Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Philip Thomas                                                                                             © 2019 Grenville Charles

The interpretation of literature requires an aesthetic, whether the issue at hand is Monk or Bach. As they have in jazz, vigorously articulated aesthetics have propelled the interpretation of classical music for decades – particularly music for solo piano – be it Glenn Gould’s reimagining of Bach as piano music, Charles Rosen’s animation of Beethoven’s late sonatas, or Tatyana Nikolaieva's increasing individualism on successive recordings of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues made over almost forty years.

It takes decades of fresh interpretative insights for the full implications of a body of work to be suggested, if not realized. Keith Jarrett’s unlikely take on the Shostakovich was recorded forty years after it premiered; shaving a half-hour off its playing time by literally following the metronome marking, Jarrett’s interpretation revealed Nikolaieva to have asserted greater latitude than implied by her status as the composer’s protégé.

Implicitly, generational change is indicated to fully illuminate interpretative options for important bodies of piano literature. The New York School’s is no exception. The signpost recordings of surviving pioneering pianists like Aki Takahashi and John Tilbury are now thirty to forty-five years old – Tilbury’s Mr. John Cage’s Prepared Piano was issued before cutting-edge composers like Catherine Lamb and Kate Soper were born.

This change is well represented by English pianist Philip Thomas, renowned for both his solo recordings and his work with the contemporary music ensemble Apartment House. Although Thomas was born in 1972, three years after Christian Wolff wrote three short solo pieces for Tilbury, he also has an ongoing, increasingly warm relationship with Wolff. Subsequently, Thomas, a Professor of Performance at the University of Huddersfield, has both the benefits of ample critical documentation by and about the New York School, as well as direct contact with its last man standing, shaping an interpretative aesthetic that takes full advantage of composer-conferred latitude.

Two sterling collections confirm Thomas’ individualism: the 2-CD Preludes, Variations, Studies and Incidental Music (Sub Rosa), and the 5-CD Feldman Piano (another timbre), the first comprehensive survey of Morton Feldman’s solo piano music since Tilbury’s, recorded in the late ‘90s. There is an element of scholarship in both programs; in researching Feldman’s works, Thomas discovered discrepancies between the original scores and published editions, and relied on the former.

Thomas also closely reads Wolff’s scores, tapping every opportunity they afford the performer to make aesthetic choices. His choices reflect an interpretative evolution since Wolff oversaw Apartment House’s premiere of Exercises at the 2002 edition of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. This creates a critical difference between his takes on the respective composers – whereas Thomas brings clarity to Feldman’s ideas, he illuminates Wolff himself as much as his music. This is arguably emphasized by Thomas including some of Wolff’s more personable works, particularly the variations based on the music of Satie, William Byrd, and Lennon and McCartney.

“In a way I project my knowledge of him as he is now onto the teenage and early-twenties Wolff, producing these extraordinary pieces for David Tudor to perform,” Thomas recently related. “But one image I have of him encapsulates every piece of his I play – Wolff, alone on stage, before a large audience, sitting on a chair with melodica on his lap, extended tubing in his mouth, playing these simple but so, so strange melodies, with odd pauses, irregular phrases, isolated notes. This is an elderly Wolff – I think he was in his early 80s at this time – but, as is still true, remarkably lively and youthful, playing what some might consider a childish music – certainly a childish, unsophisticated instrument, and music which is both playful and naïve.

“Yet of course we know that Wolff is anything but unsophisticated – erudite, intellectual, a professor of classics at Dartmouth – but this paradox of an artist of considerable stature, knowledge and understanding, writing and performing music which is playful, hesitant and curious is at the heart of Wolff’s work. Likewise, his earliest piano piece – For Prepared Piano, composed in1950 – is both utterly contemporary, borrowing instrumental and compositional techniques from Cage’s music of the previous few years, and playfully naïve (subverting the sequence in which he composed the music by rearranging bars. The piece served to provide Cage and others with the inspiration to pursue a non-teleogical path, to ‘get rid of the glue’ as Henry Cowell famously said.

“Certainly something of Wolff’s youthfulness influences my approach to all his music, something to do with the energy, sprightliness and transparency of the music and the way I like to play it. And probably some of the later influences upon his music – particularly that of the Wandelweiser composers – affects the way I play some of his earlier music, in particular the pauses that are a feature of his music from around 1970 onwards, which I like to open out to include very long as well as very short silences.

“But most of all I try and approach each piece – or at least, those pieces which are indeterminate in some way, even if only partially – in such a way that I might provide an element of surprise to Wolff himself, knowing his limited interest in repetition and reproduction. So a good policy that I try to bear in mind is not to adopt a too literal response to the score, but to treat it as the beginning of something, as he has said, ‘something re-usable, flexible’. Christian rarely says too much about performances but when he does it’s often to identify something he found surprising and delightful, something that caught his attention in a particular moment, and it’s the delight in the spontaneous that I try to capture in my performances.”

Thomas has a starkly different relationship to Feldman, having begun to play his music several years after the composer died in 1987. Still, Thomas suspects that he might not have enjoyed Feldman’s company, pointing to his “rather preachy” writings and lectures. However, Thomas does places weight on Wolff’s assessment of Feldman: “He talked wonderfully, sharply, outrageously, but that wasn't quite his music. One thinks of the disparity of his large, strong presence and the delicate, hypersoft music, but in fact he too was, among other things, full of tenderness and the music is, among other things, as tough as nails.”

“That [Feldman] was – among other things! – ‘full of tenderness’ I take on trust,” granted Thomas “but I recognize that his music is – among other things – ‘as tough as nails’. I think sometimes that the same misunderstanding about his music is applied to both his early and late pieces, namely that his music is ‘about’ quietness. It IS quiet, of course, most of the time, but for me the emphasis is upon the qualities of instrumental sound, as well as the qualities of pitch, duration, decay that are characteristics of the instrument. So, I think that sometimes the late music can be approached too reflectively, too ‘ambiently’, played, when the material, the patterns, the stringency of the rhythmic character, are extraordinarily febrile, tactile, alive. And in contrast the earlier music can sometimes lose the focus upon radical experiment and instrumental sound by reigning in some of the potential for long durations and decay. This music is all about listening, to the complexities of attack, resonance and decay. Undoubtedly Feldman’s music changes over time, but when one looks at the range of pieces composed just over a two-year period at the beginning of the 1950s, it can be readily seen that his music was always changing. I see his work as a continual quest for the right kind of notation and means of releasing sound in time, and in many ways he failed constantly, but what incredible results!

“However I think, in all this, it’s worth stating that I’m not really interested in a ‘right’ way of playing the music, any of it. My approach is of course informed by what I read and learn about the composers, and oftentimes my personal encounters with them, but this will surely be true of anyone who plays the music. What I hope comes through my interpretations is the qualities I find so fascinating and attractive about the music, how these react with my own sensibilities and personality, and how then I respond to the idiosyncrasies of the notation, form and content. And of course performers can read the same polemical lectures, the same stories, and yet these will shape interpretations in wildly disparate ways.”

Thomas underscores this position when speaking of his work with Apartment House, a pool of musicians founded by cellist Anton Lukoszevieze. Although Apartment House has made numerous rewarding recordings of works by New York School composers – unsurprising, given their name was appropriated from Cage’s Apartment House 1776 ­– much of their considerable output focuses on subsequent composers. In the process, they raised the stock of, among others, Linda Catlin Smith; more recently, it brought the renewed interest in Julius Eastman to a crest with a milestone performance of Feminine.

As they approach their silver anniversary next year, Apartment House has stirred up a bit of controversy with an unlikely composition: Oliver Messiaen’s iconic “Quatour pour la fin du temps.” Written in 1941 while Messiaen was a Nazi prisoner, it is not simply the oldest piece Apartment House has taken on, but one that is squarely in the modernist pantheon. For their another timbre release, the Messiaen has been smartly paired with Catlin Smith’s evocative “Under the Tarnished Stars,” also scored for cello, clarinet, piano and violin, which creates stirring cross-generational reverberations.

However, what has raised eyebrows is Apartment House’s interpretation of this hallowed composition, one which differs unassumingly but fundamentally from the almost uniform approach taken by ensembles like Tashi for a half-century. Through simple means like eliminating the vibrato not indicated in the score, but traditionally applied at key points throughout the work, Thomas, Lukoszevieze, violinist Mira Benjamin, and clarinetist Heather Roche stripped away what have become standard dramatic gestures signifying the gathering genocidal apocalypse Messiaen faced. But, instead of muting the impetus of the piece, this interpretation yields a performance of unvarnished power.

“I guess that for both Apartment House and myself as a soloist, the key thing is curiosity,” Thomas said of articulating an interpretation. “I’m interested most of all in composers who ask ‘I wonder what would happen if ...’, or who seem in some way to be pushing, pulling, testing, questioning, both the compositional material and how it is framed and made – or not made – into some kind of continuity. This then means, almost by default, that the relationship with the composer is de-hierarchized. We’re all asking the ‘what if’ questions. And I guess that that feeds into how we play somehow, that there’s a desire not to try and impose some kind of ‘musical’ idea onto the situation, to rein the thing back into something which is more or less familiar ... oftentimes there’s a certain kind of distance in how we may approach interpretation.

“This all sounds slightly clinical, so I guess it’s also worth stating that all this is within the context of a love for sound, a love of playing and playing with others, a love for the unglamorous – or at least a suspicion of the glamorous – and the desire to find value in the hidden, mysterious, seemingly insignificant things. How this plays out in practice might be a tendency to avoid conventional manners of playing – and by that I might also include conventional ways of playing new music; so-called extended techniques are not necessarily so interesting in and of themselves – and gestural playing which somehow normalizes the music. But I wouldn’t like to pin it down more than that as I really don’t think there’s an ‘Apartment House style’. And of course as well as playing different kinds of music we also have a range of different players, all bringing their own sensibilities to the performance. This is why I love Christian Wolff’s ‘Exercises’ for example – they really do allow for very different approaches and manners of playing, that is then negotiated during the performance itself as each player responds to, ignores, circumvents, gives space one another.

“So I think that’s why we agreed to try out the ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ – we felt there were elements in the music which were too often ‘normalized’, and, whether Messiaen would have approved or not, the music itself afforded the opportunity to get into a situation which was strange and in a way mesmerizing. And Linda’s music, too, can be played in many different ways, but we enjoy the space it gives to material, the approach to time and continuity that draws us in in interesting ways. But it’s true also that one has to resist a way of playing that is to be adopted wholesale and applied without thinking to any piece – whilst there may be many consistencies in our playing, the approach is borne anew with each composer and piece.

“As to programming, it’s become fashionable these days for anyone to be a ‘curator’ of programs. But oftentimes it’s just a sense of what would either work well together, or might throw up interesting juxtapositions, or comparisons. We – and I – play a diverse range of music but there’s lots out there we don’t play, and there’s reasons for that; but that sense of curiosity I mentioned at the beginning is ultimately what prompts us to program diverse and similar things in the same program, and ultimately there’ll be something there which unites it because there’s something there that interests us.”

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