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Variable Formations John Tilbury Johnny Cahng Jamie Drouin Phil Durrant Lee Patterson Angharad Davies

at67  Variable Formations

Johnny Chang (viola)

Angharad Davies (violin)

Jamie Drouin (electronics)

Phil Durrant (electronics)

Lee Patterson (amplified objects)

John Tilbury (piano)

Recorded live at Cafe Oto, February 2013

Total Time: 41:15

Youtube extract

In February 2013 the Berlin-based musician Johnny Chang, who is a member of the Wandelweiser collective, visited London as part of a short tour along with his some-time playing partner Jamie Drouin, the Canadian musician and artist who had recently moved to Berlin. The duo constructed an installation at the Soundfjord gallery in Tottenham, and also played at a concert entitled Variable Formations at Cafe OTO in East London. As well as the Chang / Drouin duo, the Cafe OTO concert also featured John Tilbury on piano, and the trio of Angharad Davies, Phil Durrant and Lee Patterson.

In the first half of the concert the musicians played in their established groupings (Tilbury solo, Chang/Drouin duo and Davies/Durrant/Patterson trio). The trio realised some pages from Eva-Maria Houben’s composition ‘von da nach da’, John Tilbury played a solo entitled ‘Homage to Moriarty’, using themes and sound extracts taken from the early film ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’, and the Chang/Drouin duo played a semi-improvised piece which they had developed for their tour.  

For the second half of the concert all the musicians played together as a sextet. The concept for the sextet performance, which Johnny Chang had suggested, was that each group should develop the material that they had presented in the first half of the concert in relation to the work of the other groups. It was left open as to exactly how this development and integration of material should occur, resulting in a degree of uncertainty which was heightened by the fact each musician had never played with at least two of the other musicians before.

The CD ‘Variable Formations’ consists of the sextet performance from Cafe OTO in its entirety, and is a particular and unique combination of prepared and improvised material.


“Just about a year ago, these six musicians — from different generations of improvisational or otherwise experimental music — convened at Café Oto. Variable Formations is a single 41-minute piece informed by the ideas generated in smaller groupings earlier in the evening (as well as some prepared materials). It’s a lovely study in incandescence.

The limpid notes of Tilbury, along with the subtle drones of Chang and Davies, form the central components of these Formations, taking shape and fading out in momentary settings of hushed but tense electronic crackle and glitch. The sound the musicians create is palpable and airy at once, warm but presenting itself via the distance between notes and shapes as well as their proximity or intimacy. Indeed, one of the piece’s most compelling features is the musicians’ attention to the subtle, at times nearly microtonal range between sounds.

This is a creation of not simply color and grain but considerable tension. The evident drama is located in the layers of sound that emerge from these bundled tensions: those amazing, sub-woofing clouds that Tilbury gathers in the lowest register of his instrument (against which the barely audible high-end sawing creates something spectral), a soft woody rattle, a chorus of overtones, a steady arpeggiation, or a long, unfurling flatulence ensconced in warm electronic coil.

What’s equally effective throughout is the generosity of space and attention to density, as when the strings back off to reveal spare piano and high whines from Patterson, Durrant, or Drouin. Their gorgeously humming electronics, a warm upper-middle range, serve as a kind of pivot for Tilbury’s entrancing chords and intervals. Perhaps because of the pitched qualities of his instrument, and also because of his musical temperament, Tilbury continually seems central to Variable Formations’ motion and transitions: a hard clang that catalyzes a pitch shift or a thickening of ingredients; a descending skulk paired with a laconic major third atop it; or his work inside the piano, contributing to the undercurrent of woody (almost percussive) motion that courses throughout the piece.

But the piece is, despite what this observation might connote, far more than simply piano and continuo. Sounds gather and exhale, hum and whine, coalescing every so often in a declamation, ending finally in a fairly stunning moment of close harmony. By the time the piece is concluded, one feels that the previous 41 minutes have been spent in an atmosphere conjured, a ritual evoked.”

Jason Bivins, Dusted

“There's a certain sort of cracks of late between which some interesting music has been falling, the cracks perhaps being AMM and Christian Wolff, which indeed are no cracks at all as the latter was at one time a member of the former but nevertheless a new stripe in the vagaries of minimalist composition and improvisation, something we might (or might not) choose to call "chamber EAI," seems to have emerged (or been emerging). Such recordings as Varianter av Døde Trær (by the quartet of Tetuzi Akiyama, Martin Taxt. Eivind Lønning and Espen Reinertsen) and In Search of Wild Tulips (by Akiyama, Eric Carlsson, Toshimaru Nakamura and Henrik Olsson) come to mind, as well as the work of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir as efforts that suggest a greater structural integrity, more forethought perhaps, than pure improvisation.

Such is certainly the case with Rows, an album of short compositions by Anders Dahl performed with composer Magnus Granberg's largely acoustic septet Skogen, which includes Nakamura and Olsson as members. The nine pieces here (ranging from two to eight minutes) are strict 12 tone row compositions following Schoenberg's notion of not repeating a note in the scale until all have been played although register and duration aren't specified in the score. As a result, a sort of unity of purpose is discernible in the playing at the same time as an inviting feeling of spontaneity.

In practice this isn't wildly different from the work of Wolff, Cage, Cardew or others, and Dahl may not be claiming to have conquered new worlds. But the playing here is quite lovely. The ensemble (two violins, sho, clarinet, piano, bowls and glasses, and two electronicists, with Carlsson's percussion added on two tracks) is warm and airy and, under Dahl's cues, imminently listenable.”

Marc Medwin, Squid’s Ear

“A sextet improvisation realized at Cafe OTO in February of this year, following three prior sets (Tilbury, solo; Chang/Drouin, duo; Davies/Durrant/Patterson trio). A nice notion given that each musician had never before played with at least two of the others. In a way, it still breaks down, in my ears, to three units: Tilbury, Chang/Davies and Drouin/Durrant/Patterson, the strings often combined, in my head, into a duo, the three electronicists similarly in a trio. As in any risky improvisatory endeavor, there's no reason to expect that it will work; much of the interest is simply hearing how this given combination, on this evening, unfolded. Any moments of emergent beauty are almost icing on the cake and there are several scattered through this particular adventure.

Tilbury is, well, Tilbury and he's prominent enough in the mix so that one can, if so choosing, hear it as a mini-concerto of sorts. For the first ten or so minutes, I tend to do that, the pianist patiently doling out two-note figures, the rest scurrying/droning alongside. At that point, there's a break, the music shifting to a kind of simmering, out of which surface sad string cries and single, sharply struck piano notes. Indeed, after a few minutes, it seems that Tilbury is once again the contributor around which the sounds gather. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that he's inevitably, unavoidably himself, with such a developed personality--a single, well-struck note from him bears much weight. I hasten to say that this doesn't, for me, detract form the music at all, it just casts it in a slightly different light than what you might expect. About halfway through its 41 minutes, a fine low, vibrating buzz enters amidst what sounds like (but can't be) swirling, stroked cymbals and soft flutters--lovely. There's a bit a meandering about, less than you might normally encounter, though and eventually, the sextet really pulls it together over the final eight to ten minutes, generating a fine seethe, Tilbury either laying out or quietly working off the keyboard, until re-entering just before the close with some fantastic, slightly muffled and sour notes. That last section is worth the trip and the rest of the drive isn't bad either.

It's the type of the performance that will have some quibbling about the necessity of release but I've always been of the mind, and am once again in this case, that I love hearing documentation of attempts by musicians in whose work I'm interested, regardless of their success. There's enough "success" to warrant it anyway, as far as I'm concerned. Check it out for yourself.”

Brian Olewnick - Just Outside

“Variable Formations was recorded at a gig at London's Café Oto in February 2013. The music on it was the final set of the evening, having been preceded by a solo piano set from John Tilbury in which he used themes and sound samples from the 1939 film The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a semi-improvised duo set from violist Johnny Chang and Canada-born synth player Jamie Drouin who were visiting from Berlin, and a trio set from violinist Angharad Davies, Lee Patterson on amplified objects and electronicist Phil Durrant playing pages from Eva-Maria Houben's composition 'Von Da Nach Na' as featured on Another Timbre's Wandelweiser Und So Weiterr 2012 box set.

The forty-one minute sextet performance was not a free improvisation. Instead, it was intended that each group should develop the material they had presented in the first half in relation to the work of the other groups—which leads one to question whether the listener might have been better served to hear all of that evening's performances, in order to be able to judge the success of the developments in the sextet context. As the basis for a sextet performance it may sound ambitious to try and combine those three disparate performances into one, particularly given that the members of the sextet were not well acquainted, each of the six never having played with at least two of the others before that evening.

Despite those caveats, the sextet does consist of highly experienced improvisers each of whom was familiar with one or more of the others, and their music soon gels into a coherent whole which does not reveal them pulling against each other. The three/three split between conventional acoustic instruments and electronic ones provides a good balance and creative tension between the two—similar to that between Chang and Drouin in their duo, and between Davies and the other two in their trio.

As the sound of his instrument is highly distinctive, it was almost inevitable that Tilbury's contributions would stand out in the sextet. In any context, he has the enviable knack of being able to economically place his notes so that everything else seems to revolve around them. So it proves at the beginning of this piece, with a series of two-note piano phrases commanding attention, offset by contrasting electronic sounds which frame them. As the piece progresses, it evolves slowly and naturally, without any non-sequiturs or awkward jump cuts. No one dominates and all six contribute equally to shaping the music.

The ultimate test of music such as this is whether it can be heard repeatedly without becoming tiresome or stale. After several dozen listenings, it is clear that Variable Formations passes that test with flying colours. It reveals more each time, sounding richer and more detailed the more one hears it, and always demanding to be listened to again.”

John Eyles, All About Jazz

“Au Café Oto le 16 février 2013, Johnny Chang et Jamie Drouin invitèrent John Tilbury, Angharad Davies, Phil Durrant et Lee Patterson à composer au gré de formations changeantes : solo du pianiste, duo Chang / Drouin, trio Davies / Durrant / Patterson, enfin, sextette à entendre sur ce disque.

En faisant écho à la musique jouée plus tôt (celle d'Eva-Maria Houben, par exemple, pour le trio), les musiciens improvisèrent ensemble : le piano, sur deux notes, attire à lui l'archet du violon et une ligne électronique tremblante ; un lot de cordes lasses accentue les appréhensions, et même les angoisses, d'un clavier sur l'éternel retour ; une délicatesse partagée soigne les reliefs d'une pièce de musique électroacoustique où les évocations et les références enrichissent une électroacoustique de belle déconvenue.”

Guillaume Belhomme, Le Sens du grisli

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