As someone interested in giving a shelter to stray guitars – including the nearly unplayable ones – to derive stimulating sounds and otherworldly tunings from them, I can completely relate to Thollem McDonas‘ contagious passion when he writes “throughout my travels, I have found that the most neglected pianos have the most interesting stories to tell” As evidence of Thollem’s credo, try this peculiarly compelling album. A veritable studio composition born from improvisations recorded on a piano made by the illustrious yet underappreciated Henri Herz (OK, there’s at the very least a Wikipedia page about him; let’s go to work, people). The elderly had been inherited by Sonoscopia, a Portuguese organization at which Thollem held a three-week residency in 2021.
The first half’s percussive quality is immediately noticeable, but after starting out relatively cautiously, McDonas subsequently erupts into a (Charlemagne) Palestine-esque frenzy, pounding the keys furiously in an attempt to extract undulating partials and streams of harmonic spectra relating to a location in the universe that we are, regrettably, not yet given to know.
Beginning Part B, the artist again taps and beats the ancient Herz’s body, suggesting among other things that he would probably make a fine tabla player. He then turns his focus to the instrument’s guts, drawing echoes of an alien harp from there, and reiterates wonderfully resounding chords that appear to have been cellophane-wrapped two centuries ago. In the midst of everything, we catch snippets of melodic designs that are both evocative and ominous. Later on, a fusion of early comedic music and dissonantly obsessive structures that Conlon Nancarrow could envy is presented to us, before we’re thrown once more into carillonesque catharsis.
It’s good to see Thollem lose himself in these tangents, as he never ceases to move the air around him with strange resonances. To quote him a second time, “any piano will reveal its uniqueness when approached with respect and curiosity”. I hope I’m not overly contradicting Gustavo Costa’s endnote when I affirm that McDonas’ creative stature is already firmly established, also thanks to records like this one, and it won’t take another 200 years to determine it.
Mr. Herz will be proud of this rebirth, though.