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John Tilbury: A Strong Emotional Response To Music

By Published: August 17, 2010
AAJ: If you were to play on automatic pilot, everyone would notice. It wouldn't be the same at all.

JT: That's what keeps the pianist alive, that intensity of concentration which is required. Cornelius had that. It was extraordinary. When I first heard Feldman's music, it was at a concert—I was taking part—Cornelius was playing some solo pieces and he had this wonderful variety within the prescribed softness. Feldman himself acknowledged it. Cornelius wrote beautifully about his early music. He compared it to Alice in Wonderland, going down into Wonderland and having to get used to the new light, the darkness. And you eventually get used to it. That was a beautiful analogy. It was typical of him; the commonplace and the magical were all part of his vocabulary.

Talking about improvisation and repertoire, I recently performed Feldman's "For Piano and Orchestra." We played it in Glasgow with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and an Israeli conductor, Ilan Volkov; and it was broadcast. We were talking—in a radio interview—about playing with the orchestra, and I made the point about how different and difficult it is for a pianist to have to play with a conductor. Most of the piano repertoire is solo. Of course, there are many classical concertos. Mozart wrote many great concertos; Beethoven, five; Brahms, two; the Romantics wrote one or two; Ravel, two; Schoenberg, one. There are some highly talented classical pianists who are less comfortable with the concerto repertoire. It was very interesting, because during the rehearsal of the Feldman I kept coming in a fraction early, and Ilan, the conductor, said, "Don't worry, the pianist always comes in early." It is something to do with the attack, the beginning of the sound; the pianist tends to anticipate and come in too early. While the orchestra, Volkov told me, tend to be a little bit late; they're late, you're early. Apparently, German orchestras are very late in respect of the beat. I tried to adjust to that, but in one or two places there is a pretty obvious lack of coordination. Particularly when you have three individuals, say the conductor, a solo orchestral player (say, a cellist with a pizzicato) and the soloist—three people trying to coordinate the same attack. So the margin of error is miniscule. For me, the problem is also visual; I'm looking at the conductor, I'm anticipating the solo cello, horn, or whatever, and I'm tensing the hands to articulate a particular chord. It is very very difficult to do that.

Comparing that with improvising—when you prepare yourself, and you play when you're ready—with an orchestra you prepare yourself, with the tension in the fingers ready to play, but then you look, and you make the sound as and when you are told to. There are all these determinants which make it very difficult.

AAJ: This is the first time for a while that you and Eddie have played as a duo as AMM, isn't it?

JT: We released Norwich (Matchless, 2005), which is going back a few years. But we have played together a few times since then. We played with Sachiko M. We played with John Butcher, on Trinity (Matchless, 2008), which I think was very successful. We enjoyed playing together. We have played enough, I would say, but not necessarily with each other.

AAJ: Then there was Freedom of the City last year with John Butcher, Ute Kanngieser and Christian Wolff [released as Sounding Music.]

JT: About the time that Keith left, we did release a duo, but we didn't call it AMM. It was called Discreet Moments (Matchless, 2004). At the time the entitlement, AMM, was an issue. It hadn't been resolved.

AAJ: So it was AMM in all but name.

JT: Well, Keith and I released Duos for Doris (Erstwhile, 2003) and we didn't call that AMM. So when Eddie and I recorded Discreet Moments we decided that it wouldn't be appropriate to bring AMM into it. When it was confirmed that Keith had left the group, Eddie insisted that AMM had functioned as a duo before, so now we're functioning again as a duo.

AAJ: Was that controversial? Did you consider recruiting another member to replace Keith, or from the outset was it going to be the two of you?

JT: We haven't really considered a replacement. In any case, it might be a bit late in the day now, I think. We like to feel that we can just ask different people to play with us; we enjoy that. And I think we'll leave it like that. It would really be Eddie's call, not mine. In a way, we are freer. The two of us, we can mix and match as we feel appropriate. It would be wrong—it would be too late, I think—to start rebuilding a new AMM image. I can't really speak for Eddie, but I don't think he has that in mind at all. But certainly we both want to nurture the idea of playing with invited people.

AAJ: And it works well. Do you miss Keith's presence? It is coming up to six years that he has been gone from AMM.

JT: No. I don't mean that in a hostile way, but you deal with the situation that you are in. I think in a way I am a more reactive musician to Keith and Eddie. Whether there is Keith or Eddie or both, there is always creative music-making I can react to. I need that. It might be worth elaborating on that a bit, because I think Keith and Eddie are, if you like, born musicians; it was inevitable that they should become musicians. The very fact that they were self taught—they didn't have any pressure on them, which I did because I had a very conventional musical training. I could have done something else, but I had music thrust upon me by my piano teacher: "You will be a pianist. That is what you will do." And I said, "Oh well. OK. If you insist, I might as well." [Laughs.] I went along with it. My mum and dad were simple folk, and for them the teacher knows best. They knew I was talented, obviously. So that is what I did.

Going back to this idea of a reaction, I always had a very strong emotional response to music. I remember—it must have been when my dad came home from the war in '45, when I was nine—I remember him playing some hymns on the piano. (He played the organ a bit as well.) For some reason, I found them incredibly sad, and I was weeping, just from him playing these hymns. I was a real music lover; I was very emotionally attached to music. Music can still create strong emotional responses in me. Anyway, I became a musician. When my dad played hymns, I just wept; when Keith and Eddie invited me to play with them, I didn't respond with tears; I reacted in another way, with musical piano sounds. That has always been very important for me— call and response.

A propos, I was listening to "The Marriage of Figaro" yesterday on BBC4, and I was completely swept along by this; the energy and the beauty of it were absolutely extraordinary. I was quite overwhelmed. One of my favorite musical quotes is by a musician I admire very much because of the intensity of his playing and his touch— Clifford Curzon, an English pianist who died in 1982. He once said, when he was talking about music lovers and critics, "You know, they don't know what a phrase costs." And I knew instinctively what he meant by that. He was referring to the huge emotional and intellectual cost, what it actually demands of you to play the way he does. I have one particular phrase in mind from the slow movement of a Mozart piano concerto [K488; Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major] that has an almost unbearable intensity. I suppose, for me, in essence, that is what music is all about.

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