Wild Gardening & Improvisation

By Thollem  | November 27, 2020



I’m writing this sentence after the first frost, then snow, following eight months of quarantine in northern New Mexico. The micro-farm that has sustained us is mostly finished for now. The soil’s prepared for next spring’s awakening. The garden was teeming with flora and fauna; now, the trees are like old bones and only some wildlife remain. I feel good about what I helped create this spring and summer, and I’m anticipating next year’s potential, even as we are easing into the sweet pause of winter. Time to be inside, within buildings and within ourselves. The firsts become the lasts in life’s perpetual cycles, many of which are beyond our ability to comprehend.

As the pandemic began and none of us knew the magnitude of the challenge it would evolve into, my partner ACVilla and I were on a plane to Lisbon to begin what was supposed to be a three-month concert tour of Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, and France. Within an hour of landing, all my engagements in Portugal were canceled. We stayed in Lisbon for ten days before realizing the tour was no longer going to be possible. We decided to fly to northern New Mexico, to be with Angela's mom Clare, who is a santera in the New Mexican tradition. There is some land here, and we all felt it was best to start cultivating food for an uncertain future.

Of course the canceled tour was difficult to process at first. A tour like that takes hundreds of hours of correspondence to set up and promote. It is my main source of income, so that was lost, and performing music is my lifeblood. I've worked pretty much non-stop for years to be able to do what I do, and I missed seeing the many friends along the way. Aside from that, I feel incredibly fortunate to be healthy and to pass the time in such a beautiful place, connected to the environment.

It occurred to me a while back that we sense, therefore we are. Thinking comes later. Our senses distinguish us as beings in the world. Thinking is what we do to make order of our senses and to organize the world around us. “Ah, that makes sense!” I see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, therefore I am. When I play the piano, the keyboards, or sing, I navigate through my senses. My fingers, my wrists, my hands, my arms, my whole body, is perpetually in motion. I close my eyes, my eyelids relax, and performing becomes a deeply tactile experience.

People have called me ‘the lumberjack of the piano’ and a ‘blue-collar virtuoso.’ I love that. For me, playing the piano is like a martial art or a contact sport—a full-body workout. It's also a meditation, a way I connect with the infinite and eternal energy of the universe and my fellow human beings. I am most comfortable when I'm sitting in front of a piano, my oldest friend. I approach its wide body with an open mind and spirit.

Since I tour regularly, I have no piano of my own. I am constantly playing different pianos, occasionally reunited with one I’ve played before. Every piano has its own personality and history, shaping its character. Although I’ve played some incredible instruments, including Debussy’s own piano, I am not picky. They’ve all taught me something.

Like performing, gardening encourages me to move my body in ways that I wouldn’t otherwise; digging, pushing the wheelbarrow, watering, thinning (weeding), harvesting, clipping, and pruning. My body has changed these last seven months. My core is stronger and I feel more fit overall. I’ve loved returning to working with the land, acknowledging the cycles of the day, following the maturation of varieties of plants, observing sunlight and the migrations of the birds, the pulsating temperature fluctuations, in the midst of a community of others who are also farming in various ways.

As the sun comes up and I head outside, the sounds change and keep changing the more I open my mind and ears, attuning myself to my surroundings. The sounds I recognize inform me about this moment in time. Geese fly overhead on their way south; the cranes have just arrived amid their biannual journey. The acequia runs on the other side of our property. Leaves rustle in the wind and a plane fades into the distance. I begin participating in this soundscape as well, joining an ensemble that’s already been playing for a while this morning—hummingbirds whizzing by, crickets, leaves and snow underfoot, shoveling, the sweep of the broom.

Gardening is a collaborative process and has helped me overcome the lost opportunity of making music with others. We are improvising every moment of our lives, through play. Improvisation and composition are the yin and yang of music, but also of all other activities we as humans create, because as much as we improvise, we are also masters of our environment, which can be fascinating, dangerous, or so predictabile as to be incredibly boring.  

When I begin gardening in a new area, I broadcast many different types of seeds and see what wants to grow where, and with whom. Then I observe and participate in ways that I feel arebeneficial to the plants as well as to my goal, which is to sustain myself and my community;   human, animal, and plant species alike. My intuition guides me as I observe through my senses and this has served me well. I flow through life, willing to have my expectations challenged and broadening my conceptions of beauty and usefulness.

As an improvising musician, my main role in an ensemble is to bring out the fullest potential in any situation by exploring the particular aspects that I have to work with, supporting my fellow musicians and utilizing what is familiar and unique to create a singular experience. The elements I am working with begin with myself and the instrument I am playing, my collaborators and their instruments, the acoustics of the space, the audience, the planet, the universe, infinity, and eternity. Often these elements are different from one night to the next. My intention is to help facilitate an experience that will change our lives and make us more empathetic to ourselves and each other. The process matters as much as the result and I believe that becomes clear to all who’ve assembled.

I’ve been mostly nomadic the last 20 years, so it’s been a long time since I’ve gardened. I spent much of my twenties guerrilla farming in the San Francisco Bay area where I grew up, planting fruit trees in parking strips, gardens in elementary schools, native and edible landscaping with a true master of the craft named Steve Orr. I had abandoned any notion of pursuing a career in music, focusing instead on political and ecological activism. That time was important for me and for my music.

It’s crucial for artists to experience life in as many ways and from as many perspectives as possible. And being involved in one’s own food production, at least at some point in life, is essential. This winter we’ll be partnering with the Northern Youth Organization, a group that helps provide nutritious, locally grown food to families in need, mentors young people on farms in the area, and provides hands-on community service.

In the last eight months I’ve also been productive artistically; recording, mixing and self-publishing five albums, and spending a lot of time getting to know new keyboards and technologies, like the Korg Wavestation, the Jupiter X/m, and now midi for the first time. When I was touring, I explored well over twenty different electronic instruments, owning just one at a time, buying and selling as I go.

One of my main efforts this year has been an album of radical pop songs I’m calling Hot Pursuit of Happiness 2020. Composed in response to these times, I hope the music inspires listeners and serves as an artifact for what we’ve been going through. Choreographer/dancer Peter Sparling, who I first met in Detroit seven years ago, surprised me with this music video for the first track on the album.

I also have a big project coming out over the span of the next year on the great label Astral Spirits: a 25-album release featuring performances last year with other improvisers overseas and throughout the United States, some famous and others less well-known. The songs range stylistically from fierce free jazz to noise, to electronica/beats and third stream, all improvised. I’ve also begun writing a book about life on the road,  in and out of art communities. It is likely that none of this would have happened had I not been forced to be in one place for this stretch of time.

Now, the land is blanketed by cover crops and snow. I realize how much I love the aesthetics of wild gardening and the profound diversity and nuance of textures, smells, tastes, and colors. I think of it as a radical sensuality, something we all have access to at any time regardless of our situations and that continues to inform me about who I am and my relation to music, my fellow beings, and the energies of the universe.

—Love and solidarity, Tholl



Thollem is a pianist, keyboardist, composer, improviser, singer-songwriter, activist, author, and teacher. He performs as a soloist and together with hundreds of artists across idioms and disciplines, including many in Detroit since his first visit to the city in 2005. Thollem is known internationally as an acoustic piano player in the free jazz and post-classical worlds, as the lead vocalist for the Italian agit-punk band Tsigoti, and as an electronic keyboardist through a multitude of projects. His releases are available for listen/purchase on his Bandcamp page.


Watch next: Heal Ourselves, a collaboration between Thollem and choreographer Peter Sparling