Born: 1967 Primary Instrument: Piano
A fresh, disciplined avant-pianist with an attractively extreme viewpoint” (LA Weekly), Thollem travels perpetually as a performer, comproviser, activist and teacher, covering much of the North American continent and Europe. He performs as a soloist as well as in collaboration with a wide array of artists in wildly divergent directions. In the past 7 years, he has added 30 albums to his discography on 13 different vanguard labels in 4 different countries.
Thollem McDonas (b. 1967, US) is a pianist, composer, improviser and teacher. He was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area of Irish and Cherokee descent. At the age of five, he began studying the keyboard repertoire from the medieval to the 20th century and studied with many notable teachers including Aiko Onishi and Lou Harrison. After graduating with degrees in both piano performance and composition, he stepped from the concert pianist trajectory to dedicate his time to grassroots political movements and ecological restoration projects. In 2005, he returned to music as his full focus, incorporating his experiences into his compositions, improvisations and teaching. Since then, he has added 30 albums to his discography on 12 different vanguard record labels in 4 different countries. He is currently touring perpetually as a soloist, in collaboration with many other individuals and groups, as well as leading large ensemble free improvisation/collaboration workshops as well as master classes. He has performed extensively as a soloist as well as with film makers, dancers, poets and painters and a wide array of divergent musicians. His music is diverse, with each album and every concert exploring a variety of approaches and paths, resulting in dramatically different outcomes.
Thollem has been commissioned by The Limón Dance Company for a large-scale piece in commemoration of their 50th year anniversary. In 2008, he was invited to perform the late works of Claude Debussy on the piano on which they were written, as well as his own ‘comprovisations’ (composed improvisations) with master contrabassist Stefano Scodanibbio. The resulting album, On Debussy's Piano And..., is the first recording of the only piano Debussy owned the final fourteen years of his life.
In 2012, Thollem was invited to the Rassegna di Nuova Musica in Macerata, Italy, by its director, the late Stefano Scodanibbio. He was asked to compose a guided improvisation, working with the highly accomplished string players Francesco Dillon, Daniele Roccato and Marco Rogliano, to present the piece as a quartet in the festival that February.
Thollem has worked within many communities throughout the United States, Mexico and Europe. With workshops that culminate in performances by the participants, he has had the opportunity to live and work among a diversity of artists. As a guest composer and teacher, he maintains that the highlight of his career thus far was a project in 2009 with a full youth orchestra in an economically-challenged town outside of Oaxaca City, Mexico, guiding them is a week-long workshop of structured improvisational techniques. They successfully performed a cohesive and spontaneously composed concert in Oaxaca City at Teatro San Miguel, without a conductor or music stands, to the delight of the audience, their own Maestro and, of course, Maestro Thollem.
In 2009, Thollem founded Estamos Ensemble, made up equally of musicians from Mexico and the U.S., with the intention to foster more communication and collaboration between musicians of these two bordering countries as well as a better understanding of and appreciation for the citizens of the two countries in general.
After recording at Sony Studios in Mexico City and performing in the International Festival in Puebla, he gathered Estamos Ensemble for a week-long residency in San Francisco, as well as invited some of the most accomplished composers from both sides of the border to compose pieces for the group. For this project, he composed “Stirring Awake”, a piece that stemmed from the Sony Studio recordings of the individual musicians. The compositions were premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2010.
From his work as director of Estamos Ensemble and his workshops on listening and large ensemble improvisation, Thollem has developed and presented Fronteras Assembled: structured improvisations based on the social/political dynamics that all the various situations of geo-political borders create. These are musical meditations on real-life situations that are constantly effecting the way we perceive and interact with our fellow human beings within and across the borders of the world. These are also structures that create unique musical challenges for large ensembles especially in an improvised setting that can potentially lead to fresh discoveries of music-making and relationships among individuals in an ensemble.
As a writer, Thollem has composed songs for his punk band that speak out against the injustices of war, encouraging listeners to think of myriad aspects of Life and their role in It. He was invited by Pauline Oliveros to contribute an essay to An Anthology of Essays On Deep Listening (May, 2012). Deep Listening and the Peripatetic Life of an Improvising Musician was written specifically for this collection.
As a pianist, Thollem performs in theaters, art galleries, universities, elementary schools, concert halls, jazz clubs, rock clubs, festivals, warehouses, house concerts, streets, forests, riots and on television, radio and the internet. He has performed piano concertos with symphonies, played in West African drumming troupes, Javanese gamelan ensembles, punk bands, free improv ensembles, and regularly collaborates as a comproviser for film and modern dance.
• Musical collaborators include: Stefano Scodanibbio, Mike Watt, Nels Cline, Pauline Oliveros, William Parker, Amy Denio, Arrington de Dionyso, John Dieterich, LaDonna Smith, Faruq Z. Bey, Vinny Golia, Ava Mendoza, Tatsuya Nakatani, Rent Romus, Jacopo Andreini, Gino Robair, Jon Raskin, Joel Peterson, Alex Cline, Theresa Wong, Jack Wright, Greg Saunier, Laura Ortman, John Butcher
• Collaborations with film makers include: Martha Colburn, Matthew Barney, Peter Sparling, Tuia Cherici, Carlos Sandoval, David Latreille and Marcos Sánchez D.
• Collaborations with dancers and dance companies include: Germaul Barnes (Bitahkiz Ayeli), Gary Masters, Limón West Dance Company, Peter Sparling, Viewsic Expressions, Black Bones, San José Cleveland Ballet
Awards:American Music Center: CAP, 2010 - 'Stirring Awake' debuted at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA. Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation: USArtists, 2009 - Estamos Ensemble, Director (funding assistance for participation in The International Festival of Puebla in Puebla, Mexico) Meet the Composer: Creative Connections, 2007 (concert accompanied by a discussion with the composer)
Thollem McDonas does what few can: He combines extreme imagination with terrific post-classical chops and an ability to communicate through melody a fresh, disciplined avant-pianist with an attractively extreme viewpoint. - Greg Burk, LA Weekly
Thollem dives headlong into fascinating unforeseen and bold musical adventures that make him one of the most interesting pianists of the current improvised music genre...the result is the natural consequence of being intrinsically eclectic at heart. - Eduardo Chagas, TomaJazz (Portugal)
“With McDonas we are faced with overflowing and irrepressible exuberance.” - AllAboutJazz (Italy)
Pianist Thollem McDonas solo piano set touched on virtually every genre of music. Dressed in a t-shirt, cargo slacks, and old work boots, McDonas didn’t have the disposition or attitude of a music virtuoso. He looked more like a skilled laborer. But he constructed a set of improvised music that had all the creativity and energy of Thelonious Monk and Igor Stravinsky playing at a neighborhood jam session. - I DIG JAZZ - Charles L. Latimer's Jazz Journal
Thollem McDonas is simply one of the great improvisers of today. - The Detroiter
Thollem has that rare gift of soulful equilibrium, which he alternates with digital dexterities that have few equals on the current scene. - Massimo Ricci, TouchingExtremes (Italy)
“The playing of McDonas is not only of a high technical standard, but also very communicative. His music is drenched in many musical traditions, and McDonas succeeds in making an original brew of it.” - Dolf Mulder, Vital Weekly (Holland)
“His sound ecosystem is wet, like a rain forest dripping with life and death: shadowed in darkness but nourished by hot sunlight, teeming with crouching predators and bright birds exploding from the trees, their raucous bellows resonating and echoing through hollow canyons and caverns choked with chordal undergrowth. It’s a crowded place.” - Tom Djll, Signal To Noise
Tsigoti, Read Between the Lines … Think Outside Them (Post-Consumer Records, 2013)
Bad News From Houston, In the Valley of the Cloudbuilder (Post-Consumer Records, 2013)
Whistling Joy Jumpers: Thollem/Fair/Chase, Surprising Wooden Clocks (Thick Syrup Records, 2013)
Solo, Dear Future, (WIld Silence, 2013)
Estamos Trio: Thollem McDonas/Carmina Escobar/Milo Tamez, People's Historia (Relative Pitch Records, 2013)
Thollem/Parker/Cline, The Gowanus Session (Porter Records, 2012)
The Hand to Man Band: Mike Watt/John Dieterich/Thollem McDonas/Tim Barnes, You Are Always On Our Minds (Post-Consumer Records, 2012)
Tsigoti, Imagination Liberation Front Thinks Again (Post-Consumer Records, 2012)
Magimc Trio: Edoardo Marraffa/Stefano Giust/Thollem McDonas, Polishing the Mirror (Amirani Records, 2012)
Estamos Ensemble, JimpaniKustakwaKaJankwariteecherï (Edgetone Records, 2011)
Bad News From Houston: ThollemMcDonas/John Dieterich, AllForNow (Dromos Records, 2010)
Solo, Gone Beyond Reason To Find One (Edgetone Records, 2010)
Thollem/Scodanibbio, On Debussy's Piano And... (Die Schachtel, 2010)
Tsigoti, Private Poverty Speaks To The People Of The Party (ESP-Disk, 2010)
Thollem/Guazzaloca, Noble Art (Amirani Records, 2009)
Bloom Project, Sudden Aurora (Edgetone Records, 2009)
Arrington De Dionyso/Gregg Skloff/John Niekrasz/Thollem McDonas, Gigantomachia (ESP-Disk, 2009)
Box Deserter, Two Revolutions (Edgetone Records, 2008)
Tsigoti/WarIsTerror TerrorIsWar, TheBrutalRealityOfModernBrutality (Edgetone Records, 2008)
Thollem McDonas/Arrington de Dionyso, Intuition, Science, And Sex (Edgetone Records, 2008)
Solo, Somuchheaven Somuchhell (Saravah, 2008)
Bloom Project, Prismatic Season (Edgetone Records, 2008)
Solo, Racingthesun Chasingthesun (Creative Sources, 2008)
Solo, Poor Stop Killing Poor (Edgetone Records, 2007)
Thollem/Ricci, Sono Contento Di Stare Qua (Edgetone Records, 2006)
Solo, Nuclearbomb Cavepainting (Pax Recordings, 2006)
Thollem/Rivera, I'll Meet You Halfway Out In The Middle Of It All (Edgetone Records, 2006)
Bloom: Thollem McDonas/Rent Romus with Jon Brumit/Steven Baker, Bloom Project (Edgetone Records, 2006)
Thollem/Rivera, Everything's Going Everywhere (Edgetone Records, 2005)
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