Philip Thomas in conversation with Tom McKinney
Music in the Round’s Tom McKinney caught up with Sheffield-based pianist Philip Thomas in advance of his concert on Wednesday 2 October at Upper Chapel with Music in the Round, and presented in partnership with Sensoria Music & Film Festival.
Morton Feldman died in 1987. Although he was a major figure during his lifetime, since his death his importance seems to have grown and exceeded that of most of his contemporaries. Why do you think that is?
In an ever-chaotic world, in which communication, ‘noise’ of many types, instant demand and provision, bombards our lived reality, and in which the pace of travel, work, media and entertainment feels ever more rushed, the invitation to stop and attend something as simple as sound – and simple instrumental sounds at that – is more welcome than ever before. Feldman’s music is immediate, is of-the-moment, and is in no rush to get anywhere soon, and that is extremely attractive and perhaps counterintuitive today.
Throughout history there have been many composers who conceived music on a vast timescale, but at times Feldman took that to extremes. What made him write pieces of such long duration?
Over the last 10 years of his life Feldman became really interested in, amongst other things, Persian carpets, and the repeated but ever-so-slightly changing patterns and hues of colour contained within them. This has a parallel in his music such that repeated patterns of sound are sustained over a long time, slightly changing, but very similar. And why shouldn’t music be worked out over long durations? Why should it be of some ‘standard’ length that we seem to have somehow arrived at as being acceptable? I think the reason it works so well for Feldman is that he’s not trying to present an argument through music but instead inviting us to an experience.
Playing Feldman must surely require incredible stamina and concentration. Do you prepare for the performance of his music in a different way to other composers?
I’ve been playing music of long duration for years now. The first time I played Triadic Memories – which lasts 90 minutes – was in Sheffield over 20 years ago. And I’ve played pieces that last for several hours, once playing a piece by John Cage for 12 hours. So I guess I’m getting used to it. Honestly I love the experience of just diving in. I’m no less curious each time as to how this experience will be than if I were a listener. There’s always something new and puzzling to encounter with each performance.
How do you suggest an audience member new to Feldman should listen to his music?
I honestly can’t recommend anything more than, as I do as a performer, just diving in and enjoying the ride. There really is no ideal way to listen, and you should feel free to experience and appreciate the music on your own terms. There’s nothing to ‘understand’ – if it feels unfamiliar and strange then that’s just fine. All I would suggest is to keep your ears open and your mind will take care of itself!