Thursday, August 13, 2009

2003 : 29 "Cathnor" by Keith Rowe and John Tilbury

One of the pleasures of Keith Rowe and John Tilbury's Duos for Doris is that we're invited to understand the double-album (comprised of three long, fully-improvised duets) through the situation surrounding its recording. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote that the universe is composed of stories, not atoms. I buy it. Or, at least, I buy that narrative-making is pretty high in the hierarchy of cognitive devices that make up subjectivity. But narrative-making is a double-edged sword for me when it comes to music appreciation. In my experience, the impulse to frame through story is irrepressible and automatic—like a Netflix pop-up. And sometimes it's almost as irritating as a pop-up. For instance, while I'm listening to my favorite recording of Beethoven's 9th—conducted by Furtwängler and performed by the Berlin Philharmonic during WWII—Nazis often crop up in my head. And it isn’t just generic Nazis—whatever those might be—it's usually baby-faced Nazi soldiers sitting in the audience in full regalia, scared straight by the paranoia & tenderness of the 4th movement, weeping at the full weight of their sins. Then one begins to slide his armband off involuntarily. And so on. Can I just get back to the music please??? But with Duos for Doris, framing the soundscape through narrative is encouraged as a way of getting closer to it; given my habits of mind, this pleases me immensely! The album is dedicated to John Tilbury's 96-year-old mother Doris, who, according to the inscription on the album cover, passed away two days before the recording session. Consequently, hearing Tilbury's Feldman-esque piano improvisation as an attempt to address his feelings on the passing of his mother, and honor her in the process, is better than acceptable—it's probably expected. The album is called Duos for Doris after all. Additionally, Keith Rowe (guitar/electronics) makes it clear in the album notes that his sense of musical space during the session was highly influenced by Doris' passing and his close relationship with John. So, the framing story is the passing of Doris and the musicians’ feelings about it. Understood in that context, it's quite moving to me how unsentimental Duos for Doris is. The album could be kitschy and fond; the story could be "devoted son expresses feelings for dear sweet mum," or "I’ll see you soon in the glorious dove-white kingdom of heaven." Instead, Tilbury and Rowe honor Doris with probing, pained, slowly unfolding pieces that come across as honest explorations of fundamentally perplexing and new terrain. What is this like? What do we see here? Feel here so soon after she left us? Of course, it's Tilbury's mother that died, and knowing that transforms his clean touch, in places, into a form of contact with Doris. It also transforms Rowe's detached wintry sheets of static into a kind of sophisticated caress. He keeps his distance, providing support by giving Tilbury the space he needs. And Tilbury takes it—there are long stretches of nearly quiet, meditative space on this double-album. Reviewers like David Toop and Brian Olewnick see overwhelming restraint in these stretches. I do hear restraint in them, a holding back, but mostly I hear their glacial tempo and spareness differently, more as a kind of intense, watchful, carefulness born of exploration in an emotional landscape that is shockingly new to Tilbury and Rowe, musicians who have played together since 1965 (since 1981 in the avant-garde ensemble AMM). They know each other so well... and yet here Tilbury and Rowe find themselves in a new place, one of anger and loss, heat and tremendous hollowness, Doris and John, Keith and John, excitement at the newness of it, sadness at the newness of it, and relief that they’re here together. This album is heartfelt and honest and, yes, a little bit strange—in the way all good eulogies are. It brings loss alive. The excerpt here is from "Cathnor," the first piece on Duos for Doris.

Eric Burger

Listen: Keith Rowe and John Tilbury >> "Cathnor (excerpt)"


Darren said...

Link doesnt work. but Great review Eric.

I do find it somewhat interesting that in both our recent reviews, we talk (in my case exclusively) about things tangential to the actual music (the cover picture, and the dedication). I think this is probably indicative of the difficulty of speaking meaningfully about music as unrelentingly abstract as the two pieces are. I often find it easier to talk analogically through metaphors, indeed to talk about something else almost entirely unrelated, as a way of getting "at it".

jpb said...

Link should be working now. Sorry about the back-end error.