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Interview with Tomas Phillips

img  Tobias Fischer

What were the basic premises that you wanted to explore with the quartet?
First and foremost my intention was to use Intermission/Six Feuilles, an earlier work of mine from 2006, as a compositional model. I wanted to utilize its format as an extended piece with distinct "movements" that nevertheless coalesces into a unified whole.

The way you're working with your self-created ensemble seems entirely natural. Why didn't you work with acoustic instruments before?
Oh but I have! I think that every release since Intermission has used acoustic instruments, if only in discrete moments. I lived in Montreal for nearly five years and was profoundly influenced by musique actuelle. Prior to that, my compositional palate was almost entirely digital. 

Objectively, one could claim that working with a „real“ piano, clarinet and cello merely means using a different set of tools. What does the inclusion of acoustic instruments signify to you from a compositional point of view?
In all honesty, I had to mix and match real versus sampled instruments for Quartet. The piano is all taken from my own improvisations on a genuine but less than ideal piano. I also recorded my father playing his clarinet - very simple notes and phrases. I actually decided on the clarinet before the opportunity arose to record him. If that hadn't have worked, I probably would have sampled it. But I certainly enjoy his presence there.
The cello, if I remember correctly, is the work of Schubert. With the exception of certain obvious piano motifs, everything was processed, pitched. This experience of working out of acoustic improvisation by careful editing has become my modus operandi. What it means is that I am able to contact that part of myself that does in fact enjoy working with tactile materials, in addition to sitting at the laptop. And of course, I love the sound of a room sitting quietly amidst the very precise details of composition.      

How free were the improvisations?
The improvised piano sections were as free as my range allowed. A friend and I did the recording in the rehearsal space of a university music department. We recorded in five to ten minute intervals, nothing of which I had preplanned or rehearsed. In the future, I'll likely do a bit of practicing before recording so as to at least have some themes to work with. But I'm happy with what we did and what it allowed me once my residency began.

Both the title of the piece as well as the actual music suggest that sounds are an instrument in their own right. How do the two areas of pure sound and music relate to each other from your point of view?
Well, my goal was to fully integrate the less conventional electronic sounds and the acoustic instruments. I don't really see a difference between them beyond the manner in which they are played. And even here, digital music has the potential to be highly interactive, physical. Exploring the possibilities of their relation has become a driving force behind my music; locating an approach to electro-acoustics that moves away from academic EA and towards an alignment that is at once organic and abstract. 

The use of the quartet-tag, on the other hand, does put the music in a long tradition of Western written music. What does this tradition mean to you?
Feldman suggests that there is an inherent anxiety in art making. I think this notion holds as long as one is working according to a high standard, whatever that might mean for a given artist. For me, it means excavating what I love best about the Western classical tradition - depth and precision of composition - and marrying that to the more recent developments in digital music in a way that maintains compositional integrity in spite of my limitations as a musician. I studied piano as a child, played guitar and bass throughout my teen years, and know my software quite well at this point. And yet there is no way to avoid the challenge of a blank interface, or a silent instrument in light of one’s ambitions - it can certainly be intimidating. But without this feeling, and the concomitant impulse to push one's creative boundaries, it isn't worth it to me. It becomes a bland formula. So I embrace the anxiety, the intimidation.    
A note on the title: I found humor in the rather matter-of-fact inclusion of "instruments," as opposed to specifying what those instruments are in that context. I also like the idea of foregrounding “instruments” given my general reliance upon a laptop.

Like yourself, Feldman took a vivid interest in the visual arts, which greatly influenced his thinking about music. In which way is the latter also true for yourself?

Film and painting, as practices, but mostly as viewing pleasures, contribute a great deal to my life. Their impact on my music, however, seems to resonate more in terms of general inspiration than through some direct correlation. Fiction, in theory and practice, is quite similar. In fact, I was revising a novel at the same time I was composing Quartet while at Headlands. Whatever the medium, I'm always interested in creating the kind of space that is common to minimalist art, sonic or otherwise.

The piece has been referred to as „a singularity with decisive variations“. What exactly does that entail?
My original idea was to compose an extended piece that would set a theme in motion and make slight shifts as it developed. Very, very minimal. Well, this didn't really happen. As a consequence of the piano recordings, I realized that, as compositions often do, the piece was intent on becoming something else, something a little more dynamic. On the other hand, Quartet still feels like the enactment of a singular vision to me, particularly in terms of the repetitions that occur, approximating a linear trajectory. The variations are, of course, more abundant than originally planned, though they are no less decisive or measured than I intended them. But the initial idea - it remains tremendously seductive to me. Next time!

How would you describe the compositional process for Quartet?
The anxiety is its own form of pleasure. And of course, there are moments when it really comes together, when whatever thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc. that comprise a given span of time simply evaporate, thus making the process amenable to a kind of elasticity, a more refined and subtler mode of becoming. On some level, it's like any process. What are we doing or not doing to impede its elevation? That's always the question, but one that doesn't necessarily precipitate an intellectual response. Rather, one sort of falls into the answer in the immediate moment, if that makes any sense.

With the process taking two months, it seems like you took two a long time to fall into the answers this time ...
There were essentially two phases. The first was about creating a library of files, following the initial piano recordings in NC. This took several weeks and continued as I moved into the second phase, which was where the actual composition began, a very time-consuming process. But I was living with other artists at the arts center and ended up collaborating on a film with Chris Sollars, a wonderful San Francisco-based artist, creating an installation involving an early Quartet draft, and generally having a lovely time. All of these activities fueled the composition process. 

I was under the impression that the ending of the piece suggests that it could go on forever – in which way were you thinking about building an open process rather than a composition with a fixed beginning and conclusion?

Back to the original conception of Quartet - I intended it to fulfill the aspirations of a much earlier idea, from the 90's, of calling a piece The Failed Chronometer. The latter is, of course, an instrument for achieving very precise measurements of time. I love the idea of a composition that could go on in that Enoesque manner and thus assert itself over and against any Aristotelian codification, all the while maintaining a strict adherence to the imperative of meticulousness. But again, this piece evolved in a different manner. Yes, it could continue along its course, though ultimately it concludes with the repetition of a certain phrase, facilitating, to my ears, some degree of closure.

There is a feeling of deep concentration, stillness and peace to the proceedings. In which way does spirituality inform your work?
It's an important question. My current lifestyle - teaching, writing, saying yes to just about every enticing music project that comes my way - can be very distracting in relation to a spiritual practice. Ultimately, all activities constitute such a practice for me, though I know from experience how easy it is to deceive oneself and operate according to some vague notion of oneself as "spiritual," all the while becoming lost in details, responsibilities, fantasies of further accomplishment, etc. Even amidst such deception, however, the compositional experience remains grounding for me. Perhaps that's one reason why I keep returning to it. The older I get the more I am affirmed in the notion that stillness and concentration are absolutely essential to a refined life, aesthetically or otherwise.

Now the quartet has been finished, do you see yourself continuing down this direction in the future?
Undoubtedly. I'm delighted to have remembered The Failed Chronometer! But it'll have to wait a bit. At the moment I'm busy with a collaboration that draws as much from Metal as from modern composition. It's the right time for it. Certain very close friends have seen to this. I just bought a Flying V....

By Tobias Fischer

Image by Jason Sullivan.

Tomas Phillips Discography:
On Dit (Trente Oiseaux) 2003
If Not, Winter (and/OAR) 2005
Anther (petite sono) 2006
Intermission / Six Feuilles (Line) 2006
Á Travers Le Bord (Non Visual Objects) 2006
Drink Deep (Non Visual Objects) 2007
Les Mailles (Monochrome Vision) 2008
Ligne (Atak) 2009
Six Notes (Koyuki) 2009
Blau (Dragon's Eye Recordings) 2010
IC (Aural Terrains) 2010
Quartet For Instruments (Humming Conch) 2010


Tomas Phillips

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