Keith Rowe and John Tilbury: E.E. Tension and Circumstance

John Eyles By

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Keith Rowe & John Tilbury

E.E. Tension and Circumstance



It happens every year. Just as the old year is drawing to a close, after the best-of-the-year lists have been compiled and published, a release arrives just too late to make those lists but deserving to feature in their upper echelons. For 2011, E.E. Tension and Circumstance was the one.

Pairing Keith Rowe on guitar and John Tilbury on piano for the first time since Rowe's departure from AMM in 2004, E.E. Tension and Circumstance has to be seen as a companion piece to the pair's first (and only previous) recording as a duo, the double CD Duos for Doris (Erstwhile, 2003). Where that album was titled in memory of Tilbury's mother, who had died, aged 95, two days prior to its recording, E.E. Tension and Circumstance is titled in memory of Rowe's late mother, with the inside sleeve bearing the legend, "E. E. Eileen Elizabeth Charters-Rowe 1914-2008" written by Rowe in an imitation of his mother's handwriting. Continuing the family theme, rather than the sleeve featuring one of Keith Rowe's own art works, as has been customary, this album's sleeve has "coloured felt-tip drawings by Milford Charters-Rowe 1950-2008," Rowe's late brother. And rather fine they are.

Whereas Duos for Doris was studio-recorded, E.E. Tension and Circumstance was recorded live at Les Instants Chavirés in Montreuil, Paris, on December 17, 2010. The album consists of one unbroken 58 minute track which probably represents the duo's entire set. The live setting gives the album a different feel to Duos for Doris, with both players here sounding in a less contemplative mood and more prepared to push things forward; during the opening exchanges, Tilbury sounds positively garrulous compared to his normally restrained self. Is this the same man who famously observed that most improvising musicians play too much? Yes, it is and thankfully he is in no danger of playing too much; soon he is allowing plenty of space for his contributions to breathe and be fully appreciated.

In that, Tilbury is assisted by Rowe who, much of the time, lays down a backdrop including drones, white noise and scrapings over which Tilbury's piano is highlighted. The effect calls to mind Rowe's notes for Duos for Doris in which he wrote of "a music that might be nothing in itself but juxtaposed to another: together transformed...transformation by something which was almost nothing in itself." Rowe likened that to the effect a zero has when placed behind a number, making it ten times greater.

The most immediately obvious thing about the music here is the extent to which the two are compatible with and tuned into each other, despite not having shared a stage or studio since they last played together in AMM on May 1, 2004. Their shared experiences prior to that date continue to bear fruit. There is no "getting reacquainted" preamble, no tussling for supremacy and no awkward "after you" moments. Instead, they each do what they do best, instinctively seeming to accommodate the other's playing and to frame it, showing it to best advantage. For instance, towards the middle of the piece, the music fades away to virtual silence for a short period, before gradually building up again with slight rustlings and crackle from Rowe offset against repeated arpeggios from Tilbury, the two contrasting but in perfect balance. Over several minutes, they conduct a restrained dialogue, circling each other, building, until eventually Rowe introduces an insistent thrumming bass tone which moves the pair on to fresh explorations.

If E. E. Tension and Circumstance was by another pair of musicians who had come together and recorded a duo such as this, it would be obvious to suggest that they should gig and record together again soon. Sadly, given the situation following Rowe's departure from AMM, that seems unlikely to happen any time soon. On the positive side, we 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.

Tracks: One untitled track.

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

Track Listing:


Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Potlatch Records | Style: Free Improv/Avant-Garde

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