My first proper encounter with Philip Thomas’s playing came through his box set of Morton Feldman’s piano music, released on the label Another Timbre in 2019. The performances are intimate to the point of sensuality, every gesture like a phantom hand hovering above the tiny hairs on your arm, in that fragile space between presence and contact. After surveying Feldman’s music for a quarter of a century, Thomas’s five-disc collection was a landmark achievement in the contemporary piano repertoire, and became the Sheffield label’s best-selling record.

A year later, Thomas went for surgery to remove a cavernoma in his brain. (A cavernoma is a group of blood vessels found in the brain or spinal cord. According to Cavernoma Alliance UK, it looks like a raspberry.) During his recovery immediately after the surgery, Thomas suffered a brain bleed. He spent 17 months in the hospital before coming home last March.

Thomas popped up online at that time to explain his situation to his Twitter followers. From then on, he would post very occasional updates; some factual, others humorous. “At the moment, my speaking voice is like my piano playing,” he tweeted on January 14, “both unspeakably loud and harsh, faintly ridiculous, and both lacking in tenderness and control.” 

“I can no longer write and I am typing this very slowly with one finger only,” Thomas said in one of our first exchanges. I had initially asked him if he’d like to meet in person; he declined. “The injury has totally destroyed my voice and you wouldn’t be able to understand me!” he said. “I can’t see properly nor talk or eat/drink properly. I can’t walk and of course I can’t play piano properly. But I’m alive!” 

Over three months of sporadic emails (Philip’s replies being noticeably more prompt than my own), I asked him about listening, scales, and the path to recovery.

VAN: Has your hearing been affected by the brain bleed? Can you still gain enjoyment from listening to music?

Philip Thomas: Thankfully my hearing has not been affected, so I’m doing lots of listening. I listen to all the  latest CDs on Another Timbre, and have even listened to my own recordings of Feldman for the first time. The new Apartment House recordings of Feldman [including the 80-minute “Piano and String Quartet” from 1985] are especially brilliant. People keep sending me CDs, which is very nice. I’m listening to lots of audiobooks too. 

What’s your assessment of your Feldman recordings? Are you somebody who listens back to recordings generally, or is it too hard?

I listened to the Feldman set last year for the first time, and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s OK. Or at least, it’s a fair reflection of how I feel about Feldman’s music. Of course there are lots of things I’m not happy about but that’s recording for you. But it’s a fair reflection of how I play that music.

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Where do you listen to music these days? I did an interview with Another Timbre founder Simon Reynell once where he said he records music to try and recreate his formative listening experiences: sitting in his bedroom, by himself, occasionally under the covers.

A CD is not a concert and never will be. So the most important thing is to find a comfortable chair. This I do and at the moment I can’t leave it, so I have no distractions and can give the music my full attention. My friends laugh at me because I have such a basic system—just a simple CD player and an amp, with speakers on the floor—but I’ve never been interested in audio. I just want to hear the piece. I’m a recording engineer’s nightmare. In the studio an engineer might play me five different mixes of an extract to find out which I prefer and I won’t be able to tell the difference.

I might add to my last email that, despite lacking audio sensitivity, I don’t download music. I still like handling a physical object and the CD is of superior quality too. 

Which audiobooks are you listening to? Has it been a time to listen to that pesky Nabokov one never gets round to, or something lighter?

Audiobooks are new terrain for me. Most of the books I want to read aren’t available as audio but I’ve enjoyed exploring Audible to see what is there. I miss books though. I miss being able to go back over words and having the time to think. 

I’ve listened to my usual mix of fiction, non-fiction, books about faith and books about music. I’ve listened to, among other things, Barack Obama’s recent book, Simon Schama’s The Story Of The Jews, novels by Milan Kundera and Zadie Smith. I was especially happy to see Kate Molleson’s new book, Sound Within Sound, there. It’s a brilliant survey of ten neglected composers of the 20th century and is highly recommended. 

I don’t know where you stand on the idea of physicality of sound, but it’s interesting that you mentioned physical media in your last email, despite (presuming from your previous messages) having limited mobility at the moment. Do you think you have a heightened sense of physicality, both of media and sound, as a result of what’s happened?

I’m very clear that nothing replaces live instrumental sound. A CD is a poor replacement and is ultimately just digital sound coming from a speaker. That said, I really appreciate the close mics that are a feature of Another Timbre recordings which really suits some music, particularly that by Feldman and [Jürg] Frey.

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Could you explain what recovery looks like for you at this stage?

It’s difficult to know quite what the future holds. Certainly I have lots of ideas for future performances and recordings. But at the moment I simply can’t play so all plans are off. I hope and pray that will change.

I haven’t mentioned my wife, Tiff, who has been amazing through this time. She has been a rock. She has put up with not only my wheelchair and messy eating but also my daily scales and piano exercises, complete with wrong notes everywhere.

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What sort of scales and piano exercises are you doing? Could you describe what it feels like to be back at the piano?

I’m practicing scales in ninths, hands separately, two and four octaves. And I’m trying each day to do two octaves, hands together, but it is awful. I do one scale every three weeks and practice it many times a day. At the moment I’m practicing Eb minor in the right hand  and C sharp minor in the left hand. But my left hand shakes so much it simply falls off the black notes.

And then I’m doing the first five Dohnányi exercises, which are good because there’s no attempt to make them music. They’re just gymnastics. Which is how I view the piano at the moment: as another tool for therapy. It sounds so bad I just laugh!


When you’re practicing your scales, do you feel a sense of grief or loss for your piano technique of before?

More than anything else, my piano playing reveals to me the extent of my disability. Given that I begin each day with piano practice, I start each day shocked by my limitations. I don’t feel grief, just frustration at what I can’t do. Frustration turns into laughter as it sounds so terrible and what should be easy is now impossible. I’m used to practicing until things get better, but now I just have to leave it a mess each day as I have no control over what my hands do.

You seem remarkably chipper via email, though I imagine that paints only one picture. Where’s your head at at the moment?

Chipper’s a nice way of putting it. I’m doing OK really. From time to time I get a bit down about things, but my faith and my family keep me going. Tiff has been amazing throughout. I miss performing, but I don’t miss the admin and politics of university life. I hope to get back to playing again, but who knows. It’s only music, after all. ¶

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Hugh Morris is a freelance writer and editor based in London.