The Hands of Caravaggio (2002)

Live recording at Angelica Festival in Bologna, featuring special guest John Tilbury

Erstwhile (NY, USA), erstwhile 21 (CD, 2002)

Track List:

1. The Hands of Caravaggio (49:24)


Keith Rowe: guitar, electronics
Kevin Drumm: guitar, analogue synthesizer
Phil Durrant: software granular samplers and treatments
Thomas Lehn: analogue synthesizer
Kaffe Matthews: computer
Jérôme Noetinger: electroacoustic devices
Gert-Jan Prins: electronics, FM modulations, radio
Peter Rehberg: computer
Marcus Schmickler: digital synthesizer, computer
Rafael Toral: guitar with analogue modular system
Markus Wettstein: amplified metal garbage
Cor Fuhler: inside piano
John Tilbury: piano



Keith Rowe’s choice of album title and cover art referencing the great Italian painter Caravaggio (1573 – 1610), his stated intention that this concert (recorded in Bologna on May 20th 2001) could be considered as “a concerto for piano and electronic orchestra with John Tilbury”, and the inclusion on the Erstwhile website of articles by Tilbury himself and Michael Graubart on the history of the concerto all invite us to come at these 49 minutes of music more from the direction of (contemporary) classical music than with any predetermined assumptions relating to the culture of improvised music. Pianist Tilbury is, after all, one of the world’s finest performers of new music, having released benchmark recordings of major works by Cage, Cardew and Feldman, and the sensibility he brings to his improvised work with AMM has more in common with British and American Experimental music than it does with a “tradition” of free improv piano playing deriving essentially from free jazz.

At the heart of the concept of the classical and Romantic concerto is the idea of creative friction between soloist and orchestra, on a macro (formal) or micro (motivic) level, in conjunction with the idea that the work should be a showcase of sorts for the soloist’s virtuosity (hence the tradition of incorporating a cadenza). Tilbury’s mastery of the piano may be evidence, but there are several lengthy passages where his contributions are subsumed into the surrounding sonic plasma rather than engaging the other musicians in contrapuntal dialogue. As such, “The Hands of Caravaggio” has less to do with the piano concerto as we know it from Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Chopin and more in common with the baroque concerto grosso. A second pianist, Cor Fuhler, plays a kind of continuo (on inside piano), while the remaining eleven members of the Music In Movement Electronic Orchestra (a veritable Who’s Who of electroacoustic improvisation: Keith Rowe, Thomas Lehn, Phil Durrant, Kaffe Mathews, Peter Rehberg, Kevin Drumm, Markus Wettstein, Marcus Schmickler, Gert-Jan Prins, Rafael Toral and Jérôme Noetinger) cocoon the pianists in a dense weave of electronic sound. Despite the considerable thickness of texture (Tilbury joked with the other musicians before the
performance: “In one second you guys can eliminate me once and for all,” to which Jérôme Noetinger responded: “Less than a second..”), the 49-minute span of music is eminently listenable and, from a formal point of view, surprisingly traditional: a slow crescendo and accumulation of material leads to climactic passages starting at about 13′ and gently subsiding (after around 27′) into an elegiac coda (about 40’30”) and slow fadeout. Of course, apart from Tilbury’s florid virtuosity and crystalline arpeggios, it’s almost impossible to tell who’s doing what: the concert itself was apparently fraught with technical problems (with the sound system and Tilbury’s piano), and several of the participants expressed reservations about the performance at the time. However, as Erstwhile had already slated the project for release even before the concert ever took place (a rather risky strategy in my opinion, but one perfectly in accord with Jon Abbey’s daring vision of his own label), it fell to Marcus Schmickler to go through the tapes and mix and master the final product. The fact that “The Hands of Caravaggio” is MIMEO’s most coherent and impressive album to date is due in no small part to his ten days of painstaking work.

– Dan Warburton,


The Hands of Caravaggio was recorded last year at Angelica, Festival Internazionale Di Musica in Bologna. The performance marked a unique collaboration between new music pianist John Tilbury (of AMM) with the now legendary MIMEO ensemble. MIMEO (Music In Movement Electronic Orchestra) is something of a who’s who of experimental improv. Its current members are known as much for their solo works and various collaborative efforts as their work as a single unit. They are: Keith Rowe, Kevin Drumm, Phil Durrant, Thomas Lehn, Kaffe Matthews, Jérôme Noetinger, Gert-Jan Prins, Peter Rehberg, Marcus Schmickler, Rafael Toral, Markus Wettstein and Cor Fuhler. They perform on a variety of instruments and electronics, including Cor Fuhler’s inside piano (a central figure in the piece), guitars, computers, electroacoustic devices, samplers and metallic objects. Added to their ranks is a sharp, piercing performance by John Tilbury on piano. The performance is a tempestuous fluctuation of moods and textures, from quiet and tranquil sections to dizzying and intense crescendos. The piece seems guided by a collective vision, yet composed of such dissident elements (acoustic/electronic, tranquil/explosive). It’s an intoxicating and challenging set, one that defies easy description and presents a new context for the term “concerto.” If you visit the Erstwhile Records website, you’ll find four short but insightful commentaries on a number of ideas related to this project; on the history of the concerto, the dichotomy of conflict versus cooperation, on Caravaggio (providing a loose theme for the work as well as the basis for the cover artwork), on collective versus individual direction in large ensemble pieces. Be sure to check it out.

– Richard di Santo, Incursion