In late 2014 and early 2015, Keith Rowe recorded a series of informal interviews with John Tilbury. They were joined by video artist Kjell Bjørgeengen, who worked with the duo in preparation for an installation featuring their recordings (released as enough still not to know on Sofa records) around this time. Keith provided the following introduction:
My first meetings and performance with John was September 1965, (more than 52 years already!) invited by Cornelius Cardew as part of an ensemble to perform his graphic score Treatise, at the Theatre Royal Stratford London UK. Over the past half century we’ve been part of various groupings, Music Now ensembles, the Scratch Orchestra, Peoples Liberation Music, and of course AMM. His instrument the piano, and my instrument the guitar, occupy different ends of the musical instrument spectrum, the piano perhaps has the richest of repertoire written for it, while for the guitar the cupboard seems a little bare, ever since those early days we’ve consistently discussed the piano, right now we seem to be discussing Tatiana Nikolayeva.
As is the nature of conversation, a wide variety of topics are touched on and digressed from. We present these direct transcriptions, with minor edits only to leave behind digressions away from music and performance.
John Tilbury: …painful recording, it was nice in that respect. neither concert nor recording, not necessarily a release to come to your show, and that’s what’s quite different.
Kjell Bjørgeengen: Yeah, it frees up some expectations from what you think…
JT: The audience are going to go there probably to see your installation. When we play or would record, it’s normally they come and hear us. This is different, we’re anonymous. We’re anonymous. They don’t even know there’s going to be music, and so it’s quite a different expectation. The audience are coming in, hearing as if by default or by chance. “What’s going on there?” Oh, there’s sounds as well. So, it’s different, and I think knowing that certainly does affect the way we play.
KB: Yeah, that’s good to hear.
Keith Rowe: Because when we were in Zurich, you said something about ‘you want an opportunity to make your own music’.
KR: Or you’re recognizing that there were times when you really thought you were making your own music.
JT: Yes. Don’t hem that off. Really your own.
I guess, because I’ve got the legacy of being a performer, performing other people’s music, ever since I was like six years old. Always other people’s music, and often I’ve enjoyed that with enormous pleasure in the moment. And then I suppose I first got the idea of playing my own music when improvising with you guys, with AMM, first started. That was very different.
But even then, I mean when you play with other people, you find there are constraints, even when you’re just improvising with people. There are constraints which can affect you, or just me, affect my music, what I’m doing, adversely, to the extent that I wouldn’t call it ‘my music’. I’m playing the music, I’m contributing to the music of the group, but I’m meeting it more than halfway and I’m able to do that, I suppose, and it can be a good thing or a bad thing.
But it’s only when I play with a few people, like obviously you and Eddie, that I feel I’m free to play the music I want to play.
Who was it who asked me the other day? Somebody said, oh Darryl Morgan said, we were talking about the music that he was doing in a master class and he made the mistake of inviting them all to write a piece for him, all the composers at some college, so he said ‘that was a terrible mistake’. You know, it’s like commissioning a piece, you have to play it. And then I said to him, “Now I only play the notes I want to play”. And then he said, “Well, that’s your epitaph then: ‘He only played the notes he wanted to play.'” And yes, I suppose, of course you don’t, but that’s the idea. Sometimes you can get close to it. But then it becomes all about notes. What does it mean about being free to play notes? I mean, even if I’m playing with people I’ve got a lot of affinity with like you and Eddie and one or two others, there’s still give and take, you know.
JT: And that’s how we should be. All I’m saying, I suppose, is we aren’t just an individual, we’re the sum of the parts. And that means that I owe much to my original piano teacher and some of the people whose music I’ve played or people I’ve played with and I am the sum of these parts, so I don’t think I needed to do my things, I’m the sum of the parts. If I hadn’t met some of these people, I wouldn’t have played the way I played. And not necessarily all musicians. Different people influence you in very subtle ways. Certainly in your case, probably I’m sure painters influence the way you play.
And they’re there. When you play, they are there. You’ve assimilated that and it’s part of you. And without them, you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.
I like that idea, you know, I like that. This was very encouraging.
KR: I wanted to ask you about, do you think music can be about something? Is it about something? And should it be about something?
JT: I think it must be about something, it has to be. Because people, humankind, make it, so it must be about something. Whether we can determine what that is is another question. But it doesn’t come out of nowhere, it comes out of people’s minds and brains and history, and so the ramifications are very wide obviously, and it probably is impossible to determine but it certainly… Well, it’s about the human condition, that’s what it’s about. It must be that. How could it not be?
Short answer, big question (chuckles). I mean, what do you think?
KR: Well, a lot of musicians would say the beauty of music is it’s not about something, like for example, just recently, there was someone on Radio 3, just saying what he loved about music, unlike an art gallery where you stood in front of the painting, decoding, and knowing that the artist had a point of view. In music, you don’t have this.
JT: I think that’s wrong. You decode in a different way, of course. You’d make sense of the music as you’re listening cognitively, the emotional effect as well, you’re following, you’re using your brain, there are things, you remember certain things you’ve heard in the piece, within the piece. You maybe make connections with other things, your history with all kinds of things, you can’t escape from that.
KR: What would you, if you were to hazard a guess about your own music, can you have any idea what it’s…
JT: When I play?
KR: Yeah. I’m talking about your music.
JT: Yeah, it’s about being part of something, being part of a collective, a huge collective, which can be subdivided into smaller groups, like, obviously, the one you and I play in, with Kjell as well, and then there’s a larger issue here at stake, because what I do is also determined by my previous musical experiences and that’s huge, that’s a huge subject. But I can’t believe that Morton Feldman and Mrs. Simons, my first teacher, are not there with me when I’m playing, Cornelius, all kinds of people are there. This is the Buddhist view, of course.
KR: So when you play a single note, all those people are there?
JT: Yeah, yeah. And playing a single note is in itself quite complex. I can’t see how one can disagree with that, it’s such an obvious thing. People do, but I don’t understand how they can. We human beings for our sins and we have to deal with that.
KR: Do you think it can have a politic?
JT: Well, it depends on how loosely or how closely you want to define politics. Not party politics. It certainly probably reflects, that’s difficult, it certainly reflects a world outlook, if you like, it expresses the way you relate to people. It’s part of that, isn’t it? The way you relate to people, the way you collaborate with people, the way you deal with contradictions with people sometimes. That can be quite difficult.
The classic thing is when someone is playing something you find difficult to work with, or even offensive. It doesn’t happen very often, it does sometimes. I remember the classic example of Cornelius when somebody’s making terrible noise during the ‘Paragraph 5’, he was playing the piano very loudly and destroying what everybody, it was really anti-people, it was totally egoistic in playing loudly, and people were fed up and they couldn’t hear themselves speak or do anything. And Cornelius was in the audience, and he went up to the piano and he got the lid of the piano and very very gradually began to close it. So Cornelius made the point, and then he sat down and rolled his cigarette and became a member of the audience again.
So that was an extreme, we don’t normally have to resort to that.
KR: That’s very unlike Cornelius.
JT: It must have been so bad that he felt that he had to intervene, I know he… When people say to me, sometimes, “I’m doing ‘The Great Learning’ somewhere and people act inappropriately and offensively”, I always say “This is called ‘The Great Learning’, not The Great Learnt.” ‘The Great Learning’ and these people are learning something and you may not like the way they’re doing it, but unfortunately, it is irritating, it is annoying, expecting like in ‘Paragraph 7’, people get very – um – egoistic, what’s the word? They kind of show off, they want to be last, even maybe start improvising. That happened when I was in Sicily, a beautiful performance was ruined by some people who decided they wanted to start improvising, add a cadenza, you know, completely missing the point and destroying the piece, in a way. I suppose Cornelius could have made the notation more prescriptive but how do you do that? Do you say “no improvisation at the end”? I mean, they could have done that to a Beethoven sonata as well. They probably think they can get away with it with a piece of contemporary music. In a way, the Beethoven sonata would be more acceptable because he himself probably did some improvising even though there is closure.
So, the politics. I think it’s a way in which we relate to each other, a way we resolve differences between each other, all that is part of it, and that’s what you do in everyday life. So it’s a learning process and it’s something you learn from as well as being a musician.
So I think you could say there is a political or ideological aspect to it. You know, the idea that one should be a super egoist and just do what one wants to the extent that other people can’t be heard. Some people would say that’s freedom, of course, wouldn’t they? “Well, this is a free country, this is what I want to do.” There are people who do say this, and I remember Eddie told me about a guy in his class, who was making a nuisance of himself by dominating. He said, “Well, that’s me, I’m that kind of person, I want to be free to do what I want.” But then you have to say freedom is the recognition of necessity, as Friedrich Engels said. So, freedom is a much abused word, as we know particularly from politicians.
KB – Don’t you think there’s a specific freedom applied to being an artist or musician as compared to the rest of society? An artist or musician has, you’re not subject to a direct relationship to any capital, you seem to have a freedom to produce outside of the market or reference to commodities. A specific political, as an artist you make both, making art/making music may also be a political act since it’s done outside of the general economy.
JT: I think if you’re a practicing, dare I say professional, musician, and you get paid for what you do, as most of us do, then you’re on the market. You’re priced, you’re valued.
KB – But you’re not subject to one of like 10,000 tables to choose from in the market.
JT: But there are never less than 10,000 more pianists doing different things, should I get special treatment? That’s up to people who decide.
KB – I think the possibility for you to play the way you do is a kind of political act also, and in itself has because it’s in a way disconnected from the general capitalistic economy which gives you a sort of freedom to play perhaps only that note, not to form a chord or there’s some kind of expectation.
JT: I agree, nevertheless I have been employed to play that particular note in my particular way. In a way you can’t escape the market economy if you’re out there playing a gig. They choose you rather than this person or they don’t choose you, they want somebody else. So, I think having said that, we try to be true to ourselves, to coin a phrase. We do what we think needs to be done as an individual and as part of a collective. All that is taken into consideration, maybe at an unconscious level. If we show out there and people turn up, pay money, get out of bed, come hear us play, I must say I do feel a certain responsibility. I don’t like wasting people’s time. Why the hell should they come and pay to hear me play the piano? As my daughter says, “Dad, is there any reason I should get out of bed and come and hear you play the piano?”. It’s a very good question because there are lots of things you could do. I might say yes, there is, but…
I do feel a sense of a responsibility and I am pleased, I must say, when people are engaged with it. I don’t necessarily want them even to like it, as long as they are somehow engaged by it. If they’re not, that’s a failure, on their part, maybe on our part. They’re there, they turn up, they sit down, they wait for us to come on stage. So what are you gonna do, you know? However you look at that, there’s a relationship there, you can determine it in different ways. Somebody has come, they paid their money, you have to do something. On the other hand, you can say ‘well, they paid their money, I’m not going to give them what they want possibly’. The relationships are quite diverse and quite varied in this situation when it’s 1:1 with the person, when you’re playing or drawing something or whatever. But it’s something you can’t escape from unless you do your stuff and stay at home and don’t play to other people. If you do, it opens a veritable can of worms once you get out into the real world and say ‘This is what I do, I’m doing it, and I’m even telling you I’m doing it somehow’ or somebody doing the advertising on your behalf.
So, there is no escape from that, I think I take that quite seriously. I hope I don’t make too many compromises, who knows. When I play at home, or when I play in front of an audience, in itself it’s a different situation. At home I can stop and say ‘bugger that, I’ll go make coffee, it’s horrible’. In performance you can’t really do that, you could but you probably wouldn’t do it. You bang on it, like Monk said, ‘I made all the wrong mistakes’. We’ve all had that. Everything I do it jars, you think what’s going on here. You have off nights, you can’t just turn it on. So it affects people, people are concerned, people take time to come and hear you play, they’re looking forward. Usually with our kind of audience they know what to expect, and they are probably fans in a way or interested in what we do. Another kind of captive audience, not always but often, people who know what they’re getting and that’s why they’re there. Has that answered the question? I’ve evaded the question.
KR: The other part of the question is when you’re in front of an audience, what is your relationship with the audience? What power do they have in the process?
JT: By their mere presence, the fact that I have to perform, I start and I finish. That always happens. Whatever fancy ideas you have about pieces not starting, pieces not ending, that is defined. You pack up your guitar, put it away and go home, the end of concert.
KR: What do you sense about their presence when you’re obviously concentrating on what you’re doing?
JT: I think you get quite a lot from the audience in a subliminal way. I think certainly we are conscious of an audience which is involved, which is focused, which is listening. You know some audiences are incredibly quiet. That usually means not that they’re bored, on the contrary they are actually engaged in what you are doing. They might be trying to figure it out, might be metaphorically scratching their heads, but they’re engaged and you know that and we’ve all had that experience. Audiences where you can hear a pin drop. And that’s very satisfying, you know they’re really listening and the other thing about it is that they are listening creatively. As we know, when we play, people come up and say things which are quite insightful about the music. People sometimes talk about things you didn’t know were there. One cannot underestimate that creative listening is so important, their contribution to the world of art I think is immeasurable. The committed creative listener or viewer, whatever you like to call it, one can take them very seriously and you can learn from it. I don’t mean “don’t do this, do this”, but in more subtle ways. Just by an observation they might make, you know, simple observations, “What’s that? I hadn’t thought of that if that was the case, quite interesting.”
KR: Leads to that kind of cliched question “Who are you doing it for?”
JT: For us, which includes me. All of us, doing it for all of us. Not just for me, you’ve got to be absolutely committed yourself, otherwise you’re cheating, cheating the audience. You don’t mean what you do but you’re doing it for us, for all of us, not just for yourself. That’s my view, anyway.
KR: We’ve often talked about the piano over the years, over the decades. You’re a piano player, I’m a piano novice, but you’ve often talked about the technical aspects, the physicality of the piano itself, the different weights in the process. How would you determine the importance of say, playing a specific Feldman piece, how it could be different because the weights are different and the acoustics of the piano are different?
JT: Because Feldman is so physical and so sensual, you’re very aware of the sensuality of touching something. And there’s a wonderful quote from Roland Barthes who said that the finger pad is the most erotic part of the pianist’s body. I like that, and I think that is the case. Also Baudelaire talked about the harpist like making love or stroking a woman, that sort of subtlety of touch. It’s very physical, very sensual. When you’re playing a lot of music, it is just one ugly sound after another. But Feldman arrests that, and you’re focused on the actual physical moment, the act of making the sound. I get that in Bach when I’m playing Bach counterpoint, I get a physical satisfaction when playing those counterpoints. But with Feldman it’s certainly, with improvising as well on a good day, this is the same thing, you’re very involved with the physical aspect. And you know, to get the sound approaching what you want to, you’ve got to be very focused, you’ve got to have a real subtlety of touch, but at the same time the level of intention has got to be very high, at the same time you know that you’re not quite getting it. There’s a vulnerability, there’s a fragility about human actions and human intent and ultimately, I think in a way you fail. You try your best. The sound is never quite right. You have ideas, you listen to it, some performances are better than others but there’s always, when you play – today when I was playing, that F, I didn’t want it to be as loud as that, I wanted it to be softer than that, for example. There’s always this idea of thwarted intention. I like in Feldman that whole idea of fragility and vulnerability, which is I think the human condition, is very much highlighted in performance.
I remember once playing ‘Triadic Memories’, it was in the daytime or the early evening in Graz in Austria and I had a lamp on because we knew at some point during the performance, I would need a lamp. I didn’t want to switch it on but the light was fading, it was very beautiful, and at some point near the end of the concert, which we didn’t know of course, but there were some church bells ringing. That really put the whole thing in perspective. The composer could no longer say “I am the composer” and the performer could no longer say “look at me, look what I’m doing”, these bells completely subverted the whole thing, the bells, stole the show. And at that concert, two women were weeping, one older woman, one younger one, that doesn’t happen very often. I think maybe it happens in music more than the other arts, I’m maybe wrong. There was a discussion about that, crying in art, weeping in art, I think they came to the conclusion that music is the thing that can sometimes reduce people to tears. Although actually poetry is quite high on the list as well.
So I began to think about that, about why were they crying, and I think it was because the music was very much about the human condition, about – going back to these words – fragility, vulnerability, failure and all those things were somehow consummated together in this performance of Feldman, and that’s what these two women found so moving. It was also, I think there’s another broad point here, it shows that art and nature are akin, and you can go even further. Like Cornelius did, and I think (William) Kent did as well, saying the phenomena of nature have a stronger effect on people than a work of art. Say being up in the Himalayas somewhere, this silence and this extraordinary feeling you get. Or in thunderstorms, and lighting, the amazing drama. Kent talked about that and so did Cornelius. I think maybe something o do with it, working closest to nature is maybe dangerous territory but perhaps the art that grabs the most. Take another example of weeping, people apparently weep in the gallery in Houston, the Rothko paintings, people weep there. You’ve got that blackness, the claustrophobia. And there are other examples of that kind of thing where it seems to be, Feldman and nature seem to be very GARBLED into nature and so do the Rothko paintings, so maybe that goes some way to explain why people are so affected by this music. As they have been by our music as well. People talk about our music in the same way.
KR: So thinking about the response to music, when you finish a performance when you’re just walking away from the piano, and then subsequently later on in reflection. Do you feel happy about what you’ve done? Do you ever feel happy about what you’ve done?
JT: Really the way it’s happened, is if you’ve performed to your satisfaction, relatively, of course, relatively speaking, you get a very good feeling. I remember when I played ‘Palais de Mari’ in Reykjavik, I had a wonderful piano and a huge venue, wonderful venue, lovely piano tuner, marvelous instrument. Everything went terrifically well. Oren (Ambarchi) was there, I played with Oren first and then I played the Feldman. And I thought then “this is good” at the end of it, “I’m pleased with that”. Frank Denyer came up and he said “that’s the best live performance I’ve ever heard of Feldman.” So it must have been good, must have been. Yeah I was pleased with that, maybe that’s not the most particularly noble sentiment to have, but when you think of all the noble failures, all the times you feel fed up, why not pat yourself on the back and say finally I’ve made it, once. You know you think that was great. When I heard it back, yes it was good but I wouldn’t have raved about it. I think the live performance when you hear it back on recording, yes it’s impressive, but actually to be there in that hall. And I was listening to it myself, it’s slow enough, you’re very conscious of your listening as well while you’re playing it. The level of intention, of satisfaction in terms of what I was trying to do was quite high, you know I played the sound, got that, that’s it.
KR: So when you listened to that recording later, obviously weeks or days later, do you have a sense that it’s you playing or is it someone else?
JT: That is difficult to say, I think. Well, I don’t think I’ve heard many performances of Feldman that are any good apart from my own. (chuckles)
It’s hard, because you know it’s you and you know it’s a recording. All you can say is it’s not the real thing, it’s a documentation of something. We know that, from our recording with AMM, and some duos. People have said to us, I remember I think it was in Seattle, a guy that had heard every recording of AMM, and he said “it’s nothing like when you hear the actual thing, that’s totally different.”
KR: So, thinking back to the actual piano, this physicality. I remember in Zurich asking you about the music the instrument was played on. I asked you which pieces of piano music you thought use the proper keys and the characteristics of the piano more than any other. And you talked about Cornelius.
JT: Yes, something like the February pieces, they make different kinds of demands that you haven’t met with other music. You’ve got the acceptance of different levels of control which he notates in paragraph six of The Great Learning. Different levels of control like half-accidental, semi-half-accidental. Different ways he describes the sounds accidentally produced, that makes you think how you do that accidentally.
KR: I think that was something very strongly Cornelius, because I remember once being with Eddie and you around the breakfast table in Cornelius’ house, and Horace must have been nine months old or a year old, and Stella goes to the kitchen.
JT: I know this story, but tell it anyway. I wasn’t there but I heard about it.
KR: Basically, Horace spills orange juice all over the table. And Stella comes back and says “what happened there?”, and Cornelius says “it started out as an accident, but carried on on purpose.” So I think it’s in the music.
JT: Yeah, you get that in the February pieces and in other pieces, the Paragraph 6. But other composers, you don’t get that. I mean, there are composers that write very well for the instrument, Feldman, Howard Skempton, Chopin, Liszt. I think one of the main things is that they have a very keen understanding and appreciation of register, where the instrument gives off a different quality depending on which part of the instrument you’re playing. The low notes, the middle register – that appreciation of register is very important. Howard has that very well, the simple pieces that are there and not there, he knows exactly where to put the notes on the palette. That’s very impressive, and that’s very satisfying to play. So I think, now having done some Scriabin recently, I think Scriabin also has that gift with register. Very satisfying to play that.
The other thing which I think is underestimated is that when you go to a concert, it’s often the case that the instrument is completely alien to you, the piano. You turn up and you might have half an hour to play, to get used to it. A lot of the time you’re getting used to the piano during the performance. Unless you’ve lived with the piano for a while you don’t really know, you don’t know every single key/string intimately, although you’re always discovering things on your instrument, if you’re with it all the time you obviously must get more familiar with it, even if it may surprise you from time to time. With a piano, some of them can be very different, and sometimes very difficult to handle. Especially when I’m doing Feldman, I’ve had some very unforgiving instruments to play on, and I really have to work very hard to get that sound, very very difficult. But you have to do it, you learn how to cope with that situation. And then sometimes you meet an instrument that is so responsive and wonderful, everything about the sound, like the one I had in Reykjavik.
So that’s the real challenge. I think Frederic (Rzewski) had the right attitude, he said “there’s no such thing as a bad piano”. I think that’s a good thing to say. Because it’s no good complaining about it, you can say ‘I’m not gonna play this instrument’ and walk away. But if you don’t, you have to treat it with love and care. If you play it, you play as if it’s a wonderful instrument. It’s got its idiosyncrasies, you’re dealing with it, they become special in a way. So you can’t say ‘this is a terrible instrument’. Either you walk away from it, or you get down to it and you learn to love it while you’re playing it.
KR: And would you ever choose to play a terrible piano?
JT: I’m not that much of a purist, no. You know, if I were given a choice, I would look into it, try a piano. When I bought my piano, which is a renovated Steinway, we talked about the touch and it was too easy, they weighted it. They’ve got lead shot.
KR: Is there a musical period that you would like to have been operating in? Just in a very jovial way you said 18th century. If you liked playing music in the 1740s?
JT: I think they’re all pretty bad. I don’t think one is better than another. Probably the means of self destruction are greater now, which may be a good thing. But I think if you were at the bottom of the pile, like us, or near the bottom, it’s pretty bad whatever century you’re in. So no, I’m quite happy, no, I’m quite unhappy to be where I am.
JT: He says that “They just don’t realize what a phrase costs.”
KB: Who said that?
JT: Clifford Curzon. You don’t remember what he wrote, do you, or what he said should be written? The point with posterity, I think what he said about recording, which he was quite scathing about. He didn’t like it, but I’m glad he did. However far removed you get some idea. I did hear him play once, live in France I think, a concerto. At the time you don’t realize what you’re hearing. It’s kind of special, then it becomes “god if I was you”, it was amazing. When I was about 14, one of my family friends’ got tickets for Dinu Lipatti, a wonderful Romanian pianist, fantastic. For the Wigmore Hall. We got the tickets back. He was ill, he died 2 or 3 weeks later at the age of 33. Such a natural, very natural, it’s like as if he were just reading it for the first time. Anyways, wonderful.
KR: On that theme of “I wish I had concentrated more when I was sitting and listening to Clifford Curzon”….
JT: (interrupts) I probably was listening, concentrating – but I’m blaming the passage of time, blaming my memory on the passage of time, because I felt like I remember it. I don’t think it was because I was not concentrating at the time, I think you lose the intensity of the experience. You look back 50 years ago, I was there, but I can’t remember exactly what I was feeling about it, what I did afterwards, whether I discussed it afterwards, what I thought of it. I was there, it must have meant something.
KR: So, on that theme of “I wish”, are there questions that you wish that you’d asked Cornelius?
JT: Oh yeah, yes, definitely, and Feldman.
KR: And Feldman, yeah.
JT: Definitely, yeah. But you felt that you’d already exposed yourself as being a complete idiot. You know, the famous reply from Tudor “if you don’t know, why do you ask?” (everyone laughs) Always had that in my mind. But I do regret it though. We did converse. I played in front of both of them. So you know, there must have been something, must have been, we had exchanges between us. There were things I probably had in mind I’d like to ask, but felt somehow embarrassed.
The other thing is of course that I think in the end ultimately you’ve got to rely on the score. A tradition lasts only so far. I mean like the Great Learning, actually there is an original film of Michael Parsons doing it, it was beautiful. But along with that stuff, The Great Learning, I wonder if people were left to their own devices without any access to us, without any help from people who had been in any contact with him at all, say in 100 years time they do it, how would it turn out?. What kind of sound would they make, what kind of revisions they make, who knows.
Someone was asking me, this German guy, asked something quite radical about cutting something out or, it was something quite radical. If you do something like that, you have to ask yourself a very serious question. You’re going to change the score basically, ok, that’s all right, but really, do you improve it? Why are you doing it, why do you change it? To improve it? Do you think you have better ideas? I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m saying this is a serious thing. You must ask yourself the question, what are you doing? I wouldn’t do it, personally, but go home and discuss it with your mates and your colleagues and decide what to do.
KR: Actually, in a way that came up recently with Edges. Christian Wolff wrote Edges at a particular stage of his life, at a particular stylistic stage. 30-40 years later, when he’s in a different stage of his composition and his relationship with the compositions, and then you ask his opinion in 2014 on how you should perform something which he wrote in 1968, in a different phase. It’s quite perplexing then, because you’re actually getting contradictory attitudes.
JT: Yes, I don’t think his opinion now is any more valuable than yours or mine. (Laughter) I don’t think it is, because we all have very funny interpretations about what we did in the past. How we’ve dealt with it, how we dealt with scores, etc. or what we’ve written. So I would never trust a composer talking about something he wrote at a different time in in his life, when he had different ideas. Many changes, much water, much dirty water gone under the bridge.
Of course, this brings us back to the score again. You have to bring it back to the score. Whether it’s Bach or whatever, all the controversy about Bach. There’s a book by a quite well-known Austrian musicologist and pianist, he writes on the very first page about playing Bach, “Of course I would never consider the interpretations and writings of Glenn Gould, it’s a complete travesty. I think we can say that, we don’t have to worry about that.” That’s on the first page. So that’s what you’re up against, what we’re all up against.
So, you know, it’s all about integrity, not losing your nerve as Feldman would say, and thinking hard about the music, and not to worry too much. We all make mistakes. As far as a composer talking about his early works, you know Feldman made some quite quirky, almost scathing remarks about his early music. Saying that “oh, in those days I really wanted this dreamy softness but I find it a joke. Dave Ryan told me that, at a lecture, not long before he died. I thought we were struggling, really working to do that, (everyone laughs) and now you say ‘it didn’t matter’.
Makes you think twice about all instructions, I suppose. Howard’s (Skempton) were good, when I did the cd. I played one of the pieces, he was there at the recording, and he said, “I’d have imagined it quite differently, very slow but you played it loud and fast”, something like that. So I said, “Well I can try it the other way, no problem. I’ll do that.” Then he said, “The most important thing is that you’re convinced when you play the music.” He said it’s a question of conviction. And so that’s the way you do it. I haven’t given any advice in the score to the contrary. Although even sometimes I’ve actually played some pieces where he has stipulated a certain dynamic and I have changed it. So I thought I was more convinced by the way I played it. I suppose I could have not just played it but, but I thought I know this music well, I think I’m entitled. So there’s always that tension between the past and the present, between the composer and the interpreter. The most devastating thing is when they can contradict themselves, “but you wrote this”. Like my daughter says “last week you told him that was lunacy”.
KB …I think also the silences here. It’s sort of breaking the usual listening mode apart. But at the same time there is, like you have to sort of accept it, you can’t be impatient, which I think is really really good for the audience to realize.
JT: The silences are very interesting because they’re not the traditional AMM silences, nor are they the Cage silences. It’s something else.
KR: It’s definitely a category of silences.
JT: it’s quite different.
KR: In a way, I find them quite dramatic. Definitely an energy to them. I always think that Cage’s silences are kind of ambient, kind of meditative.
JT: They are, because he’s created music which influences and maybe even corrupts the silences. Which we’re not doing, we don’t do that, we don’t have any influence. Rather the other way around. We start from your installation where there are no sounds, and then at certain points there will be sounds, and what’s important about it, our music isn’t conceived for a particular audience. And certainly not for an audience that comes at a certain time and leaves when the concert is complete.
KB: One thought struck me when listening back, another way of presenting this would be inviting people for a listening session, to have a public listening to one or two of the tracks. I know some people have done that, they invited people to a club and have something for them to listen to, and then we could have a discussion about it. Make something in between a live performance and a home listening experience, and have it as a group listening experience.
JT: But then you’d be subverting that original idea. What I liked about the original idea is that people are not coming to listen. They have no intention of listening at all. They’ll hear something, and then they may change their hearing to listening, then back again to hearing, then back to nothing – maybe silence. So I like that idea. They come with no concept at all of coming to a concert or to hear music or to hear sounds or anything. It’s not on the agenda. But nevertheless there will be sounds, but they’ll have to deal with them in their own way. There will be obviously many different levels of attention and focus on those sounds.
KR: Just going back to the silence thing/issue/question again. One thing Cage talks about is that silence is the situation of maximum potential. But if you’ve just said that in a way he corrupts silence with an intention, there therefore must be degrees of potential in silence. And this might have more potential than the Cageian silence.
JT: Hope so.
KR: I think the idea of the degree of potential in a silence, and how you play your configuration, which invites a larger degree or a lesser degree.
KB: That will be an accumulation of what has happened in time before.
KB: I think that also works very good in ways we’re downplaying, approaching that area, it really fits that style of playing – to the bone.
JT: The medium is influenced by the fact that there is no audience anticipation. So we are thinking about why we made the silences. There is always a definite influence. The fact we know they are being played in an installation, we know that. They do come out of that idea, don’t they? We don’t just stop playing for no reason at all. The fact that we make the silences longer than normal, than usual, I think is due to the influence that we do know, we are confident that they are going to be played in a particular environment where nobody one will expect any music at all.
KR: There is something by Purcell, is it called ‘Music For An Occasion’?
JT: Yes, well the occasion is really some coronation or something.
I mean, maybe that’s the opposite of what we’re doing. Well, no, it is definitely to serve the occasion, and ours is to serve the occasion.
KR: I was just thinking of this idea that you’re making music for something that’s going to happen in the future?
JT: You mean in the installation?
KR: Yeah, we sit down and play for something that we’re projecting into the future. We’re imagining a situation, we’re creating something different for that occasion.
JT: Yeah we have to accept the actualities.
(break for food)
JT: All of this happened over a brief period of time, isn’t it? We haven’t been thinking about the way of music making before, it’s all happened quite quickly, so we haven’t had time to formulate ideas. Then they come, maybe easier or maybe more difficult when we experienced the actual installation, we’re there and we’re not playing. We’re the same as everybody, except that we’re more familiar with, we have a better idea of what kind of sounds will be present at the installation. I mean the people who will come, they will know there will be ambient sounds, maybe they will think about that, but when a sound comes, we know some extra ingredients there which they are not anticipating at all. So, that will be quite interesting.
JT (addressing KB)- Will you ask people, after the installation, were you aware, what awareness did you have of the sounds which were taking place in the installation? It might be interesting to find out, about their reactions if there is any to the sounds that were present in the installation.
KB: I remember when I made this work some years back with Aernoudt
Jacobs, this sound artist from Brussels, we made an installation in Bergen. And what happened there was that people started going there and just being in the space. They would lie down on the floor and stay there for an hour or two, things like that.
JT: Aernoudt‘s work has lots of pauses in it. Very short phrases and stops. Not something people can get into, they can get into the installation, but not into the music.
KB: Let’s see how we manage to integrate …
JT: We’re not trying to have an undue influence on the installation, just something that happens from time to time. Actually, we’re not trying to influence people’s response in any way. So I think most people, given that brief to make music for the installation, will probably have sound on all the time.
KB: I think the difficult thing will be to find the right format for the installation, because one very easy way out would be to have a dark room with projections. Which I’m starting to not really like that situation that much any more, I’d like to have more open spaces and then how to deal with the video with a bit more ambient lights.
JT: If it’s a more enclosed space, people will be more aware of the music, it will be more invasive.
KB: I don’t know, I don’t think so. I think the music can really still fill the space in a way that…
JT: I don’t want the music to have any prominence at all.
KB: Well, I think it should be like ambient…
JT: Audible. All I am saying is audible, some people will listen
KB: I would say it should be on equal footing, sound and image should balance out. Nothing should block the other.
KR: The other interesting aspect of this installation is the question of time. And how time is dealt with differently than in a performance. And that maybe indicates something that you’re pointing to, that it wasn’t used for a performance, nobody sat down to do a performance. And the way it dealt with time was therefore different.
JT: Yeah, the idea is that when the door closes, that’s the end of – maybe halfway through a phrase or a silence or whatever.
Cage, I think, tried to throw more light on his music, and we’re not doing that. He’s got more pretentions about his music than we have.
The stark difference between you and him, you’re aiming in later life towards obscurity, and he was definitely aiming towards stardom. (Laughter)
KR: I think what is encouraging is the clear relationship with Duos for Doris.
JT: Hmm? Remind me, because I haven’t heard it for a while.
KR: I think just it’s a development, the way the music has evolved.
KB: It’s quite different.
JT: Do you have a favorite track of that?
KR: Yeah, but every time I think about it, it’s a different favorite. It’s almost like my favorite track is the last one I listened to.
JT: That’s good.
KR: I really like the idea of there being no pretense for the music, it is really what it is, and it stands on its own feet.
JT: You are talking about Duos for Doris, now, and this?
KR: And this, yes. I don’t feel I have to explain it (to others).
KB: Do you think Duos for Doris is a bit more conventional? Particularly its musical structure?
KR: Well I think this is exploring, as we said earlier, exploring areas which are rarely touched. And to use one of Eddie’s favorite concepts, the dialogue, the sense of dialogue is very specific. I think the other thing is the generosity, of giving room to the other.
JT: Yeah, right. I think we’re also subverting the whole idea of time, of starting and finishing. That’s all broken down now, isn’t it? Because I imagine it will be on all the time in the space and then at some point people can walk through and enjoy and experience, and maybe hear some of the music, and the music will continue for a while after they’ve all left, and maybe the caretaker will forget to turn the switch off and so the music might be playing all night.
KR: There’s a very well-known situation where, is it Christian Wolff or Cage or Feldman? Basically, you’re playing and you have to hit the very bottom note, and immediately the very highest note, but there’s actually not enough time for you to do it, and the top note becomes an approximation of where your hand can…
JT: Yeah, probably Christian.
KR: Yeah, I think it’s Christian Wolff, kind of an early piece. The physicality. So presumably that would be an occasion that one might hit that.
JT: Actually, there’s another instance in Feldman where you’ve got to hit that top note, you jump to it, you can’t just find it because you’re playing chords. To start with you play the A below it, just below it. And that’s really difficult. You can hear the top C. You can see it, there’s a top piece of white, and then there’s black. So there’s a black blur and white. But when you have to hit 3 notes below that it’s very different. And actually I didn’t realize that, I thought, even on the record, it was the same note, I thought it was a C all the way through, but it wasn’t. It was an A. All these staves going up, about 9 staves, I thought ‘oh yeah, that’s the same but it wasn’t’. It was the next note down. And so it lasts forever, that is my appointment with posterity.
KB: Was Feldman present?
JT: Oh no, no. He probably wouldn’t mind, though, he would have probably been sleeping anyway. (Laughter)
all photos by Kjell Bjørgeengen except the second, by Kazimierz Ździebło
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