The British pianist John Tilbury has been intimately connected with AMM for more than four decades, joining the legendary improvising group back in 1980. He filled the chair once held by Cornelius Cardew, who left the group a year earlier (and who died in a tragic bike accident in 1981). Long before joining the group Tilbury had established himself as one of England’s finest contemporary classical musicians, with a particular expertise int the work of Morton Feldman, John Cage, and Howard Skempton as well as Cardew. Apart from recording the latter’s music, he also penned an authoritative book about his life and music, publishing “Cornelius Cardew - A Life Unfinished” in 2008.
Tilbury is a pianist of rare erudition and technical precision, surveying long-form works with a keen architectural knowledge, and his refined skills as an improviser are rooted in high-level listening abilities. He has thrived in collective enterprises, giving and taking in varied contexts in a way that emphasizes collaboration, care, and sensitivity while downplaying bald virtuosity. Outside of his brilliant work in AMM (and outside of it with core members Keith Rowe and Eddie Prevost) he’s improvised with a broad array of sonic explorers including Oren Ambarchi, Marcus Schmickler, John Butcher, Evan Parker, and Derek Bailey. He cleaves to an immaculate strain of austerity, operating with remarkable restraint and rigor that generally has no interest in excess or virtuosity for its own sake.
Over the years he’s made several recordings for Sheffield’s Another Timbre imprint - one of the best, most thoughtful labels devoted to a post-Cagean music landscape - including one as part of the collective Goldsmiths in addition to titles featuring the music of Feldman, Cage, and Terry Jennings. Another recording for the label features his clavichord playing on work by John Lely and Christian Wolff. While working with Another Timbre capo Simon Reynell on a different long-term project, Tilbury played him some old recordings featuring several keyboard works by minimalist pioneer Terry Riley, an old and dear acquaintance of the pianist. Tilbury doesn’t recall the exact provenance of the recordings, but it seems likely they were made in Hamburg in the early 1980s. “Keyboard Studies” offers a crucial facet of Tilbury’s musical world, one that’s poorly represented by recordings, while at the same time offering new interpretations of some of Riley’s most important work. A handful of pianists, such as Sarah Cahill and Steffen Schleiermacher, have recorded the first two of his seven “Keyboard Studies”, but getting to hear Tilbury’s ravishing, breathtaking accounts of these works reveals new perspectives. Riley himself never recorded the first study, while an attractively raw iteration of the second was made under the title “Untitled Organ”, released on the 1967 album “Reed Streams” on the Mass Art imprint.
Riley only notated the first two of these pieces, composed between 1964-67, as they were designed largely as piano exercises for ideas he was working through at the time - during the same period he wrote his masterpiece “In C” - and each piece requires significant improvisation on the part of the interpreter. Naturally, Tilbury was up for the task. Both of these “Keyboard Studies” use a fixed but implied pulse, with a jaw-dropping rhythmic attack rooted in fifteen foundational three- or four-note phrases that cycle over and over, with the performer determining when to move forward, although the opening figure must always remain present. As far as I can tell Tilbury’s account of “Keyboard Study 1”, with its vaguely hocket-like alteration between two phrases at a time, is a single live take on piano, but the technical difficulty of these works has required overdubbing, and that’s what we get from Tilbury on “Keyboard Study 2”, which contains five separate voices, where he plays piano, electric organ, celeste, and harpsichord in dizzying cycles of rapidly swirling, rhythmically identical passages. The writing allows the listener to trace the ecstatic shifts between those core cells, even as the lines fly by at super high velocity. Phrases seem to emerge and disappear in almost psychedelic excess.
The album’s final piece is a version of Riley’s “Dorian Reeds”, a 1965 work he composed for saxophone and electronic delay - and also included on the “Reed Streams” album - which shares many of the same concerns as “Keyboard Studies”, albeit with a far more limited harmonic profile. In Riley’s own recording of the piece, which incorporated his Time-Lag Accumulator system as a delay device to allow for the removal and introduction of phrases, he plays saxophone, although subsequently the piece has been adapted depending on the instrument as Dorian Voices or Dorian Brass. Although it sticks with the original title, Tilbury’s version is for electric organ. It’s a wonderful sonic mind-storm, as terse phrases stack up, phase in and out of each other, only to be pushed aside by new iterations, bouncing across the stereo field.
Obviously, John Tilbury took his practice in a direction far removed from these minimalist gems, but here he not only proves his remarkable facility for this aesthetic frame, but he reveals a creative connection to the composer. He seems to inhabit these works with rare insight, a quality surely enhanced by his personal friendship with Terry Riley.