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Point of Departure

One can hardly think of a musician more in tune with Morton Feldman’s expansive approach to compositional structure than John Tilbury. His seminal work with Cornelius Cardew first exposed the pianist to the music of Feldman in the late ‘50s and he was amongst the first to perform Feldman’s work in Europe. Then, of course, there is Tibury’s long association with AMM, where he joined with like-minded improvisers to create and refine radically unique approaches to collective invention. Tilbury has cemented himself as one of the preeminent performers of the piano music of Feldman, having performed his music extensively since 1960 and, along the way, slowly amassed an impressive, and thoroughly thought out collection of recordings of Feldman’s music. There is the monumental 4 CD collection of the solo piano music on the London Hall label (regrettably out of print but well worth searching out) as well as a definitive recording of “Triadic Memories” on the Atopos label.

A series of releases on Matchless documenting the performances of Feldman’s music for piano and strings performed by Tilbury and The Smith Quartet at the 2006 Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music can now be added to that list. The first volume, which came out a few years back, offered up a mesmerizing performance of “For John Cage,” a duo for piano and violin along with “Piano and String Quartet,” a hyper-focused dive into the resonances of the five instruments. This, the second of a planned three volumes, features performances of two more pieces from Feldman’s later work. A third volume will collect pieces from ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. All three are on DVD, requiring playback on a computer, but allowing a full immersion in 90+ minute compositions without requiring the shuffle of CDs or flipping of records.

First up is “Patterns in a Chromatic Field,” a piece for piano and cello from 1981. Over the course of nearly 90 minutes, Feldman’s score places motivic kernels voiced by the two instruments across a long arc with an organic sense of movement. Rather than the slowly unfolding striated lines of much of Feldman’s later work, “Patterns…,” as its name would imply, utilizes phrases voiced by the two instruments which are refracted, inverted, and stretched out with hypnotically subtle micro-variations. What distinguishes Tilbury and cellist Deirdre Cooper’s playing is their unwavering attention to attack and sustain, willing the notes into existence and then raptly measuring their presence within the context of the unfolding flow of the piece. There are sections where they place sharply articulated clusters into the sound space with crystalline angularity and others where tones seem to emerge from the sonic ground. But in both cases, the music is shaped by the directed decisions on the part of the performers in the measurement of dynamics and touch, from the quietest wafts of sound to sharp explosiveness moving along parallel paths and then converging with almost contrapuntal interwoven insistency. This is demanding listening, tracing the memories of patterns as they emerge and evolve throughout the piece. But Tilbury and Cooper’s keen sense of phrasing, duration, and the evolution of the underlying cells never flag for a moment, providing a steadfast thread for the entire duration.

“Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello” from 1987 was the last piece that Feldman composed and it is infused with the slowly moving, methodical pacing that the composer utilized in his final years. As with “Patterns…,” Tilbury and his companions – violinist Darragh Morgan, violist Nic Pendlebury, and cellist Cooper – fully immerse themselves in the structure of the music. The score is constructed around a more measured phrasing and protracted flow, maximizing the timbral depth of resonant, bell-like chimes of piano and the dark sonorities of the massed strings. Here in particular, Tilbury’s astonishing control of touch is in full display as attack is minimized, letting the notes appear fully formed and then gradually dissolve. The string players respond in kind, with richly nuanced bowing, shaped by meticulous attentiveness to the sonic space. There is a processional stateliness as the four judiciously place their hanging dissonances, letting the harmonics ring against each other and then decay with breath-like pacing. And that feel for pacing is particularly critical in this piece, as the tempo and dynamic range hardly varies across the 90 minutes, focusing one’s listening instead on the subtle modulations of pulse and tonalities. The four musicians are savvy enough to develop an elusive drama as the various layers drift across the collective undercurrent.

Michael Rosenstein — Point of Departure — September 2012