John Tilbury interviewed by Heike Sperling

»To the question “What are you?” – I answer, I am a musician.«


Between the 20th and 27th of November Heike Sperling and Marcus Schmickler organize in Duesseldorf and Cologne the “THE JOHN TILBURY TRIBUTE”, a series of concerts and talks with musician John Tilbury. Tilbury is best known as a member of AMM and interpreter of the music of Morton Feldman as well as for being the author of a  biography on the life and work of Cornelius Cardew.
Kaput asked Heike Sperling and Marcus Schmickler to conduct a conversation with Tilbury to enlighten the program – and thankfully they agreed to do so.

Heike Sperling: John, if I remember correctly you mentioned in a conversation we had years ago, that you came to Cologne in the late 50s because your friend Cornelius Cardew was working at the WDR as an assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen. Cologne had a vibrant, international scene for new music back then. After WW2 the founding of public-service broadcasters like the WDR, created a forum for new music composers, and by awarding contracts for compositions the production of new music was also encouraged. Subsequently many experimental composers came to Cologne in the 50s. What is your take on Cologne in 2016?
John Tilbury: I was in Cologne for 20 months, I think from September 1954 on. So I didn’t meet Cardew in Cologne when he arrived, I think, in ’57’. He and I met at the Dartington Summer School in Devon in 1959.
I really can’t say much about contemporary Cologne. Yes, I have visited often enough, but those have been short, in-and-out visits. As for Cologne in the fifties, I can say more, of course. There is a lot in my Cardew biography, much of it from Cardew’s own accounts in his diaries and note books, plus things I gleaned from him over the years, although he was never one to dwell on the past. Nobody lived ‘in the present’, the ‘now’, more than Cornelius. In terms of artistic life in Cologne in general I think it gathered momentum during the latter part of the fifties, by which time I had left. I also think that in any discussion we have to factor in the role of the CIA, particularly in the immediate post-war period, which Frances Stonor Saunders deals with in her seminal work. There have probably been follow-ups to this (she was mainly concerned with fine Art and the American painters) – you probably know more about this than I do. What is interesting is the response of the painters to this ‘revelation’. Rothko was angry and embarrassed while Robert Motherwell, for example, was not fazed by this at all. Philip Guston abandoned abstract painting and adopted something akin to social realism, which precipitated a rift with his great friend Morton Feldman. I personally love these later paintings.

When I think about a political system like democracy I am instantly aware of the necessity of compromise, and how frustrating this is for everyone because a compromise also means that no one gets the result they wanted. I believe that working on a compromise, and developing the ability to tolerate the feeling of being frustrated is of great importance for people, who live together in large groups. In an interview for All About Jazz in 2010 you said, „So when people ask me about my politics I always reply that I am an unregenerate communist.” What do you mean by „unregenerate communist“? What kind of communism might be worth considering today?
By ‘unregenerate’ communist, I mean ‘unapologetic’. Of course, there were terrible things done in the name of communism. But think of Catholicism. Most Catholics would consider themselves as ‘unregenerate’ Catholics. And yet the Catholic Church, over the centuries, has inflicted psychological torment, as well as physical torture on millions of souls. I don’t need to continue the argument. Both communists and Catholics could answer your question (‘what kind…worth considering’) persuasively.

When I read your book „Cornelius Cardew – A life unfinished“ which you worked on for three decades, I asked myself how a boycott, e.g. Cardew leaving the „new music scene“ or your refusal to play concerts in the U. S., could change political circumstances.
How did and does researching and writing about Cardew affect your view on politics and political activism? And given recent developments in England and Europe in general, what is your perspective on music and art nowadays?
I could never imagine that my decision not to play concerts in the US would change political circumstances. Actually, it was a private decision after Clinton bombed the poorest country in the world. I was persuaded, against my better judgement, to ‘go public’ by two American colleagues. It generated a bit of discussion, I believe. I did not get involved. I don’t do social media. I should, perhaps, but it is too time-consuming. I do want radical change, like the majority of ‘ordinary’ people, and it will come about by millions of ordinary people participating in whatever way they think they can. Some people will act critically, some will remain in the margins.(‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’) It will require sacrifice, tenacity, and above all, endurance. The great thing about the ‘communists’, as Chomsky has observed approvingly, ‘they are in it for the long haul’.

john-tilbury_02Marcus Schmickler: For you as a virtuoso, who has collaborated with some of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, what does improvisation offer in contrast to the interpretation of a composition? How meaningful is this distinction to you in the twenty-first century? And what is the importance of listening?
In an interview with me a few years ago a music journalist posed the following questions: “You’re sitting at the piano bench readying yourself to play. The audience is hushed; there’s an air of anticipation. Your fingers are poised over the keyboard. At that critical moment, do the mental processes you go through differ according to whether you’re about to play a composition or an improvisation? If so, in what ways are they different?” I answered as follows: There are no hard and fast contrasts. Both modes are subject to constraints, imposed from without, which determine what and how one plays. Playing the score… Of course, the notation prescribes the broad limits – whereabouts on the keyboard, a relative duration, a relative dynamic (sometimes). Crucially, it does not tell you how to make the sound, nor even, actually, what sound, what A-flat, for example – it’s tuning, its timbre; such contingencies depend upon the instrument, and the tuner, the room temperature, etc.
So if the hands are poised and the muscles tensed, this state of bodily affairs is only partially determined by information gleaned by the player from the score. Incidentally, playing solo (from the score) one should not underestimate the leeway enjoyed by the performer: deciding the actual moment of execution from the moment of sitting down at the instrument. Compare this with playing under the control of a conductor’s baton, for example.
The leeway in free improvisation is greater; one can wait until the music is already underway, has established itself, thanks to the initiative of the other players. But here, too, the first sounds of a set often come as a response to an external provocation – perhaps, though not necessarily, less specific than a musical notation. Once Keith Rowe even described his own body as a ‘very strict composition’, ‘you get legs dangling down there and arms floating around, so many fingers and one head’.
In the heat of the moment, the ‘freedom to do anything’ in a free improvisation becomes ‘the necessity to do something’ (which, of course, also includes the possibility, the freedom, to do nothing). With a composition, arguably, there is of course the social obligation (contractual) to play, to perform, to make sounds.
The difficulty with free improvising at the piano is that every sound is somehow redolent of the past; so the piano carries along with it an enormous amount of historical baggage. This is compounded by the fact that the piano’s tones are discreet, explicit, the semi-tone the smallest interval; there are no ambiguous melodic and harmonic territories where the piano can create and exploit alibis. Play a single chord and one or another ghost from the past, from Frescobaldi to Cage, will present itself to contemporary consciousness. I have no recourse to ‘novelty’ except, perhaps, for prepared sounds. So I walk a tight-rope. I can fall into ‘style’, cliché, reference.
For me, improvisation thrives on chance, risk, the accidental, the unintended, all of which totally subverts any idea of perfectibility. Ideally, improvisation grasps every feature of every sound, every irretrievable moment; through contextualisation it exalts the accidental, the half-intended.

My professor, Bazon Brock, likes the idea of „age-related radicalism,“ – that we can become radical as we get older, because we no longer fear the consequences. Having travelled through eight decades, would you consider yourself „radical“?
What Bazon Brock seems to be saying is that the aged can act irresponsibly because we won’t be there to suffer the consequences. I don’t know the figures but I doubt if there is a greater proportion of radical old people than radical young people. Of course, the young are more visible at demonstrations by virtue of their youthful appearance and prowess. The aged cannot always turn out for a variety of reasons, although the English philosopher, Bertrand Russell, was publicly demonstrating against the bomb well into his nineties.
I think we old people tend to live for the present because for us there is not so much of it left. We cherish, and need, to grasp the moment. The past becomes blurred, the future irrelevant in so far as it does not affect us. I would go so far as say I now live on a higher level of consciousness. My commitment is to the present, the now; I notice colours, smells, sounds. I lead a more sensual existence. I am not chasing the future.
We old folk are less troubled by the awful predicament of ends and means. We respect the means, the means matter to us. The ends rarely justify the ends. We don’t need ends. If you want to begin to understand the reality of old age, nobody expresses this better than Samuel Beckett: most of his writings from the last decade are autobiographical. Living old is indescribable. Beckett’s genius is to describe the indescribable. He becomes obsessed by the pathetic inadequacy of words; his vocabulary shrinks, words shrink, become monosyllabic. His late works eschew time and place, and yet, as in Worstward Ho, there is an eerie familiarity: man and child hand in hand. Plodding.

 When I read „Stirrings Still“ – the final prose piece by Samuel Beckett – which you will perform for your concert at the Approximation Festival in Düsseldorf on November 22, 2016, my thoughts circled around the idea of combining literal, easy to understand descriptions from everyday life while dissolving language itself into abstraction. In this way „Stirrings Still“ is absolutely mind-boggling. The text seems to be some kind of music. Would you please elaborate on your choice to perform Beckett in Düsseldorf?
John Tilbury: I am particularly drawn to Beckett’s later works in which he writes beautifully about ‘old age’. “Ill Seen Ill Said”, for example, is a haunting portrait of an old woman. Extraordinarily moving.
Beckett was not happy about his prose texts being delivered publicly, although he granted permission, not without reservations, to one or two of his favourite interpreters. I am encouraged by the fact that he generally liked musicians and seemed to enjoy their company.
I am a musician, a pianist; I feel more at home behind a keyboard than a lectern. When I perform Beckett’s “Stirrings Still” publicly I am using my vocal chords instead of my fingers to make the required sounds. The music itself is not meant to be invasive but I respond as a musician and in a sense my attitude towards the piano, towards the musical tone, towards the sound of the piano, is reflected, I hope, in the way I read Beckett’s text, And vice versa. The text is an integral part of the score (text + music).
My ‘accompaniment’ is really a soundtrack. I am a pianist, so the piano is featured. I am comfortable with it – no, not comfortable, I am familiar with the instrument. And we all know what familiarity breeds…(in English the saying is familiarity breeds contempt). To the question “What are you?” – I answer, I am a musician.
I deliver the text, rather informally, with the same stops and starts, similarly to the way I do when I am reading alone, silently. Actually, ‘delivery’ is not the right word. It is too theatrical. I simply read it aloud, with a good measure of identification with Beckett’s (elderly) character. Whereas several years ago it might have been considered elegant, now, because of vocal impediment, it tends towards the stilted, which, I think, (to quote Beckett), is better worse. A virtue out of necessity.

In our culture death is basically not „happening“, and becoming of age is reckoned as something unwanted, even bad. When one wants to see a corpse, one has to ask questions that makes one look like a weirdo. Rarely have any of my friends been in the presence of a dying person. But those who had the chance, described the experience as both a shift and gift. One of my goals in life is to learn whatever skills needed to be present and sober at my last breath. What are your thoughts, if any, on death?
John Tilbury: I no longer see life and death as a dichotomous relation. I recall the time when we took my mother’s ashes up to Scotland – a country she loved. It was the occasion of my daughter’s wedding. My mother would have loved that. The wedding party was staying in a beautiful old ‘stately home’ situated on the shores of a loch. On the morning after the wedding ceremony I went with my son and two daughters on to the jetty and we scattered my mother’s ashes on to the loch. We watched them float away, glistening in the sunrise and finally one by one they sank, not into oblivion but to the bed of the loch where they/she would have played their/her part in creating and nourishing new life, part of an endless cycle.
An English comedian was dying, in a matter of weeks. He said he had no fear. Millions of people have died, he said, and so far no one has complained.

In the „19 Questions“-interview by Frank Scheffer, John Cage answers the question „11 seconds on Einstein?“ with „I am collecting statements now about anarchy, and one of them comes from Einstein but I can’t remember which one it is.“ — Wikipedia defines anarchy as, „Anarchy is the condition of a society, entity, group of people, or a single person that rejects hierarchy. The term originally meant a lack of a leader, but in 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon adopted the term in his treatise ‘What Is Property?’ to refer to a new political philosophy, anarchism, which advocates stateless societies based on voluntary associations.“ What are your thoughts on anarchy?
I am really not qualified to make any pronouncement on anarchy. The reality is that we (Western society) have co-existed in a class society for hundreds if not thousands of years. To dissolve class society, which is what I understand the anarchists want to do, cannot come about by spontaneous action, in my view. To this extent I am a traditional radical, i.e. in my view this can only come about through ‘class struggle’.
But the form that this ‘struggle’ takes may need to divert from traditional means. This will vary according to, in particular, cultural and ethical backgrounds. Ghandi is an interesting case. He was involved in violent clashes but never himself resorted to violence. I suppose we would call him a revolutionary pacifist? I think in general anarchists oppose the idea of leaders and leadership. I don’t. I don’t mind ‘taking orders’, depending on my understanding what is at stake. As a professional musician I am constantly carrying out orders through notation. I often, though not always, resent this.

Heike Sperling, Marcus Schmickler: Thank you, John.


Kaput - Magazin für Insolvenz & Pop | Aquinostrasse 1 | Zweites Hinterhaus, 50670 Köln | Germany
Herausgeber & Chefredaktion:
Thomas Venker & Linus Volkmann
Autoren, Fotografen, Kontakt
Kaput - Magazin für Insolvenz & Pop
Impressum – Legal Disclosure
Urheberrecht /
Inhaltliche Verantwortung / Rechtswirksamkeit
Kaput Supporter
Kaput – Magazin für Insolvenz & Pop dankt seinen Supporter_innen!