John Cage Concert for Piano and Orchestra
Christian Wolff Resistance (premiere recording)
A double CD featuring Apartment House and Philip Thomas. The performance of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra is one of the outcomes of the AHRC-funded project 'John Cage and the Concert for Piano and Orchestra', and features the full instrumentation, with conductor (acting as time-piece) in a 53-minute realisation.
Wolff's Resistance was commissioned by Apartment House as a partner piece to Cage's 'Concert' and is composed for 11 or more instruments. This first recording is one of many possible realisations.
"Performers of John Cage’s piano concerto could theoretically play nothing at all, if that’s what they wanted. The point is about choice. “John, you’re my man,” said a trombonist who played in the original performance. “I’ll play for you any time.” Trust is the making of indeterminate music and Apartment House’s new recording is all trust. Philip Thomas makes the piano part magnetic, like the centrifugal planet in an erratic constellation. Around him spin trumpet, violin, flute and others, everyone quick-witted and playful. After 53 minutes the tenuous ecosystem suddenly dissipates and I was left pondering stark real-world ecological resonances. Sixty years on, 83-year-old Christian Wolff has written a companion piece for Cage’s concerto that should feel like a throwback: the name Resistance, the quotation from a Pete Seeger protest song, the old chance techniques. But Wolff’s music, his gracious, urgent way of questioning how we relate to each other, still feel entirely relevant."
- Kate Molleson (The Guardian)
Michael Parsons: Patterns of Connection (Huddersfield Contemporary Records, HCR15)
This double CD, featuring Apartment House and Philip Thomas, is the first major survey of Parsons' music for ensemble combined with new (including a number of first) recordings of a selection of the solo piano music.
"This double album represents Parsons's instrumental music from 1962, much of it for solo piano.Most of the 39 items are abstractly titled (10 simply called Piano Piece), but striking aleatory essays for ensemble include Concertante I, at 11 minutes the longest track. The shortest - a minute - is Kettle's Yard Canon (flute and clarinet). A co-founder of the scratch orchestra (1969), Parsons is viewed as a pioneer of experimental music, but Modestly Ingenious would be a synonym."
- Paul Driver (The Sunday Times)
John Cage - Winter Music (another timbre, at118)
Martin Arnold - The Spit Veleta (another timbre, at106)
Three works, featuring violinist Mira Benjamin and Philip Thomas. Includes Points and Waltzes, premiered by Philip in 2012, and The Spit Veleta for violin and piano, premiered by Mira Benjamin and Philip in 2015
"While Linda Catlin Smith is not an unknown quantity, the other four composers featured in this set of releases are, which makes this an exciting voyage of discovery...
Toronto-based Canadian Martin Arnold was trained in the classical tradition at the University of Alberta but his live appearances are mainly restricted to monthly gigs playing electric guitar in a quartet that performs standards from the great American songbook. He comments that all the music he makes is in some way melodic, and that is fully borne out by his three compositions featured on this disc.
Interestingly, all three pieces bear titles that make reference to traditional dances in triple time—"Points and Waltzes," "Slip Minuet" and "The Spit Veleta"—making them a coherent set. That coherence is reinforced by the playing of Philip Thomas and Mira Benjamin; the first piece is for solo piano, the second for solo cello and the third a duet, fitting as the veleta (aka valeta) is a dance in which partners do different sets of co-ordinated movements.
However, once the music begins it is immediately obvious it is not dance music; although it maintains a steady rhythm, it does not compel movement in the listener, being more of a cerebral pleasure than a physical one. (Check the excerpt from "The Slip Minuet" below for example.) In the accompanying booklet, Arnold is quoted as saying he also thinks of his music as being slack, meandering, psychedelic and, even at its most ponderously enervated, dance music." In this, his judgment is as spot-on as his music..."
- John Eyles, All About Jazz
"Making sense – formal, harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, aesthetic – of the three works on his disc is an engaging challenge. i love Arnold’s summary of his work as “slack, meandering, psychedelic and, even at its most ponderously enervated, dance music.” There’s a great deal of truth in those words. Philip Thomas’ rendition of Arnold’s 2012 piano piece Points & Waltzes both grapples and playfully toys with the work’s never-ending melodic impulse. Based around the middle of the instrument, an upper voice provides something that one could just about call a countermelody, its notes sometimes so isolated that their connectivity is questioned. Slip Minuet for solo violin (played by Mira Benjamin) is similarly melody-obsessed, here resembling a seriously slowed-down dance, retaining something of the energy of the ‘full speed’ version but also sounding slightly unreal due to the rhythmic incontinuity brought about by its tempo, which also heightens a sense of repetition in certain harmonic progressions and rhythmic cells. Both pieces exhibit a curiously uncanny quality emanating from their unstoppability, something that finds a kind of synthesis in the duet title work, piano and violin now collaborating in music that displays an insatiable melodic instinct while again challenging its horizontal integrity. All three pieces experience a mid-point tilt on their axis. Points & Waltzes abruptly finds itself in a weirdly engrossing place of low register vagueness, every now and then clarified with triadic focus, bringing both Messiaen and Finnissy to mind; Slip Minuet splinters into pizzicati, losing its rhythmic sense almost entirely, sounding heavily filtered to the point that the music even feels rather alien. The Spit Veleta turns the tables on the other two works, challenging points of continuity by greatly stretching them with long suspended notes/chords. i have to say i found the push and pull of this connective plausibility in all three pieces to be very stimulating, and in the case of this last piece, the inscrutable beauty of its latter half is a genuine wonder to behold."
- Simon Cummings, 5:4
Linda Catlin Smith - Drifter (another timbre, at105x2)
A double disc of solos and chamber music by Toronto-based Linda Catlin Smith.
Includes Piano Quintet (with the Bozzini Quartet), Drifter (with Diego Castro), Moi Qui Tremblais (with Mira Benjamin and Simon Limbrick), Far From Shore (with Mira Benjamin and Anton Lukoszevieze), and Poire (solo piano).
"The experiment is always about whether something will hold,” says Toronto-based US composer Linda Catlin Smith, whose music tests how sounds can be longer or shorter, thicker or thinner, higher or lower, more distant or more intimate. The results are beautiful: poised and thoughtful, never forced. Often the music is soft but tactile – Catlin Smith lets us sit with the texture of the sounds, like feeling fabric between the fingers. This album of chamber music from the past two decades follows last year’s Dirt Road, also on Another Timbre. Drifter features Montreal’s Quatuor Bozzini playing the lilting Gondola, the Turner-inspired Folkestone and the Piano Quintet with Philip Thomas in graceful form; members of the ensemble Apartment House bring lonely elegance to Cantilena for viola and vibraphone and to the lissom title track for piano and guitar.”
- Kate Molleson, The Guardian
“Having much enjoyed composer Linda Catlin Smith’s “Dirt Road” release for UK label Another Timbre, as well as Eve Egoyan’s recordings of her piano music collected on “Thought and Desire”, I was very much looking forward to this new double album of pieces for solo and small ensemble from the Canadian composer. To cut to the chase, “Drifter” doesn’t disappoint: it takes everything I liked about previous releases and casts it into new contexts, drawing out new shades of colour from what is still quite a limited range of instruments. Impeccable playing from Apartment House and Quatuor Bozzini, the Barcelona and Real Madrid of small experimental music ensembles, and great quality recordings only add to the enjoyment.
Though this is relatively quiet music, it is by no means sedentary: on the contrary, it’s constantly on the move, sometimes hurrying on by, sometimes caught in an aimless drift or relaxed meander. Smith’s melodies are often plaintive and built from a small selection of pitches, circling back without repeating themselves exactly. Like paths through the forest, you can follow them easily enough, without being sure where they will lead. At the same time, there’s a harmonic centre that remains constant throughout a piece, like the persistence of consciousness or personhood on an ever-changing path. What changes, and what stays the same — or perhaps merely contrasting rates of change, some fast enough to be audible and others not.
The influence of folk music is often mentioned in reference to Smith’s music — perhaps even more so because it seems to belong in the woods and in the fields and on the mountain than because of any explicit use of folk music tropes — and this is no less relevant to the pieces collected on “Drifter”. What is perhaps less discussed is the tinge of jazz harmonies and syncopation that tints pieces such as ‘Piano Quintet’, heard in augmented chords, flurries of strings, and gusts of piano. Where two or more players are performing, melodic lines will often echo or mirror each other very closely: the effect, perhaps most clearly in evidence on the title track for guitar and piano, is like two identical translucent images that are laid one on top of the other and then rotated ever so slightly, so that the edges of the bottom layer are partially visible from underneath the top one. This subtle almost-identity makes me listen again, and listen more closely.
The drowsy piano, cymbal crashes, and high whining violin of ‘Moi Qui Tremblais’ (‘I Who Trembles’) evokes uneasy dreams, tossing and turning in the depths of sleep. It’s perhaps the most memorable piece on the album, and one of only two to feature an unstringed instrument — if there’s a criticism to be made of “Drifter”, it’s perhaps the lack of variety over its two-and-a-half hours. It’s a double-edged sword: listening to such complex and powerfully affective music being made from such constrained resources — a small selection of pitches, steady harmony, and a limited range of timbres — is a pleasure in itself.”
- Nathan Thomas, Fluid Radio
Michael Finnissy - Beat Generation Ballads (Huddersfield Contemporary Records, HCR011)
Two works by British composer Michael Finnissy, released to coincide with his 70th birthday year: Beat Generation Ballads, composed for Philip in 2014, is a 50-minute, five movement set of variations, drawing in references to Bach, Beethoven, Webern, Irish protest song, Bill Evans and more.
Also included is First Political Agenda, a three-movement work with typically provocative titles.
First Political Agenda - i. Wrong Place, Wrong Time; ii. Is there any future for new music?; iii. You know what kind of sense Mrs Thatcher made.
Beat Generation Ballads - i. Lost But Not Lost; ii. naked original skin beneath our dreams & robes of thought; iii. Lonely Banna Strand; iv. Evans, Harry, Scott, hearts foolish; v. Veränderungen
"For anyone who wants to get a sense of the range and density of the teeming output of Michael Finnissy, 70 this year, his piano music is as a good place as any to start. It’s music that can be overwhelmingly complex and forbidding, tenderly sentimental, or frankly autobiographical. And it is strewn with allusions and references to a range of other periods and styles.
Those characteristics and qualities are on display in the two large-scale works on Philip Thomas’s thoughtful and superbly played disc. First Political Agenda consists of three pieces composed between 1989 and 2006. The Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is quoted in the second movement, Is There Any Future for New Music?, while the third, You Know What Kind of Sense Mrs Thatcher Made, is based upon Parry’s Jerusalem, and its serene, almost Feldman-like meditation ends by quoting the opening motif of Beethoven’s Les Adieux Sonata. Beat Generation Ballads (2014) spreads its allusive net wider still, with four short movements in which there are references to Allen Ginsberg, Beethoven’s Op 74 quartet, an Irish republican song and Bill Evans’s My Foolish Heart, prefacing a huge set of variations based on their material. As ever with Finnissy, nothing is quoted for its own sake – all are facets of the vast musical mythology that informs his work on every level."
- Andrew Clements, The Guardian
"Beat Generation Ballads plays itself out in the overlaps between culture and counterculture. Consigning narrative plots and their correspondingly neat resolutions to the garbage can of history is one way to question the status quo and, a typical structural gambit for Finnissy, the five sections of Beat Generation Ballads download as a digressive tangle of cultural reference points.... In the 35-minute final section, 'Veranderungen', Finnissy spins threads from all that has gone before into a fragmenting labyrinth. But, despite the intensity of febrile purpose and concentration, nothing much goes anywhere. Instead, listeners are locked into the moment while the music retains its wide-angled panorama, a paradox that pianist Philip Thomas does nothing to resolve as he keeps the music on the tightest structural leash."
- Philip Clarke, Gramophone
"Reflective and expressive aspects of Finnissy's piano music resemble those found in a journal. He articulates feelings and insights without banality or indulgence, and, as these recordings show, Philip Thomas is brilliantly equipped to read him. First Political Agenda ponders the state of the nation post-Thatcher, a statement of frustration, anger and resilience. Beat Generation Ballads is a more intimate set of probes into the formation of memory and identity. ...The vitality of his allusive art springs from his capacity to bind personal recollection within historical analysis."
- Julian Cowley, The Wire
Jürg Frey - Circles and Landscapes (another timbre, at91)
Recent piano music by the idiosyncratic Swiss composer. See here for Philip's profile of the composer.
In Memoriam Cornelius Cardew; Circuar Music No.5; Extended Circular Music No.2; Pianist, Alone (2); Miniature in Five Parts; Extended Circular Music No.9
"When the Swiss clarinetist and composer Jürg Frey was celebrated as Composer in Residence at the 2015 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, pianist Philip Thomas Philip Thomas wrote of him, "Jürg Frey the composer is inseparable from Jürg Frey the composer. To understand his music is to know that underlying each event, each phrase, each rest, each relationship, is the beating heart of a performing musician." If Thomas needed to cite musical evidence in support of those words, an ideal choice would be the current album of Thomas's own renditions of six Frey compositions.
The compositions—ranging from 1992's brief "In Memoriam Cornelius Cardew" to "Extended Circular Music No. 9" from 2014/2015—paint a coherent, integrated picture of Frey the composer. That is even truer when the current album is considered in conjunction with the Another Timbre 2015 double CD of Frey compositions, Grizzana and Other Pieces 2009-2014, played by a seven-member ensemble that included both Frey and Thomas.
The success of Circles and Landscapes owes as much to Thomas as to Frey's compositions, with Simon Reynell's warm, intimate recording capturing every nuance of the pianist's performances—vital, given the importance of the relative volumes of the notes, the spaces in between them and their decay-times. Thomas manages to get all those just right—in fact, so right that it is difficult to imagine his renditions of the pieces being bettered by himself or anyone else.
For example, lasting nearly half-an-hour, the centrepiece of the album is a version of "Pianist, Alone (2)" which, true to its title, makes the pianist sound very exposed. Any slight glitch of timing or pedalling would be all too obvious, but Thomas delivers a flawless performance so such matters become irrelevant, leaving the listener to savour the spare beauty of the composition in Thomas's hands. Throughout the album, that symbiosis of composer and performer is repeated time and again.
Having begun with a Thomas quote, let's end with one from Frey himself. In a 2015 interview on the Another Timbre website , he made the following significant comments, "In my work, I consider each note as an individual, I respect each note as a sound personality. This may also be one of the reasons why I continue to compose by hand: I can give my attention to every note. I take responsibility for the note, and I also want that every note itself feels good and right in its place and in the context." No further comment is necessary... Frey's loving care and attention to detail shine through in his work. Simply exquisite."
- John Eyles, All About Jazz
"Circles and Landscapes features a program of solo piano pieces performed by Philip Thomas, one of the preeminent interpreters of contemporary piano compositions as well as an accomplished improviser. Pitch relationships have always been central to Frey’s compositions, and in these pieces, composed over the last five years (with the exception of the opening “In Memorium Cornelius Cardew” from 1993) the harmonic underpinnings are even more pivotal to the structural foundations.
...Frey has stated about his music, “A sequence of notes is most composers' starting point. And it's where I stop. Not that I cease to do anything at all; sometimes it takes a bit more, sometimes a bit less. There are so many traps, so many ways of destroying the sequence, because people think it needs a little compositional help ... More important is the relation of the material to elapsing time.” Listen to the half-hour reading of “Pianist, Alone (2),” and one hears these elemental building blocks accrue with a steadfast forbearance. Thomas places each phrase and chord-set evenly across the duration of the piece and the music advances with an unwavering beauty bereft of any standard notion of melody or harmonic progression. “Extended Circular Music No. 9,” composed over 2014 and 2015 layers in even more brooding consonance over its half-hour course. Yet even here, the music proceeds with notes and chords sounding alone with a sense of succession rather than melodic or harmonic progression. "
- Michael Rosenstein, Point of Departure
Jürg Frey's compositions can be so elusive, so hard to see, that the intention behind them often seems out of reach. A composer's intention, of course, isn't requisite to getting something from his or her work, but in the hazy overlap of minimalist improvisation and minimalist composition, that overarching feeling of motivation (especially in ensemble work) is often the only, or at least primary, characteristic suggesting a preconceived plan of action.
A clarinetist himself and a member of the Wandelweiser Group of contemporary composers concerned with using silence, Frey's work bears certain resemblances to the master of minimalist composition, Morton Feldman. Both are given to extended pauses, repetition and shifting time. But Frey also works in microtones and gradual glissandoes, creating an ambiguity quite unlike Feldman the formalist's clear (if slow) statements. Such blurring isn't easily achieved on the piano, however, which makes Frey's compositions for that instrument distinctive, and arguably his strongest work.
Circles and Landscapescollects six of Frey's compositions for solo piano, all played with a fragile beauty by the British performer Philip Thomas, who has given the premieres to several Christian Wolff compositions and has worked with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The set opens with the briefest of the pieces, dedicated to an early cartographer of contemporary composition. "In Memoriam Cornelius Cardew" is also by far the earliest piece on the disc, dating from 1993. (The other works are all from 2010-2015.) It makes for a fitting preamble to the 74 minutes that follow: short, stair-stepping descents that never reach a bottom. The other small-scale piece here is "Miniature in Five Parts", which is the most formal in meter and tonal structure presented — almost startlingly so.
The remarkable centerpiece of this elaborately set table is the half hour of "Pianist, Alone (2)", a Feldman-esque title for the most Feldman-ian piece presented here. The piece moves easily with no need for tonal conclusions and no resistance to them when they're happened upon.
The album is dominated by circles (the landscapes must be off in the distance), with "Circular Music No. 5", "Extended Circular Music No. 2" and "Extended Circular Music No. 9" comprising about half the playing time. Placed intermittently across the program, their single notes and occasional clusters, primarily in the upper register, seem predictable but will trick you every time, like looking for patterns in a cloud of fireflies.
- Kurt Gottschalk, The Squid's Ear
"The piano is close-miked on this CD, focussing on the grain of the instrument’s sounds. Thomas’ playing is softly-spoken but full-voiced – well suited to the quiet but indomitable character marking out a trail through an empty expanse"
- Ben Harper, Boring Like a Drill
Joseph Kudirka - Beauty and Industry and other pieces(another timbre, at89)
A beautiful compilation of scores by American experimentalist Joe Kudirka, performed by Apartment House.
tender; Beauty and Industry; Two Sections; 21st Century Music; Wyoming Snow; an orchestral fantasy; grey; dulcimer
"This album opens with the 53-second Tender: sweet, husky, tentative sounds circling in space like a mobile. Later, there is Tender (Second Version) – just 47 seconds this time, but now with more tremble and more pain. Michigan-born experimental composer Joseph Kudirka uses simple terms to say significant things. His music is considered; he doesn’t shout or clutter the edges or overfill the gaps. The piece 21st Century Music is a slow and starkly beautiful cycle of downward shifting intervals; Wyoming Snow was inspired by a drive through a wintry landscape; and Beauty and Industry alternates between soft-hewn gestures against clangy, dark ones. The scores leave much to interpretation. There are two or three versions of several pieces on this disc, each one an insight into the astutely calibrated textures made by Apartment House."
- Kate Molleson, The Guardian
Jürg Frey - Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014 (another timbre, at86x2)
A double-CD set of recent solo and ensemble pieces by Swiss composer Jürg Frey, with the composer himself playing clarinet.
Petit fragment de paysage; Fragile Balance; Ombres exactes sans dûreté; A Memory of Perfection; Extended Circular Music No.8; Grizzana; Lieues d’ombres; Tendre enchaînement des valeurs; Ferne Farben; Area of Three
Ensemble Grizzana - Jürg Frey (clarinet), Mira Benjamin (violin), Richard Craig (flute), Emma Richards (viola), Philip Thomas (piano), Seth Woods (cello) and Ryoko Akama (electronics)
"Performed sensitively by Ensemble Grizzana, the album is an epic study of fragile balances, to borrow one of the set’s titles. Even its most complex and multi-layered works – ‘Extended Circular Music No.8’ for septet and the seven part title track for sextet, both from 2014 – sound perilously collapsible and feather-light, assembling string and wind-drones and piano detailing into melodic convergences and shimmeringly dense drone harmonics."
- Nick Cain, The Wire
assigned #15 (another timbre, at88)
A specially composed work for this recording, James Saunders revisits earlier compositional concerns with a fresh perspective. assigned #15 is a single substantial work written for and performed by Apartment House.
" Many conventionally trained musicians surely feel intimidated by that kind of trust and exposure. Others, such as the members of Apartment House, who perform Wolff’s work with notable conviction and success, thrive on that interpretive latitude. Creative imagination as well as intelligence, pleasure in exploration and discovery, inquisitive engagement with a wide range of music conceived in the wake of Cage and (not least) a well developed sense of fun seem to be requirements for such musicians, no less than technical skill and virtuosity.
Saunders’s assigned #15 is part of a series that draws material from his modular composition project #[unassigned]. A bespoke series – to use his word – and this realisation was tailored for a specific occasion, at St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield in April 2015, and for a particular incarnation of Apartment House. Saunders himself, working with dictaphones and shortwave radio, and Kerry Yong playing chamber organ create a fuzzy glow, bristling with sferics, that hovers around enigmatic wispiness and threshold articulations. Scrapes, scribbles, taps and busy rummaging transmit from Bridget Carey’s viola, Anton Lukoszevieze’s cello, Nancy Ruffer’s flute, Simon Limbrick’s percussion and Philip Thomas’s piano. The result is engrossing: a luminous wash over textured scrawl and discreet graffiti: a Cy Twombly canvas in sound.”
- Julian Cowley, The Wire
"Heard as a piece played by the seven musicians, it seems unlikely one would suspect the modular roots of this composition. Where random playing a series of one-minute recorded modules can lead to clunky jump-cuts between modules, with "assigned #15" that is never the case and it hangs together well, sounding as if it was conceived in its entirety not a chunk at a time. For that, credit is due to Saunders for selecting compatible component parts and integrating them together well, and to Apartment House for their smooth performance of it. The ensemble creates a highly satisfying soundscape that is broad, deep and rich in detail. The piece is engrossing for its full duration and, no many how many times it is heard, it keeps on giving.”
- John Eyles, All About Jazz
Musical Scoring Systems (Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Centre)
Apartment House perform rarely heard and experienced works by pioneering fluxus composer George Maciunas
Morton Feldman Two Pianos and other pieces (another timbre, at81x2)
Two Pianos; Four Instruments; Vertical Thoughts I; Between Categories; Piece for Four Pianos; Piano Four Hands; Intermission 6; De Kooning; Two Pieces for Three Pianos; Piano Three Hands; False Relationships and the Extended Ending
Philip Thomas, John Tilbury
plus Naomi Atherton, Mira Benjamin, Taneli Clarke, Rodrgio Constanzo, Linda Jankowska,Mark Knoop, Catherine Laws, Anton Lukoszevieze, Barrie Webb, Seth Woods
"Though the last 10 years has seen a steady flow of new recordings of Morton Feldman’s music, those have tended to concentrate on the remarkable series of works from the final decade of the composer’s life. But how his music achieved the refinement and clarity of those often greatly extended late pieces has been less thoroughly explored.
This entrancing and consistent collection, mostly made up of works for one or more pianos, but also including chamber pieces involving other instruments – strings, percussion, brass – focuses on Feldman’s music of the 50s and 60s; the earliest piece here is Intermission 6 for one or two pianos, from 1953, the latest is Between Categories, for two ensembles, from 1969. All 12 works demonstrate, as the pianist Philip Thomas points out in his superbly thorough commentary, “the intensity of Feldman’s experimentation with notation and sound” during that period. “Considering the works chronologically,” Thomas says, “one senses the composer trying out, teasing and developing means of notation to get close to his desired elasticity of time and duration.”
In all of these works, the pitches are precisely specified in the score; none of Feldman’s 50s forays into total indeterminacy and purely graphic notation are included. But the performers are given a great deal of freedom in deciding how long individual sounds last, how they decay and how they are co-ordinated between performers. There is a huge range of ways in which Feldman lays out his scores, and in what he expects of his performers, as if testing these different notations to destruction; in the works that came afterwards, from the early 70s onwards, he would return to much more conventional methods.
What is so remarkable about the music here, however it is assembled and put down on paper, is how transcendently beautiful so much of it is, its composer unmistakable. As in the later, better known works, every pitch, every chord seems precious. Every hint of rhetoric is a seismic event, even when the dynamic range is so deliberately confined – “The music is intended to be quiet and is best played at a low volume,” says a note on the sleeve. Every one of these exemplary performances, with John Tilbury and Thomas leading the way, seems to be totally immersed in this very special expressive world: one of the most extraordinary of any composer’s in the second half of the 20th century."
- Andrew Clements, The Guardian
"...this is one extraordinary release...It's hard to know what to say except to express the contention that were I forced to listen to nothing but these performances for the next year or so, I can imagine worse fates. Absolutely spellbinding, the marriage of conception on Feldman's part and crystalline, hyper-sympathetic interpretation by the two pianists. And really, I could say the same about almost every track here but that would be pointless. A sublime balance of the poised and the incisive, restraint plus the willingness to (gently) attack. It's futile to pick favorites but "Piece for Four Pianos" is also profoundly moving and deep and I think I even slightly prefer it to the 1958 recording with Feldman and Tudor. I can't even begin to choose among the ensemble pieces; each one is marvelous, shimmering, thoughtful--choose your adjective. Everything about the release, conception to execution, is just perfect; one of the finest things I've heard in a long time and an absolute must for any lover of Feldman, warts and all. Apart from the classic Tilbury recording, "All Piano", this might be my favorite Feldman release ever."
- Brian Olwnick, Just Outside
"It has become a truism that AMM pianist John Tilbury
is an interpreter of Morton Feldman's music par excellence—one of the very best, if not the best. Such opinions are backed up by his Feldman recordings such as Morton Feldman: All Piano (LondonHALL, 1999), Triadic Memories—Notti Stellate A Vagli (Atopos, 2008) and For Philip Guston (Atopos, 2013). Developed over decades, his touch, timing and note placement make Tilbury's readings of Feldman fresh and alive—as close to definitive as one could hope for. So, for this new double CD of Feldman piano pieces, there could surely have been little debate that Tilbury's name had to be first on the team sheet.
Unlike the albums cited above, Two Pianos and other pieces, 1953-1969 does not feature Tilbury alone at the piano but in the company of from one to seven other musicians. On eleven of the twelve tracks he appears on, he is joined by at least one other pianist, with "Piece for Four Pianos" featuring Tilbury, Philip Thomas, Catherine Laws and Mark Knoop all on pianos. Thomas himself appears on twelve tracks, being the featured pianist on "De Kooning," the album's one track without Tilbury. (On his blog, Thomas's own thoughts on this recording, and on Feldman generally, are fascinating.)
Across the two discs, the album includes a range of different contexts for pianists to play together. It opens (and closes) with Tilbury and Thomas together on the 1957 composition "Two Pianos," a piece that first helped introduce Tilbury to Feldman's music when he and Cornelius Cardew played it together at Conway Hall around 1960. Each pianist is given the same single sheet of music to play, moving through it at their own pace. The end result is a complex piece in which the two pianos overlap and complement one another to good effect. To emphasise the variable nature of the piece, for comparison purposes a second version concludes the album. In both versions, the quietness of the performances focuses listeners' attention on the sounds rather than sweeping them along.
Also from 1957, "Piece for Four Pianos" repeats the format of "Two Pianos" but for four pianists. Famously, at one performance of the piece, where John Cage was one of the four pianists, he finished twenty minutes after the other three! Despite differences between the four pianists, no such mismatches are in evidence here, and the piece, though more complex than the two-piano version, creates just as impressive and pleasing an effect.
In 1966, Feldman adopted a totally different approach on "Two Pieces for Three Pianos." As Thomas explains, rather than the three pianists all playing the same music in their own way, "The first piece combines two different notation types: the first and second pianos read only stemless noteheads, with the instruction to play each event once the decay of the previous event has begun; the third piano part is fully notated with very precise durations, metre and ever-changing tempi. Each player follows their own part dogmatically—there is very little room for listening and responding to the other players." Consequently, the three pianos—Tilbury, Thomas and Laws—fit together perfectly, like the pieces of a jigsaw, together creating wonderfully tranquil music that unfolds at its own pace, with its own irrefutable logic? in a nutshell, classic Feldman in peak form.
Taken together, all of the piano pieces here constitute an object lesson in Feldman's writing for his favourite instrument. Very different, but just as beguiling are the four tracks that combine one, two or three pianos with other instruments including cellos, violins, chimes, percussion, horn and trombone. Interspersed among the entirely piano-based pieces, they serve to add variety to the album's soundscape and to demonstrate that Feldman's music for other instruments is just as effective as that for piano. Before the arrival of this album, it seemed as if Another Timbre releases by Laurence Crane and Skogen would battle it out for best recording of 2014. Now, though, it has become a three horse race that is too close to call... "
John Eyles all about jazz
"'The magic is to make sounds out of pitches,' Morton Feldman suggested in Darmstadt in 1984. To grasp what that might mean in practice, simply listen to Piece for four pianos, played by John Tilbury, Philip Thomas, Catherine Laws and Mark Knoop. This composition from 1957 is notated as to pitch, but Feldman left it open to performers to take the same single-page score at their own chosen pace, allowing the mercurial qualities of personal touch, sensitivity to each note's decay, the acoustic properties of the hall, idiosyncracies of a particular instrument and other factors unspecified by the composer to work audible magic. Tilbury and Thomas act as the hub for this entire collection, combining their distinct yet equally refined interpretative identities in a series of duets, and within mixed chamber groups involving fine musicians such as cellist Anton Lukoszevieze and violinist Mira Benjamin. These exploratory works, from Intermission 6 (1953) to Between Categories (1969), form a compendium of spellbinding sounds."
Julian Cowley, The Wire
Christopher Fox Works for piano (hat[NOW]art192)
"In realising Fox's Thermogenesis pianist Philip Thomas initially wears big mittens. These are removed to reveal gloves which in turn are discarded, leaving the performer to complete the task bare-handed. This playful piece was conceived to demonstrate how a musician might contrive to get warm in a cold climate. Fox compositions often seem to involve an idea finding its material and taking on weight, rather as words jotted on paper by Ian Hamilton Finlay - a poet Fox admires - would expand in significance when carved in stone and embedded in landscape. Entrusting the manual work to longterm collaborator Thomas is a wise step. In his hands L'ascenseur, a vigorous test for the piano's fidelity and player's evenness of execution, advances like sonorous rubble jostling on a rising conveyor belt. at the edge of time probes the afterlife of a single recurrent pitch through the interaction of harmonics, at length and absorbingly. Republican Bagatelles churns variations by Beethoven and Ives, dredges up "God Save The Queen" and "The Red Flag", and ends with a two-fisted barrage. Quirky, stimulating and substantial music."
Julian Cowley, The Wire
Four solo piano works by Christopher Fox, recorded here for the first time: L'ascenseur; at the edge of time; Thermogenesis; Republican Bagatelles
"Fox’s music has always been pleasingly hard to categorise; has any other composer been labelled both a minimalist and a new complexist? Of course he’s neither, and thank goodness. Besides this completely original, unpindownable quality, what I also like about Fox’s music is how it doesn’t take itself too seriously, while being deep down very serious indeed. By way of example, at the edge of time is a 15-minute study in a single pitch and its harmonics that never once sounds like a chore; Thermogenesis is a quasi-theatrical gesture that requires the pianist to begin playing in mittens, removing those to reveal gloves, and only in the final third to play with bare hands. I’ve seen Thomas play this piece, and while it has its undoubted silly side it also works as ‘proper’ music. Those who know Fox’s piano music only from Ian Pace’s Metier recordings of a few years back should relish the complimentary robustness that comes out here."
- Tim Rutherford Johnson, The Rambler
Christian Wolff Pianist: Pieces (sub rosa sr389)
A 3-CD set of solo piano music by Christian Wolff, covering all the 1950s works and major works from 2001.
For Prepared Piano; For Piano I; For Piano II; For Piano with preparations; Suite; For Pianist; Long Piano; Pianist: Pieces; A Piano Piece; Nocturnes 1-6; Small Preludes; Touch
Featured in The Wire's 2015 'Modern Composition' list and the end of year experimental playlist in The Guardian
"A cover image shows composer Christian Wolff and currently ubiquitous pianist Philip Thomas sitting side by side, their heads bowed forward, apparently poring over a score. A kind of dialogue is figured in this silent collaborative scrutiny. In a sense it provides a visual analogy for Wolff's music, in which frequent gaps and pauses foreground the independent existence of individual sounds and isolated phrases, while beyond that perceptible discontinuity impalpable connections are forming. In the accompanying booklet Wolff suggests that a score is 'one element in a conversation, an inducement to exploration, sometimes flexible, reusable, consistently useful'. Across three CDs, Thomas makes use of scores for all of Wolff's solo piano music from the 1950s and others written since 2001, including the epic Long Piano (Peace March 11). These pieces require the performer's decisions, welcome his input; and Thomas responds with rigorous self-discipline but also close attention to Wolff's compositional voice."
Julian Cowley, The Wire
"The expansive recording project, performed entirely by pianist Philip Thomas, is filled with engaging, spiky pieces. In part, the performances' liveliness and immediacy can be attributed to Wolff's use of "wedges," rests of indeterminate length, which Thomas thoughtfully employs to dramatic and energizing effect.
The early pieces, such as "For Prepared Piano" from 1951 and the demanding "For Pianist" from 1959, sound as fresh and surprising as the unpredictable discontinuities of the premiere recordings of "Small Preludes" from 2010. The panoramic 96 tracks of 2004-5's "Long Piano (Peace March 11)" are extraordinary for their kaleidoscopic changes of approach to phrasing, density, melodic shape and dynamics as well as lengths of silence. "Patches," Wolff's name for the units of material, vary from as little as five seconds to the longest, a bit short of three minutes. Anticipating what will happen in the next moment only to have that expectation thwarted makes for absorbing listening. Pianist: Pieces is a mesmerizing three-hour encounter with a creative mind."
- Glen Hall, Exclaim.ca
"Philip Thomas’s survey of the piano music of Christian Wolff may not be entirely comprehensive, but it spans almost the whole of the American experimentalist’s career as a composer, from his Cageian pieces of the 1950s to the explosion of creativity in the last decade. The earliest work here is For Prepared Piano of 1951, full of obsessive repetitions and irregular silences; the most recent, the set of 20 Tiny Preludes composed in 2010, in which many of the musical parameters – tempi, dynamics, even the choice of clef – are left to the performer’s discretion. The first disc is framed by Thomas’s two utterly different realisations of Wolff’s For Pianist, of 1959, which he calls “one of the most extreme instances of indeterminate music to have emerged from that period.” The second disc is occupied by the 96 pieces that make up Long Piano (Peace March 11) from 2005, a series of fragments that are sometimes separated by pauses, sometimes seamlessly joined together. It’s a fascinating collection, by turns beautiful and frustrating, to which Thomas is the perfect, committed guide."
- Andrew Clements, The Guardian
"Thomas’s authoritative interpretations make all three discs worth owning."
- Tim Rutherford-Johnson, The Rambler
"Thomas is both a superb pianist, of the new music bright-and-precise school—everything in sharp focus, the range of articulations and dynamics unfailingly delineated—and an expert on Wolff’s music, his engagement with it both analytically deep and aesthetically sympathetic."
- Matthew Guerrieri, New Music Box (for full discussion of the music, see here)
Laurence Crane Chamber Works 1992-2009 (another timbre, at74x2)
A double-CD of music by Laurence Crane, featuring Apartment House, including Philip Thomas performing the solo work premiered by him in 2009, Ethiopian Distance Runners
"This particular recording of Crane’s work is a
double CD of chamber music, performed by
members of Lukoszevieze’s group, Apartment
House. It not only provides a strong overview
of his chamber music, but also is important for
rendering his significant relationship with
Apartment House in permanent form – they
have collaborated frequently over the past two
decades. The shared aesthetic evinced on this
release is hence no surprise: the recording is
imbued with the sense that composer and performers
are on precisely the same page, revelling in
a clean, unfussy style, and happy swimming
against stylistic tides.
The two discs have different characters, perhaps
charting a slight change in Crane’s music
over the years – the first disc features the earlier
works, written from 1992 to 2002, whilst the second
features those from 2003 to 2009. The first is
by and large lighter listening, as amply demonstrated
by the tranquil Sparling (1992), a
five-and-a-half-minute piece which appears
three times, in different arrangements, over the
course of the disc. Clarinettist Andrew Sparling
– for whom, unsurprisingly, the piece was written
– features each time, but he is joined first
by Alan Thomas on guitar, then by Philip
Thomas (no relation) on piano, and finally by a
string quartet for Sparling 2000. Though the protagonist,
Sparling has the simplest of parts: just
one slow two-note phrase, which repeats over
and over again while the accompanying chords
shift enigmatically beneath. The harmonies are
the same in each of the three versions, but the
slow pace and the emphasis on timbre mean
that each has a contrasting character, and indeed
sounds like a completely new piece.
This radically economical approach to material
is typical of Crane’s music generally, in
which the simple elements of each piece are presented
in the precise context that maximises their
effect. Another piece on the first disc, Riis (1996)
for electric organ, clarinet and cello, also shows
extreme judiciousness and frugality: the interjections
for cello harmonics and clarinet are uncannily
well attuned to the long, held organ chords,
and the combined texture becomes not so much
simple as otherworldly. It is perhaps on this
recording, incidentally, that the particular talents
of the performers are most apparent – the virtuosity
here is in their sensitivity to tone and ruthlessly
On the second CD, a darker tinge intermittently
emerges. Layers of ominous percussion cut through several of the scores (notably John
White in Berlin and Four Miniatures, both 2003),
and the first of the Four Miniatures is extreme
in its flirtation with near-silence. Here, violinist
Gordon MacKay bows a mute, Simon Limbrick
plays his bass drum as softly as possible, Philip
Thomas muffles his occasional low notes with
a hand on the piano strings, and flautist Nancy
Ruffer is instructed to play with ‘more breath
than pitch; avoid pitch as much as possible’.
John White in Berlin has a sinister edge, the metallic
percussion creating a sheen that cuts through
the ensemble’s delicate held notes. Piano Piece no.
23 – ‘Ethiopian Distance Runners’, an epic by
Crane’s standards, is softer in mood, and beautifully
presented by Thomas. Its greater length
and many repetitions create a piece a little
more akin to what conventionally gets called
minimalism, though this is not a particularly useful
label to apply to a composer so clearly treading
his own path.
The overall impression from the later disc is of
an opening out: the constituents are similar to
those on the earlier disc, but they are taken in
unexpected, new directions. It is proof that the
lack of theoretical encumbrances in Crane’s style
does not curtail his artistic or affective range."
- Paul Kilbey, Tempo
"Laurence Crane's music is quietly unassuming and perhaps gently subversive. It deals in the common currency of tonal harmony and scale patterns, yet does so in ways that never seem cliched, arch or predictable. It's possible to guess at the composers who have influenced his style – Satie and Feldman historically speaking, Howard Skempton more immediately. Like Skempton, Crane seems to possess the ability to make the simplest musical idea into something compellingly beautiful. Fourteen of his chamber works are included in this collection; none are very substantial and most of them are less than 10 minutes long. They include three versions of the same 1992 piece, Sparling, composed for Apartment House's clarinettist, Andrew Sparling. The spare, chordal accompaniment is given to different instruments – guitar, piano, string quartet – in each realisation, and its quietly nagging lyricism haunts the first of the two discs like a benign ghost, while other pieces around it, such as Riis from 1996, often conjure up memories of the English experimental composers of the 1960s and 70s."
- Andrew Clements, The Guardian
"This double CD release puts Laurence Crane in the spotlight as never before. The music is played by Apartment House, an ensemble with whom Crane has worked closely, writing various pieces for them. These recordings were supervised by Crane himself, indicating that they come with his seal of approval. Although Crane began composing in the early to mid 80's, the music here is drawn evenly from across the years 1992 to 2009, a classic period that takes in many of his key compositions.
Across this recording and the one above, most intriguing are the three pieces from the 90's—"Bobby J," "See Our Lake" and "Riis"—that occur on both, allowing comparison of the versions. Despite the differences of personnel and instrumentation, such comparisons reveal that, in different hands, Crane's compositions create remarkably similar emotional spaces, and their formal beauty never risks tipping over to become cloying or mawkish.
Of the more recent compositions, "Seven Short Pieces" (which lives up to its title? they all clock in at under two minutes) is an object lesson in mood manipulation, as Crane deploys his limited palette to subtly change the feel from piece to piece. In total contrast, the prolonged—nearly 22 minute—"Piano Piece no. 23 'Ethiopian Distance Runners,'" performed solo by Philip Thomas, is an eloquent illustration of a recent Crane quote, "Another metaphor that I've used before for thinking about my work is that of walking through a landscape, where the landscape remains essentially the same, but little details in it change, or come into and out of focus as you walk through it. So your experience when you've got to the endpoint will have changed, but the landscape itself has not changed much."
This is an essential album, sure to be one of the year's very best."
- John Eyles, allaboutjazz.com
"For newcomers to the world of experimental music – hovering happily between composition and improvisation, determinism and experiment – to which another timbre dedicates itself, this is the disc I would probably turn people towards first. Although I would do that only on the basis that Laurence Cranes’ musical language is the least forbidding, based as it is on steady, even rhythms, legible, tonal harmonies, simple harmonic progressions (often just alternations of two chords). But, as Michael Pisaro points out in a lovely short essay on the AT website, despite all this Crane’s music is also ‘quietly crazy, even absurd in its extremely understated way.’ It certainly isn’t what it seems. It couldn’t possibly be. You can’t get away with writing music like that, of such surface simplicity as to have practically no surface at all. Yet Crane does; and no one else.
So what is there? I suppose we might each see something different reflected in Crane’s still waters. What I find, first, is absolute precision, coupled with an almost complete absence of redundancy. Clearly there is no ornament in the usual melodic sense, but neither is there any in a more conceptual sense. You actually try to project something clever behind the notes that you hear, those chords alternating in slow footsteps, but the music bends like a reed, absorbing and evading. It’s some of the most yin music I know.
Disc 1 contains nine pieces, mostly from the 1990s, mostly shorter. As well as three versions of Sparling – written for Apartment House’s Andrew Sparling in 1992, and something of a signature Crane piece – we have Trio (1996), Raimondas Rumsas for cello (2002), See Our Lake (1999) for alto flute, clarinets, violin, cello and vibraphone, Riis (1996) for clarinet, cello and electric organ, Bobby J (1999) for electric guitar, and the three pieces of Estonia – Erki Nool, Mart Poom, Arvo Pärt – for flutes, clarinet, violin and cello.* For those who know a little of Crane’s music already, this is the most familiar territory of homorhythmic chords, simple timbres and so on.
Disc 2 contains five pieces, mostly longer, and all from the 2000s: Seven Short Pieces for bass flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2004), Piano Piece no.23 ‘Ethiopian Distance Runners’ for solo piano (2009), Four Miniatures for flute, violin, percussion and piano (2003), Come back to the old specimen cabinet John Vigani, John Vigani Part 1 for clarinet and auxiliary instruments (2007), and John White in Berlin for cello, electric guitar, percussion and piano (2003). This is the stranger of the two discs. The instrumentation gets a little less conventional, the sounds a little less pure – witness the percussive knocks and violin scratches tucked away in the Seven Short Pieces, or the noise-making and droning auxiliary instruments of John Vigani. The chord progressions get less straightforward. A general air of uncertainty starts to inhabit the music: the instrumental parts seem more exposed, without a solid ensemble homophony or tonal centredness to back them up; there is a greater use of silence, and of dissonance, and of dynamic contrast. It is still just as ungraspable, but now it seems even more bewilderingly so, given the seemingly greater density of musical information.
This is a significant release I believe; I hope it will prove to be. Crane’s strange vision has been lurking around the periphery of new music for a long time, almost like a secret handshake for those in the know. You’ve either heard it and been convinced, or you haven’t heard it. For those of us who have there are still surprises here: the late 90s pieces Riis and Bobby J, for example, have an almost unseemly lushness of sound; Ethiopian Distance Runners unfolds over an unCrane-like 22 minutes. John White in Berlin is something else again; in context quite a shock. While this isn’t exactly music of wild emotions or high contrasts, there is plenty here that reveals Crane as a composer of substantial range. Now that this release is out, here’s hoping it will introduce the impenetrable transparency of his music to a much wider audience."
- Tim Rutherford-Johnson, The Rambler
"Though I’ve singled out certain members of Apartment House, their collective playing is first-rate. Throughout the set, they illustrate the intensity of focus demanded by music that brings so many minute structural details to the fore. Recorded under the composer’s supervision, this set must now be regarded as infinitive. With a recording every bit the playing’s equal, it is also one of the best releases in Another Timbre’s catalog. Here’s hoping that this retrospective will bring Laurence Crane more of the recognition he has long deserved."
- Marc Medwin, dusted magazine
Vessels (another timbre, at69)
A single, extended work for solo piano, composed by Bryn Harrison, for Philip Thomas
"Bryn Harrison’s music has often, and understandably, been compared with Morton Feldman’s. But while Harrison admires the latter’s immersive quality, his own music has become progressively less harmonic than Feldman’s. Vessels is about ‘the micro-repetition of intervals, the repetition of phrases and the repetition of sections’, Harrison comments. ‘The music [aims to be] perpetually regenerative… constantly opening up, but then [we find] ourselves in the same space’. Citing artist Bridget Riley, he argues that ‘repetition can [highlight] things that might otherwise go by unnoticed’ – though here, repetitions are never exact. Compared to its inspiration, Howard Skempton’s 2007 string quartet Tendrils, this work seems to favour stasis over movement.
In contrast to the familiar artistic image of organic inevitability, Vessels seems to unfold according to a law of nature, or mathematical equation. It plays with psychoacoustics, perhaps suggesting the Shepard tone, the aural illusion of constantly rising tones – whatever the acoustic facts, there’s always a sense of rising in one part or the other.
Some critics have accused this work of failing to present any listening challenges; of having an almost anaesthetic impact. But this is unfair. Momentum has to be maintained, as it is here by pianist Philip Thomas, who shows immense stamina and concentration over 76 minutes, with a touch of great delicacy. And despite my earlier comments, the irregular, halting rhythms throughout strongly imply a human presence. The result may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s certainly novel, paradoxical and intriguing."
Andy Hamilton, International Piano
"This recording represents the intersection of three of England’s most interesting forces in new music—pianist Philip Thomas, composer Bryn Harrison, and Sheffield-based label Another Timbre. Huddersfield resident Thomas has been a leading advocate for experimental music. Earlier in 2013, he brought the shorter version of Vessels on tour with him in Canada alongside other English and Canadian pieces. Here in its full duration, Harrison’s piece is at once hypnotic and demanding of the listener. Thomas’ deft touch and keen ear bring the work’s beauty and unsettling peculiarity to life.
Vessels’ suspended, quiet relentlessness might recall Feldman’s late work, but Harrison’s piece is considerably more minimalist and quite without the stylized contours and breaths for which the older composer is known. This economy of material and flatness of perspective, however, are precisely what make Vessels so captivating, as they focus the ear toward the cryptic flow of the piece rather than the singular beauty of each moment.
Its surface is very inviting, yet once listeners enter the world of the piece, they’re confronted with an intangible, mysterious process which unfolds for the work’s full duration. It’s the inverse of, say, one of Steve Reich’s process pieces, for whatever is changing throughout the course of Vessels is not readily available, eliciting a disorienting temporal friction between apparent stasis and subtle, constant transformation.
Where the trajectories of some minimal works provide lulling stability, Vessels seems to seep in many simultaneous directions, engendering, instead, a heightened awareness of one’s own bewilderment. "
Nick Storring, Musicworks
"Vessels is the final disc in the new batch of releases on the Another Timbre label, which is concentrating more and more on young minimalist composers. The final disc, and certainly the most radical. Here the composer Bryn Harrison presents a long, fluid piece for piano, played by Philip Thomas. A piece which seems to have no beginning or end, which could last for eternity, and which seems to exist completely outside of time.
In his interview on the label’s website, the British composer clearly talks about Feldman (but also of Messiaen, Skempton, Cage, Richard Glover and others). Clearly, because his piece cannot but bring to mind the late works of Feldman. Starting with nine notes taken from a mode of Messiaen’s, Harrison has written a 75 minute composition based on the constant repetition of intervals, phrases and sections. It’s a very long piece with an opaque structure, which moves forwards without a break. The tempo is medium and never varies, the dynamic is also constant, and the pedalling similarly: everything depends on minute rhythmical and harmonic variations. The intervals change slightly, a rhythmic structure subtly shifts, and so on. The scale of nine tones used here appears totally abstract with regard to the piece as a whole. But Harrison works on the tiny details, exploiting countless variations of intervals, intensity and rhythm. Harrison explores the scale concretely, in all its physicality, but in such detail, and at such length that it seems to become abstract.
But it isn’t these compositional processes that recall Feldman, it is rather the sense of wandering outside of time which brings this music close to the late works of the American composer. And here we must acknowledge the patience and perseverance of Philip Thomas, who recorded the piece in a single take, with passion and unfailing concentration, and with a sensitivity and precision which sets him apart from so many interpreters. For its entire 75 minutes Vessels never departs from its single-minded and obsessive nature. The nine notes of the scale are explored without harmonic or structural goals; you never know where you are going, nor where you have come from. There is always the feeling that Thomas is playing freely with the scale, in an almost aleatoric way, that he’s playing without thinking of anything, without aim or direction. And it is this absence of purpose which plunges this piece into a very special temporality. A temporality which seems absent; time seems to be stuck around these nine notes, whose variations seem to be inexhaustible, and something to which you could listen for hours on end.
A sense of eternity, of dislocated temporality. And this sense draws the listener into a unique auditory experience, one that is rarely found in music: to be outside of time, or at least in another kind of temporality. Unique and very beautiful."
Julien Heraud, Improv-sphere
Logical Harmonies (another timbre, at66)
A selection of works by Huddersfield-based composer Richard Glover, including:
Logical Harmonies (1) and (2), performed by Philip Thomas
Cello with Clarinet and Piano, performed by Seth Woods, Jonathan Sage and Philip Thomas
Wandelweiser und so weiter (another timbre, at56x6
An extraordinary 6-CD collection of music by composers from, associated with and influenced by the 'Wandelweiser' collective, performed by some of the performers most associated with this repertoire. See web-site for full details and reviews.
divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole (another timbre, at44)
Music by James Saunders, including:
imperfections on the surface are occasionally apparent (2009) performed by the edges ensemble (dir. Philip Thomas)
PART OF IT MAY ALSO BE PART OF SOMETHING ELSE (2009), performed by Philip Thomas
Positions and Descriptions: Composition No.75 (Clean Feed Records, CF230)
A multi-movement major composition by Simon H Fell, combining elements of avant-garde composition, free jazz, free improvisation, electronic music and more besides, but maneouvering between and across these categories.
with Alex Ward (clarinet), Andrew Sparling (clarinet), Chris Batchelor (trumpet), Damien Ryonnais (sax), Jim Denley (flute), Joby Burgess (percussion), Joe Morris (guitar)m Mark Sanders (percussion), Mifune Tsuji (violin), Philip Joseph (theremin), Philip Thomas (piano), Rhodri Davies (harp), Simon H Fell (bass), Tim Berne (saxophone), Steve Beresford (electronics, conduction), Clark Rundell (conductor)
Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival
Nothing but the hours (CeReNeM, HCRDVD04)
A portrait DVD of the work of composer and film maker Geoffrey Cox, including No Escapeperformed by Philip Thomas (piano) and with documentary films made in collaboration with Keith Marley.
fields have ears (another timbre, at37)
Music by Michael Pisaro
1. fields have ears 1 for piano and tape
2. fade for piano
3. fields have ears 4 for ensemble, featuring the edges ensemble, compost and height, and Dominic Lash
“Ah, so beautiful. Three pieces by Pisaro, two more recent works ("fields have ears" 1 & 4) bracketing a decade old composition, very well sequenced here.
"fields have ears 1", for piano (Philip Thomas) and tape is disarmingly simple, its subtlety and depth yielding to this listener only after repeated listens and absorption. There's the tape, very rich (not sure if there's more than one layered in), with bird and insect sounds up top, moving air in the middle and a heady, deep thrum beneath, redolent of distant highways or miles high airplanes. Between these sounds, the piano appears at intervals, the chords fairly bright sometimes, tinged with doubt or melancholy others, spaced irregularly, dabs of relatively vivid color against the complex welter of the soundscape. It's the spacing and shift in dynamics of the piano that's so winning, even heartbreaking at times, very much like a lone hiker's thoughts, questioning and intensely personal, radiated into the forest for lack of someone else to listen.
"fade", for piano (again, Thomas) dates from 2000. The music is a series of single notes, each slice the same note repeated (I think) between five and ten times, generally (not always) fading during the sequence, the notes ranging across the keyboard. At first, each segment floats alone, suspended between ample and varying lengths of silence but soon there's a wave where two or three exist simultaneously, not heard as "chords" (at least by me) but superimposed one-note patterns. That shift of larger forms, which occurs throughout, in a cycle of a few minutes, coexists wonderfully with the jewel-like effect of the individual series. It's very calm, very surface-of-water-like, with slight shimmers that gather in a kind of natural manner, almost random but somehow purposeful. Like something from Feldman's even more serene cousin.
Finally, "fields have ears 4", for four or more players, here by the Edges Ensemble plus Thomas, Patrick Farmer (natural objects), Sarah Hughes (zither) and Dominic Lash (double bass). It's extremely difficult not to envision a door being gently opened and closed, allowing one to momentarily hear this quiet flurry of activity, then not. These small bubbles of sound, emerge and quickly recede, like smoke signals. These musical puffs are delicate, the piano heard among the fluttering instruments in a semi-similar regard as it was in "fields have ears 1", single chords wafting through the lovely fog. Really a stunning piece of work, a new favorite of mine among Pisaro's increasingly impressive recorded catalog. A great release.”
- Brian Olewnick, JUST OUTSIDE
"Fields Have Ears,’ then (the album as a whole), possesses a spareness which is not emptiness, and a real clarity – each note is weighted and considered and placed, each pause judged, each element considered. In a way, one can’t distinguish too easily between whole and parts because it’s not developmental (apart from that it occurs in time; as music, it is necessarily linear on the most basic level). Close focus is, then, on the moment, though the music is generous enough to allow for moments of inattention too, occasional drifts in concentration, without severely harming one’s ability to pick up the thread again when one zones back in. That lack of distinction between episodes, that lack of build and climax might seem like mere flatness to some, but it’s actually pretty hard to achieve, especially on a long, large-ensemble piece like ‘Fields Have Ears 4’; a state that cannot be conjured without real dedication, on the part of both composer and performers, to the particular aesthetics which enable and prompt it.”
- David Grundy, STREAMS OF EXPRESSION (see here for full review)
"Fields have ears 1 for piano and tape (2008), played beautifully by Philip Thomas, at first recalls the final section of Christopher Fox’s More Things in the Air than are Visible: melancholy piano chords float in a haze of ambient, natural sound. In the case of the Pisaro, this sounds like a field recording made in a summer meadow, surrounded by birdsong. The Fox soundtrack (or at least that on Ian Pace’s recording on Metier) is more urban, but at the same more naturalistic: there is pronounced (even enhanced?) mechanical hum and hiss on the Pisaro tape, ironically alerting us to the materiality of all every sound we hear. The piano sits somewhere within this soundscape, both artificial and completely natural.
fields have ears 4 (2009), is somehow less present, in spite of its realisation here for a large ensemble of 14 instruments. As a single note on the inlay puts it, it is “intended to be very quiet, with the sounding sections being only ‘slight indentations’ in the surrounding silences”. For all that, they are fascinating indentations, like tiny geodes of sound, as though micro-climatic forces had compressed the surrounding air into miniature sonic-crystal formations. A lot of post-Cage, Wandelweiser-related pieces are impressive in their seismography of the sound/silence interface, but few pieces that I’ve heard articulate quite such a sense of depth residing behind those flickering charts.
Between these two related pieces, the earlier fade for piano (2000) is much more austere: a series of tones, each different, seemingly unconnected, repeated at decreasing volumes and allowed to fade into nothing. The whole sequence spans 20 minutes. Here, without a soundtrack and very little else to cling onto, the ear’s attention is turned to the ways in which silences or unintentional ambient noise structure a composed process that is both extremely simple and completely obscure. As the piano tones fade out of sight – in absolutely predictable fashion – they invite the ear deeper into a quiet world beyond the generative, organising, cultured attack and beyond that still further into the anarchy of silence."
- Tim Rutherford-Johnson, THE RAMBLER
"Philip Thomas' and the ensemble's performances on this CD are both brilliant. They have succeeded in expressing the elastic feel of time and space and mystic nuances of Pisaro's compositions with extremely delicate touches and thoughtfully restrained expressions that have never gone too far. The careful work in sound engineering by the label owner Simon Reynell is remarkable, too - it brings out the simple beauty of each piece in a natural manner. This is a CD that may not leave you with a vivid impact during the first listen, but will pull you into the music as you listen to it repeatedly – gradually seeping into your subconsciousness with a silent, strong magnetism.”
- Yuko Zama, VIEW FROM ELSEWHERE (see here for full review)
piano piece piano piece (edition wandelweiser, EWR1005)
Tim Parkinson piano piece 2006 piano piece 2007
Philip Thomas (piano)
"Its hard to explain why I say this, but there is a freshness to this music I rather like. The playing feels light and airy, the notes bounce from one to another, and even though they don’t seem to go in the directions that might sound familiar there is something well formed about the music, it does sound complete somehow. Parkinson writes that he wanted to focus on the present, make each moment in the first piece a new beginning. This certainly feels like it has been achieved. As each part of the work begins I have found myself forgetting what came before. The unnatural progressions from one part of the music to another make it hard to pull the whole piece together in my head so I can evaluate the structure or overall atmosphere. Both of the pieces here sound more like musical journeys than concise works with a beginning, middle and end...If improvisation, at least in its formative years went in search of non-idiomatic playing then maybe this piano music is doing something similar, and coming very close to achieving it."
- Richard Pinnell, THE WATCHFUL EAR (for full review, click here
"Philip Thomas’ sublime recording of Tim Parkinson’s piano music recently released on Edition Wandelweiser will soothe the most fevered of brows. Formed of two extended works for solo piano - piano piece 2006 and piano piece 2007 – this is very precise, intelligent and simply beautiful music performed by Thomas at the absolute top of his game."
- Graham McKenzie (director, hcmf), SOUND AND MUSIC
I think this is meant well, but not entirely sure...! - "Whatever well-worn phrases like 'cutting edge' and 'state of the art' may have implied in more idealistic times, these two piano pieces by London based Tim Parkinson are effortlessly 'it'. Having absorbed Morton Feldman's parables about the limitations of dramatic rhetoric, about form-being-content-being-form too, Parkinson edits together scrappy bits of scales that stop suddenly, chord sequences that drop to bits, nonsequitur melodies and misterioso systems that repeat for irritatingly too long - all arranged with obvious high compositional intelligence to sound like what arbiters of 'good' compositional taste would certainly consider an embarrassing fuck-up. That's progress for you..."
- Philip Clarke, THE WIRE
the isolde scores (engraved glass, egcd033)
various artists offer performances in reponse to photographic scores by Jez Riley French.
featuring Michael Pisaro, Philip Thomas, Jez riley French & Daniel Jones, Anastasia Chrysanthakopoulou, Maile Colbert, Greg Stuart, Barry Chabala, Coastguard All Stars (incl. Philip on piano)
Very limited edition
"...The closing track, by philip thomas is (I think) played on a piano, but the thick, deep sinetones that dominate the music try and point elsewhere. Whether they were created in post production, or with some kind of live computer manipulation I don’t really know, but this sounds like more than just eBows placed on strings. Beyond these heavy tones there are rattles. rings and scrapes, some that sound like looping samples. I may have got this completely wrong and there may be no piano at work at all here, which would be disappointing as the music is quite affecting in its stark, almost confrontational simplicity and I’d like to think it was created, at least initially using acoustic means, but however it is made the track really gets into your head and bounces about inside as the incessant tone gets heavier and louder..."
- Richard Pinnell, THE WATCHFUL EAR (for full review, click here)
the middle distance (another timbre, at24)
Chris Burn piano, Simon H Fell double bass, Philip Thomas prepared piano
1. Looking ahead, seeing nothing
2. Not with the fire in me now
3. All moved
4. Never knew such silence
5. Looking back, remembering little
"Jo Fell's photograph of a bleak, snowbound country road in what I assume to be deepest Creuse in central France, where she and partner Simon have been based for a few years now, probably explains why we haven't seen much of Mr. Fell here in Paris. Happily, the five tracks on the album itself, recorded in Huddersfield, Yorkshire in February last year, are nowhere near as grey and forbidding as the cover – quite the opposite, in fact. Fell's double bass is strategically positioned dead centre in the mix, playing umpire in a musical tennis match (Mauricio Kagel's Match comes to mind on a number of occasions) between pianists Chris Burn (on the left) and Philip Thomas (on the right). The latter is credited as playing "prepared piano" while Burn's instrument is just indicated as "piano", but as he spends as much time inside it as he does tickling the ivories, the stereo placement is often the only way the listener has of figuring out which pianist is doing what.
Simon Fell is still perhaps best known for his volcanic free jazz work with Paul Hession and Alan Wilkinson, or for the intricate modernism of the compositions that make up the catalogue of his Bruce's Fingers label, but it's also worth remembering that it was Fell, in a trio with Graham Halliwell and Simon Vincent, who inaugurated the Erstwhile imprint over a decade ago. Similarly, the albums Chris Burn has released with his own Ensemble have often been loosely filed away under "lowercase", though despite their considerable delicacy they're much closer in feel to mainstream European Free Improvisation than anything on, say, Hibari. Philip Thomas's Comprovisation on Bruce's Fingers (2007) concentrated on the more complex end of the contemporary piano repertoire, but also included, alongside pieces by Burn, Fell, Mick Beck and Paul Obermayer, a nuanced – if rather brief – reading of Cage's Variations II.
It's clear then then we're talking three musicians with wide knowledge of several areas of new music, the boundary lines between which are as hard to detect here as the edge of the road in Jo Fell's photograph. The interaction is subtle and complex, and the listening – ours and theirs – is tense and intense. There's no need to fly off the handle and smash the ball out of the court (come to think of it, chess might be a better metaphor than tennis in the paragraph above): restraint is the name of the game. And despite the considerable timbral intricacy of the preparations, there's a keen ear for pitch at work throughout, best appreciated on the ebullient centrepiece of the disc, "All Moved". One wonders whether the album's five tracks haven't been sequenced deliberately to form one of Bela Bartók's beloved arch forms (a central scherzo bookended by slow movements bookended by outer movements recalls the Hungarian's celebrated String Quartet No. 5) – this, and the track titles' references to Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, is further evidence of the musicians' breadth of knowledge and deep engagement with several parallel traditions of musical thought and practice. It all adds up to a truly outstanding album, one that any self-respecting fan of new music in whatever form can't afford to be without."
- Dan Warburton, PARIS TRANSATLANTIC. For full review see here
"The Middle Distance – featuring Simon H Fell (bass), and pianists Chris Burn and Philip Thomas – draws on a bountiful reservoir of experimental histories. Thomas is known for his performances of Cage and 'complexity' composers like Michael Finnissy; in 1993 Burn issued a disc of piano music by pioneering American composer Henry Cowell, although his interest in composed means has been overshadowed by his reputation as an improvisor. Thomas, playing prepared piano, remains sonically distinst from Burn, but the music manages a noticeably unified soundworld. Fell leaves conventional bass rhetoric far behind as the musicians consciously match up their timbres; at 2'55” on track four, their extended techniques flow into a microtonal patois that trashes instrumental allegiance."
- Philip Clark THE WIRE (for full review of set of piano releases on another timbre click here
"Given the focus of these Altered Timbre discs on piano exploration, it’s almost a surprise to encounter The Middle Distance (AT 24) played by something like a band, a trio of Chris Burn on piano, Simon H. Fell on bass and Philip Thomas on prepared piano. What is particularly delightful is the way that the three interact. If two pianos usually suggest a degree of bombast, then Burn and Thomas are the antithesis of the typical. Each works with something resembling the meditative discretion of Tilbury or Lexer, a scattering of notes here, a sudden gesture to the interior there. Fell’s sense of line and pitch inflection make him an ideal (and equal) partner and the pianos are redefined in terms of timbral possibility rather than the usual density of harmony, line and event. The performance might serve as a model for the piano in small group free improvisation."
- Stuart Broomer, POINTS OF DEPARTURE, April 2010 (full review here)
"I should state right now though, that if you are one of those people that likes to pigeonhole improvised music into categories and then subsequently does not like the one labelled “EFI” then I probably wouldn’t read on any further. Although the music on The Middle Distance is actually quite varied, and is always very subtle and delicately balanced it is occasionally quite busy and expressive. It should also be added that it is often also quite quiet and spacious, but as wonderfully crafted as it is it probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, sadly.
So Fell plays double bass here, and Chris Burn and Philip Thomas each play piano, with Burn preparing his in advance, and so contributing a generally more percussive sound than Thomas, though neither plays it entirely straight. Thinking about it, although I have seen Thomas perform a number of times this might be the first instance I have heard of him improvising like this in a group formation. I may be wrong, but nothing springs immediately to mind. There are five tracks here then, each a concise piece in itself though its possible that all five were taken from one whole. From the start of the first track; Looking ahead, seeing nothing (an allusion to the uncertainty of improv?) the music is put together like some kind of finely crafted filigree sculpture, tense, full of anticipation and edgy precipices hanging over moments of silence. The interplay between the musicians is outstanding, there are three exceptional set of ears here, and the many years experience they share in the music is clear right from the outset. There is a chamber music feel to the recording, which is wonderfully captured in the resonant space that is the St Paul’s building at Huddersfield University. Everything is played entirely acoustically, and so we have the sound of a lot of strings here, struck, rubbed, bowed and hammered, combining wonderfully to create little sections of finely balanced sounds, some short some long, some tonal some percussive. It all just works so well. The second piece, a gradual, episodic thirteen minute study called Not with the fire in me now sounds almost composed, and given that all three musicians have worked with compositional structures quite often in the past maybe this isn’t such a crazy idea, but whether there is any preordained structure to the music or not it is clear that improvisation is at the heart of every one of the pieces here.
I love to hear piano played in improvised music like this, and Fell is such an able and versatile bassist that he finds a multitude of ways to wrap around the mix of scrapes and chimes from the pianists. The sense of shape and balance in the music is what really makes it for me. Nothing is overdone, bold statements are made when they are needed and there isn’t a fight to be heard. the musicians are working here to form a music together. This is just a great recording. It isn’t going to win any awards for innovation or have very many words written about it at online discussion boards, and it probably won’t sell out any time soon, but it is a wonderful fifty plus minutes of finely crafted improvisation that I have played a lot over recent weeks. I love to hear piano played in improvised music like this, and Fell is such an able and versatile bassist that he finds a multitude of ways to wrap around the mix of scrapes and chimes from the pianists. The opening passage of the final Looking back, remembering little is just great, a thunderous blend of pummeling deep piano booms matched by a heavy metal approach to bowed bass, in places almost reminding me of a more abstract Hendrix workout. Just as the opening is so powerfully direct, so the sections that follow are elegantly gentle, so underlining the varied nature of the music.
I thoroughly recommend this album to anyone that enjoys improvised music of any kind. My favourite improv disc of the year so far."
- Richard Pinnell, THE WATCHFUL EAR
"While all of these albums are musical, The Middle Distance is the most musicianly. Chris Burn plays directly on his piano’s strings, Philip Thomas modifies his; noted double bassist Simon Fell doesn’t touch a piano at all, although he’s done so elsewhere in his discography. The pianists each get one side of the stereo spectrum, but even if they didn’t it would not be hard to tell them apart. Although not totally allergic to touching the keys, Burn often uses the piano as a long stringed instrument, a harp or zither. Thomas’s modifications often turn his instrument into a percussion ensemble that happens to emit the odd key-strike. Fell wrenches cavernous groans and sprung wire sonorities from his bass. But more than the sounds, it’s how they find a fit together, break what they’ve found, and reassemble it that is the point. In other words, it’s all about interaction; you could, in the kindest and most appreciative way, call it good old-fashioned free improv.”
- Bill Meyer, SIGNAL TO NOISE
(reviewed alongside 'Piano(s)' by Diatribes/Demierre/Bourquenez): "Not your parents’ piano duos, these prime slabs of first-class improv should banish any memories of the achievements of Albert Ammons & Pete Johnson, Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington or even Jaki Byard & Howard Riley. Moving one step beyond the Jazz and Free Jazz of these earlier keyboard meetings, both British pianists Chris Burn and Philip Thomas on The Middle Distance and the Swiss-French recital featuring Jacques Demierre and Johann Bourquenez utilize so many extended techniques and unique string-and-key variants in their joint narratives that at times the pure piano-ness of the instrument almost vanishes into abstraction. Additionally the polyphonic textures supplied by bassist Simon H. Fell on The Middle Distance, and from drummer Cyril Bondi and electronic treatment from D’incise on Piano(s), become as much part of the interface with the pianos as they exist on their own.
More restrained, yet also enlivened by the stops, slaps and clinks from Philip Thomas’ prepared piano, the five instant compositions on The Middle Distance also draw on the participants’ experience in notated and improvised music. Bassist Simon Fell is equally at home at the head of large orchestral-oriented ensembles as playing in Free Jazz combos with drummer Paul Hession. Pianist Chris Burn also deals with compositions and free forms, although he’s probably best-known for the many ensembles in which he and saxophonist John Butcher have been involved. The youthful – under 40 at least – UK equivalent to Bourquenez, is Sheffield-based Thomas, a senior lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, who is involved with the so-called classical experimental ensemble Apartment House as well as improvised sounds with saxophonist/bassoonist Mick Beck.
On this CD Fell is as much a musical collaborator as the two pianists – especially at those junctures where his pulsated pops, reverberating thumps and sul ponticello slices appear to mirror – or is it vice versa – the taut rubber-band like thwacks and knife-plucking-like scrapes from Thomas’ instrument. As those two vie to destabilize the sound field with angular pacing, Burn does his part with rubato patterns and voicing which emphasize the piano’s accepted versatility. At points he stomps out thick rumbles with the pedals; at others exposes swift kinetic runs from the keyboard; and at other junctures posits full-fledged arpeggios.
Should Fell advance the polyphonic themes with triple-stopping or scrubbed bow bouncing; or Thomas slap the objects resting on the prepared strings to create high-pitched harpsichord-like reverb or node extensions; Burn has an appropriate response. Rumbling low notes at one end of the keyboard, or simple clamorous textures from the other add a staccato urgency to simplistic “Chop Sticks”-like clinks. Overall, his sequences flow sympathetically and nestle harmonically among the others’ physical gestures.
More than piano duos, these CDs are united in offering notable group creations."
- Ken Waxman, JAZZWORD
Comprovisation (Bruce’s Fingers, BF66)
Chris Burn - pressings and screenings (2005)
Michael Finnissy - Jazz (1976)
John Cage - Variations II (1961)
Paul Obermayer - Coil (2001)
Mick Beck - Not Just a Load of Balls (2005)
Simon H Fell - Composition No.73: Thirteen New Inventions (2005)
Derived from the concert series of the same name, this recording features five first published recordings (all except Cage) and three piece commissioned and premiered by Philip Thomas (Beck, Burn and Fell).
Available for download at reasonable price here
"The portmanteau title of this incisively played and very clearly recorded sequence reflects Thomas's dual interest in complex avant-garde music and free improvisation, and in the places where the extremes meet. Finnissy's Jazz, for instance, is both a spectacular notational extravagance and something close to freewheeling jazz. Paul Obermayer's coil is a less extreme instance of such complexity, and a most invigorating one, seeming to end with the atonal equivalent of a thumping cadence (but not quite doing so)."
- Paul Driver THE SUNDAY TIMES
"One of the pleasures of writing reviews is that from time to time you come across a totally unknown musical universe that really hits you. Overviewing the catalogue of the Bruce's Fingers label, it is clear that it is a high quality label of improvised and other contemporary music. The website of the label is very informative, giving lots of background information, through interviews with Fell, etc. Comprovisation is a solo CD by new music pianist Philip Thomas from Sheffield. He performs works from, besides Fell, Paul Obermayer, Chris Burn, Michael Finnissy, John Cage and Mick Beck, featuring music from recent series of concerts of the same name. The works by Beck, Burn and Fell were specially written for Thomas. All the works have in common that it are compositions that play with improvisation in one way or the other. The composition by Fell on this CD is called Thirteen New Inventions and is the result of Fell's research on Bach's keyboard repertoire. Some of the parts of this work are indeed close to Bach, in the way that the influence of Bach can be recognized. Other parts however are completely different in nature and dynamic. Thomas feels very much at home in this work and gives a fine and dedicated interpretation of all the compositions on this excellently recorded CD."
- Dolf Mulder VITAL WEEKLY
"The British new music pianist Philip Thomas specializes in performances of composers like Helmut Lachenmann, Christian Wolff, and Morton Feldman – in other words, music that mixes traditional notation with details of graphic or nonspecific indeterminacy, if not outright improvisation. His album Comprovisation (Bruce’s Fingers) not only includes scores of wildly contrasting nature by classical composers Michael Finnissy (a complexly notated piece of pastoral cascades interrupted by pummeling rhythms titled, perhaps with tongue-in-cheek, “Jazz”) and John Cage (his abstract “Variations II”), but compositions by musicians better known as free improvisers—pianist Chris Burn, multi-reedman Mick Beck, bassist Simon H. Fell, and (if I may coin another description) electronicist Paul Obermayer – which raises several questions. Do free improvisers bring a unique sensibility to a primarily classical format? Do any jazz influences remain audible? Obermayer, for one, is a member of the wildly unpredictable groups Bark! and Furt (the latter an electronic duo with cross-genre composer Richard Barrett), and his “coil” takes great pains to reconfigure a sequence of musical cells in and out of serial (post-Schönberg) procedures. The sharp rhythms and atonal melodies are reminiscent of gestures improvised by Howard Riley, in one sense, or events constructed by Stockhausen in his Klavierstücke for that matter, but there is nevertheless a studied rigidity to the phrasing that suggests this is notated and not spontaneously developed. Chris Burn’s “pressings and screenings,” conversely, alternate dynamically varied chords and clusters with drizzled notes that surreptitiously reveal slivers of Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle” and “Epistrophy.” Of all these works, Fell’s “Composition No. 73: Thirteen New Inventions” is the most traditional – paradoxically, because he is the musician most accustomed to working with the freest of improvisers as well as the most experienced with modern orchestral maneuvers (as we shall see). His “Inventions” refer to J.S. Bach’s “Two-Part Inventions” for keyboard and, like Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Preludes and Fugues” op. 87, they adapt Bach’s contrapuntal form to his own melodic language. These are playful miniatures, with propulsive rhythms, hammered attacks, grand Lisztian gestures, classical allusions, and not much apparent jazz, as if that matters."
- Art Lange POINT OF DEPARTURE (on-line journal)
"CD solo debut for avant garde king: adventurous pianist Philip Thomas continues to enjoy himself exploring new pianistic boundaries and has just released his first solo CD..... Given the who's who of composers in his huge repertoire, few of them conventional, he is one of the UK's leading avant garde, a term rarely used now - it's either new, progressive or experimental music, pianists. A lot of Philip's success in performing much of the material he does is down to his utter belief in it and enthusiasm in exploring it, allied to rock-solid piano-playing technique. All this somehow manages to transmit itself on his new solo CD, Comprovisation (broadly, a term for notated music with elements of improvisation), the title of his last Sheffield concerts in 2005. Pieces by Paul Obermayer, Chris Burn and John Cage - Variations II, an exercise in timing - can be appreciated on a dispassionate cerebral level. For those wanting something a little more tangible, the standout pieces are Michael Finnissy's densely virtuosic Jazz and Simon H. Fell's Thirteen New Inventions, rather clever and skilful homage to Bach, commissioned and premiered by Philip at Persistence Works in December 2002."
- Bernard Lee SHEFFIELD TELEGRAPH
"At first it is frustrating that, despite telling us that these pieces are a mixture of the fully notated and the partly improvised, Philip Thomas doesn't expand his sleevenotes to tell us which are which. But it emerges on listening that this is partly the point. The very word, comprovisation, no longer acknowledges a division between the two. From compositions by improvisers like Mick Beck and Chris Burn, to compositions informed by improvisation, like Finnissy's Jazz, to compositions that vehemently resist improvisation against all expectations, like Cage's Variations II, Thomas has found several interesting points between the two poles. Paul Obermayer, best known as a laptop improviser with FURT and Bark!, was a good place to start the debate with his (presumably intricately notated) coil. Fans of Obermayer's work with Richard Barrett will know what to expect here: music compressed like raw carbon into diamond shards. This makes a gritty start to the CD to which it doesn't really return. In the next piece Burn brings a more obviously improvisatory feel through the frequent returns to collections of related gestures, which feel jazzy in their loose rhythms and the wide, swinging movements they demand of the pianist; this sort of playing is more characteristic of the rest of the disc. The Finnissy is perhaps more intellectually stimulated - it jazz-es rather than is jazz-y - but it still retains that impression of delicate flexibility that characterises much of his piano music. Its wide registral spacing nods towards Jelly Roll and boogie woogie; and its sudden shifts of character - as though structured around 16-bar verses - recall a wider jazz idiom. Mick Beck calls for balls of various weights and sizes, which are bounced around the inside of the piano and occasionally out onto the studio floor, and Simon Fell takes a final, different approach to the issue of accident versus control, basing his Inventions on improvisations on Bach, and coming up with the some of the most emotionally involving music of this CD. Although the musical quality is sometimes uneven, Thomas's concept in this recording - and the series of concerts from which it sprang - remains as valid as ever, and continues to engage many of the most interesting voices in British music. Comprovising without compromise."
- Tim Rutherford-Johnson NEW NOTES