Thollem McDonas is quite literally a man without a home. The 46-year-old keyboard master has been circumnavigating the world on a journey of musical exploration for nearly seven years. You could call it a tour, but the experience has been much more intensive and varied than simply hitting one city each night and moving on the next morning.
"I'm able to play solo concerts and free improv with local musicians," McDonas writes via email, naturally from the road. "I have some rock bands in different countries, and I give large-ensemble improvisation and collaboration workshops. I lead listening meditations in yoga centers, and I work with filmmakers and dancers and so on. Diversify, diversify, diversify!â
Of course, no fly-by-night piano jockey could get away with a life like the one McDonas leads. The fact he still remains in such high demand as a live performer and recording artist says much about the depth of his abilities as a player and composer.
Raised by a pair of musicians in California, McDonas spent his formative years studying the classical repertoire, and went on to earn degrees in piano performance and composition. After graduating, he worked primarily as an accompanist for modern dance, ballet and opera ensembles, along with sitting in with jazz groups. But it wasn't until a decade ago that McDonas decided to focus only on his own work. Since then, he hasn't stopped moving.
His concert calendar and discography are littered with a vast array of styles and collaborators. Look quickly through either and you'll find yourself running into familiar names from both the experimental- and pop-music worlds: Nels Cline, Brian Chase of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Susie Ibarra, Jad Fair and Deerhoof's John Dieterich, to name very few.
His performance this week at Backspace—part of the March Music Moderne avant-garde classical festival—finds McDonas supporting a project called Tsigoti in the Valley of the Cloudbuilder. In it, he attacks a Rhodes electric piano with fevered energy, while singing dense, messy jeremiads about the geopolitical landscape such as, "Somebody's gonna build a missile defense shield/ And somebody else is gonna build better bombs.â
Perhaps more than almost any of his other projects, there's a real, sweaty passion to the Tsigoti songs, especially when McDonas plays them live—a perfectly sensible reaction to singing about war and poverty, but one rooted in a long history of protest and activism, protesting the first Gulf War and organizing on behalf of animal rights, as well as years of work doing ecological restoration.
As edifying and engaging as that time was for McDonas, he still feels he "lost a lot of time in the sense of building a musical career," he writes. "I had so many extraordinary experiences through activism, and those years have had a great influence on who I am now. Yet I really feel I have no time to waste, and I am kind of obsessively working and producing my music."
SEE IT: Thollem Electric plays Backspace, 115 NW 5th Ave., on Wednesday, March 13. 9 pm. $7. All ages.