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Keith Rowe / Keith Rowe & Taku Unami - Keith Rowe and Taku Unami / Keith Rowe

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Artist: Keith Rowe / Keith Rowe & Taku Unami

Album: Keith Rowe and Taku Unami / Keith Rowe

Label: Erstwhile

Review date: Mar. 4, 2009

The ErstLive series presents Erstwhile Records artists in a raw, unedited form, with spare packaging and without the intense scrutiny and postproduction that have shaped many of the label’s regular releases. Even so, live records are obviously not the same as being there. You hear them at home, absent the visual and atmospheric input of the gig, which are both important aspects of the experience. The plushness of your seat, the rankness of the air, the quality of the company and drink all impact you experience of the music, as does what you do or don’t see. The record listener actually receives quite different information than the gig attendant did.

The absence of visuals is especially relevant with a musician like Keith Rowe, who has made a career out of playing the guitar in ways that other people don’t, using plastic lids, scrubby pads, violin bows and radio broadcasts run through the pickups of an instrument laid upon a table. The result is set of sonic resources unimaginable before Rowe introduced them; give either of these records a cursory listen and you won’t necessarily recognize the guitar at all. But this isn’t music to be played as background, or even passively experienced. From his first work in the mid ’60s with AMM through his recent encounters with electro-acoustic improvisers from around the world, Rowe has intended his music to be taken as a statement. Rowe’s every action is laden with intention and meaning, and even his totally spontaneous actions are taken with the awareness that in music, spontaneity can be a radical and subversive force. The music is incomplete without some effort to consider the intentions informing his art as well as his methods and their sonic output.

Live recordings come with varying levels of commentary, ranging from the vacuum of a downloaded bootleg file to the generous eye candy provided by LPs festooned with liner notes and photographs. Now that so many people have web access, archived live reviews by professionals and non-professionals add to the discourse. Erstlive records come minimally packaged with the barest identifying information – one snapshot of the venue’s seats, and another of the performers – so if you simply buy these records and play them, you’ll get no commentary at all. But seek out Erstwhile’s blog and you’ll find text that frames these two records in quite different ways.

Rowe’s duo with Taku Unami is subject to fairly conventional concert reviews by Yoshiyuki Kitazato on the Erstblog and by others elsewhere. Collectively, these texts tell you what someone else thought and felt during and after the moments when the music unfolded. But Rowe’s solo performance is the subject of ultra-detailed, moment-by-moment discussion by the man himself. His writing outlines the history and intentions behind his actions as thoroughly as the program accompanying a painter’s gallery show. It’s pertinent to remember that Rowe is also a painter, one whose decision to abandon jazz guitar in favor of extended technique and free improvisation was originally inspired by art school discourse on and personal contemplation about the work of Caravaggio and Pollock. These differing levels of commentary each influence one’s experience of the music; Rowe’s scrupulously annotated solo set becomes a very conscious statement on his art, while the less-explained duo presents him as a partner in a sound event.

Keith Rowe/Taku Unami was recorded on the first night of AMPLIFY 2008: light, a four-evening festival held by Erstwhile in Tokyo. Rowe played all four nights, three with different Japanese musicians, once by himself. His encounter with Unami was the first time the two had played together. Unami is not the sort of guy to be pinned down to a particular instrument or approach. Here, according to the online testimony of observers, he used small, motorized gadgets that he controlled with a laptop, as well as a mandolin and a double-necked acoustic guitar. Rowe played a table-full of guitar parts, kitchen implements and effects units. Unami’s little motors take the lead, broadcasting swarms of clatter and buzz that increase and recede in density. Rowe seems to hang back, adding hiss and crackle that barely seems to be there until he withdraws it suddenly, rending the music quite still and naked. This piece feels less like a conventional duet than a collaborative effort to paint with sound. Here it is thicker, there it is thinner; in places you see the evidence of human effort, elsewhere the sound seems to be a thing unto itself. But unlike a painting, music happens within an expanse of time, and it’s the contrast between episodes of near-emptiness and full-on action as much as variations in timbre and tone that make the music compelling. Events comment upon or contrast with each other in sequence, rather than the totality of information you’d get from looking at a canvas on a wall. When Unami plucks some recognizable notes from one of his stringed instruments about 16 minutes in, the act reminds you of what you’re not hearing; regular music played in a regular way. The moment is brief, and then the clatter returns, bulked up from behind by indeterminate electronic sounds.

Since you can read what Rowe has to say about what he was doing and why he did it, there’s not much point in paraphrasing it here. If you do get Keith Rowe, you’ll get a lot from reading the text through while listening to the record. But listen a bit before you read, for the record has a story all its own to tell. It sounds quite different from Rowe’s other solo records, with less continuous sound and more use of silence to frame discrete yet jagged gestures. There are several long passages of music from the 17th and 18th centuries; in a drastic departure from recent practice, but echoing his penchant in the ’60s for playing taped Beach Boys songs during AMM concerts, Rowe selected and played them in a predetermined sequence, rather than capture something from the airwaves and do with it whatever he can. Rowe rarely plays along with the recordings, and when he does, it’s with a hesitation that seems to apologize for how little the harsh sounds of now can add to exquisite the articulations of spiritual and aesthetic principals of yore.

By Bill Meyer

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