CLASSICAL MUSIC John Tilbury Plays Morton Feldman, Planet Tree Music Festival, Conway Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
It's a long time since I've felt so profoundly moved by any concert as I was at last Tuesday evening's recital by the pianist John Tilbury. Appropriately presented in the Conway Hall, seat of the South Place Ethical Society, the experience of listening to 80 continuous minutes of music felt like a prayer gathering. Tilbury, a veteran of the avant-garde and one of our most sensitive performers, was giving the UK premiere of Morton Feldman's Triadic Memories.

Written in 1981, this is one of the American composer's later works (he died in 1987), in which his interest in long duration was fully fledged. But the music itself is of restraint, introversion - a music, like all his music, that isn't trying to go anywhere, isn't trying to impress.

Feldman once said, "My obsession with surface is the subject of the music. In that sense, my compositions are really not 'compositions' at all. One might call them time canvases in which I more or less prime the canvas with an overall hue of the music." Feldman's music is infamously soft but it is this very softness that demands a quality of listening freedfrom the cultural baggage of most late 20th-century music. One emerges not only with cleaner ears but with a cleaner soul. As John Tilbury has written, "Feldman's music enhances the consciousness of the instrument at which, or with which, the musician sits. This, together with an emphasis on the sensual and physical qualities of the art of performance, creates the necessary indivisibility of musician and instrument and, at best, of music and audience."

Well, for 80 minutes a modest crowd sat absolutely still with no wriggling, no fidgeting and but a single cough - which did sound volcanic. A tribute to the incredible concentration of Tilbury's performance. Feldman's writing demands virtuosity but it is a virtuosity that has nothing to do with velocity or, as Barthes has put it, "petty digital scramble".

The very leanness of the material forces focus, and creates a stasis that is both frozen and, at the same time, vibrating. This is a music you listen into. Patterns are reiterated, turned, tumbled, taking on a new perspective, a new relief in relation to their predecessors. Moments of real lushness occur caused by so little - a single line turned into throbbing seconds, rolling major thirds dulled and dimmed by parallel notes, a switch of register from high to low pitches, a "sitting" on rumbling low notes that give off the widest range of overtones, an exquisite balance between the choice of high and low register and the impeccable timing of reiterated patterning.

This is music at its most chaste, even though there is a sense, time and time again, of powerful drama caused by the movement of so little.

Tilbury sat virtually motionless in shaded profile, the light of an old- fashioned standard lamp was all that was offered. Since his death, Feldman's music has been largely neglected. But then, he always used to say "most of the music you hear in London is official music, as if written for the London Sinfonietta..." For London read Paris, Milan, Cologne, Vienna. And, of course, Feldman needs performers like Tilbury. Alas, too rare a breed.

Annette Morreau

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