Review: Keith Rowe + John Tilbury - E.E. Tension And Circumstance

There is quite backstory to the 58 minutes of E.E. Tension and Circumstance that I was initially completely oblivious to. To summarise: Rowe and Tilbury were regular collaborative colleagues from 1980 right the way through until 2004, as part of the group AMM. At this point, Rowe left following a fall out with percussionist Eddie Prévost, and the two have been out of touch ever since. This piece, recorded live at Les Instants Chavirés in December 2010, was their first re-acquaintance after six years apart.

“Tension and circumstance” indeed. Rowe takes on guitar and electronics while Tilbury plays piano, but the most striking sonic presence is the deafening quiet that clogs the in-betweens; the air is thick enough to chew during that first ten minutes, with only the most intermittent releases of actual piano note punctuating what is mostly comprised of clunks and scrapes (many of which may even be accidental, or the work of the audience). Even these slight indicators of activity evoke gigantic exhales of relief on part of the listener, as the silences feel possessive of the weight of six awkward years away from one another, and a potential uncertainty as to where Tilbury and Rowe stand in eachother’s perception. The louder the collaboration gets, the closer the pair seem to get to reconnection.

That said, the piece’s more active moments never release the tension entirely. Tilbury’s piano work consists of stumbling, off-kilter chords and meanderings, while Rowe’s gushes of muffled interference and stuttering coughs of guitar noise either feel like abrasive defensive mechanisms or split-second accidents. For the last three minutes, the listener is sucked back into an overhanging quiet. This time, there are no bursts of instrument to reassure the listener that the musicians are still open to collaborative communication; just the hiss of the microphone, and the tiniest of chair creaks. No audience applause swoops in to shatter the illusion of performance, and E.E. Tension and Circumstance cuts cruelly into silence with the ice between Tilbury and Rowe still very much unbroken. Compelling listening throughout.