Feeling a little guilty this evening, having cooked more rich food than I could ever have eaten and having downed a bottle of champagne. Waddling out to the kitchen a while back I felt more than a little disgusted at myself on more than one level. In the new year I begin a diet, and perhaps next year I should find a soup kitchen somewhere to help out at.
So I am still feeling a little rosy, but fortunately I wrote most of the following post a few days back so for now I can go back to the cheese and chutney and regret it in the morning. Happy Christmas to anyone daft enough to be reading this on Christmas Day…
So a little while back I managed to attend the reunion concert by Keith Rowe and John Tilbury, the first time they had played together since the demise of the trio version of AMM back in 2004. It should be noted that given the chance to programme a couple of nights of music involving himself and musicians of his choice, Rowe took the admirable option to contact Tilbury and ask him to play. The history between these musicians is well known and needs not to be repeated but while it wouldn’t be fair to say that any of that has been forgotten it was good to see the pair talking and laughing together again. the music they created together is another story again…
The danger with writing about a reunion performance by these two musicians, who have, in my opinion played together on several of the greatest improv albums ever recorded, is that it is easy to allow the anticipation of the event, the idea of these two great masters coming back together to colour an objective appraisal of the music. I personally have an intense, close personal connection to the one album they made as a duo and undoubtably my thoughts on their performance will be affected by this, but still, I have to say that this fifty-five minute concert was one of the greatest I have ever witnessed.
I should state right now that this was not a ‘safe’ meeting. It would perhaps have been easy for the two musicians to slip into classic AMM mode and created music akin to Duos for Doris and pleased me and the other thirty or so in attendance at the show. To their immense credit (not that I expected anything different) Rowe and Tilbury sought to challenge each other, keep the music fresh and alive and steer it away from any potential safety zones. They created then, an incredibly intense, atmospheric space in a small room that I feel exceptionally privileged to have been able to attend.
The obvious structure for these two is for Rowe to contribute extended, continuous sounds for Tilbury to sprinkle his magic into. On the whole, this didn’t happen. The music worked its way through a series of sections that each had a different dynamic. Opening with Tilbury playing a kind of sprightly half-melody, Rowe, working with a stripped down table added short, abrupt bursts of ugly noise which seemed to be telling Tilbury that this wouldn’t be an easy hour. Gradually things moved into a series of slowed down explosions from Rowe that worked like small arcing climaxes, each one cutting off quite sharply, leaving Tilbury, who had moved into his Feldmaesque, rising arpeggios mode for a short while hanging in space, which he always made the most of, often reaching into his piano to almost instantly produce sounds to fill the gaps and send the music off somewhere new. The surprises did not all come from Rowe though. A little while later, as Keith produced his most sustained, violently rising section of attack yet, seemingly demanding Tilbury to slam his hands down on the keys, as he did with such power on the Doris album, he instead reached into his pocket and produced a tiny black box of some kind, into which he blew as he turned a tiny handle, so producing a stream of gentle birdsong, exactly what we were not expecting.
Much has been written about Rowe’s apparent ‘non-listening’ approach to improvisation, preferring to listen at a different level than the traditional call and response techniques of improvisation, but when Tilbury produced the birdsong, Rowe’s immediate move to produce an almost identical electronic version of this sound, (I think by placing his handheld fan close to his radio, though I’m not certain) was remarkable, and as fine a display of traditional in-the-moment improvisation as I have ever witnessed.
I wouldn’t like to paint a picture of a tight, well tuned performance though. The intensity of the meeting was created in part by the uncertainty of the performance, as throughout the music seemed to be constantly on the edge of falling apart, and on a few occasions it seemed to do this, buckling under the pressure and coming to temporary halts. There is no doubt that the musicians could have avoided this, and could have made fluid, easier music if they had chosen to, but the performance was made all the better that they did not.
Silence wove its way into the music often, though the audience, which despite being quite small felt like one of the noisiest I had ever sat amongst, with several people coughing loudly and frequently, and the noisy door to the venue slammed shut more than once. Tilbury highlighted the silences though on a few occasions by running his fingers rapidly up and down the keys without ever landing firmly enough to play a note, just the faintest patter of his fingers audible, apart from one or two moments when a tiny note slipped out. If Tilbury made a mistake here and there then so it seemed did Rowe, knocking over his upturned fan at one point with his elbow, and then seemingly doing this again deliberately, This feeling of uncertainty and happy accident added to the evening’s events, helping the precarious uncertainty of the performance.
Tilbury was left doing his silent dance across the keys at the end of the performance, and for a good couple of minutes after all sound had ended the intense atmosphere that had been present right through the concert continued as the musicians sat in silence and the audience, which finally seemed to manage to be quiet sat motionless, wondering if more was to come, or if this silent conclusion was to go on forever. Tilbury fixed his gaze on Rowe, but Keith avoided his eyes, slowly closing down his equipment in that way that he does before eventually their eyes met and smiles brought the set to its end. The audience then made a lot of noise, and applauded for a long time.
It was then great to see this pair play again. I don’t think anyone that has appreciated the music of either musician before would ever have doubted that this meeting would produce fine music, but this went further than I had thought it might, taking all of the history and the emotion and using it to create something new, something very unstable but beautifully constructed. It felt like I held my breath right through the performance, and the end of the set felt like relief in many ways. This was a magical hour of music. I hope very much that their next performance together will not be so long in coming.