Looper & John Tilbury
Centro Zo, Catania, Italy
Apr. 24, 2006

It was January, and I was reading the program of the Etnafest Festival, organized by the Provincia di Catania, with much attention, when - among a lot of famous names - I saw the name of a musician that I had never previously had the opportunity to see live: John Tilbury. Held in high esteem, somehow a kind of celebrity, in his own way, the pianist is one of the few musicians who can be said to really enrich the music in a wide variety of situations: a much-lauded interpreter of John Cage, Cornelius Cardew and Morton Feldman, since 1980 Tilbury has been an integral part of the highly influential improvising collective called AMM. The announced concert has Tilbury playing with Looper - and here, I have to confess I'm really in the dark. While the similarity of the name Looper with the word loop makes me imagine (fear?) the presence of a laptop player, the news that the music will be accompanied by (or will work as a soundtrack to?) a video make me fear the worst. I decide to keep calm: Tilbury is a musician who well deserves my esteem, so I decide to trust his judgment and his good taste. I buy the tickets, priced at eight euros each. Noticing that the concert will be held in the famous "rumble room" of the Centro Zo - they are co-producing the event - I decide to keep my fingers crossed.

But everything will turn out to be ok. First thing, the sound is excellent (so it can be done!). I notice that Looper is really the name of a trio of excellent musicians: Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach, Greek cellist Nikos Veliotis (he's also the author of the video) and Swedish saxophone player Martin Küchen (once I get to know their names, the Net will be an important source of information about their background). On a small stage, from left, we have: a grand piano, a very wide but not deep snare drum, a cello, a saxophone and some devices whose nature at this moment is not quite clear to me. The video consists of a series of overlapping images, so (intentionally) they are not quite easy to see clearly; they are of a religious nature, and taken from the Net - hence, the title of the program: Mass. I have to confess I didn't know what to make of the final result; nor were the program notes - written in an "Arty" style - very useful.

We obviously have a prepared piano, an exploration of sound, some contact microphones. They start in (almost) complete silence, with Tilbury meticulously placing various objects over the piano strings. The first sounds to come are by Ingar Zach, who by using a bow extracts some peculiar sounds from the wood of his snare drum; the exploration of the "particles" - the grain of the sound - is obviously the "raw material" of the music, with the cello producing sounds whose origin is quite mysterious, the piano rich with echoes and glissandos, the saxophone producing "light blows" and "vibrations" (also of something that, to me, looked like tinfoil). The music flows with a certain amount of freedom, but is never arbitrary. Here and there I seemed to catch some thematic fragments - particularly, a phrase played by the saxophone which later appeared to be echoed by the piano - which really sounded as it was written. Silence (in music), a lot. An hour which appeared as having lasted a lot less, where it was beautiful to be in the company of real virtuosi who possessed an impeccable logic. We were sorry for those who were not there, who had lost an opportunity to catch "in the moment" some improvised music of superior quality of thought, so different from the "anything goes" that for many (even for some musicians who play it!) stands for "improvisation".

It could be fantastic to be able to say that was what happened at the concert. Not that what I just wrote didn't really happen: it did, but in an "ideal" sense. That is to say, it was what really happened if we only talk about the music. But there was a factor that had a lot to say this time, and that said it loud: the audience.

Given the fact that the names of the players are not really of the famous kind, I'm not really surprised to see that there are some empty seats, nor that some people are buying their tickets just minutes before the concert starts. Lights go out. But there are still more people getting inside. And then, some more. We try to keep calm. After just a few minutes of music, a lot of people start coughing: I fear the arrival of the avian flu. Then the exodus starts: at first two people, then other people, leave the legendary "folding chairs sector with wood stairs". Let's be frank: concentration is bound to suffer. Then some more people go away. I am quite puzzled by the fact that they go away like that: if that's the way the music's gonna sound, why do they wait to see "whether it's gonna change"? The musicians on stage keep playing. Then even more people go away, producing a sound just like "the herd comes to town. Others decide to stay, but they laugh and talk - you can easily hear "eight euros!" - so this writer has to go solo, producing a firm "shut up!". They decide to go away. It's precisely at this moment that one of them, clearly audible though the music is still playing, shouts "You're sick in your minds!". Somebody, somewhere goes "fuck off!". So he turns again, and he loudly repeats "You're sick in your minds!".

We're just a happy few now, happy we can finally hear some music. I am quite puzzled to notice audible noise coming from the nearby hall, where the bar and the restaurant are located; it's there that people going a bit over the top had been usually invited in the past to keep their cool on those nights where theatre plays were shown in the room we sit in now. But now there's as much noise as in the town's colourful local market.

We get to the end of the concert. The applause is loud and grateful, like we wanted to really say "thanks" to four musicians who I'm quite sure have lived quite a peculiar experience.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2006

CloudsandClocks.net | May 5, 2006