September 26, 2018

Unholy Elisabeth
Al Maslakh Records 21

John Tilbury/Keith Rowe/Kjell Bjørgensen
SOFA 563

Practically alone at one time as participant in improvised music from the notated music realm, British pianist John Tilbury is one of the foremost interpreters of the works Moron Feldman, John Cage and Cornelius Cardew. Yet Tilbury, who is also a teacher with distinguished academic credentials, was also a member of the free-form Scratch Orchestra in the 1970s and since that time has kept a hand in both genres most notably as a member of London-based AMM since 1980.

Related to his so-called classical roots is a florid romanticism often displayed among the multiphonic explorations and non-idiomatic sounds of these CDs, which feature the pianist alongside one of the other members of the AMM trio. Sometime intermediary between the two, Tilbury only plays with table-top-guitarist Keith Rowe on Sissel, with Norwegian video artist Kjell Bjørgensen the unheard producer. Recorded almost 18 months previously, Unholy Elisabeth has the pianist matched with percussionist Eddie Prevost, AMM’s other main man, with the duo improvising alongside the Lebanese “A” trio of trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui and bassist Raed Yassin – hence the alphabetical group title.

A splashy, multi-hued musical canvas in comparison to the skeletal sonic design of Unholy Elisabeth, Sisssel is a celebration-requiem for Bjørgensen’s recently deceased wife. Essentially the piece is set up with Tilbury’s distinctive note clusters and soundboard and string echoes moving along, almost unperturbed by pointed thrusts and slices from Rowe’s guitar as well as broken granular synthesis from affiliated electronics. Besides un-attributable throbbing percussion entries, the single track includes protracted silences, the most extended of which occurs in the piece’s final few minutes where blurry oscillations are muted to absolute quiet with the suggestion the players are moving outwards. Before that, romantic harmonies often unroll in a formalist manner, with tone patterns frequently echoing in the piano’s action and speaking length. As Tilbury provides the narrative for this threnody which also serves as a musical interpretation of a 17th Century painting, amplifier-expelled rumblings and items striking guitar strings transform the melancholy concept from dreary to dissected. With Tilbury also stripping his exposition to widely spaced single key strokes, perfectly formed bell-like piano tones are subsumed into watery and blurry crinkles and clacks. The dying timbres next move into appropriate silence.

Perhaps because of the additional textures available from three more musicians – and having a contrasting AMM associate – Unholy Elisabeth while often moving at the same pace as Sissel is the sonic equivalent of a dark-toned, complex landscape-rich canvas, compared to the gaunt skeleton-like structure of the other disc. Another single improvisation, Unholy Elisabeth flows in several interlocking directions, bonded by Tilbury’s distinct piano clusters. However the output from four contrapuntal foils, means these consistent chords become only one element in an evolving program also characterized by cymbal screeches and drum ruffs; looming double-bass buzzes; guitar strums and muted trumpet burbles. Add in unidentifiable rumbles which appear to emanate from unyielding objects butting against one another, this mass thickness is only occasionally broached by brass trills and violin-like high pitches from bowed strings. One-quarter of the way through a new sequence, occasional key clicks and cymbal scrapes quickens the pace so that that a pseudo-Middle Eastern coloration briefly enters the mix, in opposition to more formalist chamber music-like exposition from the strings. Resolution of the contradiction ends with foreground repetative keyboard chords facing cracked trumpet shakes and infrequent guitar strums backed by outward radiating pulses from the rhythm instruments. Tilbury’s near-romantic arpeggios are challenged in the subsequent section as undulating, wind-whistling buzzes from the others deconstruct the narrative, replacing it with spindly guitar strokes and bass string buzzing. Negating even that relaxed motion, the final sequence returns to the polyphonic promise of the introduction, although this time the trumpet blasts, cymbal screeches, corrosive piano clips and chromatic guitar pulls grind and stretch tone extensions to unprecedented loudness. Finally peal-point pianism and finger-style guitar plucks blend into an overriding drone to fade into metallic echoes and silence.

Self-contained singular creations, each of these CDs can be individually appreciated. Taken together, they provide additional insights into Tilbury’s individualistic skills.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Sissel: 1. Sissel

Personnel: Sissel: John Tilbury (piano); Keith Rowe (guitar and electronics) and Kjell Bjørgeengen (live video)

Track Listing: Unholy: 1. Unholy Elisabeth

Personnel: Unholy: AMM: John Tilbury (piano) and Eddie Prévost (percussion) + “A” TRIO: Mazen Kerbaj (trumpet); Sharif Sehnaoui (acoustic guitar) and Raed Yassin (bass)