Guest post by Doug Thomas

I create in order to learn; there has not ever been a piece of music that I have composed without the wish to discover something and develop my artistry.

While it is, I believe, observable in all my works, it is most obvious in Portraits, and the soon to be released Landscapes

With both projects, I intend — through microscopic study — to portrait composers that I have found influential or with whom I have spent considerable musical time. My creative approach consists of identifying the subjective elements that define these composers and, through a process of translation, make them mine. 

Through a broad selection that spans over each main period of Western classical music, I have selected Couperin, Vivaldi, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Glass and Stravinsky. Some influences are quite noticeable in my works already, some much less, and some will perhaps become more prominent as I evolve musically.

Let’s take “Vienna 2”, the first of the eight pieces of Landscapes that I have recorded and released, and examine how I have composed it and what the result has been. 

The first phase of creation for this piece is one of learning; through a selection of some of Schubert’s motifs, and rhythmic, melodic or harmonic cells, I analyse, transcribe and identify the elements that make the music so interesting to me. I immerse myself in the composer’s world in order to bring the personality traits out and understand his creative process. It is similar to the work of the archaeologist, who brushes the dust and reveals the keys and symbols. It is a process of listening, reading and copying. 

The second phase is then an opportunity for translation and creation. It is how I adapt Schubert’s vocabulary to mine, how I reappropriate his sentences and make them mine. 

This last phase is crucial for me as it is the one that decides whether the piece will sound like a simple pastiche, or whether it will have the flavours of Schubert’s music, while being truly my own musical DNA. It might translate into improvising over the elements until something emerges or an intellectual process of shuffling the pieces and structuring new elements together. 

What I find truly interesting with such an approach, aside from the enrichment, is the end result. What I see as being very much Schubert’s words out of my mouth has actually become my own expression. Had I not mentioned Schubert, “Vienna 2” might have been perceived very differently, and the secret would have been intact. 

When Richter wrote Infra, a large inspiration was also Schubert’s, and his Impromptus, yet although the musical material is very similar, it is no one else but Richter’s works. 

Hopefully, I can say the same about “Vienna 2”, Portraits and Landscapes. Ultimately, I feel richer. 

Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London. He also publishes articles, interviews and reviews, and is a regular contributor to this site and its sister site ArtMuseLondon.

Doug Thomas

Guest post by Doug Thomas

To understand classical music, it is quite obvious where to start. It is a genre that has always been scholar-friendly, well-structured and documented, with the purpose of passing the knowledge to the next generation. When it comes to popular music, however, it is a little different; it is a genre that has, above all, always been centered around the entertainment, the moment.  One could try to understand it historically, but the road backwards is endless and it would be difficult to decide where it really began: some would argue Rock’n’Roll, or Blues, or Jazz, or Folk…..

Or one could study The Beatles. There is no debate; they are the most important and influential figures in popular music. And therefore understanding them, their influences and the influence they had on others, allows us to better understand “pop” music.

The Beatles are a testimony to everything that existed in the popular world before them. They learned their craft by imitating the musicians that they admired. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is an example of how skiffle formed their early personalities. “Lady Madonna” is a tribute to the Boogie-Woogie of Fats Domino, while “Revolution” reveals the influence of early Chicago rock of Chuck Berry. “Hold Me Tight” is of course influenced by Country music and Rhythm’n’Blues, and “All I’ve Got to Do” displays early influences of female Doo-Wop and Soul — the latter being one of the most important factors in the development of The Beatles’ approach to lead and backing vocals. Finally, “No Reply” shows the influence of Latin music rhythms, prominent in much of 1960s popular music.

The Beatles have influenced so much, it is undeniable. Whether in their music, their songwriting, their production or their image, countless artists have taken from them in order to build themselves. They are in every other musician’s music, and conversely, one can hear in their music what has followed them. “Hey Jude” opened the way to every single stadium anthem, such as “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis; “Good Day Sunshine” is everywhere in Britpop (e.g. Blur’s “Charmless Man) and “Eleanor Rigby” allowed Coldplay’s “Viva la vida“ to exist. “Get Back” is a slower version of much of heavy metal music (e.g. Judas Priest “Breaking the Law”) and “Come Together” is a blueprint for Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. Finally, most of the psychedelic rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s owes much to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “I Am the Walrus” or “Strawberry Fields for Ever”. In 1966, The Beatles released “Taxman”; a year after Jimi Hendrix was using the same chord voicing — now nicknamed the “Hendrix Chord” — on “Purple Haze”.

The Beatles are also a mirror of their times. They took inspiration from the musicians that surrounded them, and, as they evolved, these influences became wider. “Norwegian Wood” is one of the earliest examples of the influence of Bob Dylan on Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting. “Yer Blues” reflects the approach the Rolling Stones took with Blues music. “Helter Skelter” was a direct response to “I Can See for Miles” by The Who — which they had presented as the loudest song ever made. “Two of Us” is of course directly influenced by acoustic Country Rock, in the style of Crosby, Stills & Nash or the Grateful Dead, and “Something” reflects the influence of Eric Clapton and The Band on George Harrison. These influences would extend to Jamaican Ska (with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”), Greek traditional music, à la Zorba (with “My Girl”) and of course Indian traditional music (with “Within You, Without You”, and many, many others).

John Lennon once claimed that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”. Whether that is true is still arguable; however their influence on every single popular musician and band since the mid-1960s is indisputable. Everyone has at some point, in various genres, covered The Beatles: Johnny Cash, Elton John, Joe Cocker, Aerosmith, Mötley Crüe, Soundgarden, Oasis, Yes, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Otis Redding, Bobby McFerrin, Frank Sinatra, Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell. The list is endless…

GetAttachmentThumbnailSince founding NOOX — or North of Oxford St., a record label, production company and recording studio — in 2014, Doug Thomas has released numerous solo projects, including Short Stories, Vol. 1&2, and the triptych Angles, Cassiopeia and Shapes. For Ballades, he has collaborated with Piano & Coffee Co. as well as pianists Marta Cascales Alimbau, Manos Milonakis, Marek Votruba and Muriël Bostdorp. The Seasons is a collaborative homage to the music of Tchaikovsky; it features twelve pianists from around the world — including Simeon Walker, Garreth Broke and Dominique Charpentier. For Grace, he has collaborated with Sonder House and pianist/cellist Jesse Brown. Portraits, is another homage to his inspirations — and has been released in collaboration with Lonely Swallow and Affan. Studia is the first volume of a collection of contemporary piano études — released with the Italian label Blue Spiral Records (BSR) and featuring Angelo Villari. His latest release with the same label, Anxiety/Serenity (featuring the harp of Mary Dunsford), is a response to the situation that the world experienced in this first quarter of 2020, through the spread of the COVID-19. 

As a writer Doug publishes articles, interviews and reviews, and is a contributor to Interlude as well as a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist and ArtMuseLondon

“Music allows me to express ideas and feelings in a unique way. Each piece I compose is an attempt in finding balance between interest and beauty, within the limits of my own language and experience. I like the idea that music can provide us with an alternative to our daily life, whether it completes it or helps us take some distance from it.”

Interesting things come from online connections – and this is one of the nicest projects I’ve been involved in recently, thanks to a Twitter/Facebook connection with composer Doug Thomas.

The Seasons is Doug’s hommage to Tchaikovsky’s suite of 12 piano miniatures which bears the same name, a year-long collaborative project with 12 pianists from around the world. Doug composed 12 short pieces, 1 for each pianist participating in the project. Each pianist recorded his/her piece and these recordings were released month by month via Doug’s SoundCloud and social media. Now all 12 pieces have been collated into an album, available via SoundCloud and Spotify (in a fully mixed/engineered version).

The music is generally minimalist in style, and each piece is different – like Tchaikovsky’s Season’s, Doug captures the character of each month, from the solemn frozen majesty of January to the reawakening of nature after winter (March – which Doug composed for me), the sunny playfulness of July and the melancholy nostalgia of December at the close of the year.

Other pianists participating in the project include Christina McMaster, Clio Monterey and Simeon Walker – all of whom have, coincidentally, appeared in my Meet the Artist series. This for me is a mark of the wonderful connectivity that social media affords us, and that those of us in the piano world have many overlapping networks and circles within circles.

It is very special to have a work composed especially for one and I felt a huge responsibility towards the composer and his music to interpret the work in a way which I hoped would fit with his original vision for the work, which conveys the excitement of nature bursting into life again after the winter chill.

Listen to the album on Spotify

In addition to the album, the sheet music for the complete project is also available here.