Derek's music blog

There aren’t many collaborations that have lasted five decades. However, Keith Rowe and John Tilbury’s has. They first began working together in the mid-sixties, when they were members of AMM and then The Scratch Orchestra. Since then, Keith Rowe and John Tilbury have formed an uncanny musical bond.

They’re like a musical yin and yang. One seems to know just what the other is thinking, and about to do. They anticipate each other’s next move. What follows is like a game of musical chess, except there’s no winner. That’s been the case with these two legends of experimental music. They’ve pioneered experimental music, with their unique brand of improvised music. It features on their latest project Enough Still Not To Know. It’s a four disc box set which was released on Sofa Music on 2nd October 2015. This is the soundtrack to a captivating project.

Enough Still Not To Know features just Keith Rowe and JohTilbury. However, Enough Still Not To Know was produced by visual artist Kjell Bjørgeengen. That’s not surprising. The music on Enough Still Not To Know’s four discs will provide the soundtrack to one of Kjell Bjørgeengen’s video installations. That music was recorded at City University’s Music Studios between the 17th and 18th July 2014. That’s where four lengthy soundscapes were recorded. The four discs, entitled Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four total three-and-a-half hours. This was the latest collaboration between two musical pioneers. They first worked together in the mid-sixties.

By then, Keith Rowe had been playing jazz since early sixties. He was born in Plymouth on 16th March 1940. Growing up, he discovered the guitar, and quickly mastered the instrument. His influences were some of the great American jazz guitarists, including Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian and Barney Kesse. They inspired Keith to embark upon a career as a jazz musician.

In the early sixties, Keith was playing alongside Mike Westbrook and Lou Gare.For the first few years, Keith enjoyed the life of a jazz musician. However, he began to feel limited by jazz music. The genre was stifling his creativity. Something had to give.

So when Keith was practising, he took to experimenting. Nothing to radical, just gradually seeing what was possible with his guitar. Then one New Year’s Eve, Keith made a resolution not to tune his guitar. Mike Westbrook, who Keith was playing with, wasn’t pleased. However, even he would forced to agree that Keith’s decision paid off.

Soon, Keith was one of the British pioneers of free jazz and improvisational music. He even abandoned conventional guitar techniques, and began to plough his own musical furrow. Encouragement came from an unlikely source.

An art tutor who was teaching Keith to paint, encouraged him to find his own technique. The tutor drew parallels with Jackson Pollock, who turned his back on conventional styles of painting to hone his own style. Keith his tutor encouraged, should do the same.

Keith was soon thinking laterally, and took to laying the piano flat. This he realised made sense. He could attach pickups and manipulate the strings with all manner of everyday items. Soon, he was playing his guitar with everything from a paper clip to library card. The result was what was essentially a new instrument, capable of producing a myriad of otherworldly and left-field sounds. Now all Keith needed was to find likeminded musicians.

He found this in both AMM and then The Scratch Orchestra. They were the likeminded musicians Keith Rowe had been looking for. This meeting of minds took place in the mid-sixties.

That’s when AMM were founded. Keith joined forces with Lawrence Sheaff,Eddie Prévost, Lou Gare and Cornelius Cardew. This was the lineup that featured on AMM’s 1967 debut album Ammmusic. It was released on Elektra, and was a fusion of avant-garde, experimental, free jazz and neo-classical. Hailed as an ambitious, exciting and groundbreaking project. It would enjoy an unrivalled longevity. Unlike another equally innovative project The Scratch Orchestra. This was another meeting of minds.

The Scratch Orchestra was formed in the spring of 1969 by Cornelius Cardew, Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton. Soon other musicians joined the nascent group. Among the members were Gavin Bryars, Michael Chant, Christopher Hobbs, and Hugh Shrapnel. Two other members were Keith Rowe, and the man who he would enjoy a five decade collaboration with, John Tillbury.

John was four years Keith Rowe’s senior. He was born on 1st February 1936, and studied firstly at the Royal College Of Music, and then with Zbigniew Drzewiecki at the Warsaw Conservatory. Then in 1968, the thirty-two year old pianist won the Gaudeamus competition in the Netherlands. Given his background and achievements, it seemed that John Tilbury was destined to become a pillar of the musical establishment. However, John was about to discover the endless possibilities of improvisational music.

Now a member of The Scratch Orchestra, John Tilbury was about to encounter two men who would play an important part in his career, Cornelius Cardew and Keith Rowe.

Little did John realise the impact that Cornelius Cardew would have on his career. Throughout his career, he would interpret Cornelius Cardew’s music. However, in Keith Rowe, John Tibury found a kindred spirit. After The Scratch Orchestra recorded their debut album, they would embark upon a five decade collaboration.

Recording of The Scratch Orchestra’s one and only album took place at Chappell Studios, London, on February 15th and 16th 1971. The Scratch Orchestra recorded two of Cornelius Cardew’s compositions. He had penned them in 1969, and they made their debut on The Great Learning. It was produced by Karl Faust for Deutsche Grammophon. Once The Great Learning was completed, it was released later in 1971.

On the release of The Great Learning, Cornelius Cardew and The Scratch Orchestra shared equal billing. Critics were captivated by The Great Learning. It was variously described as an album of avant-garde, experimental, improvised or post modern music. However, The Great Learning was ahead of its time, and many people didn’t understand the music. It’s only later that many came to appreciate The Great Learning. However, at least John Tilbury and Keith Rowe had discovered each other. The two men vowed to collaborate again. Before that, Keith was busy with other projects.

This didn’t include AMM. They were inactive for much of the seventies. The first time they returned to the studio was in 1974. By then, AMM were reduced to a duo of Eddie Prévost and Lou Gare. They recorded To Hear And Back Again. However, four years passed before it was released in 1978. A year after the release of To Hear And Back Again, AMM returned to the studio.

By then, AMM, who were now a quartet. Keith Rowe had returned to the AMM fold for the recording of It Had Been An Ordinary Enough Day In Pueblo, Colorado. It took place at the Studio Bauer, Ludwigsburg. Keith Rowe played guitar and deployed a myriad of electronics, including a transistor radio. He was one of the leading lights of the British experimental music scene, and played an important part in the album. Critics and connoisseurs of all things left-field realised this, when It Had Been An Ordinary Enough Day In Pueblo, Colorado was released in 1980 to critical acclaim. Despite this, it was another three years before AMM released another album.

When AMM released Generative Themes in 1983, John Tilbury had joined the group. AMM’s lineup had always been fluid. John Tilbury’s addition was a coup. He added another dimension to AMM’s sound, and complimented cellist Rohan de Saram, percussionist Eddie Prévost and Keith Rowe. John Provost was the perfect addition to AMM. He would return for their next album. Before that, John began to interpret Samuel Beckett’s work.

This was something that interested both John Tilbury and Keith Rowe. However, it was John who made music and text-based performances of Samuel Beckett’s work. The first of these was Worstward Ho in 1983. Stirrings Still and What Is The Word followed in 1989. By then, Samuel Beckett was proving an inspiration for Keith Rowe’s music. Especially, when Keith’s music is stripped bare so that only the most important constituents remain. Little did Keith or John realise that twenty-five years after Stirrings Still and What Is The Word, they would meet another man inspired by Samuel Beckett, visual artist Kjell Bjørgeengen. Before that, the pair had a lot of music to make together.

This started with AMM’s 1987 album The Inexhaustible Document. The same lineup of AMM reconvened for the recording of The Inexhaustible Document at the Union Chapel, in Islington, London on January 10th 1987. Later in 1987, The Inexhaustible Document was released, further enhancing AMM’s reputation. So much so, that artists were keen to collaborate with AMM.

Among them, were painter, composer and writer Tom Phillips. One of his former pupils was Brian Eno, who coincidentally, was another a light of the ambient and avant-garde scenes. Tom Philips was no stranger to a recording studio. He had already released two albums, including his 1975 solo album Words and Music. Then there was Tom’s 1978 collaboration with Gavin Bryars and Fred Orton. So when Tom arrived at The Union Chapel, London on the 20th May 1988 he knew how an album was recorded. However, he had never encountered a group as innovative as AMM.

When Tom Philips arrived at the studio, AMM’s lineup had changed. Cellist Rohan de Saram had left AMM. Filling the void was Keith Rowe. He played guitar, cello and unleashed a mesmeric myriad of electronics. Along with guest vocalists, the Irma album took shape. This collaboration between Tom Philips and AMM was released later in 1988. It was hailed an ambitious fusion of musical genres. Although well received upon its release, it wasn’t a huge commercial success.

That was the case throughout both Keith Rowe and John Tilbury’s careers. Their albums never sold in vast quantities. It was the same with AMM, and the future projects they would become involved with. However, all of their albums were seen as ambitious and innovative. That would be the case as the nineties unfolded.

As the new decade dawned, AMM released Combine And Laminates in 2000 It was released to the same critical acclaim as previous AMM albums. Elements of avant-garde, experimental and free jazz melted into one, as AMM continued to reinvent their music. That would be a familiar theme.

Just a year later, AMM returned with their latest album The Nameless Uncarved Block. It was a live album, which had been recorded in Zürich and Basel at concerts organised by the TAKTLOS Festival in April 1990. For many, this was the first time they had heard AMM live. They improvised for seventy-four minutes, continually pushing musical boundaries. This was what people had come to expect from AMM, who were still awaiting their major breakthrough.

Two years passed before AMM released another album. From A Strange Place was another live album. It was a recording of a concert at The Egg Farm, in Fukaya, Japan, on 22nd October, 1995. The album featured just one lengthy piece, lasting sixty-eight minutes. This was a musical voyage of discovery, with AMM throwing curveballs aplenty. While From A Strange Place was a welcome addition to AMM’s discography, they hadn’t released a studio album since 1990.

Still, there was no sign of AMM releasing their next studio album. They continued to release live albums.

The first was Laminal, a live retrospective of AMM’s career. It was released in 1996, the same year as Live In Allentown USA. Then Before Driving To The Chapel We Took Coffee With Rick And Jennifer Reed was released in 1997. That was the last anyone heard of AMM until a new decade dawned.

Later in 1997, Keith Rowe formed a new group M.I.M.E.O. Just like AMM, M.I.M.E.O.’s lineup has always been fluid. Members of the group were drawn from all over Europe. This pan-European group filled the void left by AMM.

M.I.M.E.O.’s debut album Queue was released in 1998, with their sophomore album Electric Chair and Table following in 1999. Both albums were released to critical acclaim, and hailed as groundbreaking releases. There were the inevitable comparisons with AMM. However, AMM spent more time playing live, than in the recording studio.

AMM’s first album of the new millennia was Tunes Without Measure Or End. It was another live album, that had been recorded at the McLellan Galleries, Glasgow on 4th May 2000. Tunes Without Measure Or End was released in 2001, the same year as another live album Fine. It had been recorded on 24th May 2001 at Musique Action festival in Vandoeuvre-les-Nancy, France. By then, AMM were still one of the finest purveyors of improvised music. They seemed to prefer playing live, rather than recording albums.

This made sense. AMM’s albums were never big sellers. It would’ve been hard to justify the cost of hiring a recording studio and producing an album. Instead, they concentrated on playing live, and released a series of live album. This was a real reflection of AMM’s music. However, their next live album was a particularly poignant one.

Both Keith Rowe and John Tilbury had been close to Cornelius Cardew. He had died on 13th December 1981, aged just forty-five. So to mark the twentieth anniversary of his death, AMM decided to record their performance at the Musique-Action Festival in Nancy, France in June 2002. It featured a forty-five minute performance of Treatise, a track composed by Cornelius Cardew. This performance was released in 2003 as the live album Formanex. Little did anyone realise that it marked the end of an era for AMM.

The following year, 2004, Keith Rowe left AMM for the second time. So Keith concentrated his time on M.I.M.E.O.

By then, M.I.M.E.O. had just released their third album The Hands Of Caravaggio in 2002. It was a collaboration with John Tilbury. Just like Keith Rowe, the veteran pianist was someone the rest of the M.I.M.E.O. respected. Keen to impress theJohn Tilbury, M.I.M.E.O. raised their game and recorded the finest album of their career. The Hands Of Caravaggio was released in 2002, and was so well received, that it made it was seen by some as one of the best experimental albums of 2002. Nowadays, The Hands Of Caravaggio is perceived as a landmark album in the electroacoustic improvisation genre. However, the album that John and Keith recorded in 2003 was very different.

John Tilbury’s mother had passed away, so he and Keith Rowe, one of his oldest friends decided to embark upon a project dedicated to the memory of his mother. The result was Duos For Doris, a truly poignant project, which was released in 2003. It was another landmark release from the two friends who had been collaborating for four decades. They would reunite in 2011.

By then, M.I.M.E.O. had released another trio of albums. The first of these, Lifting Concrete Lightly was the most ambitious project of their career. Lifting Concrete Lightly was released as a three CD set in 2004. M.I.M.E.O.’s reputation was innovators and pioneers of electroacoustic improvisation music was growing.

It continued to grow with the release Sight in 2007. As a result, other musicians were desperate to collaborate with Keith Rowe. This was a far cry from the past, when he was exiled in obscurity. The sixty-seven year old’s career was enjoying an Indian Summer.

That continued right through to 2011. By then, Keith Rowe was seen as the founding father of electroacoustic improvisation music. Proposals for projects came flooding in. However, there was one he couldn’t and wouldn’t say no to. That was a collaboration with John Tilbury.

Before that, Keith oversaw the release of Wigry, M.I.M.E.O.’s first live album. It was released earlier in 2011, and featured a recording of a concert in Wigry on the 14th of November 2009. Just over a year later, and John Tilbury and Keith Rowe were also recording a live album.

That was E.E. Tension And Circumstance. It was recorded at at Les Instants Chavirés, on 17th December 2010. A year later, abd E.E. Tension And Circumstance was released. This was the first time the two friends had worked together since The Hands Of Caravaggio in 2002. As they celebrated a musical partnership that had lasted five decades, they promised to work together again.

That promise was kept. On 17th and 18th July 2014, Keith Rowe and John Tilbury began to record one of the most ambitious projects of their career. The pair had been approached by visual artist Kjell Bjørgeengen. He wanted Keith and John to provide the soundtrack to one of his video installations.

Kjell Bjørgeengen explained that with his video installations, people often “don’t expect to hear any music at all.” The music that he wanted didn’t have to have to have a “musicality in he traditional sense.” There was nothing wrong with a “moment of silence” Kjell Bjørgeengen explained. This allowed people to reminisce. With a clear explanation of what was expected of them, Keith and John began recording.

At City University’s Music Studios, in London, Keith Rowe played guitar and took charge of electronics. Meanwhile, John Tilbury played piano. They didn’t just record enough music for one disc. Instead, Keith and John recorded a total of three-and-a-half hours of music. It can be found on Enough Still Not To Know, which is a four disc box set. It’ll be released on Sofa Music on 2nd October 2015. Not only will Enough Still Not To Know be a perfect accompaniment to Kjell Bjørgeengen’s video installation, but it’s what one would expect from two veteran musical pioneers.

Enough Still Not To Know features just four lengthy tracks. The four discs are entitled Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four. It’s what producer and visual artist Kjell Bjørgeengen wanted. The music drifts in and out. Keith and John aren’t afraid to leave sometimes lengthy periods of silence. They allow for reflection and contemplation. This works away from the video installation, and allows the listener to reflect and contemplate on the travails of life.

Sometimes the music on Enough Still Not To Know is understated and ethereal. Other times it reaches a crescendo and dissipates, leaving behind a mere memory of what’s gone before. Then there’s silence. This would frighten most musicians. They feel the need to fill every second. Not Keith and John. This pregnant pause allows the listener’s brain to reboot, before further waves of cinematic music ebb and flow. All the time, music washes over the listener. They absorb and immerse themselves in the music. However, it’s also possible for Enough Still Not To Know to become the backdrop to daily life, and drop in and out when possible.

As you do, distant bells chime, surprises are sprung and Keith and John take the listener on a voyage of discovery. Sounds gently implode and explode. There’s twists and turns aplenty. Constantly, there’s atonal changes. Similarly, there’s constant changes in the musical landscape. It seems to be constantly evolving.

The music veers between ambient, beautiful, ethereal and understated, to captivating, cinematic and even intriguing and intense. Sometimes, there’s an element of suspense, as Keith and John spring a surprise with their rich musical palette. They continually tease and tantalise the listener on this epic musical journey.

Sometimes, things are happening in the distance. Straining, the listener is desperate to hear what’s happening. They want to share this secret. This adds to the intrigue and suspense. However, it also adds to the ethereal beauty, and adds an air of mystery, suspense and sometimes, poignancy.

Sometimes, this leads the listener to reflect on something, or someone, that was tantalisingly out of reach. This leads to further reflection and contemplation. That’s something the listener can do a lot of during, Enough Still Not To Know. The stretches of silence, or pregnant pauses allow the listener to reflect on this musical Odyssey from two veteran musical pioneers, Keith Rowe and John Tilbury.

Both men have spent a lifetime making music that’s groundbreaking. Frustrated by the constraints of tradition music, they decided to rewrite the musical rulebook. Soon, they were embarking upon a journey through ambient, avant-garde, experimental, free jazz and electroacoustic improvisation music. Elements of each and every one of these genres can be heard on Enough Still Not To Know, which was produced by visual artist Kjell Bjørgeengen. He sculpted the four Parts of Enough Still Not To Know so that they fitted his visual installation. By the time he was finished, Enough Still Not To Know was the perfect backdrop to his visual installation.

That’s not surprising. Enough Still Not To Know is the work of two musical pioneers, who for the past five decades have been pushing musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes beyond. They continue to do so, on their latest music voyage of discovery, Enough Still Not To Know. It was released on Sofa Music on the 2nd of October 2015, some forty-five years after Keith Rowe and John Tilbury first recorded with The Scratch Orchestra.

Since then, they’ve both made countless albums. However, they’ve always found time to collaborate with each other; and although Enough Still Not To Know is the perfect backdrop to Kjell Bjørgeengen’s visual installation, it’s also a groundbreaking celebration of a musical partnership and friendship that’s lasted five decades.