Thollem McDonas is a composer, pianist, improviser, teacher and writer. 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 dedicated his 20s and 30s to grassroots political activism. In 2005, he refocused his attention on a breadth of musics that incorporate his myriad experiences and curiosities. In this last decade alone, he has played well over 1,000 concerts throughout North America and Europe as a soloist and in collaboration with hundreds of musicians, dancers, and filmmakers. As leader or co-leader, he has released almost 50 albums in that span on 19 different vanguard labels to international critical acclaim. “Thollem is an astounding pianist who understands the huge scope of the instrument” (Terry Riley) and who continues to delve into the furthest reaches and sub-genres of Post-Classical, Free Jazz, Noise, Punk, dance and film. A brief cross section of his many recent collaborators include William Parker, Pauline Oliveros, Stefano Scodanibbio, Nels Cline, Mike Watt, Martha Colburn and Matthew Barney.
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 with a full youth orchestra in an economically-challenged town outside of Oaxaca City, Mexico, guiding them in 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 and their own Maestro.
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 piano quartet specifically for three of the greatest living Italian string players Francesco Dillon, Daniele Roccato and Marco Rogliano, and presented the piece in the festival that February.