An Interview with Philip Thomas

By · Title Image © Carl Davies · Date 2/4/2020

There’s a very long pause, then a single plucked string bends up. Pause again, followed by a long screech from the highest flute register. Another pause. Something rattles. So begins my very own realization of John Cage’s “Concert for Piano and Orchestra”—built using the Concert Player App on the Cage Concert website assembled by Philip Thomas with Martin Iddon, Christoper Melen and Emily Payne. One result of a three year Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded project led by Thomas, the app allows the user to select any length of time in hours, minutes and seconds, choose any of the 16,383 possible combinations of the 14 scored instruments plus any of the 12 to 16 pages of score Cage wrote for each instrument. The software then generates your unique version of the Concert using recordings specially made for the app by musicians from the group Apartment House. I went for a three hour, 14 minute and six second-long version for just flute, viola and trombone. I’m guessing this particular realization is not exactly going to enter the canon. But for Thomas it’s a fascinating way of discovering “new possibilities” in the piece. “I play around with it all the time,” he tells me when he chat over Skype one Monday morning. I can see why: the opportunity to play conductor of one of the most notorious and obscure works of 20th century music, about which even the composer said, “The only thing I was being consistent to in this piece was that I did not need to be consistent.”

Based in Sheffield in England’s post-industrial north, Philip Thomas is one of Britain’s most persistently adventurous new music performers. For over 20 years, he has combined a busy academic schedule (he is currently Professor of Performance at the University of Huddersfield and one of the directors of the university’s Centre for Research in New Music, CeReNeM) with a performing career which has repeatedly sought out some of the music’s knottiest problems—in particular, playing the work of New York School composers, Cage, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff. He has played with Quator Bozzini and toured with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, commissioned new work from Laurence Crane, Michael Finnissy, James Saunders, and Christopher Fox. But his longest standing working relationship has been with Apartment House, the experimental ensemble founded by cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, which Thomas joined in 2001.

Philip Thomas • Photo © Grenville Charles
Philip Thomas • Photo © Grenville Charles

VAN: What drew you in particular to this piece by Cage, the “Concert for Piano and Orchestra”?

Philip Thomas: It’s a well-known piece, but it’s not often played, in part because it’s quite a forbidding looking score. It’s got fantastically beautiful graphic notations, but that also comes with its accompanying fears. Generally, response to it comes in either of two kinds. Either, “It’s an improvisatory score. It’s Cage at his most florid and free.” Which it certainly isn’t. Or, “It’s got so many rules and so many baffling instructions”—and Cage is never particularly lucid with his instructions—so people tend to run away from it. It’s a piece that’s known about far more than it’s played. It has 14 instruments, which yields an incredible number of combinations. But—how ever many CDs there are in the catalogue at the moment—you only hear the smallest snapshot of what this piece could be. And so the audio app allows you to hear how this might be as a trumpet and cello duo lasting 10 minutes or 10 days. All of which are entirely legitimate and possible within the boundaries of the work.

You’ve played this piece live on several occasions, and you’ve just finished this long research project into it, which—along with this Concert Player app and the Solo for Piano app—is also resulting in a book-length study, several concerts, and a recording for NMC. Was there a moment for you when this vast and forbidding work just sort of clicked and started to all make sense for you?

Probably not. It still doesn’t make sense in that way. I’m always finding it out. Every time you get booked for a gig, you think, “What am I going to with that?” There are still a few notations that I’ve only ever played once. There’s lots in the piece to try out and different ways of configuring it. Every time I play it, I’ll try and do something different with it—just to test it out. And then in the performance, that’s the moment when it starts making sense. Literally, in that moment. So you never know until you’re doing it.

Cage himself was famously wary of recordings for fixing one way of playing a piece as the way of playing it. Do you think that the flexibility that apps like these afford would have solved some of these issues for Cage?

I don’t know whether it would have solved the problem. I hope it’s in the spirit of Cage, but who knows—and I don’t really care. But it points more in that direction than a fixed recording on CD or whatever, which can only ever be a snapshot. I mean, that relationship to recording is not so dissimilar to Derek Bailey’s. It’s a document of a moment in time. I play around with the audio app all the time. I find it useful as a listener. Not as a performer, particularly. It does still sound like a live performance, in some ways. The sounds are not manipulated at all. The sounds are the sounds of the Apartment House musicians. Each one separately recorded and mastered as a single sound. When a user changes the duration—or assigns a duration to a page—what happens is that the distances between entrances of the sound change according to the space-time notation of Cage’s scores. So it’s only ever the timing between events that changes rather than the sounds themselves. So in that sense, every sound is fixed by Apartment House: but there are of course thousands of sounds.

How did you first get into the music of the New York School?

It was part of an early consciousness of new music when I was an undergraduate and then post-graduate in the early to mid-90s. Feldman came first. He was my way in. Then Wolff. Partly these came about because of my engagement with Michael Finnissy’s music. Finnissy himself is a huge fan of all of those composers and plays those pieces himself.

Some years ago, I commissioned new pieces from Howard Skempton, Michael Finnissy and Christian Wolff and I performed them in the same concert. They were all there. After I played Finnissy’s piece, Christian Wolff leaned across to Michael Finnissy and said, “I thought I was the only one who wrote really strange music.” There’s something about the approach to form and continuity in both of their music which is really odd.

People get really upset about form if it doesn’t quite cohere. Unity and stuff like that. There’s no sound that anyone can make that really upsets anyone. We’ve heard all the sounds. But form really upsets people: if it doesn’t make sense, if it doesn’t cohere. It was perhaps tongue in cheek, but Christian Wolff said to me once that his definition of form was “one damn thing after another.”

Cage could be dismissive about improvised music, claiming people tended to “slip back into their likes and dislikes, and they don’t arrive at any revelation.” Was Cage wrong about improvisation?

When we talk about Cage and improvisation, we tend to talk about him in his earlier pieces and what improvised music meant, then. I’m not going to go into any sort of defense of Cage here. Cage doesn’t need me to defend him. Also, I think his approach to jazz is hugely problematic. But in terms of a lot of what is going on currently in improvised music, I don’t really see any difference with the sort of things he was interested in. The improvers I know and work with have exactly the same sensibility of enquiry in their music. Cage brought some kind of structure to the music through notation; improvisers bring other kinds of structure through the parameters that they’ve set themselves. I see very little difference—even though I don’t improvise when playing Cage’s music.

What do you look for in new work by contemporary composers?

These are really hard things to nail down. But I guess I am looking for a sense of curiosity and investigation in the music, where someone is probing something here and really digging deep. Something about the form that is curious, if I don’t really understand why this is happening. But it’s got to have a directness as well. The concerts that I have enjoyed the most in the last 20 to 30 years have been improvised music concerts. The directness of that visceral communicative experience. I’m looking for that experience, even though I know that I’m a notated music man. That’s my history, my training. That’s what I do. And then, I’m interested in pitch and harmony.  The piano does pitch really well. I do play stuff on the inside of the piano. But actually I don’t think the piano makes the best noises. There are some noises that are really nice and people like Andrea Neumann have explored the instrument fantastically. But playing on the inside of the piano doesn’t interest me a great deal. And it hurts my back. ¶