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Keith Rowe and John Tilbury: Enough still not to know

John Eyles By

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It was back in late 2011 that the last collaboration between Keith Rowe and John Tilbury was issued, E.E. Tension and Circumstance (Potlatch, 2011), having been recorded live in Paris in December 2010. As that was their second duo recording, following the double CD Duos for Doris (Erstwhile, 2003), and they had not played together since Rowe left AMM in 2004, it was not unduly pessimistic for the review of it to conclude, "[W]e know from Duos for Doris that their music stands the test of time and improves with age. The same will be true of this album, until such time as its sequel is recorded. We can but hope."

Now that hope has been repaid handsomely with Enough still not to know, a July 2014 studio recording that fills four CDs and plays for over three-and-a-half hours. The contrasts between this new recording and its predecessors extend way beyond that extended duration. Where the earlier recordings were very personal to the duo, respectively marking the deaths of Tilbury's and Rowe's mothers, Doris and Eileen Elizabeth, the music on Enough still not to know was recorded for a new video installation by Norwegian visual artist Kjell Bjørgeengen, who is credited as the album's producer. (Bjørgeengen and Rowe had previously collaborated on a video made in 2007, during a residency at Porto's Esquilo Records.)

This album comes with a booklet containing quotes from emails between Bjørgeengen, Rowe and Tilbury, those from the Norwegian revealing the extent to which he hoped to shape Rowe and Tilbury's performance—for instance, "I envisage a piece with a lot of silence / space" or "Some kind of 'broken moments'; a place where things start to fall apart or are on the edge to do so." It is debatable how much effect such comments had on the actual music heard here; those quotes could apply to much of the duo's previous music. It seems likely that Bjørgeengen chose Rowe and Tilbury to accompany his piece based on their music, rather than hoping to reshape it to fit his art.

With a history of playing together dating back to the 60's (in the Scratch Orchestra, Music Now Ensemble, AMM, MIMEO and as a duo) Rowe and Tilbury know each other inside out. They react to one another in ways that would sound instinctive were it not for the occasional inspired—and knowingly humorous—non sequitur, such as Tilbury's use of a bird whistle in that 2010 Paris recording. More usually, Rowe's fragmented electronic soundscape, created from the "castrated guitar" (his words) plus effects that he has arrayed on the table in front of him, acts as a constantly shifting backdrop and support to Tilbury's more lyrical piano phrases which are economically placed to achieve maximum effect. Neither of the two overplays or shies away from leaving occasional silences. Their criteria for these seem to have far more to do with the dramatic arc of the music than with any externally imposed constraint. Individually and together, they have a finely honed sense of what to do at any moment in order to best serve the music, a rare and enviable skill.

Whatever alchemy led to its creation, as the YouTube clip below illustrates, the combination of Rowe and Tilbury's music with Bjørgeengen's visuals is an ideal marriage, with each perfectly complementing the other to an uncanny extent, the whole exceeding the sum of its parts. This must be a very strong contender for Album of the Year. And, again, let's hope this is not the last release from the pair.

Track Listing: First Part; Second Part; Third Part; Fourth Part.

Personnel: Keith Rowe: guitar, electronics; John Tilbury: piano.

Title: Enough still not to know | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: SOFA

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