Keith Rowe: One Bird Flying Through
By JOHN EYLES, Published: September 2, 2009
In early June 2009, multi-instrumentalist Keith Rowe made one of his rare visits to London to play a concert at Cafe Oto as part of Another Timbre's Unnamed Music Festival in a trio with saxophonists Martin Kuchen and Seymour Wright, before heading north to Leeds to play another set the following evening with the same trio. Having been in the audience for the first night of the festival—and seeing fine sets by Sebastian Lexer and Aleks Kowalski, Rhodri Davies, Lee Patterson, Louisa Martin and Lucio Capece, and by Tom Chant, Angharad Davies, Benedict Drew and John Edwards—on the second night, hours before he was due to perform, Rowe agreed to give an interview to All About Jazz.
All About Jazz: Welcome back to London. How does it feel coming back to London and to England?
Keith Rowe: It's weird because I spent a long time down in the Elephant and Castle area [in south London]; I used to work down there, near The Bricklayers Arms. What is interesting is that this morning walking around there, I wouldn't say I didn't recognize anything, but the sense of change is enormous in Southwark—the rebuilding of areas, the buildings which have gone, and other buildings which have been put in...
AAJ: It's the same around here [Dalston, near Cafe Oto]. Did you know this area?
KR: Yes, the Balls Pond Road. There is one aspect of the Balls Pond Road that doesn't change at all, but there are others... but it hasn't succumbed to the gentrification of some areas, I think. There is a little bit there.
It always feels like something I am familiar with, in a way. It's not exactly that it feels like coming home, but it feels very close to that. The general feeling, the attitudes, I understand. Whereas in France I can never be French. Deep down, if I see four old men sitting at a table in Vallet, where I live, I can never be them. They went to school together; they probably went to the war in Algeria together; they share stuff and I can never be them. Whereas here I can share what it was like to live in the period of the austerity; all of that.
AAJ: So is this where you feel most at home these days then? I suppose there are so many places to choose from...
KR: Well, the thing is I probably don't feel at home anywhere.
AAJ: A world citizen?
KR: I like the idea of being a European. Because nowhere's perfect. I suppose it's also something to do with being a so-called improviser, it is at the location that you are in. Maybe that was also true for Pablo Picasso, El Greco and Shostakovich; wherever you were is where you work, not somewhere else. Maybe that is the trick, to be where you are, not somewhere else.
AAJ: Before we leave the location thing, I'm increasingly aware of the Europe-US- Japan triangle being an important three-way pull now, particularly for the type of music you play.
KR: Yes. In a way that has completed a cycle, because the thing that influenced me more than anything else was that 1952 New York school of Cage, Feldman, Christian Woolf, Earle Brown, David Tudor. Of course, in part that also came from the influence of picking up and synthesizing Japanese culture to some extent.
We, of course, in England, majored much more in Chinese culture than Japanese. We were influenced by the books by Joseph Needham; Science and Civilisation was probably what we studied more than the Japanese. I think Jac Holzman, the guy from Elektra, recorded an album in the mid-'60s of classical Japanese music. That was very influential for us. Then you go to Tokyo and play with Sachiko and Toshi. So there has come a cycle.
AAJ: So the Japanese influence precedes the Onkyo stuff that you've been very involved in for a decade or more. Its roots run a lot deeper.
KR: That's right; it's a huge cycle.
AAJ: We are now three-and-a-bit hours away from you playing on stage with Martin and Seymour. What space are you into, in those three hours? Is there a zone you have to get into? Or do you just live your life and then once you perform, that's it?
150KR: I think the thing is that when you sit down and you look at the instrument—or in my case, look at the stuff on the table in front of you—I think you, within probably a second or two seconds (maybe it takes you three or four seconds) basically there is a mindset. It is to do with concentration. Maybe the only times I've actually fully concentrated in my life is those moments when you're performing. Maybe at all other periods I'm actually not fully concentrating certainly to the depths. Maybe what that period is, is totally concentrating and not being distracted. I think what that is, you quickly get into a mode of concentrating...
AAJ: And it is quickly, is it? Is it something you can do, or does it just happen when it is needed?
KR: I can do it, yes. My wife complains that sometimes I can talk at the dinner table like I'm not there. I think sometimes I inadvertently get absorbed in some process and then I'm away. She has to whack me on the head with a loaf of bread or something to bring me back into the real world.
I presume it is what a lot of people do in all different walks of life. I'm sure that some guy in the army in a battlefield who's done an enormous amount of training for a certain task will at a certain moment just be totally concentrated on that, and time will slow down. Or a Buddhist monk sitting down to meditate. So I presume it is nothing so unique to Art. I can imagine airline pilots at crisis moments, maybe taking off or something, have to be there doing that.
AAJ: For you, is it different for solo playing as opposed to duo playing?
KR: It is exactly the same thing; it makes no difference. The room is apparently a more complex room if you've got two or three... If you are on your own the room is quite complex and you are absorbing everything in the room. If you have two extra players then there is that level of complexity to what's possible. Then there are a couple of skills that I think become relevant. One is the skill of the option of not listening. When it is a solo, you do have a range of listening skills. The not-listening one doesn't activate itself so much at that end of the spectrum.
I think when there are three of you, as tonight, then you go into hyper-listening when you listen at the most extreme range of the spectrum; at the other end is not listening at all. Not just shutting your ear off. I learnt that from the Japanese. I would say that expanding the spectrum of listening in that way was very important. That would be one difference; I think essentially observing everything that is in the space in the room. If there are two people there, it does make a difference of course.
AAJ: Do you still have the feeling that the music is there before you play it? Is it here? Are you externalizing it when you play it?
KR: Of course, we never know, do we? What always seemed to me the old question was: Is it one piece of work inside you, like a novel you keep on writing, or one painting that you keep on repainting, or one piece of music that you keep repeating it in different ways or do you have one piece of music inside you and you do episodes of it? Maybe it is a mixture of both; I've never been sure actually which it is. In a sense, I probably don't need to know, because you tap into it.
AAJ: A variant on that. You, Seymour and Martin play here [Cafe Oto] tonight and then in Leeds tomorrow. Would you know at this point how those two would be different? Or is that totally unpredictable?
KR: Totally unknown because the room tomorrow will be different—the space, the people. There is a sense in which the audience actually produce the music, not you. You are in the space, and the people are in the space with you. We're all in this space now. You can pick up a lot on them, on what they are feeling, how they are concentrating. So their concentration for example will allow you to develop material and extend material. If there is no concentration amongst the people in the room, you almost tend to go through an inventory, you rush through things. I think if they are concentrating, you almost tend to extend material a lot more. I hope that makes sense. And I think that must be true for Horowitz playing Liszt...
AAJ: You were at the performance last night, so you saw Rhodri Davies playing. In seeing people like Rhodri playing—and there are many others—do you recognize a legacy that you have left to the music, left to the current crop of improvisers?
KR: Yes. I can see the family relationship, if you know what I mean. I just recently worked with Rhodri in Wiesbaden. It was the Fluxus composer Ben Patterson's 75th birthday, so Rhodri and I were invited to do 75 minutes of music. So I got to know Rhodri a bit more. We'd not spent a huge amount of time together but it was very nice to see his thoughts and get his responses. And to see the technical things about the instrument because he has deconstructed the harp in the same way as I have deconstructed the guitar. Comparing notes, I'm probably slightly ahead of him in that I've got my guitar down to almost nothing, whereas I think he wants to go another stage in getting the harp down to—I think somewhere he saw a folding harp in a magazine; I think he is interested in that [laughs].
AAJ: How about you? Are you evolving in what you do to the guitar or have you reached there?
KR: Some of it is based on probably quite negative sentiments. At this point, I won't mention names but just recently I saw a guitarist playing in a trio and the guitar seemed to be masturbatory. I think there is something in the way the guitar has been a masturbatory instrument, very phallic with the hand going up and down. So some years ago I decided to castrate the guitar, in fact; I cut the neck off which is a symbol of castration. Maybe someone could actually write something about the fact that as old men get older their penises reduce, so maybe you can tell something by looking at the instrument on the table. I'm not going to go there.
AAJ: It is a very symbolic reduction is it?
KR: (Laughs.) Who knows? Maybe it is all subconscious.
AAJ: I can leave that bit in, can I?
KR: Yes [laughs]. Do illustrations and drawings.
AAJ: That is quite instructive. Beyond Rhodri, as you say, there is a family resemblance between a lot of improvisers.
KR: Sometimes I actually go to festivals and before me there is a guitarist playing, and I look at the table and an absolute mirror, a reproduction of my table with the same pedals, the same instrument, the same contact mikes, the same face fans, the whole caboodle, you know. What is interesting, if they have played first they have basically occupied all of the areas. I've got nowhere left.
AAJ: They've shot your fox...
KR: Exactly. When I go on, it has all been said, which is actually quite difficult.
AAJ: The last couple of times I've seen you play, solo at the Tate and at the ICA with Philipp Wachsmann [at the end of November 2008], I've been surprised at how many young guitarists are pawing over your table afterwards—almost taking notes with a view to recreating it.
KR: I suppose there would be a little bit of use in looking at the actual painting palette of Whistler. Maybe you'd learn something from that.
AAJ: With guitars, it has been there since year dot. Get a Stratocaster like Hendrix and you can be Hendrix.
KR: That's right. Imagine going to the paint shop next door, Reeves. Are they still in there or is it just preserved?
AAJ: It is a gallery space now.
KR: So if you went into a shop and got exactly the same colors as Rothko, you wouldn't guarantee you would do a Rothko at all. So I don't know why they bother. It doesn't help at all.
AAJ: You need both elements. You couldn't be you without your set up.
KR: It hasn't happened. Well, it has to an extent—when I did have a fully-fledged guitar, it went missing on Air France. (They have improved at Charles de Gaulle, but there was a period where basically unless you had a two hour correspondence your instrument would not make it.) So, I have actually turned up at concerts with no instrument and just had a blank space on the table, just had the foot pedals and the cables and no instrument. You do manage, and somehow it does still sound like you. Kind of odd. So maybe the security blanket of the guitar, that's all it is. Reducing it to almost nothing is probably an appropriate thing to do. But it is quite nice to have reference to it, a guitar-like thing.
At the moment I am using a thing called a finger trainer which you might have seen. A finger trainer is a device for classical guitar players to practice their fingering. It is just six frets and no body. It really is for the professional development for classical guitar players. I like it because it reminds me of Degas. You know when Degas draws the ballet dancers; they are doing their shoe laces up and preparing for the performance. He rarely paints them actually in full flight. They are resting afterwards or preparing.
AAJ: There is also a sense of ritual about that preparation, isn't there?
KR: Well, it goes back to what you were saying about how do you prepare for something.
AAJ: Well we've got this far and I haven't yet mentioned AMM. By my reckoning, you were in there for something like 35 to 40 years. And now, you've been out for five years, as of the first of May this year. So, the question is how have those five years felt? Obviously it has felt different, but how has it been?
KR: It has been fine. Obviously if I'm being honest, when I made that performance [on May 1, 2004] with AMM on that day I had no idea it was the last performance. I didn't know it was the last performance. It wasn't until that June, almost exactly a month later that I got emails from friends in America who'd actually picked up the book [Minute Particulars (Copula, 2004), by Edwin Prevost] and read it. Then there was a review by Walter Horn. The subject in the email I got was, "Holy shit, what is happening in AMM" and in the email it said, "I can't imagine that Rowe will ever play again." I didn't know Eddie had published the book. I didn't know what was in Eddie's book; I wasn't privileged to any pre-reading of the chapters, so I didn't know what the chapters were.
AAJ: So was it out of the blue when you saw these emails?
KR: Yes. Eddie never gave me a copy of the book, so when I got home I had to buy a copy of it from Jerome in Grenoble. When I read the book, my immediate feeling was that I just couldn't trust Eddie, you know. I just couldn't comprehend why he just didn't speak to me about any of these things. I think within a few months I came to the conclusion that I was just a complete irritant in Eddie's side, and I don't want to be an irritant to anyone, so it would be best if I just left and got out of it. At first I was pretty negative but by the Christmas I'd got a handle on it and I made a decision not to respond, not to write a letter to The Times as it were, to absorb it. I don't know why he did it. Still to this day, I don't know why he did it.
AAJ: But at the time it was out of the blue? You couldn't have foreseen? You had no sense of, as you say, being an irritant?
KR: Yes, again if I'm being honest, of course, Eddie and I are very different characters. Over the years, we will have disagreed, quite violently about things. But I didn't know that was the content of the book. Had he sent me, pre-publication, the chapters in which he is critical of me, I would have had something to say. Like the thing on Harsh (Grob, 2000), he has got it completely wrong. I really object to the conflation he uses. I would say that in the notes for Duos for Doris (Erstwhile, 2003) that, what I've just said to you, in the spectrum of listening for me I wouldn't necessarily listen or I might not listen or not listening is important to me. That is entirely different from saying that I never listen. He accuses me of never listening, and I never said I never listen. I said sometimes I don't listen, sometimes I do.
Anyway, the thing on The Hands of Caravaggio (Erstwhile, 2002) was totally wrong. What he is saying is just wrong; it's nonsense. In fact, I met someone a week ago in Slovenia who was at the concert he is critical of, and this guy had done a mini-disc recording and he said the mini-disc recording is very much like the CD that came out as The Hands of Caravaggio and yet you'd think from Eddie's essay that it was a complete fake, a hatchet job. In fact, I got a call from an Italian journalist asking me if The Hands of Caravaggio was a fake production done by Marcus Schmickler. I find it all offensive. I think if he'd asked me, I'd have sat down with Eddie and I'd have talked through all of these things. I would have had a proper talk to him about all of that, but he didn't; he just published it. How do you respond to that? I just kept my trap shut basically, and got on with life.
I do miss it. John Tilbury and Eddie are dear old friends and colleagues. But to lose two of your oldest friends in one week was very painful. AMM itself was the closest I get to playing in classical music. I know so much of the structures, the internal nature of it, so when I played in AMM it was like playing Schubert or Haydn or something because I knew it so well. There was very rarely anything fresh or new. I love that spectrum. I love doing new things, fresh things, going into it blind. I also love the other thing, working with material which I know extremely well. I think there is room for all of it. So I feel robbed of that experience.
AAJ: Do you still regard the two of them as old friends?
KR: Yes. I can honestly say that I have nothing bad to say about Eddie. I have nothing bad or negative to say about Eddie. I understand that he did what he felt he had to do. I am sad that it was that way. I just wish he'd spoken to me.
AAJ: That sounds amazingly generous of spirit on your part.
KR: I just think it is reality. In AMM if someone did something you didn't like, whose problem was that? Just say, I'm playing away and Eddie does some rattling or some bowing or something, and I don't like it, whose problem is that? It is my problem, not his problem. Eddie is doing what he thinks is correct. That is fine. It is my problem if I don't like it. So consequently, if I'm doing something he doesn't like, it is his problem not my problem. So if you write a book saying I'm at fault, I don't buy it frankly. He obviously felt the need to do it, he felt under pressure to do it, and I would protect his right to do it. I just wish he had talked to me about it. Or said, "This is the book I'm writing. There are bits of chapters you are going to disagree with. I'd really like to hear your angle on it." At least then, maybe in the book he could have written, "I've showed this to Rowe, and Rowe came back with this response." Then people reading it can make up their own minds. Or maybe it would have stopped Eddie from actually publishing those particular sections. Or maybe he'd have seen it in a balanced light.
I just really think his negative personal opinion of me stopped him being objective. I think he twisted what he was feeling into a kind of theoretical model that doesn't hold water. I think that is the problem with it. I am really sorry that he has put himself into that position. I would have hugged him and said not to publish it. I think his first book [[No Sound Is Innocent (copula, 1995), by Edwin Prevost] is much stronger on that level. When he talks about Coleman Hawkins
' "Body and Soul," and that stuff, there are very strong legitimate points he makes. All those things about you can only find yourself in the company of others, I think those ideas from the first book are very strong. In the second book, he is having a go at me and Zorn. I wouldn't go there, personally.
AAJ: It is quite a notorious rift these days. The reason I raise it is that in the past month I was talking to Karen Brookman, Derek Bailey
's widow, about the rift between Derek and Evan that happened about twenty years ago. Although it has never been explored in any detail, her take on that is that it wasn't about musical differences or about business differences; she said she thought that they were like a married couple who had been together for too long. Does that chime with you?
KR: Yes, or like two brothers. Absolutely, I'd go along with that. It is a kind of marriage and sometimes it breaks down. I think the other thing is there are always two sides to a story. There is Eddie's side and my side. Someone like Lawrence Sheaff—one of the old members of AMM—would say that when something bad happens to you, then you've invited it, you've caused the conditions for it to happen. So I'm not without blame. I'm me, and me being me I'm obviously irritating to Eddie, so therefore I must accept some responsibility. But I wouldn't write it in a book.
AAJ: Sometimes tension can be a driver of creativity. Was there any sense of that?
KR: That is true. I would say that in AMM there was a chemical mismatch between me and Eddie, like two brothers who really don't hate each other but detest each other. Actually there is that sort of tension. We solved that by usually having a classical musician; we always invited classical musicians as a kind of catalyst for this relationship. As long as we controlled the relationship, everything was okay. We could have gone on for a hundred years. This one was just unfortunate.
AAJ: There is a strand running throughout this interview—the number of times you have referred to visual artists. [Picasso, El Greco, Whistler, Rothko, Degas...]
150KR: That is what I am, and that is what I do on the instrument. What I am doing on the instrument is not making music. AMM was a philosophy and the vehicle for the philosophy was music. What I do is painting, and the vehicle for it is sound. There is no painting at the end of this process. I do other kind of painting where there is a painting. In this form of painting there is no painting and it is so heavily disguised that you cannot locate the painting.
The disguise comes from Duchamp. It was extraordinary that he gives the impression that he has stopped working but actually continues producing things. Everyone thinks he has stopped but he is still producing. That was a kind of inspiration for me on the guitar to kind of adopt the process of painting and the agenda of painting but actually put it in the form of sound, which means there is no commodity; there is no painting to be traded. There are CD's but they are never going to sell for three million.
AAJ: It is not one object. The CD is just the record of the event. The event itself is the nearest equivalent.
KR: No-one can own that, not even me. It is fully transient. But painting is incredibly important. So is music, so is the world of particularly classical music.
AAJ: The future. Five years ago you'd just left AMM. Can you look five years hence?
KR: Obviously no, but I have a kind of sense of wanting to have a kind of performance that is based on the live experience of being. I think too many performances are actually a bit like the live performance of the CD. I would like to get away from that and actually produce music, which is actually deeply dissatisfactory in real time but has a feeling of uniqueness in that space and a feeling of being Art.
There is something about approaching a painting by Auerbach; you see the trace of the process. I think I would like what I do to be the trace of a process. It is just there in that unique moment of looking, in the opportunity to see it, and then it is gone and you can never see it again. Maybe that is so deeply representative of human existence that we are here for a limited amount of time. So the work, the sixty minute solo, becomes the trace in the representation of human life.
You know the story of the Venerable Bede when someone asked him about human existence. He said imagine a banqueting hall; it is winter and it is dark outside; a bird flies in one window, through the banqueting hall and out the other window. This is life. I would like a performance to be like that. So it transcends the question of being Art or not, or technique or brilliance. It is absolutely what it is, a mirror of the whole of our existence. So, this is one bird flying through.