she said she was busy and told me if I wanted to play…
Then I found out that they had two concerts previously and she was disappointed because they hadn’t been recorded, so… I proposed to set up a concert and record it.

Then the project became larger, because of the documentary work and also because of the involvement of another great musician, Stefano Scodanibbio: was it your own proposal?

It was my proposal. Stefano and I have been in contact in the previous year and I had a scheme in mind for improvisation, so I thought he would have been the perfect musician for his interest in contrabass – he is the greatest contrabassist I’ve ever heard in my life! – and particularly for this type of enviroment… so I invited him.

How is the sound of this piano at the end? Is it particular?

It’s pretty good, it has been restored a little bit… first of all it is over a hundred years old, even if it has been kept in quite good condition, but also it has a ten strings that are “sympathetic” on me, which means that they are not touched with hammers, they’re above the normal set of strings so they’re free to vibrate “sympathetically” with the vibration of other strings…

Was it built this way or was it a Debussy’s feature?

There was a french man who developed this system and it was used for this Debussy’s piano.

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