Interlude Docs

Doc 114: Britta Phillips

“Final Words” (Mixed media, 9:57)

A recording of my father, Peter Phillips, talking about discovering LSD in the early ‘60s, accompanied by his free jazz quartet (Shanghai, 2008). Video collage using personal photos, videos, and footage from a movie he appeared in circa 1970.

In 2012, I recorded Peter telling his “life story” the day before his voice box was removed. His voice had changed with each surgery since 1995, the year he was diagnosed with throat cancer. This was our last spoken conversation.

Becoming aware of mortality was the best thing that ever happened to our relationship, and it happened twice. We got closer after his diagnosis, and then, busy with our lives again, forgot all about death until it returned 15 years later.

Life feels ephemeral to me. I’m good at forgetting and letting go. I didn’t see a lot of my father growing up. He was like a rockstar to me. I don’t have any “stuff” from childhood, and my memory sucks, but I remember his gifts: Tarot deck, velvet cape, science kit, Beatles records. He is permanently stamped on my psyche, like a song, even as my feelings and ideas about him evolve.

One of my earliest memories is falling asleep beneath the grand piano while Peter played Chopin piano waltzes for ballet classes. I can also remember him playing the piano at his father’s memorial. The music only existed in those exquisite 10 minutes, and I only remember the feeling, his communing. Emotional and physical, like love. 

Peter (I always called him Peter) was a great musician but left little trace of it behind. He had early success in NYC playing jazz bass trombone, but that was interrupted by my mom, me, and then my sister. They split up when I was two. In ’68, he played bass trombone on Herbie Hancock’s album, “Speak Like A Child,” but he wanted to play piano, so he switched instruments and started again from the beginning.

He made a living playing Broadway musicals, touring with Philip Glass, and session playing, but he loved smoking pot and playing piano all day. He wanted to compose contemporary classical music. He also loved improvisation (hated repetition) and free jazz. At age 66, Peter moved to Shanghai, where he could play jazz in clubs every night. He recorded free jazz with the quartet he put together there but never released it.  

One of the hardest things for an artist is knowing when something is finished; when it is good enough to put out into the world. But maybe nothing is ever finished; you just have to let go and put it out there at some point.

Three months ago, I went through Peter’s storage space. His vinyl jazz collection from the 60s was pristine and valuable. There were documents I had never seen: great-great-grandparents, a family tree dating back to the 13th century. There were pieces of paper, in no particular order, held together by paper clips: A new music theory he was working on, his life story written in “pot notes.”

I also found a box of unlabeled cassettes. I hope I find something great on the cassettes, but it’s okay if I only remember the feeling when he played for us or just for me. 

Britta Phillips is a musician, record producer, and actress. She is a member of the band Luna, and plays under Dean & Britta, a duo alongside Dean Wareham—a member of Luna and, previously, Galaxie 500. Together they have scored films such as The Squid & The Whale (Dir. Noah Baumbach, 2005) and Mistress America (Dir. Noah Baumbach, 2015). She lives in Los Angeles. 


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