The Wire, David Toop
This word - improvisation - no longer seems adequate to describe the forms that emerge from playing without a score or pre-determined structure. These categories are invidious anyway, but improvised music history, or that part has its roots in communality and spontaneity, raises certain expectations in the listener that may have become anachronistic or simply naive. Take Duos For Doris, dedicated to Tilbury's mother, who died two days before this recording was made. A double CD containing three long pieces, this is the first duo release by Keith Rowe and John Tilbury, whose musical relationship goes back to 1965 performance of Cornelius Cardew's Treatise.
Two thirds of the post-1981 AMM, Rowe and Tilbury share a profound understanding of the way in which form can emerge from carefully controlled dynamics. Some listeners may suspect a lack of communication or development, though they may be mistaken. For the first piece, over 70 minutes in length, a stable state develops quickly out of quietly fluctuating buzzing tones and a resonant, expectant hum, a conglomeration of brainwaves that immediately and imperceptibly induces the receptivity of deep listening. Tilbury's discrete interventions and beehive mutter of this landscape inevitably evoke memories of other musics - notably John Cage's works for prepared piano and the solo piano compositions of Morton Feldman.
What both players seem to have achieved is a distillation of their respective languages. Two prepared tones from Tilbury may evoke memories of Cage, yet they go beyond Cage, locating his reinvention of the piano in a contemporary context. As for Rowe, the majority of his sounds no longer have any connection to an identifiable instrument. Perhaps they stem from guitar; perhaps not. The question hardly matters. Physicality is evident - a sound that clearly marks the trajectory of a hand or the passing of some device over amplified or resonant surfaces - but the sound of guitar strings has gone.
What is so striking about these recordings is their sustained mood, vacillating somewhere between a calm through which fresh elements emerge as if growing out of the substratum, and a tension so extreme that any individual sound piecing this calm, whether piano pitch or guitar pick-up noise, shocks the air of the room. Nothing to do with the ears: the skin jumps; hair stands on end. Tilbury's touch is exquisite, either a deep rumbling in the bass that detaches itself momentarily from any sense of human agency, or melodic fragments that float over the music like bell chimes reflecting from the surface of a lake.
A spellbinding atmosphere of restraint is developed, almost frustrated and frustrating in its feeling of withholding. This can be traced to the laminar approach of AMM, dating back to the earliest sessions from the mid-1960s, but there is something unfamiliar, an intensity of concentration on detail, a virtuosity of enabling through which marks appear to emerge on paper rather than being written. When a kind of rage, or grief, collects and gains momentum, as happens 43 minutes into the first piece, the impact is overwhelming. Some distortion is evident in this passage, as Tilbury hammers obsessive chords from the piano and Rowe increases volume to the point of violence, though the technical flaw only adds to the intensity.
Of the two pieces on disc two (none of which have titles), the first begins with a recording of tropical insects and birds, the whiskered, whistling frequencies of a short wave radio broadcast and Tilbury's rattling, haphazard high notes. This seems the least focused section of the entire session, yet also a reminder of the two humans involved in the performance and a window out into the world beyond the studio. Within six minutes, an eerie suspended world of groans, knocks and febrile pulsations has taken over, again fertile ground for beguiling clusters of muted strings. At moments during the third track, very little is happening except for the piano sustain pedal and amplifier hiss. An ascending four note arpeggio from Tilbury; a thump from Rowe, a scratch, a scrape: even at the barest minimum, this is a record that grips the attention and envelops it completely.
Bagatellen, Brian Olewnick
Despite having known each other since the mid 60s and having been together in AMM since 1981, this is the first time the two had performed, much less recorded, as a duo ("Except", as Keith mischievously remarked, "when Eddie stops playing.") The event almost didn't occur. Three days prior to the recording, Tilbury's 95-year old mother, Doris, had a stroke. She died the next evening and Tilbury, understanding the lengths that had been gone to arrange the date, originally scheduled for two days, agreed (insisted, in fact) to come down from England to France for a single day of recording. This was accomplished in the same Vand'oeuvre theater, and with the same rented piano, that AMM had recorded 'Fine' two years before. At dinner the evening before the session, Tilbury asked Rowe if he had any ideas for the next day. Keith replied no, that he thought when John touched the piano he'd actually be using, the ideas would flow. At the session, aside from the two participants and the recording engineer, Jon and I were the only ones at hand; a very special day.
They created five pieces over the course of about three hours of playing, three of which were selected for this two-disc set. Tilbury warmed up by playing some Chopin, a little Schoenberg (a quote from which he interjected into the proceedings, much to Rowe's amusement, in one of the improvisations not used for the final release) and a few English folk songs. The first piece on 'Duos for Doris', was also the first performed, a 70-minute construction of immense range and depth. Tilbury begins by rubbing a drumstick on the brass inner frame of the piano, treating it as purely percussion for the first six or seven minutes. Rowe, as has been more and more the case in recent years, is very much content to provide a "canvas" for his collaborator's activity (though not necessarily a featureless one by any means), positioning his music as an element as integral as it might be unnoticed. He arranges laminae of drone-like sounds, with low, middle and high tones of varying and complementary textures. The swelling nature of these drones creates a highly dramatic sense of anticipation, one deeply rewarded when Tilbury finally enters from the keyboard with several low, pulsing chords. The release that occurs about fifteen minutes in, when the improvisation seems to acquire a life of its own, is one of several extraordinary moments to be found here. The music is redolent with emotion, giving lie to the charges of aridity and stoicism often leveled at musicians such as these. Granted, knowledge of the immediate and tragic events surrounding Tilbury's personal life may have played into my perceptions, but it seemed (and does still seem) clear the emotional depths he plumbed. Some of his playing will be recognizable in general type by listeners familiar with his work in AMM, other aspects find him exploring entirely new territory (a judgment rendered not only by myself, but Rowe as well). The piece quiets down noticeably for fifteen or so minutes, remaining fascinating in a rustling, chittering way, before building to great intensity at about the 40-minute mark. In fact, the volume level rises enough, Tilbury pounding the keyboard with fury, so that some distortion sets in for a minute, although nothing that detracts from the force of the music. He builds to it with piercing chords, struck in a slow but nearly regular pattern that generate a huge amount of psychic pressure, accompanied by screeching metallicisms from Rowe, before the inevitable explosion. A series of funereal chords from Tilbury lead to contrastingly bright, Feldman-esque arpeggios, ushering in a kind of entropic process, the two musicians scraping and plucking in a dark, cavernous space for quite some time, almost to the point of a-musical activity. But in the last few minutes, Tilbury finds an amazingly delicate, single note "melody", more like some faint, ghostly chorale, with which he brings the piece to a close over the poignant, Rowe-generated sounds of a distant propeller plane and what briefly sounds for all the world like an EKG monitor. Here, as everywhere else on this release, Tilbury's incredible sense of touch and of pure note placement is beautifully apparent; always fluid, always the slightest bit off the cadence.
This second piece begins with the sound of birds over a faded, swing-era jazz recording. Tilbury quickly emulates the birdsong, trilling in the upper register. Rowe utilizes the radio more often on this track than elsewhere, though it rarely appears with clarity, instead appearing buried under distortion and static. Tilbury has placed nails, dowels and metallic balls on his strings, generating gamelan-like sounds from his keyboard when he's not attacking the piano's body with drumstick or fist. Rowe is operating at least four or five levels of sound here but all occupying such distinct zones that it's difficult to comprehend them at the same time; different listenings almost necessarily cause one to concentrate on different aspects. Here as elsewhere, especially in the album's closing moments, Rowe employs a tactic that might be initially irritating but, I think, serves a meta-purpose: when things get a little too beautiful, a bit too smooth, he will cause some rude noise to erupt. The crinkling of a scrub pad on the guitar strings or the harsh buzz of one of his many small fans will interrupt the sonic bliss, reminding the listener of the real world, one in which any thoughts of a peaceful heaven might be as ultimately meaningless as they are understandably desirable. There's some remarkably anguished playing by both musicians about 20 minutes in, Tilbury eliciting frantic sounding yelps and Rowe ripping brutal, strangled roars from his machine. Eventually, a deep, throbbing drone develops. When it gradually peaks and begins to dissipate, Rowe conjures up a surprisingly (for him) rhythmic little motif, a casual thump accompanied by a metallic swish, boom-shee-boom, a beguiling nubbin that jauntily carries the next several minutes of the improvisation. This gets subsumed beneath a billowing hum as the music enters a cloudlike steady-state feel for a while, Tilbury casting about as though swimming through darkness, seeking elusive shards of light. Toward the end, Tilbury floats to the depths of the keyboard, phrasing the dark chords with more a sense of acceptance than surrender.
The final piece, in some ways the most moving, is in two distinct parts, each of equal length. Tilbury plays two high notes off a chord that sounds almost as though lifted from a processional while Rowe maintains a steady white noise pattern that feels subtly ominous. There's very much a dark and light sensation here, the piano striving to remain optimistic, even rosy, the electronics steadfastly insisting that there is no way out, threatening each dreamy Feldman-esque arpeggio with a deluge of feedback. After a brief pause, Tilbury stands and begins to stroke one of the piano strings between his fingers, eliciting an extraordinary ghostly tone. One by one, he fashions a simple, lovely melody with these coaxings, just on the edge of audibility. Ever so subtly, he transfers this ethereal song to the upper reaches of the keyboard, a single note threnody heartbreaking in its purity. It's difficult to imagine any other companion not letting this hymn stand on its own and gleam but Rowe just will not allow this illusion to remain untouched by reality. He scrapes and rubs his devices, quietly enough not to totally interfere, but with enough presence to make his point. It's a tough lesson, and one that many listeners may actually object to, but that's one of Rowe's great strengths: no easy answers.
"Duos for Doris" captures two musicians of immense intelligence, probity and aesthetic rigor at heights arguably unscaled by either. It's as powerful a performance as I've ever heard.