Essential New Music: Terry Riley/John Tilbury’s “Keyboard Studies”

Unless you happen to be an extraordinary musician, John Tilbury has forgotten more about making more good music than you’ll ever know. Born in 1936, the keyboardist, improviser and contemporary-music interpreter remains dedicated to being absolutely present in the musical moment, but the things he has already done might slip his mind. Case in point: He has no memory of the concert that yielded Indústria (the most recent album by improvising ensemble AMM), nor any details of the trip he took to Portugal in 2015 to play said concert. However, if you listen to Indústria, you can hear from his exquisite responsiveness and immaculate touch at the piano are intact.

That same bifurcation between presence while playing and subsequent recall applies to new solo album Keyboard Studies. While Tilbury recalls that the session took place in Hamburg, Germany, and that it only lasted a day, he’s not sure if it happened in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. But it’s amply evident that he was preternaturally present as the music went down. Keyboard Studies contains three pieces composed in the mid-1960s by great American minimalist Terry Riley.

Riley conceived of these pieces as piano exercises, which contained ideas he more fully realized in his minimalist masterwork In C and the legendary concerts he used to play using organ and a tape-delay system called a time-lag accumulator. Perhaps because the studies give performers a lot of latitude to rearrange their repetitive components, they have been played and recorded by others more than almost anything else in Riley’s catalog. The studies were part of Tilbury’s solo repertoire for much of the last quarter of the 20th century.

Tilbury’s performances proceed with such confidence and immaculate pacing that they convey an impression that he had them programmed into his nervous system. This is evident in the precise variation of hard and soft strikes upon different piano notes during “Keyboard Study No. 1,” which turns each restatement of a phrase into a fresh manifestation of texture and movement. Listeners accustomed to the sparseness of Tilbury’s treatments of Morton Feldman and John Cage may be startled by this music’s density, but they will nonetheless recognize his respect for the gravity of each individual sound, as well as its relation to every other element within a field of musical action.

“Dorian Reeds,” for electric organ, feels lighter on the feet than Riley’s own take on this music. That lightning quickness will, once more, be a surprise for those accustomed to the deliberation with which Tilbury doles out his contributions within AMM. But the 31-minute “Keyboard Study No. 2” is the album’s center of gravity, and not just because it’s the tune in the middle. Made using separately dubbed piano, electric organ, harpsichord and celeste tracks, it achieves an orchestral complexity of tone and a gorgeously contoured flow of sound from stacked-up, three- and four-note phrases.

This music invites abandon, but in lesser hands, there’s the risk that it’ll wear out its welcome before it comes to the end of its duration. Not here. Keyboard Studies is music you can live within, spelunking deeper and deeper into its welcoming caverns.

—Bill Meyer