I've known of this CD for some time, but only ordered it after we got back from holiday last month. Mainly, I think because my previous experience of his music (1, 2) was more interesting than enjoyable. Phillips' tastes in music overlap with mine in areas like Morton Feldman and Cornelius Cardew, but he inhabits the High Art end of music — Schumann, Mozart, especially Wagner (see his Composers Series) and what was referred to the other day as "recital room culture" — which I suspect will always seem alien and intimidating to me.
What made me order the album was that, just before we went to France, I was really chuffed to be asked if I'd like to have a go at writing a short biographical profile of Tom Phillips for the next version of his website. I've no idea if this will come off, and it's not certain that anything I write will be used, but watch this space from next month. The immediate benefit is that I already had masses of books and prints of Tom Phillips' work (along with postcards, a keyring, a tea bag tidy and several 50 pence pieces), but engaging with them fully was something that could be endlessly postponed, probably until my retirement, along with several of the boxed sets featured here and re-reading John Dos Passos' U.S.A. (to the end, next time!). Getting the call to write something about Tom has brought forward a little bit of my retirement. It's also prodded me to buy more of his books, and this album.
The opening (and closing) track, Lesbia Waltz, immediately confounded my expectations. Attractive, tuneful, danceable! As ever with Tom Phillips, it doesn't stop there. The sleeve notes tell of postmodern musicological methods at work in this piece:
It was meant to be a diversion in the form of a structuralist critique applied to a simple piano score. Those who are of a generation which ploughed through Smallwood's Piano Tutor will recognise the work, even in this collapsed form, as the culmination of that dour course. Like the renamed composer (Slowmodal) the waltz is an anagram of its original. Every repeated or recapitulated bar is shifted to the point of its first occurrence via cutting and pasting. The title of what I hoped would become an evergreen Albumblatt is no more my own than the actual notes are (although the displacement of the key signature delivers some into my charge): thus by opus 15 is, so to speak, Smallwood/Slowmodal's Lesbia Waltz ordered and arranged as if by a filing clerk.
That's just to give you a flavour. Being hopeless with anagrams and any other form of cryptic clue, I wonder how much in Phillips' work sails straight over my head. Yet, he's also generous and consoling with dimwits such as me, writing (in Aspects of Art) that, "To admire, enjoy or love a masterpiece is already to have understood it."
Happily the CD booklet also contains an outline biography, which I have plundered.
The more I research TP's life and work, the more cheeky I feel for ever having dropped his name as one of the inspirations behind Music Arcades. For instance, there's the quote, "If there's a consistent thread… it's the word "probity", to do things properly, with a kind of dedication that doesn't allow you to fudge."
Yours ever half-baked,
Signed, The Fudger
Wikipedia entry for Tom Phillips
Rate Your Music entry for this album