John Tilbury: A Strong Emotional Response To Music

John Eyles By

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Pianist John Tilbury is renowned not only for his work in AMM and his other improvising, but also as a peerless interpreter of such contemporary composers as Morton Feldman, John Cage, Christian Wolff and Howard Skempton. He is uniquely well positioned to reflect on the similarities and contrasts between improvising and playing repertoire.

Tilbury's biography of his friend, associate and erstwhile member of AMM, Cornelius Cardew, which took him over two decades to write, has been recognized as the definitive statement on Cardew's life and work. In conversation, Tilbury frequently makes reference to Cardew's views and opinions, and, unsurprisingly, he himself still espouses views and beliefs that flow from the political views that he and Cardew shared.

At the beginning of this interview, Tilbury initially suggested we listen to a recent AMM recording of himself and Prevost in Poland. As we sat listening, Tilbury would comment critically on his own playing. This is where the interview begins.

All About Jazz: It is interesting sitting with you listening to this, because it is as if you hear it as though it is not you. When you've done a piece like this, do you know what you've played? Or is it a surprise to you when you hear the recording back?

John Tilbury: It is always different, playing it back. Of course, they say distance lends enchantment, but sometimes distance lends disenchantment. If you hear it immediately after you perform it, relatively speaking, a day or two after, that is one thing. And then, months later you'd hear it from a completely different perspective, because you can't remember the actuality of the performance with the same detail. In a way, it is better because you can judge it more objectively then. I'm listening to the music now, which is quite recent, and I feel I am still doing it, still performing. I'm kind of still there. It is quite close to me psychologically. I remember making those sounds at that particular point. Like at the beginning where I made that error. I wanted to hit one note—the prepared note—and I got it wrong and had to recoup somehow. There is that famous story of Thelonious Monk, when he came off after a set, very annoyed and frustrated, and said, "I made all the wrong mistakes." [Laughs] I know what he meant.

Sometimes, when I play a larger aggregate of notes, I can anticipate the qualities of sound and the nature of the harmony that I'm playing, but not exactly—I don't exactly hear the actual chord in my head. Maybe a cluster-type chord or a whole-tone type of chord. But once I've played it, then I'm there on top of it, and I'm immediately reacting and adjusting, using various transpositions, for example; I like to do that with chords, playing around in that way. I like the economy of that way of working. But I enjoy that experimental part of it, working on the material. It is like you are dealing with a piece of pottery, clay, kneading with your hands, moving it around, making shapes. It is very physical. I enjoy the physicality of playing the piano. Other times, you are dealing with smaller groups of sounds and you know what is going to come out.

Obviously, when you are dealing with intervals and individual tones you can hear things; there's more control. I'm playing a descending scale, for example, and I omit a few notes because I think at that particular moment I wanted a certain intervallic quality. And I know how to do that. Of late, I have got into playing scales and arpeggios. Listen. [Listens to recording]. I like playing scales. Scales can be very beautiful. Perhaps it's about going back to my childhood. I try to remember exactly what I have played, what intervals. Sometimes I alter the intervals slightly. There they are again—it's very appealing.

I guess I started to discover something that I hadn't really used much before. Then you want to concern yourself with it and develop it in some way. It becomes the area you are interested in, and perhaps, over a few weeks or months, that becomes an important feature of your repertoire.

AAJ: The way you're describing it, every time you are doing that afresh.

JT: Yes, yes.

AAJ: How do you avoid going down pathways you've been down before?

JT: Well, sometimes I'm quite happy to do that. Then it is a question of why am I doing that. Is it because I know I shall have instant success? In Feldman's words, I can knock the audience flat. Or is it for other reasons—because I don't think I've exhausted that particular area. So, there are different reasons for doing something or for avoiding something. But when I play Feldman's Palais de Mari for example, I know there is a certain point in the piece when the opening bars come back again, and the listeners—who are, as it were, professional listeners—will recognize that, and I can intensify that moment of recognition by an extreme pianissimo dynamic. It is a very beautiful moment when that little motif comes back so quietly. And of course, that is kind of contrived. And then after a time, I resist the temptation of providing my audience with cheap thrills. It feels glib, cheap, vulgar. It is the same thing, in a way, with the piano preparations. They make such beautiful sounds; you just play a note in the middle register which has a coin interlaced in between the strings, and it makes this incredibly archaic sound which sounds like an old grandfather clock—there is something redolent of the past. It is very beautiful. You do that and people are amazed that such a sound can come out of the piano. So there are all kinds of tricks you can play like that—when the going gets tough, I suppose.

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 maintain 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.
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