Composer Joel Thome has worked with some of the biggest names in rock music, including Frank Zappa and Steve Vai. Now a new documentary explores his cultural contributions as well as his unique composing methods.
Inside The Perfect Circle: The Odyssey of Joel Thomescreens Friday at the Canadian music festival North By Northeast. Filmmaker Chris Pepino skillfully portrays both the ups and downs of a composer whose unconventional notation methods and equal embrace of both the classical and contemporary worlds underlines his "rebel genius" status.
A Grammy recipient and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, Thome composed the music for Pablo Picasso's only play, Catch Desire By The Tail (Le Désir attrapé par la queue), and travelled the globe conducting operas and orchestras. Following a debilitating stroke in 1998, Thome lost use of his left arm and underwent years of therapy, utilizing music as a healing force, and soon resumed composing and conducting. Inside The Perfect Circle uses a performance of noted New York troupe Scorchio Quartet (beloved by both David Bowie and Phillip Glass) as a jumping-off point to explore Thome's colorful, creative life, ending with the quartet's hypnotic performance at the Rubin Museum of Art during the organization's Mandala exhibit in September 2009.
Thome, who will be in Toronto for the screening today, was kind enough to share his ideas about inspiration, notation, and tradition with me via email. He even shared a list of favorite contemporary bands and artists -and some of his answers may surprise you.
What was it like to have a film made about your life and work?
I loved making the film. It was a great pleasure working with director Chris Pepino, as he is also a fine musician and composer it meant that he totally understood my music and creative process. In fact, not only was the film making non-invasive, it also became inspiring. While we were working, an idea came came through for a new piece that is currently in process and the film shows me picking up a pencil and sketching some ideas. I do love the whole process of filmmaking. This might be attributable to the fact that a great uncle of mine was a founder of Columbia Motion Pictures. I find the art of film making to be very related to composing, painting, dance and sculpture.
How has living in NYC influenced your work? Has that inspiration changed as the city has changed?
Alexander Calder, Louise Varese and Carole Sorell convinced me to live in New York City. It is such an incredibly, vibrant inspiring and challenging place to live. Since my stroke, I have realized that I can take full advantage of New York. Existence is tough here and the growing rate of poverty and homelessness are unaccetable. A composer friend of mine, Bernard Rands, always said Beethoven always composed his works in five flats ... if he lived in New York I am sure that the outrageous cost of living would have forced him to compose in at least 10 flats!
The city is softer-edged now, yet artists of all knids are creating all over the place and installation works are appearing everywhere, in the most unsuspecting places. There is a street artist who places his work at the edge of the FDR Drive and creates a new work aboout every month. I find the work profoundly moving, touching and emotionally charged! Just writing about it brings tears to my eyes.
Joel Thome collaborated extensively with Frank Zappa, arranging much of the eclectic composer/musician's unconventional work for both symphony and rock music production.
What is it about Frank Zappa's work you responded to?
Everything! Frank was certainly a genius. I love the Dadaist concepts in his work. We often would spend seven to nine hours just listening to music together. If he was working on a new piece he would often call me in the middle of the night to discuss his ideas. Over the years, Frank would often play me versions of works that he was putting together for new albums.
His musical genius as a guitarist/performer /composer was amazing, fresh, inspiring and immense. His knowledge of Webern, Berg, Bartok, Varese, Stravinsky and Stockhausen was inexhaustible and he would often have scores of composers on his desk that he was studying. These were scores that I had not seen before. Also, when he was in New York, he would often phone me to meet him at his hotel and look at new works he had just completed. Frank's friendship was a blessing.
How has the advent of digital and computer technology influenced your compositional process?
As a young music student, hearing electronic music (for the first time), and working with tape, I entered a totally new world of sound, vision and mystical experience. Digital technology remains an especially creative motivating force for me. As a conductor, I love the possibility of digital recording because it is possible to realize complete dynamics, expression and attack forms without the intervention of a lathe and stylus that would jump off the vinyl during the mastering process.
Having said that, I still like to hear my recordings that I did on vinyl such as Pierrot Lunaire, Pierre Boulez, George Crumb and Lucia Dlugoszewski. But given the choice, I would still prefer recording digitally. I know how much many musicians prefer vinyl and the beautiful warmth. Frank probably had the finest ears in music and he was a great sound engineer as well. I am totally intrigued by the multi-dimensional possibilities of digital technology and expect that within a relatively short time, we will make much greater use of hologram and nano technology. With those evolving concepts, our sensory experience will shift dramatically.
"It took seven years to find a way to discover the notation that would allow that incredible sound to be reproduced," Thome says of the vision that inspired his use of mandalas. "I have now come to realize that we do not find the Mandala...The Mandala finds us... and stirs in the twilight of our dreams. This notation brought me closer to the sound than Western notation ever could."
You say in the film you saw the mandala as part of a vision - can you elaborate?
The vision was a sound and light vision of enormous power and scope. It was so powerful that I thought I might go deaf if it continued. It was a true cosmic experience. I immediately started sketching the initial ideas for my extended work SAVITRI:TRAVELLER OF THE WORLDS (nominated for a Pulitzer), inspired by Sri Aurobindo.
I needed to find a means to convey to the musicians an inspiring way to perform the essence of the vision, not according to the means of the 17th Century but, in the manner of 20th Century and 21st Century creative consciousness. One of the orchestra Cantos of SAVITRI was commissioned by the Royal Conservatory of Music Orchestra in Toronto. The piece resulted in thirty years of collaboration in India and culminated in the premiere of the complete work on April 28th, 2008 with the 40th Anniversary of Auroville and the official launch of the Matrimandir, one of the wonders of the world.
Inside The Perfect Circle is based on the premiere of the work CSS for the Scorchio Quartet which was a response to an invitation from The Rubin Museum Of Art to compose a work for their major exhibition MANDALA: The Perfect Circle.
I think a lot of the German band Einsturzende Neubaten and Bjork's recent work when I hear your music. Which modern/contemporary composers or bands you enjoy?
Thanks for this compliment, as I am a real fan of both!!! I love Bjork, and find Einsturzende Neubaten to be a truly amazing group with a huge and powerful vision. One of the musicians I love and listen to a lot is Dan Deacon, and he never ceases to amaze me. He is one of the most original voices out there.I am always moved by Dan's music and ideas. He is a great friend and former student. He is an extraordinary talent and a very motivating creative genius. Dan knows a world of music and his recordingBromst is especially magical, as are his performances, Also, I love the Beastie Boys. I also like Regina Spektor's new album and find it beautiful. Also, Anything Goes Radio is a place that I advise everyone to seek out.