Our Artistic Director, Dr. Joseph V. Williams II, recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Thomas Flippin, the inventive composer and guitarist from the East Coast who will be performing a live-streamed concert with us Saturday, August 1st. We loved hearing about his first experience playing music, how he listens to a new piece, and the theme of unity in curating his program for Saturday.

In my program, I’m trying to imagine a concert for classical guitar that is really representative of everybody. There’s a unifying theme that we can all work together, and if we all work together, we can have an amazing sonic journey. That’s the underlying premise: to unite us all sonically.

Full Transcript:

ACG Artistic Director Joe Williams (JW): Well hello everyone, my name is Joe and I’m the Artistic Director for Austin Classical Guitar. I’m thrilled to be here with Thomas Flippin, a composer and guitarist who will be playing a concert for us on August 1st, Saturday night, for our Summer Series. Thank you for being with us Thomas, this is awesome!

Thomas Flippin (TF): Thank you very much for having me, Joe.

JW: So tell me – where are you coming from, and how are you doing?

TF: Well I’m doing alright, all things considered with the state of the world. I’m in Milford, Connecticut right now, close to the beach. My wife and I are here without our six-year-old daughter because the grandparents are taking care of her, so this is the first time in 130 days we’ve not been responsible for another human being 24 hours a day. So if you see me glowing a little bit ….

JW: (Laughs) Wow. Well, thanks for sitting down with us and sharing some ideas and thoughts about your work and what you’ve been doing. We’re excited to introduce you to our audience, and excited that this is a way to get to know you. Austin Classical Guitar spends a lot of time and energy using music as a medium to create good. We try very hard with our energy to make positive effects on our community and our environment. And I want to ask you a question we ask ourselves all the time: What good can music do? I know your work as a composer, and your work with Duo Noire … I’m curious if there’s anything in your world, or a story you’d like to share about what good music can do.

TF: Absolutely, there are so many obvious things that music does to better the world. At the most basic level, there’s teaching dexterity with the hands, the correlation between studying music and motor skills and doing better in school, thinking abstractly. But I think on a more fundamental level for me, just seeing some of the students I taught and schools I visited – the way it helps to develop a well-rounded human being who has to struggle with solving the problems with music, dealing with technical challenges, and being forced to see progress over time through hard work. I think it’s a good character-builder.

When you study music, you’re forced to think about beauty, and truth of the sound – which is such an abstract thing you don’t really get in other academic spaces. You just sit in a room with your teacher and think about – how can I make this sound wave the most beautiful thing, how can I use that to express myself and to move someone else who might be in a bad place, and that’s just incredible.

One story that comes to mind: When I was first starting out as a teacher, I had a student whose parent died. It was a really hard time in their life, they were only nine years old, and they dropped out of school. They started living with their grandparents and after that summer, they came back and kept studying music because it was such an important part of their life. And I’ve had several students like that – students whose parents separated, or were sent to jail – some really remarkable stories. And it’s the music that is the most profoundly important thing in their lives as adolescents, and I think that’s something to cherish.

And I’m really proud to be able to instill that music education through them and support organizations like yours that have such a profound impact on the communities they serve through music.

JW: Wow Thomas, I’m so curious: is there a moment for you, an early memory, when you got to participate in creating beauty? Was there something that you remember from your childhood that was like Woah that is a thing – and I want to be part of that thing.

TF: Absolutely, I think we all have these stories as professional musicians. Mine was one of my earliest music memories.

I was in second grade at school in New Jersey and a class visitor came in. We had this old ridiculous upright piano that was out of tune and neglected. So she came in and talked to us about piano and played something, explained how a piano worked, showed us the inside of it so we all got to take a peek and see it in action. Then she taught us how to play that famous Minuet in G that used to be attributed to Bach but is now recognized as being by Christian Petzold. She taught me how to play the first five notes of it. To see that I could manipulate the sound and do this thing with a little bit of practice, with a little bit of work at it over the course of a minute, was remarkable to me. I still remember that moment very vividly thinking Wow what is this thing in the world that I can participate in and do these awesome things?

JW: That’s a beautiful story, and I love that you said participate. I often think about people who are listening, who are part of the audience, the best experiences they might have in a concert is when they’re totally participating. I was wondering, is there something, some advice you can give an audience member who is maybe listening to a piece for the very first time, like we often do in classical guitar concerts.

TF: Ok I would go toward three things. The first thing I would say is don’t be afraid, when you hear a piece of music that is new, when you find out it’s new music, approach it with an open mind. On a more serious note, my mother told me when I was growing up that music should make you picture a story, it should make you see some sort of images, it should put you in a place. When I hear something, I’m imagining what it feels like. Where would I be if I were listening to this? If I were dreaming this, where would I be? What situation would I hear this music in? Would it be a wedding, a funeral, a war …

For example, I’m going to play a piece at the concert about being a commuter on the New York City subway system. It’s a very specific thing, but I want people to be able to feel a space and imagine something.

When I go to a concert these days, when I hear a piece of music, I’m trying to hear the performer’s essence or soul. What is their personality, what is their life experience, what are they trying to convey through their face and body movements, why are they playing the note that way?

That’s my favorite part of concerts: seeing a human being in their totality representing themselves and their life experience in a way no one else can, and trying to relate to them on a human level in an almost conversation. When I hear a piece of music for the first time, I want to be part of the conversation – the performer’s telling me something, and it’s up to me to see all the subtleties in that message they’re sending.

JW: How beautifully said, I couldn’t agree more. That’s wonderful. Is there anything else we should keep in mind, maybe a theme or ideas, a larger story, something that we should look forward to participating in?

TF: Well I’ll give the light answer and the heavier answer. The light answer – I think the thing that’s going to be the most fun is that I have this giant instrument behind me called the theorbo from the 1600s, but I’m going to be playing it with modern electronics and just doing some far-out, fun stuff. I’ll be playing in a way that’s not commonly done. I think that’ll be a fun moment to look forward to.

JW: Thomas, so people can imagine – how tall is it?

TF: It is taller than me, and I’m 6 ft 2 1/2″ …. this thing is 6 ft 4″. This thing is ridiculously tall, and that makes traveling with it a complete nightmare. And I’m looking forward to playing this and all its monstrous 14 strings. But more than that – the theme of this concert.

A few weeks ago the Guitar Foundation of America had its convention, and we had a discussion on the state of society in this country. There’s a lot of music organizations trying to figure out how to respond to the dearth of African-American composers and performers represented, and how we can re-imagine society. I feel like for me, when thinking of the concert and this program, I’m trying to imagine a world of a concert for classical guitar that is really inclusive of everyone.

There’s pieces by European composers, there’s pieces by people in Latin America, there’s a piece that I arranged by an African-American woman from the 50s named Lawrence Price, there’s my own music, there’s music by this gay American composer named Lou Harrison who wrote so much far-out music drawing from influences from the East.

It’s such a unifying theme. We can all work together, and if we all work together, we can make some amazing sounds, we can have this amazing sonic journey. That’s the underlying premise for some of the choices I made: to unite us all sonically.

JW: What a privilege, I’m so excited for this concert, thank you. I can’t wait to hear your music, and all the music that you’re going to present. It’s going to be beautiful. We’re recording this a couple days before, and we’ll air it a few minutes before –

TF: Hello future us!

JW: That’s wonderful! August 1st, Thomas Flippin presented by Austin Classical Guitar. Thank you so much, Thomas.

TF: Thank you for having me.