FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Steve Lake



Last year, among other mixed delights, the postman delivered a record called "New Music For Bowed Piano." A cover photo showed 25 members of the Colorado College New Music Ensemble, huddled together like a rugby serum, rigorously attacking the interior of a grand piano with tiny horsehair bows, each the size of a toothbrush. The process was intended to maximize the piano's overtone potential. The resultant sound was not completely without charm but the project seemed (to me) to symbolize the desperation of the "straight" avantgarde. Once again - as so often since Cage - a composer had begun with a Theory and ended up with an Effect and this was the music's sum total, the shadow taken for the substance.

To hear unorthodox techniques used musically, one has to turn to the improvisers, those men and women who know the raw materials of sound as the sculptor knows his clay and are able to breathe life into these materials. Keith Tippett draws new sonorities from the piano strings again and again throughout "Mujician III" and the sounds and textures always seem a natural part of the music's rolling flow, rather than the music's subject: the idiosyncratic techniques used are integrated fully into the material. Making the most of the piano's overtones is just a part of Tippett's work but if the Colorado College crowd and their kind listened, they would learn a lot.

Having said that, it's perhaps wrong to emphasize how the sounds here are made. Listeners are best advised simply to immerse themselves in the music. But those who have never seen Tippett in concert (a lapse to be rectified at the earliest opportunity) are bound to be curious. Those sound-colours redolent of kotos and harpsichords, organs and cymbals, those textures that seem to have an affinity with Conlon Nancarrow's player pianos or Terry Riley's mirror-image tape loops ... where do they come from? No electronics are involved. Tippett merely places three pieces of wood - one teak, one balsa, one mahogany - and a set of children's plastic pan pipes on the piano's harp of strings. The rest is a matter of varying pressures of dynamic attack on the keyboard, liberal use of sustain and the poetic employment of an impeccable technique.

Tippett doesn't play "prepared" piano, he's at pains to stress. John Cage's modifications of the instrument with nuts and bolts are, from a performer's viewpoint, pretty final. Once a piano is prepared you can't easily un-prepare it onstage. But Tippett's humble lumps of wood are free floating, can be pushed around inside the piano while he's playing, removed and replaced at will. And the audience can see what's happening, not that this makes the sounds any the less astonishing. "Mujician" remains the appropriate term.

In the improvising world, Keith Tippett is a unique player. Temperamentally, he belongs with the "free" improvisers and has played, successfully, with most of the best of them. Yet no other free pianist sounds like him. He is a Iyrical player (though his Iyricism is often balanced by steel-sprung rhythms) and his melodic instincts have never been impeded by the genre's call for total abstraction. He can sail into the maelstrom and still sound like himself. He is one of very few improvising pianists not playing like an echo of Cecil Taylor. Keith Tippett admires Taylor too much to countenance copying and, anyway, has approached music from another direction.

If Taylor thinks of his piano as 88 tuned drums, Tippett considers his an orchestra. Strings and voices seem to sing in his chords and in the often eerie and beautiful meshing and agitated interplay of harmonics.

Keith Tippett's discography covers a lot of territory, from the now-lengendary fifty-strong big band Centipede to duos with Louis Moholo and Stan Tracey but at the same time - and this might be more true of him than any other British improviser- it is also all of a piece. One could take a longer perspective on it, going back to his early days as a chorister and church organist and trace a line through his Ovary Lodge group and that splendid big band The Ark and, following it up to date, would conclude that there is a perfect logic to his development. You might say that he has always played music of a religious intensity; he has certainly made sense of his own background.

"Mujician III" completes a trilogy of piano works for FMP and is, in my opinion, the "best" of his solo recordings, though none of them has been less than first-rate. Tippett now plans to leave the solo format alone for a while, at least as far as recordings are concerned. Understandably, for "III" is a landmark recording, a tour-de-force achievement captured on an album that will endure.

Keith Tippett, though, is modest about his accomplishment. When I asked him to account for the excellence of this breakthrough performance, he stressed the magical properties of the Weizenbier in Berlin (well, we drank it at the same bar, and I'm still typing with two fingers...)

The real explanation, of course, lies with his discipline, dedication and imagination, and the creative energy he's sustained in the discouraging atmosphere of contemporary Britain where the artist is low man on the totem pole, always.

As I write this, Tippett is on the road with a new band, also called Mujician, and full of enthusiasm for that. I know there's much great music to come from him yet. But, for now, "Mujician III" will more than suffice.

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