An interview with Philip Thomas

Philip Thomas is Head of performance at Huddersfield University and pianist for UK’s famed ensemble Apartment House.  As Jennifer mentioned in her piece last week, Philip is touring Canada this month performing solo works by Canadian composers Michael Oesterle and Linda Smith, along with new commissions by Canadians Martin Arnold and Cassandra Miller and British composers Christopher Fox and Bryn Harrison. You can hear his solo concert Out of the Apartment at Gallery 345 on April 24th; Philip then joins Continuum’s ensemble for Correlation Street, April 25th at the Music Gallery, an ambitious concert featuring a premiere by Trevor Grahl and other works by British and Canadian composers.  Philip recently took a moment out of his busy schedule for a chat:

RS – With whom did you study and what are some of your fondest memories of this period?

PT – I was somewhat of a late starter to music, having led a fairly sheltered existence on a farm in Devon. My real inspiration was as a student simply going to every concert possible and hearing as much standard and other repertoire performed really well. When I moved to Sheffield as a postgraduate student I was privileged to attend many of the Lindsay Quartet concerts (they were based in Sheffield), thus hearing plenty of Haydn, Beethoven, Bartok and – for me, crucially – Tippett. My PhD supervisor was Peter Hill, a marvelous pianist especially known for his performances and recordings of Messiaen (about whom he is a leading authority) and early twentieth century music. The warmth of his touch is something that has influenced me above all else. My piano teachers, Ann Airton and Yolande Wrigley, were critical in allowing me to explore the music I wanted to, even though it wasn’t their area of specialism, and encouraging me in this, whilst always raising my awareness of the fundamentals of technique, most of all – knowing how to relax.

RS – At what point did you make the leap to specialising in new music and why?

PT – Like most people interested in new music, I guess, it was love for the music. Something intuitively resonated with me when I first heard Messiaen and Tippett and then the doors kept on opening into newer, bolder and more astonishing worlds. Still today it’s a mixture of curiosity and love. Increasingly, I’m mostly concerned with the music of the experimentalists – Cage, Wolff and Feldman – and those whom they have influenced. Playing and listening to their music I feel alive in my whole being!

RS – You have a special interest in new Canadian works and Canadian composers of this generation. How did you first come to discover some of these composers?

PT – I’m ashamed to say I knew very little Canadian music until relatively recently, other than some of the famous electronic composers and of course Vivier. But a number of years ago a German composer, now resident in Britain, Markus Trunk, suggested I try out some music by Martin Arnold, and this really was love at first listen! Something entirely intuitive resonated with me when I heard Martin’s music – not just his piano music but a bunch of other pieces too. I really think he’s a complete original and should be known far more outside of Canada. And then it occurred to me to explore more music from Canada and put together a couple of programmes, which I have performed in the UK over the past few months. Linda Smith is a composer whose music I had played and heard about 8 years ago and so I knew I wanted to play something by her again – another completely unique voice. And I had heard some of Cassandra Miller’s music a few years back and thought she’d write a good piano piece, which indeed she has – a remarkable piece, actually. And once I started making enquiries, I ended up with far too much interesting music to play for now, so I’ll be returning to this theme in coming years.

RS – From your perspective, are there tangible common factors unique to Canadian and British composers of this generation?

PT – I think it’s always a mistake to generalise, so I’ll simply note the factors that I find interesting in the music of Canadian and British composers whom I’m playing at the moment. I like the way the music unfolds in time, either by following through and unraveling a system (perceptible or otherwise) or simply (as in Martin’s music) ambling along. There’s something very attractive to me about a music which is deliberately not “flashy” or which allows the material to take centre stage without imposing some great dramatic narrative or concept onto it. At a time when grants are continually being awarded to composers for exploring the very latest technology and concepts in their compositions, I like that there are still composers out there writing for the solo piano – just a bunch of hammers and strings, responding to a human touch. Rather old-fashioned but there it is!!

RS – And what projects are you planning for the future?

PT – One of the composers I keep coming back to is Christian Wolff. It’s his 80th birthday next year and so to celebrate I’ve commissioned a solo piece from him alongside new works by Howard Skempton and Michael Finnissy, partly written as tributes to Wolff. Finnissy’s piece as it turns out is going to be a large work, one hour plus, and will be his first set of variations. I’m also hoping to do some work on the musical legacy of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, combining research with practice, which is generally the way I like to work.

  • Out of the Apartment
  • Wednesday, April 24, 8 pm
  • Gallery 345, 345 Sorauren Avenue
  •  $30 / $20 / $10
  • Tickets available at the door


  • Correlation Street
  • Thursday, April 25, 8 pm
  • The Music Gallery, 197 John Street
  • $30 / $20 / $10 
  • Tickets available at the door or online


Watch the Correlation Street preview video