State Theatre of WA, presented by Tura New Music
When Keith Tippett began his career in the late sixties, the British music scene was host to a variety of influences that proved decisive to him: rock musicians were expanding song structures through instrumental virtuosity and epic narratives; the Classical and Jazz avant-garde coalesced into free improvisation; and South African musicians fleeing Apartheid brought their own take to Western styles. Thus Keith Tippett became a ubiquitous figure, recording with King Crimson and members of Soft Machine; playing with South African ex pats Louis Moholo and Harry Miller; and incorporating a “free” aesthetic into his strong compositional outlook.
The pianist was in Perth for Tura New Music’s residency program, which included workshops and performances with local musicians. A solo concert was a rare opportunity to witness Tippett’s individual approach to the piano, with his penchant for folk-like melodies and whimsical explorations of timbre.
The concert was a summation of his style delivered in a through-composed manner, a classical suite exploring specific ideas with tight focus, whether it was the timbre effects on the prepared piano or the lyrical passages that revealed an inspired melodic sense, the pianist favored intent and clarity over the “process” approach of a freely improvised set. He juggled themes and variations building a mosaic of pastiche styles, at one point quoting the stamping chords from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”; and at another, making use of Blues inflections and embellishments. Tippett’s engagement with tradition was creative and playful, and yielded unexpected turns as the concert progressed.
Similarly, the prepared piano was used as an extension of his personal style, but unlike the preparations of John Cage which are fixed by the use of bolts and screws, Tippett’s approach is more flexible. He applies objects that can be easily moved inside the instrument, some of which have personal significance, like his children’s toys, gifts from friends or objects acquired in travels. A smooth pebble over the strings creates an oscillation in pitch when rocked; plastic toys and wood blocks rattle to produce sounds akin to modulation effects; and a pellet drum, also known as “Den-den daiko”, is struck against the high strings to mimic a sped-up ragtime tune.
His Dickensian sartorial style and predilection for musical boxes reinforced an air of old world quaintness, at one point he wound-up three of them for a polytonal effect: “Amazing grace”, Maurice Jarre’s “Lara’s theme” and Elvis Presley’s “Love me tender” were harmonized at will, following one or the other like a toss juggling act. At times, he seemed to channel the travelling minstrel figure, presenting scenes of whimsy to the crowd; for despite his uncompromising practice, the pianist was always generous and mindful of his audience.
There were stylistic traits that hark back to the late sixties, like the overt emotionalism of the music or the clamoring, ascending gestures that evoke spiritual longing. But present as well were references of a more personal nature, the musical boxes served to convey the nostalgia of a goodbye: “this may be my last visit to Perth” the pianist confided after the concert. Tippett’s shuffling of episodes displayed an elegant knack for pace and form, but what struck the most was his ability to integrate different styles in resourceful, very personal ways.