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John Tilbury: A Strong Emotional Response To Music

By Published: August 17, 2010
AAJ: If people go there, it seems more to do with what they themselves are taking there, rather than what they find there.

JT: Yes, I think that is so.

AAJ: Were you learning [the piano] from a very young age?

JT: Yes. Well, not that young. I did have a few lessons during the war, but that was when I was away, evacuated down to Torquay. Really, I started— in fact nowadays it would be considered to be very late—when I was nine. The war ended, and I was already nine. That was when I began lessons with Dorothy Symes, a local piano teacher, and I was with her right the way through until I was 17 or 18 when I went to the Royal College of Music. It was a very conventional trajectory my musical career, really. Yes, Mrs. Symes was a very emotional woman, nervous and highly strung. She was often moved by performances of music; you could tell music meant everything to her. Emotion was an important component of our lessons, though it was never really discussed as such.

Cornelius used to talk about music's uncatchability. That is a very important part of it, I think. Music disappears into the ether. It can't be mummified. Recordings are simply a reminder, a document that something took place. I remember when AMM played Oregon, I think it was Portland, or maybe Seattle. Anyway, some young guys knew all of our records but they said they're nothing like the real thing. [Laughs.] That is the truth of the matter.

AAJ: You mention Cornelius. The book you wrote about him was a labor of love for you, taking over 20 years to write. By the end, did you feel that it had captured the essence of Cornelius as you knew him?

JT: I do. Yes. I don't make any excuses. I think it did. It is a serious book, and obviously he was such a rich and complex character that people have different takes on him. I tried to be ultra-democratic. I was always asking people's opinions, and there are lots of interesting views.

AAJ: There is a vast cast of characters in the book.

JT: They all have their say. So the richness of the character comes through, not just from my musings but as a result of what other people conveyed to me. So, I think, I hope I did him justice

I'm pleased because I did my best, and I think I achieved something. There has been a very positive response from all kinds of people, some who knew him very well, some not so well. I am constantly meeting people, out of the blue, who have read the book and respond in quite different ways.

For example, the Scratch Orchestra—some people have a slightly different take on him. Some people thought I had painted him rather too negatively, but other people thought I gave him too much credit.

AAJ: It seemed to capture what it was like at the time.

JT: The Scratch stuff draws on a lot of contrasting memories from various people. That is how it was. There is a very good film by Hanne Boenisch, [Journey to the North Pole] who sadly died last summer. Hanne Boenisch was a German filmmaker who came with us when we went to Newcastle. She made a film of the Scratch Orchestra, a very good film—a documentary. Luke Fowler's film [Pilgrimage from Scattered Points] is interesting but it is an art film—also very good, but naturally from a quite different perspective. Hanne's film is a documentary, and you see Cornelius talking and reflecting. It's interesting stuff. I tried to capture the atmosphere—how it was in those days. They were good times; I feel privileged to have been around at that time, not only with Cornelius but just around in the '60s, being able to appreciate all those wonderful dreams and illusions we had.

A lot of people I know found the second half of the book quite difficult because it is relentless, but that is how it was. In a way, I wanted to get that feeling of relentlessness into the reader. I didn't intend it to be easy. I could have compressed it, but I keep repeating it—a bit like a performance, in a way. And people think: "There's another ten pages of this!" That is how it was. The reader experiences that intractable feeling of it going on and on and on, not stopping, not giving up—page after page after page—all the time. That is how it was. And it constitutes half the book.

AAJ: Musically, he is such a complex character to get a handle on. There are so many facets to him. The section on "Treatise" makes it seem like an unfathomable work— which is part of its charm.

JT: It is what it is. Your approach, if you decided to interpret a few pages of it—as long as you were doing it in good faith, i.e. seriously—your performance would be just as authentic as mine. There is no way in which my knowing more about the composer than you suggests a less authentic interpretation—it wasn't meant like that. It was for future generations to make of it what they can. There is no sense of my being able to claim any authenticity. I just describe how it was at the time, and how Keith and I and others dealt with it. There are no prescriptions of how it should be interpreted; people go about it in many different ways.

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