Keith Rowe and John Tilbury
Duos For Doris

Erstwhile Records

uos For Doris bears the only explicit dedication in the Erstwhile catalog, an unusually outward-reaching and personal gesture considering the label’s ongoing compendium of seemingly self-sufficient releases. Performed in the memory of John Tilbury’s recently deceased mother and recorded at the peak of pre-war tensions, this first duo collaboration between the longtime AMM partners carries with it a singular profound gravity wrought from the will of two of the genre’s most searching artists. An exquisite study in human complexity both musical and emotional, their moving redraft of improvised music’s tenets presents an intricate soundscape that denies goals of simple sublimity or facile beauty unchecked by real-world disturbance. What Rowe and Tilbury’s mysteriously crafted expanses of rustled and chimed wire and static billows suggest is a self-created world at once individuated, self-contained, and yet keenly aware of its placement in personal and cultural history.

There is an innate restlessness to the dialogue between Rowe’s ever-dissolving guitar and Tilbury’s haunted piano murmurs, a restlessness that denies the comforts of the duo’s preexisting twenty-two year partnership. It’s a sense of internal agitation apart from the typical ratcheting up of pacing or dynamic, as an unnerving and unerring restraint holds the music just above the threshold of disintegration, dangled above hungry silences. Instead, Rowe and Tilbury exercise a fervent denial of acquired habits and comfort zones, seeking the embodiment of Rowe’s mischievous, upending credo of “doing something unethical” to preconceptions of technique, form, and group interaction. Rowe deprives and strips the guitar of its conventional signifiers – the hand on the fretboard, the striking of strings – to convert it into something altogether unknown, a beautiful growl of magnetic interference and feedback punctured by ethereal knocks and groans. Guided by an unsettling flux between interaction and Cagean non-intention, Rowe’s contributions revel in a complex gradation of coal dust hues that nestle Tilbury’s chimes in rich, responding eddies or prickle with abrasive tendrils. While his partner’s guitar ruminations appear the most outwardly alien, it is Tilbury who unearths his most invigoratingly atypical performance. Here, he swaps the comforts of delicate Feldman inflections for darker textures or veers into confrontational exchanges pocked with unhinged ellipses and omissions – enough to tweak the typically unflappable Rowe. Their playing is willfully steeped in the discomforts of danger and exploration, and their inventions all the more stunning for their studied adversity.

Rowe and Tilbury’s investigations span three lengthy improvisations contained on two CDs, the first of which serves as the duo’s sonic and expressive touchstone. From the initial amplifier hiss to the closing chimes, “Cathnor” comprises a disarmingly desiccated rhapsody of mournful ringing shrouded in long filaments of buzz and crackle. Deliberately paced and unrelentingly dark, it creaks as if strained by an unseen weight, its momentum hovering above absolute zero and sustained only by Rowe and Tilbury’s unflinching concentration. The first half is pregnant with tension and a nearly unbearable suspense, with Tilbury’s teardrop chimes and wound-string rumbles threatening to recede into a murky swirl of buzzing fans and amorphous crackles. Each cluster whispered from prepared piano strings or rattled from its reverberant frame hangs with eerie anxiety above a haze of decaying tones, while Rowe’s fluid canvas of looming Rothko hues vacillates between uneasy stasis and subliminal propulsion. Tilbury’s muted sonorities gather into storm clouds near the piece’s midpoint, culminating in a searing display of tape-saturating crashes from pounded keys and slashing feedback ruptures. The remainder is a slow unraveling of the initial material – Tilbury’s ringing clusters unwind into stalled melodies, dissipating into wavering mists buffeted by a current of lingering drones. A final swell of amp hum and a frozen lament trails into the silence, leaving in its wake a thoughtful irresolution – an irreconcilable conclusion, presumably, for irreconcilable times.

The second disc finds the duo in more open-ended but no less complicated territory, particularly in the shifting exchanges of its first and longest improvisation. While the first disc stretched the limits of sustained atmosphere, the forty-five minute slow motion whirl of “Olaf” offers one of the most refined statements of AMM’s laminar approach to date – a rotating amalgam of dynamic and sonorous shifts that meet at odd angles, crafting form from the unusual refractions. Rowe opens with a haze of pitchshifted static and snatched radio signals – snippets of wildlife recordings, intercepted jazz, indiscernible talk radio are all snapped up by Tilbury’s clacking upper register snaps, provoking the hermetic inner life found on the first disc with explicit stirrings of an external world. With the stage set for looser, more associative play, Tilbury conjures a wealth of distant gamelan tones from prepared strings and plucks harp twangs from the piano’s innards as Rowe creates an ambiguously rhythmic background from scrapes and hum. The latter moments are marked by fluctuations between the serene and agitated – Rowe unseats Tilbury’s glowing chords with flung chunks of debris, warm drones decay into dirty smears, and Tilbury’s final bass tone is clipped by the very earthly reminder of a creaking piano bench. These disturbances are neither irritating nor acts of contempt; rather, they serve as difficult and curiously human reminders of imperfection, displays of world-worn beauty unfettered by illusion.

Duos concludes with the meditative “Oxleay,” a stirring two-part coda that yields fittingly ambivalent closure to these thoughtful and turbulent sessions. In its first segment, Tilbury suspends shimmering arpeggios like flickers of slow-falling sparks while Rowe tugs at the corners of an illusory silence with subtle electronic shadings. The final act finds Rowe and Tilbury cooling to a barely audible succession of cracks and thumps, slinking into a beautifully hollow murmur until swallowed by shadows. Like its predecessors, it’s a conclusion that is deeply satisfying in its ambiguity. More than any other record in either artist’s rich career, Duos For Doris rejects easy reductions, and it carries a lasting weight uncommon in a genre driven by emphasis on the immediate. At once warmly human and intensely cerebral, it stands as one of the crown jewels of the Erstwhile catalog and arguably as one of the finest documents in contemporary electroacoustic improvisation’s young and fertile existence. It is music that is challenging in the richest sense of the word – full of bracing tension, riddled with sumptuous ambiguity and overflowing with strange and spectacular musical inventiveness. What Rowe and Tilbury have crafted is a document brimming with rare detail and thought provoking turns, moving outlines of complex intellectual and emotional states that induce all the subtle and stirring insights associated with paradox.

Reviewed by: Joe Panzner

Reviewed on: 2003-09-01

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