Keith Rowe and John Tilbury: E.E. Tension and Circumstance – A concert I wish I hadn’t missed.


I’m new to the world of Keith Rowe and John Tilbury, so my initial connection to them both was to listen to excerpts of this album (I don’t have the album yet) from the Dusted review (written by Bill Meyer) and the review by Richard Pinnell on his (incredibly excellent) blog The Watchful Ear about the concert. Each of these reviews excited me so much I was drawn into getting my hands on the music.

The album is available through Potlach and is basically fifty-four minutes from the concert.

What I didn’t know is that the pair had a falling out in the AMM days. AMM is a group I must review on this blog so you can all get a taste for them. Check out the wiki:

AMM are an important British free improvisation group, founded in LondonEngland in 1965. AMM have never been well known to the general public, but have been incredibly influential on the field of improvised music. AMM have been called “legendary” and “groundbreaking.”, and are notable as perhaps the first musical group deliberately to try to make music not related to any established musical genre: as Michael Nyman wrote, “AMM seem to have worked without the benefit or hindrance of any kind of prepared external discipline.”  Most of their recordings have been released on Matchless Recordings, run by founder member and percussionist Eddie Prévost. In a 2001 interview, founding member Keith Rowe was asked if “AMM” was an abbreviation; he replied, “The letters AMM stand for something, but as you probably know it’s a secret!”

Check out the incredible AMM here:



Ok, so the deal is Guitarist Keith Rowe and Pianist John Tilbury have been friends since the 1960’s and shared membership in AMM from 1980 through to 2004. The upset was over Rowe having a problem with some things Eddie Prevost said about his playing in the book Minute Particulars. In 2002, Rowe and Tilbury made their first record as a unit, Duos For Doris. It is named for Tilbury’s mother, who died the same week as the session, and the sublime attunement of their playing on that day makes it a pinnacle in an already lofty body of work. It would have been the end of things if Tilbury hadn’t contacted Rowe when his mother died in 2009. They played together again in Paris on Dec. 17 the following year  – and thus the stuff of legend in born.



I know this is rather lame but I am going to reproduce some of what Richard Pinnell said about the concert here. It’s just that I wasn’t there (CURSES) and I don’t have the album yet – but how do you not write about something that is moving you so powerfully?  I’m a writer – you’ll be horrified to know when I DO get my hands on this album, you’ll hear about it again.  In the mean time, Richard will give you some insights:

I should state right now that this was not a ‘safe’ meeting. It would perhaps have been easy for the two musicians to slip into classic AMM mode and created music akin to Duos for Doris and pleased me and the other thirty or so in attendance at the show. To their immense credit (not that I expected anything different) Rowe and Tilbury sought to challenge each other, keep the music fresh and alive and steer it away from any potential safety zones. They created then, an incredibly intense, atmospheric space in a small room that I feel exceptionally privileged to have been able to attend.

The obvious structure for these two is for Rowe to contribute extended, continuous sounds for Tilbury to sprinkle his magic into. On the whole, this didn’t happen. The music worked its way through a series of sections that each had a different dynamic. Opening with Tilbury playing a kind of sprightly half-melody, Rowe, working with a stripped down table added short, abrupt bursts of ugly noise which seemed to be telling Tilbury that this wouldn’t be an easy hour. Gradually things moved into a series of slowed down explosions from Rowe that worked like small arcing climaxes, each one cutting off quite sharply, leaving Tilbury, who had moved into his Feldmaesque, rising arpeggios mode for a short while hanging in space, which he always made the most of, often reaching into his piano to almost instantly produce sounds to fill the gaps and send the music off somewhere new. The surprises did not all come from Rowe though. A little while later, as Keith produced his most sustained, violently rising section of attack yet, seemingly demanding Tilbury to slam his hands down on the keys, as he did with such power on the Doris album, he instead reached into his pocket and produced a tiny black box of some kind, into which he blew as he turned a tiny handle, so producing a stream of gentle birdsong, exactly what we were not expecting.



“An expression coming out of your stomach about who you are – the ‘I’. The ‘who I am’. ‘My person’. Experiences transmitted. The expression of sentiment.”

“Laying the guitar on the table it became much more about the world.”

(sigh) I love that  video.

I”ve read that Rowe is not really a guitarist.  He is called a philosopher – painter – musician who also uses a guitar. He certainly doesn’t ‘play’ the instrument in the way we are familiar. On E. E. Tension and Circumstance he also doesn’t ‘play’ to our comfort zones. From what I have heard there are two notes that sound guitar like, that serve the purpose to remind us its a guitar there rather than use it for sound. Rowe contributes continuous sound.  A ” fluctuating stream of subliminal whistles, grainy hisses, and crackling static. It’s never merely backdrop. He also provides discrete sounds, some quite harsh, which sometimes fit right into whatever Tilbury is playing and sometimes contradict it like a rusty piece of machinery dropped into an award-winning rose garden.”  (Dusted)

It is certainly a problem that I didn’t get to this performance but it is also a wonderful, joyous remarkable thing that this has been recorded so beautifully so that it is available now. Expect my contribution review when I get my hot little hands on it.