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Metro Silicon Valley: Two Music Teachers at SJSU Helped Make Thollem McDonas a Nomadic Piano Genius

Posted by Metro Silicon Valley Feb. 20, 2013.

As a tiny kid decades ago, Thollem McDonas crawled into his mom’s piano in south San Jose to explore its strings, its mechanisms and its sonic capabilities. The rest is history.

Now, for the first time in many years, McDonas returns to San Jose to play a private house concert on that very same piano he grew up with and in. Since his mother has now passed on, the piano sits in his sister’s house.

These days, McDonas is one of the world’s most respected peripatetic pianists, a nomadic, perpetually traveling musician, with no permanent home. If that was anyone else, it wouldn’t seem significant, but the list of legendary musicians McDonas now regularly hangs with borders on the extraordinary. His natural talents have equipped him with classical, improv, jazz and punk sensibilities, enabling him to jam with anyone, anywhere. So bear with me, please.

With the Hand to Man Band, McDonas is now on two CDs, including Mike Watt of Minutemen and fIREHOSE fame. Along with Nels Cline and William Parker, he recorded another CD.

Every time he goes to Italy, he tours with Tsigoti, the Italian avant-punk band, reminding one of what would happen if Scott Joplin swapped hormones with Iggy Pop. Other collaborators include John Dieterich of Deerhoof and Jad Fair of Half-Japanese.

On Claude Debussy’s old piano, Thollem performed Debussy’s works and Thollem’s own ‘comprovisations’ (composed improvisations) with the late contrabassist Stefano Scodanibbio. To date, he has somewhere around 30 albums on 12 labels in four countries. It all began with crawling inside a baby grand piano in San Jose.

When McDonas got to SJSU, he studied composition with Allen Strange and piano performance with Aiko Onishi, two people he says were polar opposites, but who complemented each other rather than negating each other. In Allen’s case, McDonas said professor Strange was equally as interested in what he could learn from his own students, as he was in teaching them.

“[Allen] was really important to me,” McDonas explains. “He helped me ask the right questions. He never took me through compositional exercises because I was already composing. Our lessons were mostly him asking me questions, ‘Why did you do this, have you thought about trying that?’ He was one of the most rugged individuals I had ever known. That was important to me. To have an authority figure, who [himself] had stood up to authority.”

Onishi taught piano at SJSU for 20 years until the late ’80s. Contrary to Strange, McDonas says she was a strict disciplinarian.

“That was really good for me in the end,” McDonas recalled. “But also, she didn’t give a shit about convention. She only cared about music and her students. She did not give a shit about what anyone else thought, about anything. So that was really important to me.”

Two other legends in the SJSU Music Department influenced McDonas for life: Royal Hartigan and Dwight Cannon. The former taught there in the ’90s, when McDonas returned to participate in various improv classes. McDonas claims he still hears Hartigan’s voice in his head.

Cannon had been there since the late ’60s and is sadly no longer with us. To this day, McDonas cites his first meeting with Cannon, onstage during a performance, with Cannon scraping a music stand, upside down, across the stage, as a key moment in the realization of Thollem’s musical vision.

“I thought, Here’s the fucking teacher doing that,” recalls McDonas, of his initial surprise. “That, to me, all of sudden, [made me realize] these are not just crazy ideas that I have, or that young people have. They’re just ideas. Even teachers can have them.”

Speaking of ideas, McDonas recently found some old high school and college-era recordings buried in his mom’s garage. Those tapes will now be released on the Wild Silence label in France.

Even though the private house concert this weekend in Willow Glen is not open to the public, it represents yet another intriguing instance of San Jose functioning as the transdimensional mystic vortex, shattering the space-time continuum. Past and future have now collapsed into the present. We should all be grateful.