Michael Snow & Thollem Mcdonas

Two Piano Concert at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Edgetone EDT 4148

By Ken Waxman

Besides distinguishing himself as one of Canada’s most lauded fiilmmakers and visual artists, Toronto’s Michael Snow maintains a parallel career as an improvising pianist. Most frequently working as a charter member of the local CCMC, on occasion he matches wits with outsiders. A bonus as part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s retrospective of his work Two Piano Concert featured a duet with peripatetic American improviser Thollem Mcdonas. Although both are pianists, the selections clearly outline the individuality of each so-called avant-garde player.

With the metronomic 166-key assault only brought to the fore for emphasis, the most frequent strategy in this three-track recital is for one pianist to squirm and skip a theme to a certain point where it’s either embellished with arpeggios and strums or challenged at half-speed with contrapuntal asides by the other. Besides this, the keyboardists often converse like an old married couple, finishing each other’s phrases. More like hearing two Cecil Taylors, rather than any conventional piano duo, the two utilize all parts of their instruments. Shrill key clips and tremolo backboard echoes are only part of this; so are wood-rending scratches and harp-like inner string strums. Snow identifies himself most clearly on Two even as Mcdonas pounds out sardonic “Chopsticks”-like rhythms or identifiable bop runs, Unexpectedly the Canadian, who apprenticed playing Classic Jazz, sounds out a perfect stride piano lick which would have done James P. Johnson proud. Mcdonas’ response is to swell his glissandi to such an extent that they fill ever molecule of the resulting soundscape. That challenge met, the final track features a satisfying return to carefully timed sympathetic patterning.

There’s no way Snow will ever have to fall back on his second career. But Two Piano Concert confirms that his keyboard inventiveness and professionalism allows him hold his own – and sometime best – a full time improviser.

—For The Whole Note May 2015