Part 1

Name: John Tilbury
Nationality: British
Occupation: Pianist
Current Release: The Tiger's Mind on Cubus Records
Recommendations: Bela Tarr’s film Satantango and any novel by Mary Webb, except the last.

If you enjoyed this John Tilbury interview, visit his discogs page for a comprehensive overview of his numerous recordings. In 2014, we also presented the 15 Questions to John Tilbury's mentor and AMM colleague, Eddie Prévost. Click here for this Eddie Prévost interview.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?

I vividly recall my first piano teacher, Dorothy Symes. (She also taught Rick Wakeman)

When I studied with her, as a boy, she was in full flush. In her excessive, outrageous demands for the perfect (musical) utterance, urging me to repeat a phrase over and over again, 5 times, 9 times, 14 times, she would reduce me to tears of rage. By her insistence on ‘perfection’, say of a phrase by Mozart (which, of course, was her own personalised projection), she created suffering and despair. For not to attain perfection was to fail. Like failing an exam. With Mrs. Symes I learnt to acknowledge the inevitability of failure.

In those harrowing sessions I must have occasionally achieved (a degree of) ‘perfection’ for she insisted that I should make a career in music. Mrs. Symes could not be gainsaid. I still think I should have gone to acting school. Acting thrilled me and I was good at it, while I was always extremely nervous performing in public.

In my experience, most musicians fight shy of the idea of perfection. That is: they deny it, or ignore it. Evan Parker, for example, baulks at the idea of perfection. Perfection, he opined, is a long way away most of the time, so much so that the notion of perfection is best left out of the equation. “It is an ideal”, he added, dismissively. And then, interestingly, “but it would be terrible to think you have achieved it” (from Amplified Gesture, a documentary film by Phil Hopkins, 2011) – which links him to the Japanese improvisers: they make no bones about it; they are categorical; their aim is imperfection.

“I want to make mistakes, mistakes are part of my work, my life.” Toshi Nakamura (idem.)

“If I find something perfect, that’s wrong. Nothing perfect in life.”  Otomo Yoshihide (Idem.)

Such statements betray the culture of Wabi Sabi: the Japanese bowl I was given in Japan after a tea ceremony embodies the idea of something which, in terms of Western ceramic standards, would be commercially unacceptable. (I recall buying ‘seconds’ at the Cardew pottery which were less flawed than my Japanese tea bowl). The lip of my Japanese dish is uneven, varies in thickness; but along its rim the patient mouth can discover an intimate resting point. The glaze has character, with washes of many natural shades of colour, and there are small marks, placed either intentionally or unintentionally, all of which adds to its beauty. It has a solidity and weight, and yet a delicacy, which makes it perfect to hold (and to drink tea from.) My Japanese bowl is an accident by design. Alas, after many years of grateful usage I dropped it one day, unintentionally, on the tiled kitchen floor, smashing it to smithereens. I kept the pieces. The bowl had changed. That’s all.

Now, so many years later, I am perfectly content with a ‘near-perfect’ performance. In fact, what I strive to create is not ‘perfection’, but rather something which is unique, irreplaceable. Which feels right, though it may not be ‘perfect’ and may even create unease and discomfort. I am not pursuing an ideal, an absolute. I suppose I am trying, in Beckett’s words, to fail better.

What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?

With respect to my own brief history as an improvising musician, I am hugely indebted to Keith Rowe and Eddie Prevost, my mentors throughout many years. They are masters, and I have been fortunate. With them the spoken word was rarely used. They taught me that the only worthwhile words/sounds are ones that can improve on silence. I learnt, as it were, on the job, through their irreproachable music-making, and their exemplification of Cardew’s ‘seven virtues’: Simplicity, Integrity, Selflessness, Forbearance, Preparedness, Identification with nature, and Acceptance of Death.”

Through an affirmation of accidentalness improvising draws the musician closer to nature, to an identification with nature; the sounds which constitute the music are no longer external to him; and this 'at oneness', together with an emphasis on the physical and sensual qualities of the art of performance, create an intimacy, an indivisibility of musician and music which at its best is communicated to an audience. Actually, the word ‘Nature’ is ill chosen; in the context of Art it often suggests a poetic, even mystical relation while the improvising musician's relationship to his environment is rather prosaic; the objects of attention and contemplation are more often than not chairs, tables, rooms, windows from which the view may be ordinary, depressing. In improvisation we strive to capture from the commonplace the 'whatness', as Stephen explains in Portrait of the Artist.

This collective work and experience stands against what is now being promoted on all fronts as the ‘me’ culture, where art has importance because it expresses ‘my’ life; ‘I’ did this first, or, it gratifies ‘me’, etc.

Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?

My wife and I live in a small cottage. My Steinway Grand is housed in an extension felicitously adjoining the kitchen. Being close to the sea Nature plays an important role, particularly the seagulls, with whom I have recently recorded a Duo. Of haptics, more later.

Tell me about your instrument, please. What was your first instrument like and how did you progress to your current one? How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?

We were a poor family but somehow my parents, father a clerk, mother a shop assistant, inherited a half-decent upright piano. A piano teacher happened to live close by. As my commitment to the piano grew we eventually acquired a second-hand Ibach upright, a truly solid, and impressive, piece of furniture. I enjoyed playing it.

Much later, when I returned from my studies in Poland, I put down a hard-earned deposit on a reconditioned Steinway grand. I recall visiting the Steinway show rooms in the West End. I was impressed by their expertise, their commitment, and by their pride in, and love of, their craft. We spent a long time discussing ‘touch’ and experimenting with the ‘weight’ of the keys. Ever since then, 1965, Steinway technicians have looked after my piano on a regular basis. They have become friends and are indispensable. When we discuss its condition, its needs, my needs, the language can become poetic. When I use the word ‘velvet’, for example, they understand what I mean.

The sound of the piano is magic and seems to transcend the instrument whence it materialises. It is a kind of Pandora’s Box; this is what intrigues me and which I try to exploit. The piano carries with it an enormouus amount of historical baggage. Every piano sound is steeped in history. So I walk a tightrope. I can fall into style; cliché, reference. The piano sound is subsumed into the context. Context is crucial. The appropriateness and inappropriateness of a piano phrase, chord, note, etc., basically relates to context. For example: ‘ugly’ sounds get beauty through their ‘logical positioning.’ And what if the context is ‘past enduring’? Supposing you find yourself in a hostile situation which you find aesthetically offensive. For example, regarding extreme volume; as a pianist playing with a saxophonist and a drummer you cannot match certain dynamic levels, What do you do? Well, you can play without being heard: conceptual approach. Or strategically placing sounds in rare moments of space/time - in the nooks and crannies, as it were. Or playing defiantly softly throughout. Or remaining indominantly silent.

Both with regards to repertoire and improvisation I have a propensity for soft music, and hence for the music of Morton Feldman. The softness transcends the instrument and draws the audience into the music – it encourages attentiveness and alertness. It demands a ‘transcendental’ listening in its search for the ‘relevatory experience’. I baulk at loud piano. David Tudor, the great American pianist/composer, once said: ‘the trouble with the piano is that it is just one ugly sound after another’!

The difficulty with improvising at the piano is that every sound is somehow redolent of the past. This is compounded by the fact that the piano’s tones are discreet, explicit, the semi-tone the smallest interval; there are no ambiguous melodic and harmonic territories where the piano can create and exploit alibis. Play a single chord and one or another ghost from the past, from Frescobaldi to Cage, will present itself to the contemporary consciousness. I have no recourse to novelty except, perhaps, for prepared sounds. My aim is no style. My intention is that, somehow, the resulting music will transcend the history of the instrument; and that my music should be rooted in the present, not in the past.

I have mentioned accidentalness in the context of improvisation. But not only improvisation.The 'accidental', the ‘unintended’, is a corollary of the extreme softness which the music of Feldman demands and which necessarily involves risk. The player is playing on the edge, on the frontier between sound and no sound. ‘Mistakes’ abound. For the interpreter the unintended embodies the notion of nowness, of uniqueness, keeping one’s ears, in Philip Clark’s felicitous phrase, ‘fantastically adrift’. Accidentalness is an active component, which the performer may either ignore or seek, in some way, to contextualise. (I am often asked how playing Feldman has influenced the way I improvise with AMM. In fact, it is the other way round. Through AMM I became more aware of the unintended in the sounds which abound in performances of Feldman’s music).

In all this, touch is of the essence. It is the dialectic of, on the one hand, the extreme fingertip sensitivity and control, embodying the notion of intention – and on the other hand the recognition, through an awareness of the contingent, of the ultimate impossibility, indeed the undesirability of control. Intimately, at close quarters, as it were, the performer experiences the vulnerability of intention and the inevitability, and acceptance, of failure. And this ‘imperfection’ gives the music its unique quality. Again, we are reminded of Beckett's famous dictum: "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

I recall an occasion of my performance of Feldman’s Intermission 5 which provoked the Swiss composer, Klaus Huber, to make a piquant observation. At the very end of the piece there is a short phrase which is repeated nine times. I tried to make each repetition the same as the preceding one. Huber observed that they were not only the same, but that they were even more the same than the preceding one! I suppose he was saying that they exceeded the listener’s expectations of what ‘sameness’ means. In trying to exceed those expectations, one is acknowledging that everything is different.

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