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Keith Rowe – erstwords + ErstLive007

Erstwhile

In the occasion of the “AMPLIFY: Light” festival, held in Tokyo in September 2008, Keith Rowe decided, 24 hours prior to his gig, to go fully introspective with the music he’d play, with particular regard to artistic influences and, especially, sounds that have influenced him. Without a doubt, the people who attended the concert – except perhaps the closely related – were unaware of the artist’s intention at that moment. This already establishes a series of sharp differences with those not present, an obvious large majority who only now is able to enjoy the set at least acoustically, but also to know better in regard to the composer’s impetus for that night as he, in an almost unprecedented move, penned an essay which explains the motivations and the suggestions behind every sonic event, and a minute-by-minute report of what happens in the piece. This dissertation is available at erstwords.

A decision like this, which basically corresponds to sharing intimacy (a posteriori) with an audience by stripping bare every feature and simultaneously affecting the process of personal interpretation for the listener, not to mention the (useful) exercise in guessing how an unusual sound was produced (though the cognoscenti are already acquainted with several of these “surprises”), puts forth issues that add to the many, seriously thought-provoking, presented by Rowe himself and concerning the role of artists, the reasons of their actions, the lasting qualities and the mass acceptability of works that today are considered revolutionary when compared to past-time classics.

We find ourselves in front of something that, as long as the concept can be stretched, is definitely not untainted improvisation, since the main elements that constitute the music are preconceived, starting from the four “cultural templates” (untreated snippets of recordings of classical materials, specifically from Alessandro Marcello, Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville, Jean-Philippe Rameau and Henry Purcell), to arrive at the recurrence of a so-called “death motif”, a persistent buzz generated by a battery-powered fan which changes in intensity according to the moment, appearing as an ominous memento mori in various sections. The improvisational features are essentially revolving around the different nuances deriving from concrete means that Rowe has utilized formerly, and again in this context: a steel pan scrubber, a plastic lid, a rattling knife, a radio which always manages to air something — muzak or easy pop — that’s just perfect for the situation. From a strictly emotional point of view, the juxtaposition of these colours is at times stunningly efficient, the choice of meshing disparate ingredients such as de Mondonville’s Grand Motets with the deformed mutterings of an “infernal” live broadcast introducing a whole new level of alertness that not everybody will be able to attain.

One sees the painstaking descriptions, the determination of exposing intuitions, self-questioning and fears, as a not-too-secret wish of being distant from the unpredictability of the “right now” typical of a one-off display, which can often spell disaster (in the guise of recorded documents that are remembered with horror after months, if not years, and indeed form a consistent bulk of material lying in perennial dust following a couple of listens). On the other hand, I wonder why an artist of such a caliber feels the need, at this stage of his career, to precisely detail the circumstances and the occurrences of a performance, as significant as it might be. Is this disclosure or is it the desire to prevent anyone from “imagining differently”? Abstract art tends to assume in the artist a sort of interior arrogance which says, confidently, “This is the work, decide what to do of it yourselves,” which is why we study and why we listen. With these notes I can’t help but see the danger in affecting listeners in their option to remain exposed to some kind of rational scrutiny of the work itself. Yet, in the end, a thorough disclosure of the artistic process is the ultimate rationalization of a gesture that ideally springs from pure instinct.

This oscillation between the poles of selective exclusion — because, face it, this is not food destined to unproblematic consumption, and also the well-trained will have to shift a couple of gears to actually understand — and egalitarian explanation of an action is both fascinating and mystifying. The best route, obviously, is full acclimation to the music without having read the notes, kept handy for later subsequent spins. Where the notes are valuable, new questions are apt to arise in the consideration of relationships with sounds that stand among the most inspiring that Rowe has conceived.

Although not at the (possibly unreachable) echelon of Between (with Toshimaru Nakamura), but undeniably superior to The Room in terms of sheer gratification and generation of far-reaching uneasiness, ErstLive 007 represents what the trade defines as “mandatory listening”, if only as an important waypoint in the navigation of Keith Rowe. The debate on the disc’s conception and the (impossible?) interpretations is open — IF a discussion on something so definitively affirmed and circumstantiated is in any way feasible.

~ Massimo Ricci

Discussion

12 comments for “Keith Rowe – erstwords + ErstLive007

  1. “undeniably superior to The Room in terms of sheer gratification”
    Hmm, not sure about that. It’s certainly more accessible than The Room, which belongs along with The Crypt as one of those slow maturing vintages.
    Good points about the notes. Sure, they tend to influence the way you hear the music once you’ve read them, but that’s often the case with liner notes. And at least these aren’t included with the disc - if you want them you have to seek them out.

    Posted by Dan Warburton | June 28, 2009, 11:58 pm
  2. I feel no emotion while listening to “The Room”, as good as it is, while “ErstLive 007″ touched several nerves for good.

    I wouldn’t compare typical liner notes to a meticulous report such as this one. Mind you, I probably understood at least a part of Rowe’s intents much better after reading. Yet this choice remains perplexing - in a fascinating way - from this observation angle.

    Posted by Massimo Ricci | June 29, 2009, 12:59 pm
  3. At the risk of seeming a bit dim, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to make of this disc until I read the notes.

    For me, the notes are fairly crucial to getting a handle on the recording which I must admit left me a bit cold on the first couple of listens.

    I personally still find “The Room” a more engaging listen, but I’m not sure direct comparisons between the two can be made very satisfactorily - definitely in apples vs. oranges territory there.

    Posted by Phil Julian | July 6, 2009, 6:01 pm
  4. Phil, thanks for the comments. I’d like to stress that the comparison was only referred to my personal reactions to the music. It’s not meant to weigh the different artistic values (very high in ALL the mentioned recordings).

    Posted by Massimo Ricci | July 7, 2009, 3:52 am
  5. I prefer apples to oranges, and I also prefer the Tokyo solo to ‘The Room’, which I still find too droney. I read the texts on erstwords quite a while before hearing the Tokyo solo, and I doubt I’ll go back to reread them. Whilst it was interesting to hear about the context for the performance, I think I’d find that the specifics of Keith’s intended associations for each sound element somehow restricted my listening. Perhaps if like Phil I was struggling with it as a piece of music, the text might be useful, but as I really liked it on first hearing I’m happier just making my own associations.

    But I’ve never been a big fan of sleevenotes or writing about music in general. Until I started Another Timbre I hardly ever read anything about music - online, books, reviews, magazines. I bought a lot of discs but was perfectly happy to make up my own mind about what I did and didn’t like without reference to anyone else. That’s imposible for me now but in many ways I envy the innocence of that situation.

    Posted by simon reynell | July 7, 2009, 4:45 am
  6. I’m an apples man - less fiddly :)

    I’m sure if on early listens I had enjoyed the Tokyo solo disc I would have found the notes interesting but not completely necessary. I know Keith’s work enough to know that very little (if anything) is done without serious thought and consideration. What struck me about the Tokyo solo was that there was obviously a “conceptual” framework at play beyond it being an improvised piece which made it feel like a bit of the jigsaw was missing before I read the notes.

    Generally, I like to be left to make my own mind up about a piece of music, but in this case it felt like a couple of pages were missing from the story initially.

    Posted by Phil Julian | July 7, 2009, 4:57 am
  7. I much prefer The Room, purely from the point of view of the listening experience. I find it a considerably more sensual experience rather than leaning towards the outwardly conceptual.

    That said there is a detailed conceptual framework running through The Room as well, and I’m sure if notes were ever released on that we might all view it slightly differently as well.

    Posted by RPinnell | July 7, 2009, 6:08 am
  8. Yes, the label’s presentation of “The Room” hints to some of it indeed.

    Maybe everybody here is already familiar with it, but I thought I’d mention this interesting interview where Rowe touches on several intriguing points. It was published on Josh Ronsen’s excellent Monk Mink Pink Punk magazine a while back:

    http://ronsen.org/monkminkpinkpunk/12/rowe.html

    Posted by Massimo Ricci | July 7, 2009, 6:20 am
  9. “That said there is a detailed conceptual framework running through The Room as well, and I’m sure if notes were ever released on that we might all view it slightly differently as well.”

    I’m probably in the minority here, as the Tokyo notes left me scratching my head, and as some of you know. I suppose the main beef is that the notes would have worked much better for me had Rowe stopped at the premise of cultural templates, without going into note-by-note (more or less) analysis, and without referencing finite points in the course of the piece against related influences and impulses. Though I think I know Rowe better than this, the play-by-play was a bit excessive, in that he’s not a man I’d describe in such a way. I’d of course be interested to read more about the templates, pre-existing frameworks, et al, as something of this nature 1) is terribly interesting in and of itself, and how it influences a musician’s playing, and 2) maintains a comparatively large piece of the music’s enjoyment to the imagination.

    Posted by Al | July 7, 2009, 6:57 am
  10. interesting range of perspectives…

    some of you know this, but Keith has tried to write notes for The Room. the plan was always to release those a year or so after the record came out, but the issue has been that it deals with such massive, fundamental concepts in his work that it’s been hard, like trying to write about the center line in Treatise. I haven’t badgered him about it in a while, I probably should.

    I personally probably prefer EL007 to The Room, but maybe that’s (at least partly?) because I was present when it was created.

    one context that it should be examined in, which people haven’t been able to yet, is as the second of four sets that Keith played over those three nights, the first two of which have been released (duo with Unami, solo), the other two should be out by October (duo with Sachiko, along with 90 additional minutes of recordings they made two days later which is out in a couple of weeks, and duo with Toshi will be out in October). I played the recordings of these consecutively for the first time the other day (as I just got the final master for the Toshi one), pretty fascinating/impressive.

    Posted by jon abbey | July 7, 2009, 7:08 am
  11. I thought the notes were great. Wouldn’t read a piece like this as overtly “conceptual” anyways (not as in “concept art”). It’s more about metaphors, in word and in sound. I was sure I’d love the record after reading and listening to snippets on mp3. Perhaps expectations were too high, but I have trouble listening to this at all. My problem is with the sound of the classical pieces. I can’t listen to them as cultural templates, they sound like commercial product to me (and the slight loss of quality through the live recording only pushes these extracts more towards a 80s early cd aesthetic). The two levels (Rowe in a dry mood vs. the comfy artificial reverb of the classics) don’t seem to marry very well soundwise. Never mind, I’ll rip it to a mono 64 kbps and start enjoying, I’m sure the record will deteriorate very gracefully over the ages. But also the conceptual layer to me seems compromised, since a CD recording of classical music cannot simply be taken to signify the music of the composer recorded, not on an intellectual level, lots of connotations ricocheting here, not even on a sensual level (I’d wager the guess my ears would have readily embraced more uneven interpretations of the pieces, say something like the Deller consort (a cat I usually can’t listen to without a pain in the ear)).

    Posted by Wombatz | July 7, 2009, 9:14 am
  12. “My problem is with the sound of the classical pieces”

    Curious, that’s instead the juxtaposition that makes me appreciate the music even more…

    Posted by Massimo Ricci | July 7, 2009, 1:23 pm

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