On the Inside Trax: Dr. Nicholas Phillips, Pianist, Educator, and New Music Advocate

A search by genre in the Trail Trax database will reveal very few examples of classical music on the trail. There was Stephen Colbert’s live string quartet with underscore for the final debate, “Hillary” (Kate McKinnon) and “Bernie’s” (Larry David) “Waltz of the Flowers” on Saturday Night Live, and Trump’s memorable entrances to “Nessun dorma” in 2016. Although a good number of operas and other classical works have political undertones, seldom do we connect classical musicans with activism. This may be changing as we approach the 2020 election. On Friday September 6th, the staff at Trax on the Trail had the pleasure of speaking with classical pianist, educator, and new music advocate Dr. Nicholas Phillips about his project #45Miniatures.

Nicholas Phillips

September 6, 2019

Sarah Griffin: I was reading on your website that initially #45Miniatures started out as a joke you posted on your Facebook wall, and I wanted to ask you what your initial reaction was to all the positive comments that you got in response?

Nicholas Phillips, Facebook Post, August 9, 2017

Nicholas Phillips: Yeah, it was just a late night sarcastic post [August 9, 2017], and I think I had just read a story about Trump tweeting that he would bring hell and fury on North Korea if they launched a missile at Guam. This thought of the President using a playground bully’s taunt and threatening nuclear war just kind of put me over the edge, and so I did this sarcastic post, and you know how Facebook is. You have no idea. You could have no likes, you could have one person that likes it, or it could kind of blow up and really resonate with your friends who just saw it at the right time, so I was really pleasantly surprised. I was surprised, I will say that, at the feedback I got, and the encouragement to actually [comission compositions] from a lot of my, initially my Facebook only composer friends, is where it started.

SG: Why do you think it was so successful as a platform or as an outlet for composers?

NP: I think just what you said. So many composers have written me and told me—the ones that have been involved in the project—just basically thanking me for giving them an outlet and a reason, and a medium for them to have a response to Trump and his policies and his administration. I think, like so many people, it is really easy to complain, especially on social media, and that doesn’t really do much good usually, and so this was an opportunity for me as a pianist. I can’t create protest music. I’m not a composer, but I had an idea that allowed these composers to find their own way to voice their frustrations and their anger. Oftentimes their very humorous pieces try to make the best out of an awful situation.

Don Bowyer, “A Very Stable Genius” 

SG: One thing I really wanted to ask you was if there are any composers who inspired you to do that [this project]? Maybe they wrote political pieces, whether it was early 20th century or before that.

NP: To be honest, no. There weren’t any composers that specifically inspired this project. Of course, I’m a big fan of [Frederic Anthony] Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, which is a massive piece of variations for piano, and I remember coming across—I think the composer’s name was Ted Hearne—the Katrina Ballads, when George W. Bush was still president, and I remember that piece kind of struck me at the time because I hadn’t really seen any classical composers responding to politics in that way. So, maybe in the subconscious that particular piece was, in my mind, but as I said, this started as a joke. I used my favorite weapon, which is sarcasm, and then it kind of exploded from there, and there was a process where I wasn’t sure if I was actually gonna do this call for scores or not, and then I did, and after that it exploded from an initial group of about twenty composers to now over fifty. 

SG: Sort of segueing from what you said about not really having a lot of political inspiration other than the Katrina [Ballads], how do you think that #45Miniatures could change coming up to the new elections?

NP: I was thinking about that question and, in some respects, it’s a finite project. I’ve got concerts scheduled this fall around the country where I’ll be playing, not all of them, but quite a few pieces in recital, and so at some point, I can’t really take more submissions. I could take more submissions, but I can’t just keep learning, all this music, but at the same time, the source material expands exponentially every day with tweets and campaign speeches and things that are happening in policies, so it is a project that really could go on as long as he is president. But also it is one thing of many that I do. I have a full time teaching job. I have other performances—solo and collaborative. I love getting all these pieces, but there is a limit to my own time, which is one reason I really hope that other pianists take it on. I’ve said all along that it’s not about me, it’s about the pieces, and I don’t have to be the one that premieres them. I don’t have to be the sole performer that performs them. I want other pianists to say, you know, “I really like ‘LOCK HER UP!’ [by Nick Omiccioli]. I’d like to program that on a program for other pieces for speaking pianists,” for example.

Nick Omiccioli, ‘Lock Her Up,” performed by Nicholas Phillips

SG: In what ways do you feel like musical movements such as this one can unify people, especially given today’s tense political climate?

NP: I don’t know that this project is a unifying project, except that maybe it unifies people who are disgusted with what is going on. I will say, it has been surprising to see some positive feedback and reactions from people that I know, either in my community or in my online community, who I would not have thought would like the project. People who are of a different political persuasion, but perhaps are really disgusted by what Trump is doing. If anything, I think perhaps it unifies people in awareness that what is going on isn’t normal, and the shear presence of this project and the response speaks volumes. Nobody had an Obama commissioning project. There were people that didn’t like him as a president, but they didn’t turn that into a protest music project, so it’s kind of unique in that way. 

SG: How has #45Miniatures, impacted you as a musician or just as a person?

NP: It certainly expanded the number of pieces that have been written for me by a lot. There is that professional perk. I think that it has helped me find my own voice in being brave enough to have a project like this and have my name on it. In a way that’s very different than, as I said before, complaining on Facebook to your own set of friends who feel the same way you do. It’s not impactful. I feel like [this project is] making an impact. 

SG: Did you have any concerns before starting the project because it’s a very bold movement, I believe, just from looking at the pieces. It’s all very emotional, and so I wanted to know if you had prior concerns?

NP: I certainly did because I’ve never done anything like this, and it is not like programming a typical solo piano recital or even a thematic recital that addresses things, broadly speaking, so there is that concern. We are a very divided country right now, but I think that if we stay quiet about things that bother us, that’s worse than taking a step like this. There are certainly going to be people that don’t like the project; I don’t [think] many of them will find their way to it. I read an article that the great author Margaret Atwood wrote right after Trump was elected where she talks about art in the era of Trump, and she made a great comment, that as far as interest in the arts go, for Trump on a scale from 1 to 100, it’s about a negative 10. The fear of any sort of repercussions on a national level are pretty slim for me, I think. 

SG: What sort of issues or challenges do you think creators, whether they are musicians, or dancers, or artists, face when they want to address political issues in their work? 

NP:  I think that’s a very real concern, and I think that’s one reason [why] there are a handful of composers that I know [who have] express[ed] privately that they really like the project, and they were considering writing a piece for it, but just didn’t feel they could, which is too bad. I think as a performer, one of the challenges is what venues can you play these concerts in? I want to play it here in town, and there is a church, for example, that has a nice piano, but they’re concerned about remaining nonpartisan, because he’s a candidate, and they don’t want to lose IRS status because it’s a political project. Universities are kind of tricky to play it at, so I’ve had to be creative in the spaces that I perform. That’s limiting as an artist; you’re inevitably narrowing your potential audience even though we know [Trump] didn’t get the majority of the vote, so we can’t say that it’s limiting half the population. It’s much smaller than that. You’re not being inclusive, I guess, to people that would be interested in coming to hear it, so there’s always that component, too, as an artist that wants to reach as many people as possible through their work.

SG: What has been the most rewarding aspect of seeing [the project] grow the way that it has?

NP: The most rewarding for me is whenever I get a new piece of music from a composer. It’s really like Christmas morning because you got a present and just don’t know what’s under the wrapping, so seeing the really ingenious way that composers kind of stick a middle finger up through their music has been really cool. Whether it is the way they include obscure musical quotes in kind of ridiculous ways or indications in the score that are really just for the performer to see or the way they use combinations of four measure phrases followed by 5 measure phrases to tie into the 45 aspect. If you really look at the music as a performer, and get to learn it, it’s just so rewarding to see how rich and creative these composers are. It consistently amazed me. Some of [the pieces] are overtly just funny and are intended to be that, and others are much more intellectual in an abstract way that doesn’t really come across to an audience member, but some of them are sort of intellectual in a way that when followed with a really great program note, the audience will see what the composer is after, even if they’re not doing bombastic things or having speech. One piece by Jason Sifford called “Look, Having Nuclear” has got this long run-on sentence that Trump gave at a speech before he was president, and it’s just all over the place in terms of topics. Jason uses the pattern of speech from Trump’s words to create a melody, and he puts it over a left hand ostinato that spells out “gasbag.” Just funny things like that that are just really, really cool to see. 

Jason Sifford, “Look, Having Nuclear,” performed by Nicholas Phillips

SG: As people go through and listen to the different compositions, what encompassing message do you hope that people take away from the compositions and reading about the composers?

NP: I think that they should take away from the individual pieces awe at the variety, the variety of topics, the variety of presentations, the variety of approaches, and then hopefully they come away laughing a little bit but also feeling like they need to do the best they can to make sure that this doesn’t become the new normal. That we have to do projects like this. Things I’d like them to take away from the project as a whole are that, and I mentioned this earlier, anyone regardless of their political tendencies should look at this project and see “Wow, this is a huge response to a president, in a medium [where it] is very unusual to have that.” This is not ‘60s folk singers’ rallies about the Vietnam War. This is Western art music responding to a sitting president, and so I think just kind of taking that in, hopefully people will realize that the times we’re living in, nothing about him or his administration is or should be considered normal, and they should do something about it.

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: I do have one more question for you. In doing this project, when you go into these kinds of spaces and you perform, do you equally see yourself as an activist as much as you see yourself as a musician? 

NP: Yeah, I guess I would say so. I think the project is the activist, I’m just the vessel. It’s not just me, it could be anyone, that’s the point, it could be anyone and it could be any piece, any collection of pieces. 

DGM: I have one more question, and you sort of already answered it before, but I want to return to it. The website that I run [Trax on the Trail], is a nonpartisan website. Now, anybody that dissects music in the sort of the fashion that we do tends to lean to the left. As much as we have tried to bring diverse voices into the equation, it is a challenge to find people in musicology that study music and politics that don’t have a left to far-left political orientation. That being said, in terms of what we put on our social media and what we write about, we do try to maintain a nonpartisanship tone. I can’t say I’ve actually gotten in trouble, but I’ve had the [title redacted] walk into my office and say, “Someone tells me you’re running an anti-Trump wesbite on the GCSU server.” I’m not [running an anti-Trump website], but somehow that message was put out there. Do you have any concerns [about backlash]? Whether it’s shareholders in the university, board members, your foundation—do you have any concerns that those people might voice an objection to what it is you’re doing and say that you’re being politically active on the school’s time clock? 

NP: I’ve been pretty careful, I think, about that. I haven’t really made a big deal about the project on campus. I don’t have the university attached to my name on the #45Miniatures website, for example. I certainly could play a concert here because freedom of speech is protected. I think maybe I’m in a school or in a position that I don’t feel that that’s a huge issue. I could see that being an issue for some colleagues, especially junior colleagues, and it’s kind of sad that one should have to feel like they have tenure before they could do a project like this. 

DGM: Do you think to a certain extent people who perform certain genres of music might be considered more suspect for communicating political messages through their music? Obviously, some scholars and fields of study might be more suspect, in some ways, of having political leanings that they’re expressing through their work or through their art. Not to say that there aren’t great works in the classical musical canon that are political in some way, but that being said, in comparison to a hierarchy of genres, classical music is more towards the bottom in terms of overt messages of protest. Do you think you’re shielded by nature of the genre in which you are an expert from the kind of criticism that I’m talking about?

NP: Sure, I said as I quoted Margaret Atwood earlier, Trump is not interested in [indiscernible, sounds like “arts”]. There was an article, I think it was in the Washington Post, recently about how he’s the least musical president, in recent history for sure. [We believe the article Dr. Phillip’s refers to is here in the Chicago Tribune.] I’m definitely not on his radar, this project’s not on his radar, um, and I don’t feel like it’s got the kind of legs that would get it to a level where Sean Hannity’s gonna be putting a pitchfork in my hand and have something on his show about my project. I could be wrong.

DGM: Yeah, Fox [News] hasn’t called us either, so I guess we’re okay. 

For more information on Dr. Phillips and his project, please see the following links:

Nicholas Phillips Webpage

#45Minatures Website

Nicholas Phillips article for NewMusicBox

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