In 2003, Keith Rowe (“guitar”) and John Tilbury (piano), who had been playing music together since 1980 in improv group AMM, released Duos for Doris (erstwhile 30-2), an album considered by some to be one of eai’s strongest releases. The acclaim is due in part to the fact that, shortly before the session (which was arranged by Jon Abbey for his Erstwhile label in Nancy, France), Tilbury’s mother Doris died of a stroke, a traumatic event that provided a sad emotional current throughout the session. However, shortly after the events of Duos, Rowe left AMM, supposedly because of remarks that fellow AMM member Eddie Prévost made in his then recently published book (Minute Particulars). At this juncture, it seemed unlikely that Rowe would ever play again with either Prévost or Tilbury, and until 2008, Rowe was in little to no contact with either.
It wasn’t until Rowe’s mother Eileen Elizabeth Charters-Rowe passed in 2008 that Tilbury reacquainted himself with Rowe. Tilbury suggested that the two perform again, in honor of Eileen Elizabeth, like what the Duos session morphed into. Fortunately for us, what once seemed unlikely if not impossible occurred in 2010. That December, Rowe and Tilbury performed in Paris, a performance that’s beautifully documented on E.E. Tension and Circumstance.
What separates E.E. Tension and Circumstance from its predecessor is a moment about 20 minutes through the former, when the two build to the session’s tense peak, as Rowe’s drones coalesce out of their vacuum into a piercing jab. As Richard Pinnell points out in his live review (of the set from which E.E. originates), we expect Tilbury’s hands to crash onto his keys, producing the terrifying wake heard on Duos; instead, Tilbury whips out a bird whistle that, despite its sonic similarities to Rowe’s whatever-you-wanna-call-what-he-does, undoubtedly lightens the mood.
In this moment, with this choice by Tilbury, we can date E.E. Tension and Circumstance in the context of Rowe and Tilbury’s lengthy history with each other and their respective families. While E.E. Tension and Circumstance certainly conveys an assortment of thoughts and feelings on its own, it’s near impossible to listen without reflecting on its relationship to its backstory. In this context, the session truly sounds like a renewed dialogue, both expressing remorse for Rowe’s loss; Tilbury attempting to cheer Rowe up; bilateral apologies for years of silence; catching up on old times; cough jokes; Rowe asking Tilbury about how the weather has been.
It’s not that the music on E.E. doesn’t sound grave; for much of the recording, the two evoke a chilly landscape of a wintry Paris, with Tilbury channeling some seriously triadic memories. However, this affair just doesn’t feel as morbid as the set six years prior. Instead of a snapshot of one man and a close friend reeling from a death in the former’s family, E.E. exhibits the tension between reflection and re-acquaintance. Each album is both clearly founded on and evocative of strong emotions, but with differing compositions. E.E. Tension and Circumstance, like Duos for Doris, is as accomplished as its performers and a fine example of the humanity that can be found in electro-acoustic music.