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Live Reviews

Keith Tippett and Julie Tippetts: Couple in Spirit in Cambridge, UK

By Published: November 4, 2009
Readers familiar with the musical term "prepared piano" would especially appreciate Tippett's version. One of the most distinctive facets of his oeuvre is his use of objects to prepare the piano as he is going along: what one writer has characterized as "unprepared piano," as the artist has the pieces lined up on the piano frame and ready to use as the inspiration takes him. A glance under the lid at the interval revealed a range of items including pebbles, a wooden box, wood blocks—and a whistle, alongside the music box and a maraca.

At one point Tippett placed the wooden box onto the strings at the treble end of the keyboard but didn't play there immediately, instead supplementing it with more objects which, when that part of the keyboard was eventually struck, resulted in multiple voices, a tinkling wall of sound—a harpsichord on steroids. Sometimes it seemed the objects added a chance element to the musical narrative, but at other times their use seemed far more calculated, if not entirely predictable. One particularly electrifying illustration occurred during intense concentration on the middle and bass registers, when the pianist suddenly punctuated his flow with an astonishing sound like a trumpet fanfare and cymbal clash combined, a sonic effect derived from a foray into the treble register where he had previously placed various objects on the strings. So pleasing was the sound that it became a featured motif five or six times in the one passage.

Starting with resounding rumbling piano like a waterfall in full spate, the second set took on a very different character from the first. Tippetts' voice hovered, just barely audible, above the clamor, lending a ghostly edge to the music and conjuring an epic feel to the proceedings. Whether it was the intimacy of the venue or just a particularly kinetic evening, there was an emotional charge in the air, resulting in numerous wonderful combinations. One percussive interlude specially stuck in the mind, with Tippetts chiming on Balinese xylophone as her partner shook a maraca in one hand while using the other on the keyboard to produce scrabbling piano patterns on strings dampened by articles inside the piano. Gradually the dnese melange of rhythms and textures mutated into a chopsticks-like prancing, calling forth another more puckish mood to explore.

Towards the end, the pianist's rapidfire staccato rattle, accompanied by his wife rapidly rotating prayer drums, suddenly switched, midstream, into a more romantic Satie-esque passage. Tippetts managed the transition by slowing her rhythmic tempo until playing sparsely, when she began wordless scatting. Her husband responded with blues-tinged phrases, before manipulating under the lid to give a harpsichord-like edge to the sound. He also wound up the music box inside the piano and played delicate counterpoint, pressing on the strings to bend his notes. This exquisite passage brought the concert to a close with gentle tolling fading into silence.

At the end of the tumultuous and prolonged applause, Tippett responded, disarmingly saying "That's all we know," before going on, as is his custom, to thank the audience for their contribution. "You could hear a pin drop," he said, referring to the near-reverential attention during the just-completed performance, "which gave us the space to breathe. I really do feel there was a real communion tonight. Thank you so much." Talk of communion didn't seem out of place at all for what had been an almost mystical experience. A very special show indeed.

Photo credit

John Sharpe

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