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John Tilbury: A Strong Emotional Response To Music

By Published: August 17, 2010
AAJ: There are several recordings of it, and it was also performed at The Drawing Room, by Rhodri Davies and company.

JT: Rhodri is a very talented and sensitive musician; I've played with him a few times. I have performed the whole thing solo myself. I did it in Glasgow once; I recall not being very happy with that particular performance.

AAJ: It is really about what effect playing with the graphic score has on one's playing. Is it different than if one were improvising in the same time?

JT: It is, very much. In fact, one of the early AMM recordings contains an improvisation from the same concert—I think we were in Chicago—the first half is "Treatise," the second a free improvisation with three of us; it is very different music. Although all of us, especially Keith and Eddie, have a very free way of interpreting it, I was probably more influenced by my more traditional conservatory training, because there are many associations with traditional notation, as you know. But it does sound very different; it is quite interesting to compare the two, actually. What Cornelius said, which sums it up really, is: "People make their own music in response to my 'music,' which is the score itself." Cardew makes no proprietary claims.

In an interview with me a few years ago, a music journalist posed the following question: "You're sitting at the piano bench readying yourself to play. The audience is hushed; there's an air of anticipation. Your fingers are poised over the keyboard. At that critical moment, do the mental processes you go through differ according to whether you're about to play a composition or an improvisation? If so, in what ways are they different?" I answered as follows: There are no hard and fast contrasts. Both modes are subject to constraints, imposed from without, which determine what and how one plays. Playing the score, of course, the notation prescribes the broad limits—whereabouts on the keyboard, a relative duration, a relative dynamic (sometimes). Crucially, it does not tell you how to make the sound, nor even, actually, what sound, what A-flat, for example—its tuning, its timbre; such contingencies depend upon the instrument, and the tuner, the room temperature, etc. So if the hands are poised and the muscles tensed, this state of bodily affairs is only partially determined by information gleaned by the player from the score. Incidentally, playing solo (from the score), one should not underestimate the leeway enjoyed by the performer: deciding the actual moment of execution from the moment of sitting down at the instrument. Compare this with playing under the control of a conductor's baton, for example.

The leeway in free improvisation is greater; one can wait until the music is already underway, has established itself, thanks to the initiative of the other players. But here, too, the first sounds of a set may come as a response to an external provocation— perhaps, though not necessarily, less specific than a musical notation. Once, Keith Rowe even described his own body as a "very strict composition—you get legs dangling down there and arms floating around, so many fingers and one head."

AAJ: One thing we've not yet touched on: You've recorded increasingly over the last decade with electronics and so forth. There was the stuff with Sebastian Lexer...

JT: You're talking about the recent one, the Cage and Jennings. Sebastian was my student; I was his piano teacher. We did conventional repertoire. He got to know about contemporary music through me, but we did mainly the classical repertoire. He got interested in modern pieces—George Crumb and stuff like that—and he began to learn some of the contemporary repertoire. He hadn't had any training in that. In fact, I think he was in a rock band. He was quite a good pianist. He worked on Beethoven sonatas, Bach, I think.

Then with the two Beckett radio plays that I recorded, he did a certain amount of sound manipulation on that. Not that much—a few things. And I made a piano/electronics CD with Marcus Schmickler.

AAJ: And then there was the stuff with MIMEO...

JT: Yes, the infamous.

AAJ: Is it rightfully infamous in your view? Did you feel you were bullied?

JT: No, I didn't. I always thought of it as a role—the role of victim, which I found interesting. That was how I interpreted it. Others had a different take on it.

AAJ: We didn't get onto politics either, did we? Maybe just as well.

JT: That would be twice as long as what you've already got. ... The way I see it, the music is a kind of survival strategy in these present dark times. I wouldn't use the word therapy, although it is certainly an essential part of a survival strategy. Much of what I play is based on principles which are regarded as old- fashioned, quaint, obsolete now, such as sharing things, selflessness—all those values you can find in the music which are totally at variance with the kind of culture we find ourselves in now—a dominant culture which is predatory and aggressive. I like to think that my music-making is part of a domestic culture which, in fact, many people try to provide for their children at home. You teach your children to be decent, respectful, considerate of other people, not to be pushy, to learn the value of things, rather than the cost—all those kinds of things. And you are battling with the dominant culture, which is constantly saying the opposite. So our music is part of the domestic culture, I think, whereas Tate Modern is definitely part of the dominant culture.

AMM is about respect, sharing, integrity, the cherishing of the quotidian, individuality not individualism, selflessness but self-worth. I like to think there is a moral dimension which is encapsulated in Iris Murdoch's words. She wrote: "Moral change comes from an attention to the world whose natural result is a decrease in egoism through an increased sense of the reality of, primarily of course, other people." Individualism has been elevated to become the basis on which all human activity, political, economic, is based.

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