Off the Top

Thollem's hand (Photo by Angela Villa)

April 12, 2010

By Claire Sykes

It’s a good thing Thollem McDonas has the physique of a football player. This Bay Area-born free improvisational jazz pianist needs it, the way he plunges fist-first into the keyboard, practically ripping the felt right off those hammers. He seizes rhythm and melody, texture and timbre in both hands, sending it up and down the ivories, sounding as if two people, at least, were simultaneously playing completely different musics.

Edgefest 2008 (Photo by Kyle Murphy)

But don’t try to peg the guy as some brute. Sheer force may be one of his fortes, but not without deep feeling and a profound, almost philosophical musicality. Thollem’s kind of strength also comes with a tenderness that knows just how to nuzzle the notes, coaxing out the unexpected, rich with complexity.

In a confluence of tones and rhythms at once fierce and delicate, controlled and chaotic, violent and lyrical, Thollem embraces the intellectual and the emotional in his percussive and fluid comprovisations. His music hints at the gonged hypnotics of Javanese gamelan and the manic intricacies of György Ligeti, Cecil Taylor’s knotted clusters and Conlon Nancarrow’s divergent tempi, the melodic poetics of Claude Debussy and the jazzy swing of Duke Ellington—and even cabaret. Make no mistake, though: Thollem makes it his own.

(Photo by Angela Villa)

With a classical music background (his mother played classical piano, his father piano-bar), Thollem is known for his solo piano. He has also collaborated with hundreds of free improv musicians and groups, symphonies, West African drumming troupes, Javanese gamelan ensembles, an Afro-punk band, filmmakers and choreographers.

"Debussy's Piano" (Photo by Angela Villa with painting by Miles Stryker, blended by Diane Fenster)

Two years ago, he performed the late works of Debussy on the piano at which they were written. The CD of this was released earlier this year, joining his 16 other recordings. The historic concert also included Thollem’s comprovisations, with contrabassist Stefano Scodanibbio, the CD of this to be released (on Die Schachtel) later in 2010.

Thollem and Stefano in Brive-la-Gaillarde, France (Photo by Angela Villa)

For years Thollem has been living the nomadic life with his wife (who is also his manager), touring the United States, Canada and Europe playing over a hundred of concerts a year. Every spring, he comes to Portland to pounce on pianos. From April 3-14, 2010, he’s performing in various places around town—from a private concert at Velvet Sofa Salon (yes, it really does exist) and Tabor Space to Portland State University (where he’s also doing a workshop), The Artistery and The Goodfoot, among others (see

Thollem at Velvet Sofa Salon concert 4/12/10 (Photo and copyright by Edmund P. Klein)

When I first saw and heard Thollem perform two years ago here in Portland, I was blown away. As a pianist with a classical background who also loves to scribble at the keyboard, I took in his passionate ramblings, both the relaxed and the raucous, and thought to myself, If only I could play like that. Then again, my hands are happy enough knowing that, since that night, my ears will never be quite the same.

(Photo by Angela Villa)

Claire Sykes: What would you call the kind of music you play?

Thollem McDonas: I’ve called it many different things—hyphenated music, eccentriclect (eccentric plus eclectic) music, martial arts music, post-classical. And post-classical-neo-avant-jazz-circus-punk, just off the top of my head.

Thollem's hands (Photo by Angela Villa)

CS: What does your music emerge out of?

TM: It definitely comes out of my European classical training from when I was a child, and it has constantly evolved, incorporating sounds and ideas from other musics and cultures. I’m interested in punk, free jazz, bebop and musics from around the world, particularly Indonesian and West African. All of these naturally come through in my music at different times. But my music also comes out of the womb, because I wouldn’t be making it if I wasn’t alive, and out of dealing with my fear of death.

CS: Your fear of death?

TM: I meant that in a slightly humorous way, but not entirely. My music comes from all my experiences, which includes the end of my experiences as I know it, or death. Like everyone, I’ve lived with a fear of death. But I want to overcome this fear in order to face death head on. For me, that means facing life head on. Most importantly, my music is a meditation, a study of life, a tool for me to look more deeply into my own experiences of life, so I can understand it and live it in my own, authentic way.

(Photo by Angela Villa)

CS: What aspects of yourself come through in your music?

TM: I’m interested in expressing or portraying all aspects of myself. That is my intention. I’m not necessarily coming from an emotive place, but my music isn’t devoid of emotion. I suppose, in a lot of ways, I’m interested in expressing my experience of life through abstractions that I reveal musically.

CS: What is it that you abstract from life and then turn into music?

TM: For instance, conflict, tension or dissonance that we find in life—whether personal or political—and the wide variety of ways we try to find resolutions for these, or try to accept things as they are. Others are joy, playfulness or laughter, sex, mystery, confusion. And then taking these real experiences and creating musical structures, architectures or forms that then resemble them.

Terra Trema Festival, Cherbourg, France (Photo by Benoit Foulon)

CS: I know you also think a lot about silence. When I attended your improvisation workshop at Portland State University last spring, we explored that.

TM: Silence is a fascinating topic for me, as it is for lots of musicians. First of all, there is no such thing as pure silence. For me, the concept of silence happens in different layers. There’s music, or organized sound that someone or a group of people define as such (though others may say it’s noise), and no music, a type of silence. For instance, at a concert while waiting for it to begin, there’s no music, and then the performer comes out and plays and there’s music; and there are moments, in between songs or movements, when there’s no music. While playing the piano, I also hear silence in the different ranges of the piano that I’m not using, like when the treble or the bass are silent for a while.

Terra Trema Festival, Cherbourg, France (Photo by Benoit Foulon)

Going from one end of the spectrum to the other—from no music to music or from not playing the treble to playing it—gives me a heightened sense of the relationship between sound and silence. Then there’s the silence in my mind, if you consider silence to be integral to calmness. Also, when I’m playing, my mind is so focused, it really does become silent. This doesn’t mean I’m not thinking, though.

CS: What do you think about while you’re at the piano?

TM: I’m thinking about my playing, both theoretically—harmonies, melodies, non-melodies, textures and colors, and saturating all of that or not with the pedal—and physically—what my body is doing. And then making split-second decisions one after another. It might be (talking to myself), If you really want to do that, then you’ve got to commit to it. Or, Can your left hand really sustain that? Or, OK, there’s been a lot of activity, now we need a balance.

Nantes, France (Photo by Angela Villa)

Often, I think about the audience. It’s important, for me, to meet them at a place where they feel comfortable enough to go further with the music than they’ve been able to go in the past. A certain amount of stress from the music is necessary, like a musical deep tissue massage; it’s not necessarily relaxing, it doesn’t feel good all the time, but it offers an important healing. It can also be exciting and, for me, makes it meaningful to reality. But at some point, the music can become abusive, at least in the way that I play. We all have different levels of our ability to deal with musical tension. And I do think music has effects on our bodies, spirits and psyches. I want my music to be beneficial, but not in a New Agey, easy-listening kind of way.

CS: It could never be New Agey easy-listening. Even at its most melodic, when it’s almost hummable, your music is still complex and unexpected in ways that continue to surprise me. I love listening to it, but sometimes it does become a little too much for me. I know I could always turn your music off or walk away. But I also might challenge myself to listen further, curious to see if anything changes for me. How would you suggest people listen to your music, especially if it doesn’t feel all that comfortable for them?

TM: Listen to the sounds of the music for the sake of the sounds, as opposed to getting caught up in your emotional response to the music or worried if you don’t “get it.” Notice your emotions and thoughts, but don’t let them define the music for you. Just listen and let the music wash over you.

Terra Trema Festival, Cherbourg, France (Photo by Benoit Foulon)

CS: How do you develop your ability to listen more attentively and deeply?

TM: Playing freely improvised music with people takes me to a deeper level. Listening is the most important part of playing free improv with others. My main goal is to meet the other person, or the group, at a midway point, and I’m expecting them to listen to me, too.

And then there are rudimentary listening exercises that I do on a regular basis. I teach these in my workshops. One is to focus on one sound source and pay attention to when you begin hearing it and when you no longer can. A good example is listening to an airplane. There’s a shape to the sound that you can graph or draw. In my workshops, we actually score a sonic environment. So right now as I’m talking to you, I’m outside hearing the wind through the trees, birdsong from different directions, people’s voices. Each of those has varied elements that make them unique, and a relationship to each other that could be notated and reproduced.

(Drawing by Myles Stryker)

CS: In general, what do you, personally, learn from listening—and from making music?

TM: Both give me a deeper appreciation for life and make me feel more connected to it. That’s one of the greatest benefits. When you listen, your ears are absorbing sounds and your brain is processing them, and when you receive them without judgment and just accept them for what they are, you become a part of those sounds. For me, listening and playing the piano is a meditation for developing myself as a human being, physically, psychically and emotionally. If there’s any purpose to life, I think it’s to appreciate it, and to be open to go other places in our minds and bodies that we haven’t been before, to challenge ourselves. Music takes me there.

CS: Well, certainly your music does that for me.

Thollem and me at Velvet Sofa Salon concert 4/12/10 (Photo and copyright by Edmund P. Klein)

Words © 2010 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.
Images © 2010 by Thollem McDonas. All rights reserved.

For details about Thollem’s concerts and workshops in the U.S. and abroad, please visit

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 10:55 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I was lucky enough to hear Thollem play this past August up in Friday Harbor. You describe Thollem and his playing beautifully. Thanks

    • Lucky you, Joe! I’m sure he enjoyed that you were there. Thank you for reading, and for your words.

  2. So looking forward to hearing him play, experiencing the music!

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