All Music Guide, Brian Olewnick
A staggering achievement, one is tempted to call The Hands of Caravaggio the first great piano concerto of the 21st century. The work is the brainchild of Keith Rowe, eminence grise of MIMEO and co-founder of AMM who, inspired by the recently discovered painting The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio, imagined a piece combining the mighty forces of MIMEO's electronics with the pure, gorgeous sound of John Tilbury's piano. Technically, therefore, the work is not really freely improvised, as the musicians were asked to consider the painting (particularly the array of hands within it) and to employ various strategies during its performance. When arriving at the venue of this live recording and surveying MIMEO's set-up, Tilbury remarked, "In one second you guys can eliminate me once and for all." Electronics manipulator Jerome Noetinger deadpanned, "Less than a second."
And this is part of the dynamic at work: the pitched battle and occasional accommodations between the 'orchestra' and the piano. It begins with a low hum to which, after a few minutes, Tilbury introduces the spare yet crystalline chords heíd perfected with AMM, very much out of Morton Feldman in one sense, but also very much his own. As MIMEO gathers strength, it changes form from a comfortable "nest" for the piano to an enveloping storm, flooding the sound-space with a nearly infinite range of sonorities, as chaotic and disciplined as a hurricane. The playing field would have been difficult enough as is, but Rowe threw yet another wrench into the proceedings by having pianist Cor Fuhler play inside the same piano as Tilbury with the motive of not allowing the latter to get into anything resembling a comfort zone. Fuhler tries to anticipate Tilbury's every move and acts to hinder it by damping the piano strings involved, clamping them down, etc. This forces Tilbury into areas that would otherwise have remained unvisited and adds yet another layer of conceptual complexity onto an already deeply rich endeavor. In this context, his playing takes on an almost Romantic quality, not just in the relatively melodic aspect of his approach but also in the heroic striving to achieve a balance against impossible odds. The multi-dimensional, thick conception and execution of the work allows for many repeated listenings that guarantee fresh discoveries each time, both in the actual sounds heard and, perhaps more importantly, in the relationships between musicians and, analogously, between past and present as represented by the two main factions here. The question has been asked: Where does improvised music go after AMM? This is one amazing answer.
The Wire, John Cratchley
Keith Rowe, founder member of MIMEO (Music In Movement Electronic Orchestra), couches his description of the group's dynamic in terms of factional struggle, or what he calls the "doubt-laden transition from the world of scarcity" (represented by the 'group primitive' members of the ensemble) to "the one of plenty" (represented by the 'Powerbook trio"). Of course, Rowe rightly sees this as healthy but also as inherently tactical. The disciplines of improvisation and electronics are brought head to head in a battle for supremacy or, at least, containment of "instruments rooted in history" by the forces of C21 technology. It is a fascinating strategy, and The Hands Of Caravaggio represents its latest theatre of engagement.
The pan-European MIMEO's 11 members (minus Christian Fennesz on this occasion) are involved in many other musical affiliations. After their 24 hour performance at Musique Action in Vand'ouevre in May 2000, they have not had an opportunity to reconvene until this recorded festival performance a year later in Bologna.
The collective is Kevin Drumm, Phil Durrant, Cor Fuhler, Thomas Lehn, Kaffe Matthews, Jérôme Noetinger, Gert-Jan Prins, Peter Rehberg, Keith Rowe, Marcus Schmickler, Rafael Toral and Markus Wettstein. Not content with the infinite variation already on offer, here MIMEO also bring in Rowe's AMM pianist John Tilbury, but with the constraint on his playing of its being instantly retrieved from inside the piano and manipulated in real time by Cor Fuhler. The potential power of this group to transmute, synthesize or manipulate any conceivable sound, either individually or collectively, is truly awe inspiring in its immensity. But the ability to self-destruct in a confusion of power to signal ratios and sinewave distortions is also a distinct possibility. The ensemble not only contend with the potential tactical struggle Rowe describes, they also willingly embrace the inherent, cataclysmic faultline within its structure. This is a dangerous performance scenario fraught with risk. Ideal conditions, in other words, for wholly original music making.
Being subject to instant sound manipulation must have been, for Tilbury, a physically disorienting experience akin to intellectual rape. He apparently quipped as he took his place, "In one second you guys can eliminate me once and for all". "Less than a second", snapped the reply. Tilbury not only transcends the hands of benevolent interference but also reconciles his performance triumphantly within this context. He is audibly pin sharp and concise, constantly reacting and repositioning himself within the electronic forest of sound enveloping and manipulating him. He accepts that MIMEO work as a collective, and individual performances do not gain priority. Finding room for constructive participation, he takes his rightful place within the composition. What is important here is the ability of 12 fine musicians to suspend ego for the common good, and create sound patterns that invest the piece with a depth of field that never loses its focus.
Rowe and Tilbury go back almost three decades as partners in AMM. Rowe has metamorphosed not only the physical fingerprint and boundaries of the guitar but also the collective unconsciousness of the instrument in perpetuity. Tilbury, on the other hand, is renowned for his interpretations of the music of Cornelius Cardew and John Cage. Here, in microcosm, is Rowe's dichotomy: the 'dysfunctional garbage collectors' juxtaposed against the weighty history of the romantic 'analogue spectrum'. Furthermore, The Hands Of Caravaggio is described as a concerto which, in Latin, can be construed as 'to contend, to dispute' or in its Italianate form as 'to arrange, to agree'. That this performance not only manages to resolve all its tactical, artistic and linguistic issues but also creates in the process a landmark work of great significance, beauty and integrity is nothing short of a miracle.
Signal To Noise, Dan Warburton
Keith Rowe's choice of album title and cover art referencing the great Italian painter Caravaggio (1573 - 1610), his stated intention that this concert (recorded in Bologna on May 20th 2001) could be considered as "a concerto for piano and electronic orchestra with John Tilbury", and the inclusion on the Erstwhile website of articles by Tilbury himself and Michael Graubart on the history of the concerto all invite us to come at these 49 minutes of music more from the direction of (contemporary) classical music than with any predetermined assumptions relating to the culture of improvised music. Pianist Tilbury is, after all, one of the world's finest performers of new music, having released benchmark recordings of major works by Cage, Cardew and Feldman, and the sensibility he brings to his improvised work with AMM has more in common with British and American Experimental music than it does with a "tradition" of free improv piano playing deriving essentially from free jazz.
At the heart of the concept of the classical and Romantic concerto is the idea of creative friction between soloist and orchestra, on a macro (formal) or micro (motivic) level, in conjunction with the idea that the work should be a showcase of sorts for the soloist's virtuosity (hence the tradition of incorporating a cadenza). Tilbury's mastery of the piano may be evidence, but there are several lengthy passages where his contributions are subsumed into the surrounding sonic plasma rather than engaging the other musicians in contrapuntal dialogue. As such, "The Hands of Caravaggio" has less to do with the piano concerto as we know it from Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Chopin and more in common with the baroque concerto grosso. A second pianist, Cor Fuhler, plays a kind of continuo (on inside piano), while the remaining eleven members of the Music In Movement Electronic Orchestra (a veritable Who's Who of electroacoustic improvisation: Keith Rowe, Thomas Lehn, Phil Durrant, Kaffe Mathews, Peter Rehberg, Kevin Drumm, Markus Wettstein, Marcus Schmickler, Gert-Jan Prins, Rafael Toral and Jérôme Noetinger) cocoon the pianists in a dense weave of electronic sound. Despite the considerable thickness of texture (Tilbury joked with the other musicians before the performance: "In one second you guys can eliminate me once and for all," to which Jérôme Noetinger responded: "Less than a second.."), the 49-minute span of music is eminently listenable and, from a formal point of view, surprisingly traditional: a slow crescendo and accumulation of material leads to climactic passages starting at about 13' and gently subsiding (after around 27') into an elegiac coda (about 40'30") and slow fadeout. Of course, apart from Tilbury's florid virtuosity and crystalline arpeggios, it's almost impossible to tell who's doing what: the concert itself was apparently fraught with technical problems (with the sound system and Tilbury's piano), and several of the participants expressed reservations about the performance at the time. However, as Erstwhile had already slated the project for release even before the concert ever took place (a rather risky strategy in my opinion, but one perfectly in accord with Jon Abbey's daring vision of his own label), it fell to Marcus Schmickler to go through the tapes and mix and master the final product. The fact that "The Hands of Caravaggio" is MIMEO's most coherent and impressive album to date is due in no small part to his ten days of painstaking work.
Fakejazz.com, Gil Gershman
A lone Powerbook, sampler, analog synthesizer, or prepared guitar/FX rig can drum up one heck of a racket, as solo sets by Gert-Jan Prins, Pita, and Thomas Lehn will attest. The Music in Movement Electronic Orchestra (MIMEO), a collective comprising a dozen of Europe's electronic-improv luminaries, has struggled with the challenge of bringing together many performers without devolving into formless, murky clamor. While unique Quadrophonic stage setups and extended durations (MIMEO staged a 24-hour performance in Vand'ouevre, France in May of 2000) have addressed this problem in the live arena, MIMEO has been less successful in reproducing its essence on record. Queue, the initial CD-R offering, was at best a crude, unsatisfying memento compiled from concert excerpts. Though much more listenable, Electric Chair + Table (Grob, 2000) lost too much of MIMEO's definition and power in postproduction tinkering by ensemble members Rafael Toral and Marcus Schmickler, each of whom constructed one disc of concentrated MIMEO from in-concert recordings. Such tactics have failed to capture MIMEO for those not fortunate enough to have experienced the ensemble live.
With The Hands of Caravaggio, project director Keith Rowe approached familiar obstacles from a fresh perspective. Recognizing that a conventional recording would never suffice in approximating the total MIMEO experience, Rowe instead altered the actual performance parameters. For this very special concert presented in Bologna, Italy at the May 2000 Angelica festival, the ensemble was joined by pianist John Tilbury. In addition to introducing an acoustic focal point in Tilbury's instrument, Hands also adopted a thematic focus - the brilliant chiaroscuro and drama of Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ." Furthermore, MIMEO member Cor Fuhler bypassed electronics for inside-piano play that provided percussive shoring for Tilbury. Rowe instructed the MIMEO musicians to direct their electronics to emphasize either Tilbury or Fuhler at all times. The dominant instrumental voice is therefore that of the paired pianos, lending unprecedented clarity and perspective to the tempest of massed electronics.
Years of playing alongside Rowe in AMM have tuned Tilbury to the inexhaustible grainy subtleties of Rowe's tabletop guitar technique and electro-acoustic shadings, and so MIMEO's surging, seething conflation of extemporized electronic sound is less a cacophonous challenge than an even grander sonic setting for his singular pianistic prowess. He's comfortably within his element here, though perhaps even more to the forefront than he has ever been before. Tilbury tackles this star turn with consummate skill, drawing from the most desirable details of two centuries of study of jazz piano, Morton Feldman, and Erik Satie. His responsive shifts in tone - from airy to adamant, from truculent to tender - match MIMEO's occasionally abrasive tactics gesture for white-knuckled gesture, unfailingly attaining euphonious accord through turbulence and tranquility alike.
MIMEO is in equally fine form throughout the concert. Rowe, Kevin Drumm (the Chicagoan sat in for absent ensemble regular Christian Fennesz), Phil Durrant, Thomas Lehn, Kaffe Matthews, Jérôme Noetinger, Gert-Jan Prins, Peter Rehberg, Marcus Schmickler, Rafael Toral, and Markus Wettstein improvise as a single entity, their variegated electronic and electro-acoustic sonorities entirely egoless yet glowing with unmistakable identity even in such complete convergence. Inspired by the richness of emotion suffusing Caravaggio's colors, MIMEO summons a palette as sensuous as that of any conventional symphony, yet heightened even beyond the shimmering orchestral clusters of Penderecki or Ligeti by the thorough commingling of all digital, analog, electro-acoustic, and acoustic voices. Such robustness befits the multiple classical forms evoked by Rowe's revisionary staging of the orchestra/soloist archetype amid a phalanx of laptop computers and electronic devices, and sets The Hands of Caravaggio far apart from the staid and monochromatic tenor of so many comparable electro-acoustic encounters. Meticulous recording and presentation have thankfully preserved the vibrance of the performance. Consensus among MIMEO members and attendees has it that the CD actually surpasses the live experience, making Hands the most successful attempt to date at capturing the marvel that is MIMEO for private enjoyment.