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John Tilbury: A Strong Emotional Response To Music

By Published: August 17, 2010
AAJ: You are talking about this for AMM and for the Feldman as well. So is it equally true whether the music is scored or improvised?

JT: I think there is so much Feldman that is, in a sense, improvised because he gives you only one dynamic marking for an hour-and-a-half piece. He might prescribe ppp for example for the whole piece, as in "Triadic Memories"; that means you simply have to play within a very soft dynamic, say from ppppp to mp. That's quite a range, and you find an incredible variety of shades and qualities within that very soft dynamic. In Baroque music, too, you find long stretches of music which maintains the same overall dynamic throughout.

AAJ: You re-recorded "Triadic Memories," and the re-recording is radically different from the first one, a longer version. What was the impetus to re-record it? Is it that you heard it in a new way and felt it needed re-recording?

JT: I was never satisfied with it, right from the beginning. I wasn't exactly dissatisfied with it, otherwise I wouldn't have let it go. But, basically, it was a very simple thing. I just couldn't fix on a tempo. And tempo is crucial, for sure. There is a story—I can't remember who it is—one of the conductors, before going on stage, used to concentrate very hard and think about tempo, getting it right. It's true, with repertoire, after months of practice, you gradually settle into a tempo, and it is very, very subtle. And if you get the tempo ever so slightly wrong, it's a strange, discomforting feeling.

In fact, in the case of "Triadic Memories," it was different. It wasn't that I'd found the right tempo and then, when I recorded it, it wasn't right. I just never found the right tempo. In the end, I decided it was too fast, and I had to really slow it up, radically slow it up—go in the opposite direction and then maybe let it come back a little, towards somewhere in the middle. So I did a performance—in Porto, I think it was—and somewhere else, I can't remember where, before I did the recording at St. John's, where I played a lot slower. [25 minutes slower.] It was an issue of tempo, pure and simple. I think with the St. John's performance I finally got it right. Funnily enough, I met somebody at the Ulrichsberg festival in Austria—a German musician, who had the piano solo box set and had just got the new one. He said, "But why do you play it so slowly?" [Laughs.] I assume he had got so used to the first version.

I was never happy with it. It was the one piece of the whole set that I was happy to be able to re-record. I was asked by the Italian label Atopos if I would do some Feldman. I said I'd done all the Feldman solo piano, but I wouldn't mind re-recording "Triadic Memories." And they said, "Yes, fine, do it." They wanted a live performance, and it was set up at St. John's. Thanks to Fulvio di Rosa, I was given the opportunity to make what I think is a better version. ... I remember I was in a terrible mood when I recorded the original because I was so frustrated. It wasn't right.

AAJ: It is interesting that the original came from you. The original fits on one CD, and the re-recording goes onto a second CD. Was there pressure for you to record a version that fit onto one CD?

JT: No, the way these things work, "For Bunita Marcus"—which I'm still happy with—just squeezed onto one CD. I did have some evil thoughts, because apparently it can be compressed without changing the pitch. I thought maybe they'd done that, and so I asked them outright; they swore they hadn't. But I couldn't help being suspicious because each of those two pieces, "Bunita Marcus" and "Triadic Memories" just squeeze on.

AAJ: So it genuinely did fit on without trickery.

JT: Well, I'll take their word for it. [Conversation is drowned out by the AMM recording. JT listens to bowed cymbal on AMM recording] Eddie's playing too loud! It is a very wide frequency; he is playing very high notes and I'm rumbling about in the bass. I quite like that indeterminate rumbling on the low strings. It doesn't go on for too long.

AAJ: With two people improvising, that must be one of the dilemmas: if the other one goes high, do you go low or do you both go high?

JT: One of the things I always feel uncomfortable with in relation to Western culture is this obsession with contrast, although since the '60s it has been rather dented by the arrival of minimalism. But a high note had to be followed by a low note; a fast movement had to be followed by a slow movement then another fast one— this obsession with crude contrast. So I think I'm aware of that and it is not an issue anymore. It would have been just as likely for me to join Eddie, in this instance, with a high frequency sound; it just depends what my musical instinct tells me is right at the time.

Going back to "Triadic Memories," there was an example of what we were talking about—the variety of soft playing that a single prescription invites. Feldman prescribes ppp for the whole piece. That means you have to look for the variety of softness within that one prescription. But in this case—ppp is very, very soft—and I played pretty softly throughout. But then there comes a point—you probably heard it—about two thirds of the way through, where you turn the page and you are suddenly confronted with ppppp. That is very extreme; I don't know of any other piece that has ppppp marked. There, you are absolutely pushed to the edge. The only way of thinking of that is that you have got to play really high risk—high-risk playing. I decided at the concert that I would do just that. Obviously, I know what is coming; what happens is that there is a kind of pause and then you get these repetitions of chords— nine, eleven, five different chords, played at that incredibly low dynamic level. There was no room for compromise at all; ppppp means that you are right on the edge. The next step is no sound. There is nothing left except for silence. Well, it came off. Most of the notes sounded, and they were incredibly soft. I remember Sebastian [Lexer, the sound engineer] saying afterwards, "That was really high risk." [Laughs.] And I was very pleased about that.

So, going back, I guess we were talking about improvising vis-a-vis playing repertoire. That was certainly the case with Feldman. Although the actual notes are prescribed, nevertheless you feel at any given moment you have choices to make; you are never on automatic pilot.

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