Keith Rowe & John Tilbury

E.E. Tension and Circumstance
Potlatch Records P311

While it’s evident that three into two won’t go, the situation is a bit more fluid when it comes to improvised music. Case in point is this Paris concert by guitarist Keith Rowe and pianist John Tilbury, who for a quarter of a century – before Rowe disassociated himself from the group – made up two-thirds of the venerable AMM improvising ensemble.

That’s why E.E. Tension and Circumstance is so surprising. For besides showing what the guitarist and pianist can do on their own, the performance includes strands of percussiveness among the pregnant pauses, oscillating static and parsimonious tones which issue from both players. If the absence of AMM percussionist Eddie Prévost – who is after all the most discreet of drummers – wasn’t noted, it was appear that the classic trio was actually present.

The CD has a lot more to offer than this novelty factor however. Like observing the strategies of chess masters, the appeal here is how Rowe and Tilbury don’t seem to take such conventional tropes as harmonizing or reacting to one another into account, yet still manage to produce a program which moves chromatically enough to fascinate without flamboyance.

Essentially the nearly one-hour improvisation is underlined by constant blurry static, which crackles, buzzes and resonates. With his collection of table-top guitar enhancements, commonly including a transistor radio, it’s probably Rowe who is responsible for the droning interface. His presence is also noted via the occasional staccato string lick, tremolo buzz or repeatedly strummed chord. Meanwhile, the snatches of pianism that Tilbury outputs vary from pure, near equal temperament to disconnected, low-frequency chording, as well as unexpected excursions into lyrical piano cadenzas. If hints of aviary chirps, crumbling foolscap and remote sledge-hammer-like echoes are Rowe’s response to this, it’s Tilbury’s leisurely single key click or vibrating chords surrounded by silences which actually define the session.

Eventually as the thin tempo appears to be induced to an even more deliberate pace, processed buzzes, wooden pops and scrubbed guitar licks meld with clean key clicks that sometimes extend to soundboard echoes. Then the two essentially fade into silence.

When the pause becomes permanent the performance is over, again leaving the listener to wonder at what exactly transpired and to marvel at Rowe’s and Tilbury’s unparalleled individualism.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. E. E. Tension and Circumstances

Personnel: John Tilbury (piano) and Keith Rowe (guitar)