Duologue: Philip G Anderson

Philip G Anderson is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and artist based in Georgia, USA, who describes his music as “a collection of life experiences, events, and emotions channeled into sound” which is not defined by any style or genre, but rather by how it impacts others. No stranger to these pages, we welcome Philip back to talk about his latest project called Always Present. Initially undertaken as a musical work, it blossomed into a collaborative film with choreographer Liz Stillerman and cinematographer Eric Waldron which has already won an award at the January 2023 edition of the Experimental Dance & Film Festival. The album version of Always Present will be released in May featuring the music Philip composed for the project which includes guest contributions from Laura Masotto, Shawn Williams, and Trio Ramberget. Many thanks to Philip for taking time to tell us all about this exciting project!

Let’s dive right in and talk about “Always Present”. It is described as “an exploration and illustration of an artist’s relationship with fear in the creative process” What drew you to that theme in particular?

First off, thank you Brian for your interest in this project and for allowing me to share my thoughts here! The project began with me simply writing and developing musical ideas as most of my projects do. However, during this process I became more aware of the fear and doubts that come with artistic expression than I usually do. This idea and emotion continued to capture my attention and grow on me, so I decided to explore it with the project. Is this worthwhile? What is the point of it? Will an audience connect with it? Is this original? These are all questions that arise from that fear in the creative process.

In addition to those literal questions though I also sought to explore and illustrate how fear influences us in subconscious ways. The comfort of our daily lives and routines can hold us back as we may be afraid to step out of that comfort zone in the pursuit of artistic expression. The thought of time, knowing that there’s always tomorrow to create and to pursue ideas can hold us back. There are always reasons based in fear to not pursue artistic expression and I feel it’s important to recognize and acknowledge those fears as an always present part of the process but not something to hold us back. I’ve met people who have shared their ideas and artistic work with me in years past but never fully pursued or released them, perhaps out of fear of rejection or a lack of “success”. I hope this project can serve as an inspiration to others who may feel overwhelmed by fear to push past it and to pursue their artistic voice and goals.

The thought of time, knowing that there’s always tomorrow to create and to pursue ideas can hold us back. There are always reasons based in fear to not pursue artistic expression and I feel it’s important to recognize and acknowledge those fears as an always present part of the process but not something to hold us back.

Perhaps you can tell us a little bit about how it was developed. Was it conceived as a music, dance, & film project from the beginning?

It began as only music, but as the idea of fear in the creative process began to take hold of me, I thought of ways to expand upon it and ways to illustrate it in a more literal sense. Film and dance are powerful forms of artistic expression and I felt they would suit this project perfectly. Once the project’s idea and narrative were honed, I began working with the choreographer on ways to tell the story through dance and I began speaking with the cinematographer on how to capture this performance on film. I felt that only through the combination of music, dance, and film could this idea be fully illustrated and explored. The music alone wouldn’t serve its purpose.

You are credited with directing the film. How would you compare that role with composing & performing the music and how does that mesh with Liz Stillerman’s role as choreographer and Eric Waldron’s role as cinematographer?

Composing and producing the music was a fairly solo role, with the exception of the collaborative musical pieces, whereas directing the film was far more of a collaborative approach. Liz, the choreographer, and Eric, the cinematographer, both provided significant creative input. So, while I was the director in the sense that I guided the narrative and artistic direction, both Liz and Eric played massive roles in shaping and directing the film. All three of us worked together to find the best way to illustrate the narrative. During the process, Liz and I discussed the best order for the music to create a cohesive narrative arc which actually resulted in cutting 1 piece from the project. We both then worked with Eric to decide how best to shoot the film and what dancers and moments to focus on within each piece. I had worked with both of them before on my first film project, Portraits, so we had a good rapport and it was a wonderful experience to work with them both again.

A particularly striking part of the film is the part where you become part of the choreography while playing the piano. What was the inspiration for that scene and how difficult was it to do both of those things at the same time?

This sequence is one of the most literal and direct of the entire film. It illustrates fear, the dancer, quite literally influencing the artist’s creativity at the piano, hence why this piece is entitled “Influence”. We felt it was important to break from a more abstract view of the concept to a literal view for this moment. The artist’s focus remains at the piano and doesn’t directly acknowledge fear, but fear is shown pulling the strings in the artist’s mind and directing the artist’s creative decisions. This piece was developed through a collaborative approach with Liz Stillerman, the choreographer, in which I provided points of emphasis in the music which she worked into the movements and choreography. It was a challenge during filming for me to stay true to the musical performance while also performing the movements along with the dancer all in one continuous take. It required intense mental focus but we ultimately were able to achieve the goal.

How would you describe your compositional approach to the music?

My compositional approach to this music began the same way as all my past works. Simply improvising/experimenting with melodies and harmonies at the piano. Once I’d found an idea that I felt was interesting, I then began expanding upon it, developing an arrangement, and fine-tuning melodies and harmonies until I had a complete piece. The difference with this album though is once I began to focus on the theme of fear in the creative process, I then further tweaked and arranged the pieces to better fit into the narrative. A good example is the piece “Chaos”. Originally, I was performing it at a much slower and relaxed pace, but when I fit the piece into the project’s narrative, I sped up the tempo and increased the energy to help illustrate the chaotic emotions that swirl around in an artist’s head when creating.

And how about the collaborations with Laura Masotto, Trio Ramberget, and Shawn Williams? Were you looking for anything specific in terms of style or sound in bringing in those musicians?

Yes, each musical collaborator was brought on for a specific reason. I’ve collaborated on many projects with Laura Masotto in the past and know how incredibly talented she is (editor’s note: see here for our 2021 interview with Philip & Laura about their collaborative EP ‘A Quiet Evening’). I wanted “To Be Brave” – the piece we collaborated on – to feature a powerful solo violin performance to compliment the piano and had Laura in mind from the very beginning. While the violin arrangement is fairly simple, her performance is what drives the piece forward and really provides the emotional impact. The piece would truly not be the same without her work on it. Shawn Williams is another incredibly talented violinist who I was introduced to through a mutual friend this past year. He has a special ability to create and perform expansive and lush yet delicate string arrangements and textures which was something I had in mind for the piece we worked together on, “Familiar”. Through his arrangements and performances, he was able to add much needed depth to the piece.

Trio Ramberget first came to my attention when I heard their album release, 24 Ways Vol. I, via Piano and Coffee Records. Their sound, arrangements, and style are unlike anything I have ever heard before and immediately captured my attention. One day, out of curiosity, I played one of their pieces over top of a piano arrangement of mine for my album and the 2 pieces blended together beautifully. It was essentially an “ah ha!” moment. I reached out to them to see if they’d be interested in working together on Always Present, the title track for my album, as I felt they would be able to perfectly emphasize the mood and emotion that the title piece needed. All three collaborators did amazing work on this album, and I hope to work with all of them again on future projects. I’d also highly recommend listening to their own solo work.

I see that “Always Present” won Best Film at the Experimental Dance & Music Film Festival. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little about that experience?

Yes, this was a pleasant surprise! We have submitted the film to several film festivals, and this was the first one to have selected the film, so to win “best film” on essentially the first go was quite special. The festival provided audience feedback to us as well and we were happy to hear that those who viewed the film enjoyed the music, the dance, and the cinematography and were able to follow and understand the narrative. The festival has been supportive of this film, so I wish to say thank you again to them for featuring Always Present.

Finally, any plans for this project or any others you have in the works that you are willing to share?

I’m currently continuing to promote the film and album at the moment. The full album will be released on May 5th through Sonder House and the film will be available around then as well. This project took a significant amount of time, energy, and financial investment so I may need a bit of creative rest after its release. However, farther down the line though I do have two other projects/ideas I’ve been exploring but more on those at a later time.

Many thanks for reading!

More Info: Bandcamp | Philip G Anderson