Salon Artist Profile – Abby Hayes

Abby Hayes: In Her Own Words

Abby Hayes’ response to our questionnaire is delightfully personal and conveys the enthusiasm behind the creative act in such a vivid way, Ruix is posting her words verbatim. An excellent example of the burgeoning artists the Salon aims to support, below are Hayes’ thoughts on art, process, and exploration:

I remember getting my younger sister to distract my parents while I took their digital camera outside to shoot the flowers in the backyard. I don’t think I was very sneaky though, since I never deleted the photos I took – I didn’t have the heart to – and I can still remember the first time I developed one of my pinhole images in the dark room… absolute magic… or when I used manual focus for the first time on my 35mm Pentax camera – blurry to perfectly clear – and all at my fingertips. I have always liked to look at objects a little differently, and photography is my method of showing others what I see. For me this meant looking at things from different angles – seeing flowers from below or seeing a fallen acorn at eye level. More recently, I have found a love in getting up close to objects. They become something completely different when they are all you see, a world of colors and textures. If I could have just one lens it would be a macro lens.

My preferred medium is film photography because of the importance that each individual shot carries, which can be lost in the digital world. But due to cost concerns, and my love of technology, I shoot digitally. Very recently I have tried to combine these ideas through Instragram, taking just one photo of something, with a phone. It makes me want photo booths and the old Polaroid cameras at my disposal. The pieces I am showing at the Salon are a handful from a shoot with a bouquet of roses. By getting up close, changing up the angle, and removing the garish pink color of the flowers, I hope the viewer sees in them something other than just a bouquet of flowers… hopefully a calm, quiet little place set aside from our busy world.

Georgia O’Keeffe has greatly influenced my work. The way she can blow up a single flower and create a whole new, abstract world from it is mesmerizing to me. My college advisor influenced the way I take others’ input and critiques: to listen and be open-minded to new ideas and viewpoints… but in the end, it’s up to me, the artist… because that’s what makes it my work.

I exhibited at the Marvin Cone Gallery at Coe College in April of 2012. That show consisted of seven large, colorfully abstract photographs, which can be seen on my web site:

Dubuque’s art scene has greatly improved. I live in the Historic Millwork District which is the perfect combination of the old and the new. Location-wise, I have walked around the corner and taken a pottery class at Mississippi Mud Studio. I am looking forward to walking across the street and taking a stained glass class at The Creative Center. Not only have more options come about, but word and interest are spreading as the ideas of traditional art have become more open to more people. I hope it continues to grow, and I thank The Salon Exhibition for its support.

As someone who wasn’t into arts and crafts as a child– all I want to do now is create… even if it is just a scarf or a photograph.

Abby Hayes’ photography can be seen at the Salon Art Exhibition 2013 Opening Reception on Saturday, August 31 at 902 Main St.



Salon Artist Profile – Gail Chavenelle

The Salon Art Exhibition 2013 will feature 19 artists from Dubuque and the surrounding area. This year, the exhibition features works by new artists, alongside pieces by last year’s contributors. The 2013 Salon opening will be held at 902 Main St. on Saturday, August 31, and continue through the Fall Into Art event in early October.

The opening reception will feature works by these artists, as well as a modern dance performance by Carla Hughes,  live entertainment by Kristina Casteneda & Shawn Healy and Fest of Mutton, and a multimedia performance featuring music, live painting, and real-time video manipulations.

Over the course of the week leading up to the opening, Ruix will be profiling several of the artists showing at the exhibition.
Gail Chavenelle specializes in metal sculpture. She describes her entry into this discipline as “an after 50 voice! I made my first sale ( I still have a framed copy of the check) in 1994. You do the math. The initial inspiration was paper sculpture.  Now I use a sheet of metal as permanent paper.”
Integrating her interests in paper sculpture with the lasting medium of metal, Chavenelle explain her pieces, including those being show at the Salon, as “minimal, which is not currently in vogue.  I love the way a strip of metal bends and twists to become hair, a horse’s mane or a river.” A steward of the environment as well, Chavenelle minimizes waste in her sculptural methods, eliminating hazardous material in her production.
Along with her pieces at the Salon, Chavenelle’s work is carried in galleries and shops nationwide, and is represented in Dubuque by Outside the Lines Gallery. Regionally, she has been a part of shows at the Carnegie-Stout Library, the Dubuque Museum of Art, Art on the River, and other Iowa and Illinois year-long sculpture shows.  She provides the sage advice, “I am rejected a lot, but… ya gotta keep applying!”
Asked about the state of the arts in Dubuque, Chavenelle enthusiastically responds, “what a vibrant scene in Dubuque! Visual Arts, theater, music! It is just the right size to have the opportunities available, but, unlike a major metropolitan area, you must be a part [of it].”
Chavenelle cites Caldwell, Henry Moore, and Naguchi as artistic influences, and emphasizes the importance of local mentors she has had, including “a potter, an art blacksmith, and now, a jewelry artist”, along with “my husband, a 6′ 4″ muse!”
See Gail Chavenelle’s metal sculptures and the works of 18 other artists at the Salon 2013 Exhibition, Saturday, August 31, 6 PM.

The Salon 2013

The Salon announces its second exhibition of work by up-and-coming local artists. Named after the Salon des Refusés, an exhibition of works rejected by the jury of the official Paris Salon, the Salon seeks to promote artists who have applied to and been rejected by the annual VOICES from the Warehouse District exhibition and the Dubuque Art Museum’s DuMA biannual exhibition. The Salon aims to provide a space to promote emerging talent from the Dubuque area.

The Salon was established by local artists with the aim of championing developing talent Dubuque’s conventional galleries ignored. The Salon not only exhibits artists’ work, but strives to create a community of support and encouragement, in which artists can work toward a mutual goal of success in their careers.

On September 1, 2012, 10 artists rejected by VOICES joined forces to show their work at the Monk’s Kaffee Pub. More than 40 pieces were displayed, filling the building’s three levels with installation pieces, photorealistic paintings and drawings, metal and cardboard sculptures, abstract paintings, collages, wood furniture sculptures, and more. The event’s success, the quality of work, and the artists’ collaborative spirit proved the need for more opportunities for promising local artists to exhibit outside of the established “academy”.

This year, the exhibition will feature works by new artists, alongside pieces by last year’s contributors. The 2013 Salon will be at 902 Main St., a building with 4200 sq. ft. of dedicated gallery space for wall-hanging, and conducive to large scale and installation pieces.

The Salon’s opening, on Saturday, August 31, will feature works by these artists, as well as live entertainment from area musicians and a multi-media performance featuring music, live painting, and real-time video manipulations.

The Salon is seeking artists rejected by VOICES and the DuMA biannual to exhibit. Artists who applied and were not accepted into these exhibitions in the past five years are eligible. All artists who apply will be accepted. Access to the gallery and some studio space will be available to artists in the two months prior to the opening. Artist Submission deadline is August 15th, but applicants are encouraged to contact us as soon as possible. To submit, email Ivonne Simonds at with your personal information. Space for large pieces and installation pieces available.

Opening Reception: Saturday, August 31, 6 PM – 11 PM
Closing Reception: Fall Into Art
Music: Kristina Casteneda & Shawn Healy, Feast Of Mutton, and Venereal Crush
Food, beer, and wine available, $5 suggested donation
FREE Admission

Was, Is, and Will Be: Expo 70 and the Infinite Drone

Expo 70
Midday Veil
Young Indian
@ Eronel
Thursday, March 28
9 pm doors, $5 

As Expo 70, Justin Wright has traveled the narrow path for the past decade. While fitting into the cultural zeitgeist of the underground’s renewed interest in psychedelia and discovery of the drone, Expo 70′s prodigious output stands well above the typical limited-run cassette only New Weird Whatever stuff that gets thoughtlessly pumped into an overblown scene. Wright’s understanding of his sounds and their intended effect, and the quality control he exerts, even when putting out multiple releases each year, point to a single-minded dedication and focus that elevates his music into the cosmic realms it seeks to inhabit. In fact, in this world of every artist having multiple projects and alter egos, Expo 70 has been Wright’s sole public creative outlet.

Even within stasis there is change, however, and much as the drone evolves subtly over time, Wright has expanded Expo 70 from a solo operation to a three piece sonic trip on Virtually from the Unknown, the new album released under the slightly modified moniker of Expo Seventy. Subsequently, this new trio is presently on tour, performing their monolithic freakouts to a psychedelic visual backdrop. Expo Seventy stops at Eronel Thursday, March 28, en route to the their home base in Kansas City, where they will perform at the KC Psych Fest.

Midday Veil inhabit similar sonic territory as their tour mates, but incorporate a variety of external influences into their psychedelic excursions that make for constantly evolving and pleasantly confounding journey. Immersed in 20th century classical approaches as much as ’60s era psych – which not surprisingly melds seamlessly, considering both arenas’ exploration of drone and repetition – Midday Veil’s sound differs from release to release, yet forms a distinct identity, one that is paradoxically transitory and eternal.

Young Indian is four local jerks making music I don’t hate. As enjoyable as Ryan Werner is insufferable.

Soldier of Ideas: Thollem McDonas, Tsigoti, and the Geo-Politics of Sound

I. Houseless, Not Homeless

Thollem McDonas defies the conventional wisdom surrounding professional touring musicians. Driven as much by a need to connect with others as express himself musically, Thollem has cultivated an approach to being a traveling musician that sustains and enriches on multiple levels.

Thollem has an extensive background in classical music and improvisation, but abandoned the academy in his 20s to pursue direct political action. Eventually he merged these concerns, using music and performance at protests to draw attention to pertinent issues. Eventually he resumed his professional music career on own terms, integrating his heartfelt political ideologies into his compositions and performances.

Thollem interweaves his twin passions with precise balance. A marvelously disciplined musician, his interest in social justice issues gives him the impetus to perform. This balance is presented in visceral form by the song titles on his second solo album, Poor Stop Killing Poor, which read as “two poems intertwined with each other every other line”:

From Empty Came
Consumption Runs Rampant When
Something Else Again
Sleeping With The Puritan Guard
Relax Into The Wander,
Rich Eat The Free Lunch
All Is In,
And Mass Murder Starving Children.
The Bitter And Beauty.
Terror Incorporated,
Now Will Never Leave Now.
The Clown Of War,
Was Always Is And Never.
We Are Witness To The Collapse…
To Empty Went

Thollem states “one poem is overtly political and the other philosophical”, an illustration of how Thollem admirably blends high concept with down to earth action.

A self-described “perpetually traveling musician”, Thollem has no fixed address, but finds home in the myriad places he visits, and community in the people he meets. He talks about the reciprocity necessary to facilitate such arrangements, of gaining perspective and learning empathy. “Traveling speeds that process up”, notes Thollem. “Going into the unknown” forces one to adjust and exist in real time. This lack of routine necessitates empathy and promotes the understanding of people and cultures different from one’s own.

II. War is Terror

Tsigoti is Thollem McDonas’ most overtly political project. A freewheeling anarcho-punk group, Tsigoti serves as a literal mouthpiece for his activism. Thollem sings politically charged lyrics alongside his off-kilter piano playing. The group is rounded out by Italian musicians Andrea Caprara (drums), Jacopo Andreini (guitar), and bassists Matteo Bennici and Piero Spitilli.

Tsigoti began humbly enough. “Tsigoti started off as War Is Terror 5 years ago. I was in Nipozzano, outside Florence, in a house with a bunch of musicians and a recording studio. Andrea and I were just talking about how we’d like to make a punk album and we had 3 days to do it, so we did.

“I had written pages and pages of words about war when I was in Prague a few months prior, and we turned them into songs, recording, mixing, and mastering our first album, The Brutal Reality Of Modern Brutality.”

A cross-continental group based in Italy, Tsigoti’s output reflects both specific concerns endemic to the participants’ surroundings and the underlying universal tensions of class and place.

“I think there are benefits to this, and mostly it is the varying perspectives on politics. They are in a very different geo-political region than we are in the U.S., and Italian politics are quite different than ours in some ways.  Also, musical sensibilities are varied as well, for the same reasons.”

There are also impediments to this arrangement, but the band transcends them by utilizing these limitations to their benefit.

“The drawback, of course, is that it is more difficult to tour together.  We decided awhile back that we would make our albums on the spot, writing songs together in the same room and recording them as we do it.  The spirit of the band is to not be too meticulous about our performance.  We’re much more interested in retaining the original spirit and rawness of the band. So, we have made it work for the better all in all.”

The content of Tsigoti’s songs is directly informed by the group’s shared political concerns. “I’d say for the most part, we all share basic political perspectives in that we don’t want to be ruled by anyone, and we care about social justice issues, ecology, corruption, etc.  I think we have been able to inform each other in some ways because we are coming from different parts of the world.  Italy itself is quite varied, and the Italians come from different regions, which has also defined the way they see things.

“We often work directly from everyday topics from the news, looking into how these issues/stories are timeless and universal. We’re not interested in pointing our finger at any one government or corporation, but at trying to reach the fundamental properties of problems that have been at the root of human existence for thousands of years – ignorance, greed, corruption, authoritarianism, exploitation of women and workers, etc. So, if you look deeply into our lyrics, you might find hints of current news, but for the most part we don’t directly relate them.  That’s what the news is for…”  

III. Action is Necessary

“We have all these amazing technologies to communicate with people around the world in real time and so on, but there’s no way you can substitute real physical traveling across geopolitical borders and cultural borders – all these different types of borders we create in the physical realm. Obviously when you travel, you smell smells and you hear different languages, and you have to cope with people’s cultures and customs, and it’s a much different thing than getting online and chatting with somebody or hearing some music from the Serengeti or something.”

For Thollem, music is direct action. The engagement of senses and connections made between communities are integral to his mission. To this end, Thollem often focuses on free improvisation as a medium to communicate with people from other cultures. “An approach to musically being with another person”, free improv, according to Thollem, “is not a Western European construct” and “fits within many cultures and philosophical frameworks”.

In other words, Thollem enters into both musical and social situations in a non-imperialistic manner, a difficult feat for an American to achieve, or even be conscious of. Free improvisation is dependent on the individuals involved, and is thus the most equitable way of communicating openly and passionately with strangers.

Seeing beyond artificial, culturally-imposed barriers, Thollem observes that “when artists travel, we are non-governmental cultural ambassadors, representing ourselves, our communities, our countries, and art and artists and ideas in general.” This engagement is at the core of Thollem’s utilization of music to achieve change. Whether in the political screes of Tsigoti or the engaged cultural pluralism of the Estamos Project, in which musicians from the United States and Mexico collaborate in a multitude of contexts, understanding lies at the center of all his endeavors.

By engaging in direct action, by being constantly active, Thollem McDonas works to increase understanding between people, and to show how arbitrary the constructs we create around our differences are. That he chooses to do this in the most kinetic of forms, through musical expression, further illuminates our shared experiences and breaks down barriers between nations and cultures.

IV. The Future is Now

With recent collaborations with William Parker & Nels Cline and Mike Watt & John Dieterich (as The Hand to Man Band) still fresh, Thollem continues to push forward, releases a handful of diverse recordings in 2013. Alongside another Dieterich collaboration and a record with Jad Fair (Half Japanese) and Brian Chase (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), are the new Tsigoti album, Read Between the Lines… Think Outside Them, and People’s Historia, by the Estamos Trio. A continuation of the Estamos Ensemble, in which Thollem collaborated with Mexican musicians, including a children’s orchestra, the Estamos Trio is completed by Carmina Escobar (voice, electronics, field recordings) and Milo Tamez (extended drumset).

Both Read Between the Lines… and Tsigoti’s 2012 album, The Imagination Liberation Front Thinks Again, are available from Post-Consumer Records. Relative Pitch Records will release People’s Historia in June.

Thollem is, as always, on tour and will play Monk’s Kaffee Pub in Dubuque on March 26, performing on a Fender Rhodes electric piano to the short films of Tuia Cherici

- Bob Bucko

Listening to Hear In Now

Hear In Now
Monk’s Kaffee Pub
Friday, November 30
9 PM, FREE, 21+ 

And now for something completely different… Monk’s Kaffee Pub is hosting the string trio Hear In Now tonight. Combining composed forms with elements of free improvisation, Hear In Now’s highly communicative interplay blends aspects of classical and jazz to create vibrant instrumental music. Their prodigious technique and impressive pedigree – they have worked with heavyweights like Anthony Braxton, William Parker, and George Lewis, and collaborated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the Black Rock Coalition – lays the foundation for avant-garde music that retains an emotional pull. Come to Monk’s and hear the sounds unheard:

Zeitgeist 2012

On Saturday, November 10, Boone, Iowa hosted Zeitgeist 2012, a thirteen artist experimental music festival. In true DIY spirit, a large crew of musical misfits from across a broad geographical area (Iowa artists ranged from Dubuque to Des Moines and beyond, plus one brave soul who made the drive from Albert Lea, Minnesota) worked together to make this thing a success. Dubuque was represented by three individuals - BOAR (Alex Nowacki), Aural Resuscitation Unit (Randy Carter), and myself.

Tremendous thought and preparation went into the fest, which was recorded for posterity by Matt Dake, and a healthy handful of folks contributed to making it happen. A lot of the musicians met each other in person for the first time, and tons of recordings were swapped and sold. One of the greatest effects of Zeitgeist was to bolster a collective profile and create a sense of community across a broad group of diverse musicians living in different towns.

The Centipede Farmer wrote an excellent and comprehensive assessment of the day on his website. Included are links to music and video by all the artists who performed that day.

If you want to check out the live sets from the fest, you can stream or download them at the Zeitgeist 2012 bandcamp page.

Some outgrowths of the festival include a split label release between Warm Gospel Tapes and Personal Archives documenting two of the performances from that day and the first issue of the incipient All Iowa Noise Insurgency Zine. Other things, including another festival, are being discussed. Everything really is happening now.


Funny Faces

Cedar Falls and Waterloo are a mere 90 minutes away from Dubuque, but their scene is mostly a mystery to me. I did have the good fortune to play with and meet the Teddy Boys back in 2008, however, which clued me in to the indie rock end of things in the Cedar Valley. Four years later, the Teddy Boys have splintered off into several other, equally rewarding, groups, one of which, Twins, recently released their first album. Des Moines music freak The Centipede Farmer joins the ruix family with his review of Funny Faces:

The indie music scene of the Cedar Valley, such as it is, is currently in the thick of the Sires dynasty. See, from the mid-1980s until around 2000, we had the Wilsons — Matt, then Mark, then Steve, Mike, Ben, with their various bands and projects, defined by noisy experimental punk and eccentric outsiderisms. But then the Sireses came into ascendency as brothers Joel and Harper and their band The Teddy Boys began plying their brand of breezy 1960s-inspired guitar pop. Eventually cousin Dylan was pulled into the orbit on loan from his own band The Venom Electric, making the Teddy Boys a raucous whirlwind of melody and jangle fronted by no less than three startlingly talented singer-songwriter-guitarists, each specializing in their own variant of the pop songcraft that they make look so effortless that hacks like me would be inclined to hate them for it if they weren’t also such insanely likeable guys.

Somewhere along the line since my move to Des Moines, the sad news reached me that the Teddy Boys were over with. But then came news that Sireses were still in the business of tunes. First there was Dylan Sires recording as a solo artist and performing live with his power trio The Neighbors (rhythm section made up of both the former Teddy Boys drummers, one of them on bass). Then came Twins — Joel and Harper together again, joined by another Sires I hadn’t even heard of, the gregarious Luke, on drums and public relations; new Sireses just keep popping out of the woodwork, it seems. And now Twins have an album out on CD, Funny Faces.

I’ve said it before but I’ll repeat: one gets the feeling that all the Sireses grew up together listening to and absorbing the same Beatles records as kids. When Twins describe themselves on their Facebook page as “lo-fi Wings” they’re only being halfway cheeky. I’d also wager that some dust particles from the Brill Building got embedded in the Sires DNA somewhere along the way, given their instinct for a catchy tune. You can throw in a little bit of early Big Star while you’re at it.

Compared to the output of the Teddy Boys I’d place Funny Faces as confidently looser and brasher in performances than Love After Dark, while the songwriting more closely resembles Songs For Swingers but with the hyperactive tempos eased up a notch. The production, and arrangements of guitar tones and instrumentation are some of Joel and Harper’s most polished yet, inching towards Dylan’s territory but still keeping it simple. Harper, the quiet one, takes on most of the lead vocals, or so it would seem; it can be hard to tell the two voices apart, but Harper is the more quirkily off-key one, a quality that works much better here than it did on Love After Dark, giving the songs a certain friendly everyman appeal.

For the most part, Funny Faces serves up a series of relentlessly sunny gems in the signature Joel-and-Harper style, each as infectious as the last. What dark clouds do appear are confined to the occasional lyric, still backed with bouncy guitar hooks and vocal harmonies, as on “My Old Ways.” A few songs in, one could complain of it getting a little samey if it weren’t still so darn much fun; yet it’s still a treat when we get to the quieter acoustic moment of the folky “If I Had a Song”. Album closer “Sound The Alarm” even gets a little bit Badfinger with some delightful moments of gooey chorus tone on the guitar.

It’s maybe a bit of a shame that this disc didn’t make it out a few months earlier, as these are quintissential summer jams, but as we head into the twilight months, Funny Faces may be just the thing to chase away seasonal depression. For that matter you may as well make a point to keep it within arm’s reach for next spring too.

Never Again the Same, Never the Same Again!

On Saturday, November 17, Thollem McDonas returns to Monk’s for the third time. A tireless creative force, McDonas will premiere and interpret material by his Italian political punk band, Tsigoti. He will also sit in with local free music troupe Venereal Crush, adding his considerable improvisational talents. Thollem has an interesting take on life as a touring musician and political activist, informed by his constant travel and collaboration with others. This interview originally appeared in ruix #3:

Thollem McDonas is a multifaceted, world-traveled pianist, composer, and improviser.  Presently touring his solo piano “comprovisations,” he arrived at Monk’s Kaffee Pub on a seemingly placid Wednesday afternoon that mutated into a wet and slightly violent Wednesday evening.  While those of us on the main level of Monk’s considered the ensuing thunderstorms a welcome respite from the recent haze and heat, Thollem came running up from the basement to announce that it was rapidly filling with water.

With this unexpected and unfortunate damage sustained, the show was moved to Monk’s main level.  In accordance with his general flexibility and capacity for spontaneous improvisation, McDonas assessed the situation, retrieved a keyboard from his vehicle, and set up in the corner.  After a performance by myself and a particularly fiery set from Ben Drury and Zane Merritt, McDonas entertained a modest but invested audience with his observations of the flood-riddled evening before launching into his set.

His two solo “comprovisations” ran the gamut of musical styles, highlighting both a prodigious technique and a barely-contained creative spark.  McDonas’s flawless technique and light, airy touch indicated years of training, yet this did not stifle his creative urges.  Soft tonal clusters reminiscent of Debussy met rhythmic jabs that conjured Stravinsky.  Hints of everything from barrelhouse to Cecil Taylor danced across his keyboard, musical traditions stretching time and place were explored, but at the heart of the performance was the aural expression of one person’s inner monologue.  His energy and commitment to performance electrified the soaked patrons both at the bar and on plush furniture around his keyboard.

Perusing the album and track titles of Thollem McDonas’s extensive recorded catalog, one gets a sense of vast scope, of the magnitude of thoughts compressed and expressed therein.  A highly literate mind, McDonas is engaging and comprehensive in conversation.  In responding to my query about his roots in improvisation, it is not surprising that McDonas reveals a deep background in classical and jazz traditions.

“I grew up being forced to rigorously study keyboard music from the renaissance through the 20th century.  My mom was a classical piano teacher and my dad played in piano bars.  My parents had very different backgrounds but were both pianists and it was definitely expected that I would be one as well (which I’m appreciative of now).  I also listened to a lot of different types of music growing up and experimented with friends and life in a lot of different ways.  From the classical world I began to realize that all these composers were saying to me to make my own music. Also, improvisation had been an important part of that tradition for hundreds of years until it was, excommunicated, let’s say.  My dad’s music was performed in bars with people all around drinking and smoking and singing.  I listened to tons of 50′s-60′s-70′s jazz and had the great fortune of hearing a lot of the vanguards play live in Santa Cruz at Kuumbwa Jazz Club, which was a little club at the time that somehow became a tradition for all the touring jazz players to play on Monday nights when they were in the area, including McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Elvin Jones, etc.  Also, I had just always been curious and pretty rebellious so eventually free improvisation just made sense to me in every way.  Really just something that has come naturally to me throughout my life in a wide variety of ways and for different reasons.”

At his Monk’s date, McDonas followed his solo pieces with a group improvisation featuring local musicians.  Given the breadth of styles and permutations of solo and ensemble play he engages in, I was curious what attracts McDonas to various forms of artistic expression.

“I play solo concerts regularly, as well as free improv concerts with local musicians as I travel.  I also have groups/projects in different parts of the U.S. and Europe.  I’ve always been attracted to the notion of one man/woman and their instrument up against the world in a sense, and with the piano there is seemingly boundless possibilities.  However, I feel that I ultimately get the most satisfaction through collaboration, both in long-term projects as well as one-off situations.  Being . . . an improviser has many benefits musically.  I put myself constantly into new musical and non-musical situations that push me to expand in response to those that I am playing with.”

Observing McDonas at the keyboard, it is obvious that much care goes into his improvisations, that there is a definite arc, a story being told, embellished with slight variations from night to night.  McDonas uses the term “comprovisations” to describe this type of songform, an amalgamation of pre-conceived and spontaneous musical thoughts.  In many ways, Thollem notes, they are flip sides of the same coin.

“Philosophically it’s difficult to really put one’s finger on where composition ends and improvisation begins.  If I am repeating even a general idea, but in a spontaneous way, then it is truly a little or a lot of both, more or less.  So, I do have full albums of composition I actually wrote note for note, for the most part.  At this point in my life, composing note for note doesn’t interest me so much, but the general ideas of those compositions do, and it’s fun for me to spontaneously mix and match this and that from different ‘compositions’ and therefore create something unique from night to night.  Improvisation is definitely spontaneous composition and composition is improvisation in slow motion.  I’m sure many others have said something very similar.”

Alongside his myriad collaborations with other musicians, McDonas has made numerous contributions to dance and film.  His participation in these disciplines has roots extending to his teenage years.

“I started working with modern dancers in high school.  I used to make my living in college as an accompanist for modern dance, ballet, music theater, opera and other instrumentalists . . . [O]ther than modern dance I don’t ever plan or want to work as an accompanist again.  I quit working in this way when I dropped out of college to protest the Persian Gulf War.  At that point I took a completely different path musically.  About 15 years ago I was commissioned by the Limon Dance Company for a piece in commemoration of their 50th year anniversary.  This was a great experience all around and especially because it was a totally collaborative process with the choreographer.  After this I worked with individuals from the company and even started a company that existed for about a year.  For film, Martha Colburn started using pre-recorded music of mine a few years ago and since then I have performed regularly with her in museums throughout the U.S. and Europe.  I performed in Matthew Barney’s newest film that has not been released yet playing ridiculously long piano strings and cables that were connected to steel ovens 150 feet tall just above a molten pour in an industrial waste stagpile.”

Having effectively carved a niche in several areas of the arts that aren’t exactly known for enhancing fiscal solvency, I asked Thollem how he sustains a livelihood on the fringes of the arts.  His explanation, and his advice to aspiring artists, is both honest and revelatory.

“Credit card fraud, bank robbery, abducting famous personalities . . . It’s an almost impossible path for any musician to take if they want to have any semblance of a normal life like sleeping, eating, showering, not to mention health insurance or a savings account.  However, I do think it’s important for artists to travel both for themselves as well [as] for the communities they come into contact with.  It really takes constant perseverance—there’s no magic to it, just work work work and play play play.  I certainly suggest developing a solo set of music and being open to playing in an improvised manner with others.  Take care of yourself physically and psychically, respect the people you’re with, stand up for yourself.  There are many challenges to being on the road all the time.  Some of them are annoying, and some can be life threatening, so it’s important to stay aware, which is also one of the great benefits of perpetual travel. I’m happy to answer individual questions in this regard to anyone who has them and I see it as part of my responsibility to help others get on the road and be able to sustain it.  I have made many mistakes throughout my travels, but am still standing and moving through space and most everyone I have had contact with respects me and knows I respect them.”

Approaching every aspect of his creative being with panache, Thollem McDonas’s personality resonates with the same frenetic-yet-playful, intensity as many of his recordings.  Seemingly unable, and certainly unwilling, to slow down, McDonas has a full schedule of high profile artistic endeavors in the near future and beyond.

“Right now I am finishing up an essay for Pauline Oliveros’ next book which is an anthology of essays on Deep Listening.  Mine is called “Deep Listening and the Peripatetic Life of an Improvising Musician.”  I’ve got an album coming out on a new label called Post-Consumer with a new band called The Hand To Man Band.  This is a collaborative project with Mike Watt, John Dieterich and Tim Barnes.  Tsigoti’s got our 3rd album coming out sometime soon.  We have yet to decide what label to release it on.  We want to release it on a label that is primarily focused on anti-war music.  I’ve got another band in Portugal called PPCM that is an improvising punkarolla band and we’ll be touring Portugal and northern Spain in the fall.  Tsigoti’s got another tour coming up in December in Italy.  I’ll be continuing my work with Martha Colburn and giving active listening and large ensemble workshops.  I’ve got a free jazz album coming out soon with two great Italian musicians, Stefano Giust and Edoardo Marraffa.  I’m also working out a new duo, or possibly trio, project with Nels Cline on feedback melodies and me on ecstatic hyper piano tremolos. I’m writing new songs for a new solo performance. I’m sure there is stuff I’m leaving out . . .”

And I’m sure there is, too. Against the setting of a biblical storm, Thollem McDonas came through Dubuque like a force of nature, performing, and existing, with contagious fervor.  Proving that art emanates from within, McDonas lives the music he makes, revels in it, epitomizing the miracle of sound in motion.