01/16/13 An Issue Project Room event held at the TEMP gallery on Walker Street in Manhattan, legendary AMM guitarist Keith Rowe and composer Christian Wolff collaborated in performance followed by a Keith Rowe solo set. Mesmerizing clanks, drones and buzzes were created by amplifying micro-events. What Rowe does with table-top guitar is gratifyingly un-guitar-like, creating unsettling sonic planes.
I’ve been psyched about this record since hearing of it probably over a year ago. What a pairing. I had always kind of thought these two were both too opinionated to really mesh and work together, but they’ve been in the same orbit for so long it seems inevitable, all the same.
So of course, hearing of an interview between the two posted on ErstWords a while back, was great news, and a great read. I was really surprised to hear them sounding in unison so often. There were a number of interesting tidbits dropped that i’m not sure have been discussed much elsewhere, so I’m going to make some comment on them here… (I’ll be editing a bit to get to the points i’m interested in)
Abbey: Why originally improvised music and not composed music?
Rowe: I think, in my case I was ill-equipped or non-equipped to perform music from scores. Because what I do actually in some respects has very little to do with music as we know it.
Malfatti: It’s true, it’s the same for me really. First point, I’m not well enough equipped to perform the so-called composed music, whatever that is. I mean, not classically, not contemporary…
Rowe has said this many times in the past but I was surprised to hear in from Malfatti. I love that they both cop to this with enthusiasm, as I’ve always felt this idea dogged anyone making “abstract ” works in the arts. The “oh, but he can’t draw a stick-figure…” issue.
One of my favorites from this interview is from Malfatti on having music push his boundaries…
The first time I heard Monk, I thought “this is horrible but so fascinating”, I was like a bit scared and I was like “who is this guy? I have to get more.”
I love this… This was AMM for me. I’ve tried to describe it and failed so many times. I’ve always found it nearly impossible to explain to people why I like this music, “horrible but fascinating” is pretty close though.
The story of Malfatti’s move away from EFI is a fascinating one that I don’t think I’ve heard many details about. He drops some pretty great touchstones here though…
in improvisation with ‘News from the Shed’, we quite liked to play unison, long notes in unison. And then, once I said, “you know, it’s very interesting, it’s such a wonderful sound and it seems you’re not afraid of playing the same note and I don’t seem to be afraid”, and he said a fantastic thing. He said “yeah, the first generation, they seem to be afraid of the obvious.” I thought it was very nice.
This idea of going back to something that was thrown out before is a nice one that doesn’t get much discussion. Even the sometime title “Reductionism” that often gets applied to this area omits this fact. And this gets at the meta nature of improvisation as a praxis. I think more than any area of music I know, the best are always looking at what’s been done with honest eyes, admitting how they feel about the work (and culture) and instigating change, both by picking up old threads and creating new ones. The current resurgence of speech, live and recorded, is evidence of this.
So I went home and I wrote a piece for myself where I left all the things out. I didn’t want to but on stage, I still fell into it. And the first time I played this piece in public, it was hard, it was so hard.
What an interesting thing, to turn to composition? I have to say he was way ahead of the curve on this one. We’ve been hearing more and more musicians going this route, and I think it’s fantastic. Certainly a bold move for an improviser, even still. I love the idea of doing whatever it takes to make the music you want to hear regardless. I do hope though that what is learned comes back to improvisation some day. I think we are starting to see it, but it’s pretty early if at all.
I find it interesting that Malfatti seemingly went from one set of restrictions in improvised music, to another, and yet, never directly adresses it, other than to express how freeing it was…
And Taku Sugimoto, he came up to me one day, and he said “Hello, I’m Sugimoto-san and I like your work and maybe we can do something together.” And then the first time we played together, it just clicked. I thought “wow, now this is improvisation again”.
I don’t think it’s incongruous, but I wish he’d discuss the restrictive parts of it more. What I do get from this though is interesting. It seems he went from a place of too much comfort in EFI, to one of considerably less, and that was invigorating. This idea of not being too comfortable also carries back to the meta-music idea.
He get’s into other areas of interest as he continues as well…
Because Jürg Frey’s piece, we never would have improvised in that way, because it’s really a specific thing. I would say the same with 'Pollock '82’ because I was actually really following the score, and I didn’t want to add anything, and I decided I’m going to only use the white noise, the breath and then interpret the signs. And with improvisation, what we did now, I wasn’t even thinking or feeling in that way, and looking, “now this will appear” or something. It’s a completely different emotional situation to me. So I don’t have problems with the terms.
I love the restriction. Setting some kinds of limits for sounds to be used with the scores. Presumably so that the score is what speaks loudest. He also mentions they never would have played like that without the score. And that’s one of the things I like about the popularity of scores these days. People are writing out situations to encourage musical events that never would take place otherwise. Again, I think we are tying back to the meta-practice of improvisation, where scoring of this fashion may never have taken place without the strictures of the improvised situation, which I think makes the output somewhat different from composition practices that are more directly tied to those of the past.
Rowe: Well, that’s right, one could say that how one is influenced, one way of being influenced, is that people give you permission to do things. I always feel that Cage gave us permission to do something…
This is a great bit, and it’s part of why I don’t care if I see new players with the same setups or techniques that older players coined. Once the door is open it’s on, permission has been given, and it can go in infinite directions.
Rowe: Maybe so-called free improvisation is something that historically can’t go on and on and on forever, it needs to be balanced out with some other thing… …as sure as eggs are eggs, in 5 or 6 years time, it’ll go back to some fully saturated world, where the investigation of silence which we’ve undertaken in the last half century or something like that will have exhausted our interest for the moment.
Malfatti: I think it did already, actually.
It seems often that I hear people talking about this “Reductionism” as if it’s purveyors believe they are making the ultimate music of all time. Which may be a clue to why elitist is such an oft used word when discussing this area. I think the above does a great job of showing the priorities of doing what feels right now, knowing the future is wide open, and again speaks to the openness and potential of this area in general. Maybe it’s because I stopped listening, but I don’t hear rock musicians talking like this.
This next bit is one of the most exciting ones for me, and I think Malfatti executes it flawlessly here. It’s such a perfect description of this newer way of working, and it points to so much more potential in this music to come…
The most interesting part for me today is what are the three most important aspects in music, but not only in music, in different areas as well, is the material and the structure and the form… …And so now I think my main point of interest is the structure. I’m not interested so much anymore in the material; it can be noise, it can be sound, it can be distorted, it can be a very clear sound, a very clear note on a traditional instrument.
This is it right here. This area of music and those that helped it along have confronted much if not all of the audible sonic spectrum. I’ve felt for a while now, every sound is acceptable. From the most rarified to the most banal. So making some odd sound can no longer captivate enough to make a piece. It’s what you do with them in space and time that is really important. I think this is partly why I’ve been more and more drawn to restrictive sonic palettes, of late.
Malfatti: But what do I do? I have a big space, and I decide I want to build a house in it. And then there are many possibilities, I can build 273 rooms, so every room is just a square meter or something, I can decide I want 3 rooms, or even just 1. So the form from the outside is still the same, but the structure is what you are doing. But for me it is like I have a sound, a note or whatever, a sound, and how do I structure it in relationship to the other sounds. So in that case, with a full understanding, I wouldn’t be afraid at all to do a collective improvisation with 20 people, if those 20 people have a similar, not the same, but a similar concept of structuring. Which means, in other words, there is no single way of thinking, there is no “let’s fill this space”, there is no “what else can I do?”, but for the sake of the overall building and produce your sound and willing to listen to the other sounds for half an hour maybe. And I don’t feel the need, that there is something missing and I take the opportunity to be listening to other sounds, and this for me is what is very interesting in composed music if it has the same aspect. One building with one or two big rooms, instead of all the little cells in prisons, maybe even locked doors.
For what it’s worth the whole interview was worth it just for that bit.
He’s not done though, and I think this bit is important for the detractors. With all the talk a year or so back about Malfatti painting himself into a corner… not so fast…
I would love to change again once. Actually I don’t think I’m trying to change, I don’t want to change the world, I don’t want to change anybody, maybe myself. Rather I’d say I’d like to be alert and aware, and really feel and observe very closely and critically my own doing, my own thinking…
…And if it comes to a point where I have the feeling “wow, I feel another change coming.” I’m probably too old for that, but it would be great if I could experience that once more the way I did 20 years ago and 40 years ago and 60 years ago. I thought I had three, to me, major changes in my musical way of thinking…
An openness that’s very good to hear…
And a good note to finish on. Thanks to Jon for going through the trouble to get this interview. It’s got me very much looking forward to hearing the record. You can pre-order it here
Next week is gonna be shithot; I’m playing a concert with Keith Rowe.
I guess not many people will have heard of him, but he’s extremely well known in certain circles. A true avant-garde legend. One of the most unique guitarists, he practically invented prepared guitar; he lays it on a table and uses all kinds of things to get amazing un-guitar-like sounds from it. It’s a bit like a surgeon dissecting someone and finding all these parts you never thought existed. I guess he’s inspired a lot of musicians over the years. After I saw one of his videos on Youtube some years ago I started getting a bit more experimental with guitars and feedback loops. I guess it’s all come full circle now, because that in turn lead me to university and now I get to play a show with him! So that’s pretty fuckin’ cool.
Still so so gutted I missed doing the concert with Merzbow though. He’s done albums with Borisand Mike Patton. Total legend. He is like the king of noise. I own a few of those collaborative albums. If only I went to uni a year earlier… D'oh!
Keith Rowe (born 16 March 1940 in Plymouth, England) is an English free improvisation tabletop guitarist and painter. Rowe is a founding member of both the hugely influential AMM in the mid-1960s and M.I.M.E.O. Having trained as a visual artist, Rowe’s paintings have been featured on most of his own albums. Rowe began his career playing jazz in the early 1960s—notably with Mike Westbrook and Lou Gare. Rowe gradually expanded into free jazz and free improvisation, eventually abandoning conventional guitar technique. For several years Rowe contemplated how to reinvent his approach to the guitar, again finding inspiration in visual art, namely, American painter Jackson Pollock, who abandoned traditional painting methods to forge his own style. Rowe developed various prepared guitar techniques: placing the guitar flat on a table and manipulating the strings, body and pickups in unorthodox ways to produce sounds described as dark, brooding, compelling, expansive and alien. He has been known to employ objects such as a library card, rubber eraser, springs, hand-held electric fans, alligator clips, and common office supplies in playing the guitar. Rowe sometimes incorporates live radio broadcasts into his performances, including shortwave radio and number stations (the guitar’s pickups will also pick up radio signals, and broadcast them through the amplifier). He played with with a lot of experimental as : Eddie Prévost ,Cornelius Cardew, Christian Wolff, Howard Skempton, Jeffrey Morgan, John Tilbury, Evan Parker, Taku Sugimoto, Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M, Oren Ambarchi, Christian Fennesz, Burkhard Beins, Toshimaru Nakamura, David Sylvian and Peter Rehberg.
Keith Rowe is to music as Jackson Pollock to painting : for both the preferred color is black with which enhance the background noise of our life.
1966, Not necessarily “English music”
1966, AMMMusic, ReR Megacorp/Matchless.
1967, Afflicted Man’s Musica Box, United Dairies UD12 (UK)
1968, Live Electronic Music Improvised, Mainstream MS 5002 (USA)
1968, The Crypt , Matchless MRCD05. AMM.
1969, Laminal , Matchless MRCD31.1.
1969, Eddie Prévost’s Silver Pyramid, Matchless MRCD40
1969, Gracility, Musicnow MNCD012. Laurie Scott Baker
1973/78, We only want the earth, Musicnow MNCD 004
1976/77, Consciously, Musicnow MNCD 004
1979, It had been an ordinary enough day in Pueblo ECM/JAPO 60031
1979, Over the rainbow, Arc 01. Amalgam.
1979, Wipe out, Impetus 47901. Amalgam.
1982, Cornelius Cardew memorial concert, Impetus 28204.