Not every topic continues to interest and excite me after I publish its issue. Sometimes what began as a deep passion fizzles by the time I'm done with the interviews and I'm just happy to put the discussion out in the world and move onto the next deep passion. Not so with the music of Christian Wolff and people surrounding its performance. As I publish this final piece of continuing content, my interview with pianist Philip Thomas, I find myself slightly sad that my time and energy will be taken up with new subjects and new music. For the first time in ten issues, I find myself sentimental.
This conversation is a fittingly warm and interesting end to Sound American's conversation about one of America's great iconoclasts. Philip Thomas is the pianist behind Sub Rosa's recent and fantastic three-disc release Pianist:Pieces featuring a wonderful sample of stylistically diverse solo piano piece by Wolff concentrating on the early (from 1951 to 1959) works such as
For Pianist, to the works from 2001-2012 such as (one of my personal favorites) Long Piano. This set came to my attention while beginning the research for SA10 and has had a favored spot on the stereo even after I was finished with most of my writing. Part of the reason is Thomas's sensitive and rigorously playful readings of Wolff's music. It has been a pleasure comparing his versions of pieces such as Long Piano or For Piano I to the existing recordings in my collection and finding a different kind of warmth and passion for Wolff's music.
Philip Thomas is just one of many musicians who make the performance and interpretation of Christian Wolff's music a part of their practice and output. His study of Wolff's methods and compositions, alongside his work with British contemporary composers and the Wandelweiser Collective gives his readings specific dimensions. His work in academia, as an author and head of performance studies at University of Huddersfield, makes him comfortable expounding on my never ending questions. All of these add up to a fitting and satisfying end to one of my favorite issues to date. - Nate Wooley
Special thanks to Fred at Sub Rosa for allowing us to stream selected portions of Pianist:Pieces for this interview. You can find more about the disc and other Sub Rosa releases here.
Pianist Philip Thomas
Sound American: I'm interested in the project to record a mass of Christian Wolff's piano music. I remember seeing this release when it first came out and being struck by it. For some reason I grouped it in with recordings like Gieseking doing [Claude] Debussy or the [Maurizio] Pollini recordings of [Frederic] Chopin. And yet, Christian's music seems so much more difficult to compartmentalize. What was the original thought behind such a massive undertaking? Are you interested in making a recording of the "complete works for piano" at some point or was it a more individualized decision of specific pieces?
Philip Thomas: In January 2008 I presented a weekend of solo concerts – three in total – in my home town, Sheffield, featuring almost all of Christian’s works for solo piano alongside music with which I felt there were connections (these included [Charles] Ives, [Erik] Satie, [John] Cage, [Howard] Skempton, and four specially commissioned works by British composers: Stephen Chase, Christopher Fox, Tim Parkinson and Michael Parsons). Partly this was a continuation of earlier projects in which I had presented weekends of music, in art galleries in Sheffield, by Cage and then [Morton] Feldman. In doing so, I didn’t (and don’t) have any pretensions toward making a major artistic statement but really it was out of curiosity – what might I, and anybody who might attend the whole series, learn about Wolff’s music by experiencing it in so condensed a time-frame. I was interested in tracing issues of continuity and similarity across his music as well as development and change across the (at that time) almost 60 years of his composing life.
So this led me, in 2009, to begin recording the music. At around the same time I also began work on editing (with Stephen Chase) and writing two chapters for a volume of essays about Wolff’s music, Changing the System: the Music of Christian Wolff 1 So for a period I was totally immersed in thinking about, writing about and performing Christian’s music. At one level, presenting this much of his music – whether through that weekend of concerts, or in these three discs – is too much to take in. I know that Christian himself prefers his music to be played alongside music by other composers (I plan on doing a [Joseph] Haydn-Wolff series sometime in the future!) and I can understand that. I think sitting down to listen to all the music on the three discs probably is too much to take in and I would recommend listening to no more than one or two pieces at a time. However, the benefits of having one person performing all this music are that the kinds of choices left to the performer are many and my approach and the decisions I make are just one way of playing this music. Thus what you have in these three CDs is a fairly coherent representation of ME playing Wolff’s music and the recordings should always be understood in that light. I hope that the recordings do work as a set, not as some kind of exclusive presentation of Wolff’s solo piano music, but perhaps more as a personal statement – this is what I love about Wolff’s music, these are some of my choices and my take on the music. Or at least my take on the music at the point at which I recorded it – the music is flexible, renewable, and not only will other pianists play it quite differently, but I hope that my playing of the music changes with each performance.
The works on the discs are taken from his first compositional period, the 1950s, and his more recent phase, dating from 2001. What is missing are the extraordinary works from the late 1970s and 1980s, which can be found, amongst other places, on Sally Pinkas’s recording for Mode. There are, I think, about four more discs of music to record, which I hope to begin over coming years. As well as the works just mentioned (which include Bread and Roses and the Preludes 1-11), there are some curious works from earlier in the 1970s, such as Snowdrop, the Tilbury pieces, and Studies. And then more recently there are the whole set of short pieces which he has been composing for the past 25 years, collectively titled Keyboard Miscellany (which are ongoing), as well as Incidental Music (an hour-long set of fragments composed for a Merce Cunningham Dance Company "Event") and now the new piece which Christian composed for me and which I premiered in November 2014, Sailing By.
Though it might appear strange to have missed out 40 years of music by pairing the early and ‘late’ works in this release, it’s my feeling that there’s much they have in common, not least in terms of how I respond to both periods as a pianist. The ‘middle’ works do seem to demand a different kind of pianism, one which arguably references a more conventional way of playing (though the continuity and treatment of material are anything but conventional). What I love about the 1950s works is the liveliness of the material. Despite the complexity of the rhythmic notation in many of these pieces – or maybe because of it – there is spontaneity in the music, an improvisational quality I think. For example For Piano II is known as Wolff’s retort to [Pierre] Boulez’s complaint that he used too few notes in the earlier works, so this uses all 88 notes of the piano in various permutational ways. In other words, it is like what we think 1950s music to be – atonal, sounding serial, pointillistic. However the transparency of the line, the counterpoint, and the rhythmic complexity, combined with the absence of dynamics and tempi, results in a lively situation for the pianist – it’s a great piece to play! Likewise the recent works also share a concern for transparency and counterpoint. They are variously notated in terms of rhythm – some very open others much more fixed and some highly complex – and most often dynamics and other ways of playing are left to the pianist to determine. These are situations I particularly enjoy, as someone who enjoys both improvisation and counterpoint! So in some ways I feel perhaps most close to these works. Additionally they are works which I find endlessly curious, surprising – I’m not sure I ‘understand’ them, in that there is always more to gain from playing them. Wolff once wrote that “a score [is] one element in a conversation, an inducement to exploration, something flexible, reusable, consistently useful.”2, and that’s a conversation I’m happy to continue!
SA: One thing you bring up is the idea of presenting YOUR version of Christian's music, not in a egocentric way, but acknowledging that the performer does have more of an active role in Wolff's pieces than in, say, the work of Debussy or Chopin that I mentioned above. To me, the excitement of the release was that I finally was able to hear multiple performances of pieces like For Pianist or Long Piano, which is a rare treat for Christian's work and very insightful. How do the more performer driven elements of his work (improvisation, choices of tempi, etc.) affect you as an interpreter? Do they bring you closer to understanding his composition or push you further away?
PT: Christian has often made remarks to the effect that when he allows considerable freedoms to the performer he considers what, assuming goodwill on the part of the performer, would be the most far out response to these freedoms permissible by the notations/instructions. And then if he considers himself happy with that the piece is good, but if he thinks of responses which are perfectly permissible but which he would not be happy with then it's his responsibility to change the notation/instruction in some way. Knowing that this is his approach, that he has considered these matters carefully, means that I am then free to bring all that I am as a creative person to the table. In an article I wrote some time ago I made the distinction that to play Feldman's music well you have to some extent engage with Feldman's sounding aesthetic - the sounds, intervals, sense of time and pacing, and so forth. And with Cage's music you need to consider carefully the balance between choice and discipline, perhaps using chance in some way to make realisations, and certainly avoiding an overtly expressive or improvised approach. Whilst with Wolff I believe that the kinds of situations he composes into his music, the peculiar balance between control and freedom, or fixity and openness, allow for such a wide variety of approaches without in any way compromising the music. Performers are really free to be themselves, and yet the demands of the music are such that they will be making music quite unlike anything they would otherwise have performed.
So any performance of a piece reflects not just my own personalised responses to Wolff's music, but also my own responses at that time, informed doubtless by the music I'm interested in at the time of performance, what I'm reading, thinking, performing, etc. I've long ago stopped thinking 'I wonder if he means this...?' Or 'should I play it like this...?' In fact I often approach any given performance with the idea that there should be something in what I do that would, if Christian were there, surprise him in some way. Curiosity is vital when performing Christian's music, a sense of pushing things in some way. So rather than thinking 'what's the right way of playing this...' I'm thinking 'I wonder what would happen if I tried this...'. And whenever possible I try different things from one performance to another. In this way it keeps me alive and curious in the performance moment.
One of the techniques I've developed over the years is a qualified use of chance.3 What most fascinates me in the music is the balance between freedom and control, between having to do something specific at this point and having a great deal of choice at the next point. But in order for me to further surprise myself when I play almost all of his works, I use chance to predetermine some things. So for example, where wedges4 are used to break up phrases, I use chance to determine how many of those I might determine in advance of any given performance. So in a piece containing, say, 80 wedges, chance might determine I allocate 36 of them a particular duration. Then I use chance to determine which 36 of those 80 I determine in advance, and then again I use chance to determine how long that wedge will be (I usually have a choice of five - very short, short, medium, long, very long). It may be that chance tells me to allocate very few wedges in this way, or it may tell me to notate the majority of them. But what it does for me (and I recognise this is a very personal response, and not remotely what I think anyone should do - I'm not advocating this as a somehow better approach) is that it rescues me from the inclination to average out all the wedges so they all last approximately 3-5 seconds. And it also sometimes puts me in uncomfortable situations, such as after a particularly difficult passage when I really could do with a decent break before the next phrase, chance has determined that that wedge should be only very short. Or, in contrast, a single note or simple idea is separated by the following event by a very long break.
I apply similar processes to dynamics and to any other elements I think appropriate in the piece, such as tempi, pitch area (when pitches are free), choice of clefs, etc. I then re-apply the processes to each performance I give of the piece, keeping it fresh and lively in my experience. What this does is that I discover ways of playing and perceiving the music in quite different ways than if I left everything to my intuition. But note there is always room for playfulness and responding to the performance moment. Whereas in a piece by Cage I might notate everything in advance, in Wolff's music I like the mix of predetermined situations and intuitive responses to the performance moment.
SA: Along a similar trajectory of gaining an understanding of Wolff's music, do you feel that the research involved in writing your essays for Changing the System gave you any insights to the performance of his work that you wouldn't have had from performance only?
PT: All performers try to find some way into the music they play. I have always enjoyed the reciprocal relationship between research and performance, and whilst not all performers will necessarily write about the music they play, as I did in this case, I think given the chance performers generally have interesting things to say about the music they play and how they play it. I certainly don't think that my research endows my performances with any more or less authority, which would be a very un-Wolff like idea. But yes engaging with his music and ideas to the extent that I did preparing the book certainly helped me engage with the music as a performer. Though I find the music no less strange now than I ever did.
SA: From what I've read and heard, you are also very involved with the Wandelweiser collective, or at least composers I loosely associate with that label, like Laurence Crane and Tim Parkinson. I have always wondered about the connections made between Wolff and, say Michael Pisaro or Antoine Beuger, in the performer's mind. I know that he is involved with the label on one level, but not all of his music falls into the same musical space to me. Do you make a connection between those two worlds, especially between a piece like Long Piano and some of the works that may feature on Wandelweiser or Another Timbre?
PT: This is a fascinating relationship. Certainly it is true that many of the composers associated with Wandelweiser are greatly sympathetic to and admiring of Christian Wolff’s music and he has played with many of them and they continue to play his music. And yet at the same time I get the sense that many people who are drawn to the music composed by these same people are rather baffled and perplexed by Wolff’s music. Or at least, they might be happy with a piece such as Stones (especially when performed by particular people) or For 1, 2 or 3 people, or Edges, but can’t relate so much to the more ‘note-y’ pieces such as those I’ve recorded here, or actually the majority of Wolff’s composed output.
I think a number of connections might be made, but the most key ones for me are to do with playing: playing with others, playing in spaces, playing but not repeating, and playing in relation to a score of some kind. What I most love about playing Wolff’s music is that it materializes only through performance. That is, that no matter how much I might practice (and of course it’s often very difficult music technically so practicing is very important!), it only comes alive through performance. This is particularly true of ensemble pieces, whereby so many things might change from rehearsal to performance. There is a real sense in many of the works of the performers discovering the music, as if for the first time, in the performance moment. This is also true of all the pieces I know of composed by people associated with Wandelweiser. In particular I might mention the Swiss composer Jürg Frey, with whom I’ve just recorded a double disc of his ensemble music for Another Timbre. His music also functions very much in this way: often the individual parts of an ensemble piece look fragmentary, barely music, despite the exact pitches mostly prescribed, but when played with others, in relationships, the music emerges as incredibly strong, elusive and strange, curious to play, but always immensely enjoyable to play.
The notion of play is at the heart of Wolff’s music. He even wrote a piece with the title Play! Playing music, for sure, but playfulness, playing with music, and playing with others. There’s a child-like quality very often to the music, either in the nature of the music itself or in the demands upon the performers as to when to play and who to play with. There’s also the social situation generated by playing Wolff’s music. Antoine Beuger talks so fascinatingly about the distinct performance situations with one person, with two people and with three people5. These are really brought to the fore in Wolff’s music, in which you find you have to deal very attentively to the social dynamics of the performance situation. I think this is particularly the case in pieces such as the Exercises in which the number of players and what each player brings to the occasion makes often huge differences.
The other connection I might make is to do with the freedoms allowed by Wolff’s notations. In particular the characteristic Wolff-ian wedge which separates material (phrases, sections, even individual notes) and which indicates most often a pause or a breath of any duration. I tend to enjoy exploring the potential these offer, often allowing for breaks of quite a considerable length. For me these breaks serve to frame the sounding material by increasing our awareness of the performance space into which the performers “drop” these pithy, sometimes obscure, sometimes naïve little phrases or collections of notes. What might be in other contexts very ordinary and childish, or even “frowned upon”, musical ideas are given a dignity and beauty, which I find immensely attractive.
SA: And finally, this is a question that seems to be on my mind in almost every interview I've done for this issue and, since you referenced it slightly in your answer to the second question, I'll ask. What does the practice of performing Wolff's works (or Frey or [Antoine] Beuger for that matter), especially with regard to the social aspect involved, do to you as a performer when moving to works that maybe are a little more traditional in their musical roles? Is there an overlap in your approach or thinking? Does working on these pieces in this way change the way you would work on, say, Haydn?
PT: It's difficult to say because I seem to be almost entirely involved with music that shares many of these concerns these days. I would say that the idea of chamber music fills me with joy, both as a performer and as a listener/viewer; that the social dynamics involved in playing in small groups, without a director, seem to me to be the happiest context for making music. As Head of Performance at the University of Huddersfield I'm obviously keen to see my students engaging with ideas of historical context and performance practice, but I'm most of all desirous of a situation in which performers respond to each other and the liveliness of the performance situation with curiosity and surprise.
Philip Thomas (b.1972, North Devon) specialises in performing new and experimental music, including both notated and improvised music. He places much emphasis on each concert being a unique event, designing imaginative programmes that provoke and suggest connections.
He is particularly drawn to the experimental music of John Cage, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, and composers who broadly work within a post-Cageian aesthetic. In recent years he has been particularly associated with the music of Christian Wolff, giving the world premiere of his Sailing By in 2014 and Small Preludes in 2009, the UK premiere of Long Piano (Peace March 11), having co-edited and contributed to the first major study of Wolff's music, Changing the System: the Music of Christian Wolff, published by Ashgate Publications in 2010, and currently recording all of Wolff's solo piano music for sub rosa. He is an experienced performer of John Cage's music, having performed the Concert for piano and orchestra with both Apartment House and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as well as most of the solo piano and prepared piano music, including a unique 12-hour performance of Electronic Music for piano
He has commissioned new works from a number of British composers whose ideas, language and aesthetic have been informed in some ways by the aforementioned American composers, such as Stephen Chase, Laurence Crane, Richard Emsley, Christopher Fox, Bryn Harrison, John Lely, Tim Parkinson, Michael Parsons, and James Saunders.
In recent years Philip has pursued a passion for freely improvised music, after significant encounters with the music of AMM and Sheffield-based musicians Martin Archer, Mick Beck and John Jasnoch. He has worked with improvisers in a variety of contexts and recently devised a programme of composed music by musicians more normally known as improvisers as well as others who have been influenced by improvisation in some form. This led to a CD release, Comprovisation, which featured newly commissioned works by Mick Beck, Chris Burn and Simon H Fell. Other CD releases include music by Laurence Crane, Bryn Harrison,Tim Parkinson, Michael Pisaro, James Saunders, Christian Wolff, as well as with improvisers Chris Burn and Simon H Fell.
Philip is a regular pianist with leading experimental music group Apartment House, with whom he has performed in festivals across the UK and Europe. He has also performed in duos with Ian Pace (piano duet and two pianos) and James Saunders (electronics).
In 1998 Philip was awarded a PhD from Sheffield University in the performance practice of contemporary piano music. Between 2000 and 2005, he was Head of the Sheffield Music School whilst pursuing an active performing and teaching career. He joined the staff team at the University of Huddersfield in 2005, and became Head of Performanced in 2010. He was appointed as Reader in Music in 2011. Philip is one of the Directors of CeReNeM, the University's Centre for Research in New Music. He continues to live in Sheffield, where he premieres the majority of his programmes, with his wife Tiffany and children Naomi and Jack.
1Ashgate Publications, 2010) http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9780754666806
2Wolff in Cues: Writings and Conversations (Cologne, 1998) p314 (1993)]
3On the topic of how chance can be used in composition and performance: http://ems.music.illinois.edu/courses/tipei/M202/Notes/cage1.html
4Wedges are a Wolff-specific notation device, essentially an inverted caret or "v" shape that denotes an indeterminate or performer-determined pause before going on to the next musical material.
5Saunders (ed.) The Ashgate Companion to Experimental Music, Ashgate, 2009, pp.233-236