issue 12 :: July 2007

previous contents next

INTERVIEW: Keith Rowe

† † † † † † † † † † †

In April 2007, Keith Rowe, who co-founded the AMM ensemble (1965), toured the U.S. East Coast with Rick Reed and Michael Haleta as the Voltage Spooks. Seven shows in eight days. Immediately after, Rowe came with Reed back to Austin to perform solo and duo, much as they did a few years ago. I had the pleasure of interviewing Rowe the day after the show, and because of my contacts with him on his previous three visits to Austin, I felt a bit of comradarie which I think generated an interesting interview. I expect people who read this interview to be familiar with Dan Warburton's 2001 Paris Transatlantic interview, which covers Rowe's early career and general methodology. I have tried not to duplicate any of that material. An interesting 1996 interview with Rowe can be found here, made during AMM's first visit to Austin. Thank you to John Pham and Susanna Bolle for the use of their Voltage Spooks photos from Boston and NYC.

interview by Josh Ronsen, April 22, 2007

 
Q: How has the tour been?
ROWE: Really great. A really great time. Socially, itís been really nice, which I think is always important. Obviously the music is important too, but I think to have really good traveling companions, sympathetic people, I always find that important.
Q: Does that affect the music? If youíre in a good mood?
ROWE: I donít really know, because I think Iíve always avoided touring with people I donít like. I felt confident. I think it does [thinking about question]. The music left a lot of space for each other, a lot of consideration, and I think we were all willing to come in with quite strong ideas when we had them, but also to retire and allow the others to speak, but at the same time keep three very individual voices.
Q: Youíve talked about some AMM recordings being three solos and not a group. How do you work to make it a group where people arenít assigned a rhythm or melody situation?
ROWE: Did I say three solos or three accompanists?
Q: The interview was transcribed as ďsoloists.Ē
ROWE: I think the idea was closer to 3 accompanists, accompanying each other. I think what you would find -- and I think it is true of the Spooks tour as well -- is there wasnít that kind of soloistic mentality. People didnít tend to use soloistic vocabulary, a vocabulary which is is already full. It doesnít need anything else. I think you already know this experience too, youíll be playing with someone.
Q: Sometimes I want to put something in the foreground and other times have something in the background.
ROWE: Thatís right. Again, when youíre playing as a soloist, a solo, you are covering all the areas in a sense. If you have three or four people doing that simultaneously, it does get full and unnatural. I think most of us in those circumstances would draw back for a few moments. Partly because youíre not helping the situation continuing what youíre doing. But also maybe what you said in a way, that the person feels at that point the freedom to do something very soloistic. Being sensitive to that is not a bad thing, because it gives a dynamic to the overall picture of the music when someone does something very strong.
Q: When youíre playing with people, how quick is your reaction time? When someone does something, can you react, [snaps fingers]? Or do you have to pre-plan...?
ROWE: I think your reaction times are very fast. In fact, itís a skill to have four or five simultaneous possibilities and youíre only actually utilizing one of them, and you have something in the background that you can bring out straight away. For me, I would never try to react in that sense. I have the capability of reacting in that sense, but I much prefer having a schema you are running through, but a schema that has an ambiguity and open-endedness which will automatically accept almost any other activity along side it.
Q: And you can adjust it if you need to.
ROWE: A little bit. You could be adjusting the equalization or maybe the volume, you could push it or make it more or less transparent, to make it work in a totality. Because obviously in the end you are always working for the totality of what is happening rather than what you are doing. And itís much better in a way to understate what you are doing. Maybe itís better to be doing something not so brilliant but adding to the whole in a way which makes it work.
Q: When you use electronics, delays -- and I think you have one of those Loop Stations that Rick [Reed] uses -- you set up electronic loops which are almost another level of playing in which you control or conduct as a separate entity. Do you play that level, or let it play itself?
ROWE: I think theyíre really dangerous. I think the Loop Station is a dangerous thing. I think Rick is really good in that you donít detect he is using it. Thatís the worst thing, that you can detect it in operation. I think hiding it is best.
Q: I didnít look at your setup last night, so I didnít see if you were using it.
ROWE: I was, but I have a half-sized one of Rickís. The RC-20 has a reverse. I use the RC-2.
Q: The reverse seems like the best feature...
ROWE: [laughs] Well, I think that is true. For a lot of people the reverse is the feature they really like. I think the problem with that is that it becomes a kind of trap. I would say one of the things that always needs to be avoided in music is affectation. And I think these have the possibility of becoming an affectation.
Q: Where it becomes recognizable what it is?
ROWE: Well, it drives you towards making convincing, interesting music, and then I think it becomes almost a crutch. Iím not saying it is, but there is a danger. The test of that is to not have it, then you see how much youíve come to rely on pressing this button for an effect. I think that will continually take away from the process of making music.
Q: When you use electronics, do you experiment to find something to use, or do you use them because you want a certain feature?
ROWE: The thing is, the electronics, and Iím not absolutely sure about this, allow for a degree of abstraction in music which somehow I never felt was there with acoustic instruments. Maybe it is only the difference between lyrical and hard-edged abstraction, but there is something about the abstraction which really attracted me right from an early age. I think with the abstraction, because you donít have a lot of the other craft/technique elements with electronics, you can have a degree of fluidity in what youíre doing which I really enjoy. I think electronics allows a modular approach to music as human performance and to reroute stuff not only completely fresh before you start but also during the performance. David Tudor was the great genius at that.
Q: With his matrix switcher...
ROWE: Yeah. We do it differently with 1/4Ē jack leads.
Q: Do you rehearse with different orders of the electronics [plugging the electronics in different orders]?
ROWE: No, I never do. I usually have an idea about it, I have a book. I would think ďI wonder if I put the telephone pickup coil into the Loop Station?Ē What is the possibility of that?
Q: And then you do that during performance?
ROWE: No, I get the idea sitting on the bus of waking up in the morning or cooking. I'm constantly churning stuff over. And then I try to remember it long enough to write it down. I forget loads of stuff. I might in the afternoon during sound check, I might try it. But the sound check is part of the playing. But I wouldnít rehearse it to death. I donít sit at home... I never never never at home put stuff on the table and rehearse.
Q: I donít know if you remember, but when you [and Toshimaru Nakamura] gave the workshop [in Austin], it was in 2002 or 2003, you admonished us for fidgeting around on our instruments at home. You said it cheapens the sound or the music-
ROWE: The relationship. It dilutes the relationship between you and the instrument.
Q: Because it is no longer a special relationship?
ROWE: I think it becomes very informal. It has the potential to become very lazy and you teach your muscle memory bad habits. The possibility of bad habits creeping in, unless youíre very strict, just laying back on the sofa playing away.
Q: Because you are not devoting all of yourself to playing?
ROWE: Exactly. I think it is the concentration. But thatís just my quirk. Iím sure people stumble across stuff by doing that.
Q: Iím guilty of that.
ROWE: What? Stumbling across or...?
Q: Both. But just keeping the calluses [on fingers] up...
ROWE: Because I donít play the guitar like that, calluses are not an issue. I try to strip the music of all of the craft elements.
Q: You never use your fingers to fret notes?
ROWE: Very, very rarely. I did last night, a little bit. I wanted to make a sound, more like human sounds, just rubbing the strings with fingers, but there is no pressure, a very light touch. In fact, itís a very light touch because the guitar is amplifying, with contact microphones. Itís also laying flat on a table which is resonating as well, the whole surface is vibrating, so the lightest touch on the strings can make a thunderous sound.
Q: I always loved the story about the Japanese Zen Master who could produce vibrato just from varying the blood pressure in his fingers.
ROWE: I have my own version of that in my ďpan scrubberĒ period, when I used, for about four years, a stainless steel wool pad. If you crank up the pickup very high so each sound is really magnified and you put the pad on the pickup and hold it really still, you can hear the blood coming through. If you can control the blood flow by holding your breath or slowing down. A couple of times I have used that notion of hearing the blood flow. And the brillo pad on the pickup is not Zen [laughs], but it is an idea reminiscent of that.
Q: Rick used to play guitar and that was one of his techniques.
ROWE: I stopped doing it. I remember playing in Berlin in a small club and I think there were three sets. I was setting up my table and I looked down and I saw -- Iím not joking -- fifteen brillo pads on various tables. So I threw mine away and havenít used any since.
Q: What are you using the laptop [a G4 PowerBook] for?
ROWE: It come from an old idea. Obviously it is a found object, you can treat it like an object like anything else, and it has very rich possibilities outside of its normal music [capabilities]. I was inspired by a quote from Nicolas Poussin, a painter from the 1600s. I mentioned him last night [in his spoken introduction to his solo set].
In a letter he wrote ďI who make a profession of mute things,Ē which always struck me as a fantastic way of describing the role of an artist. There is an inherent muteness about things that an artist brings out the possibilities from muteness. With the computer I use a telephone pickup coil and try to explore all of the sonic debris the keyboard throws up, and also the Bluetooth [wireless] mouse. Last night I had the pickup coil on top of the mouse and operated it as a mouse, say to launch a program, Reactor, and didnít take any audio from that. The mouse chatters [to the computer]. Positioning the pickup coil on top of the keyboard then I am able to pickup this chatter. Then if I run that through the Loop Station and run it through the PS-3 and change the pitch...
Q: You pick up the hard drive sounds?
ROWE: Yeah, in fact, itís just one of those things I just do once. When I was fresh into using it, it [went into standby mode] halfway through the performance and the whole motor went [makes winding down noise], but very gracefully, absolutely beautiful. So at the end of the performance I turned it off by holding down the power button and had the pickup where I reckoned it produces sound. Fantastic. But that could become a signature sound so I hope I would never do it again.
Q: I donít know about your Mac, but some models have a built-in microphone and I have seen people use it in performance.
ROWE: Mattin.
Q: Aaron Russell did something really beautiful where he bowed the shell of the laptop and this was picked up by the mic.
ROWE: Bowed laptop. The bowed laptop ensemble [laughs].
Q: Do you use that feature at all?
ROWE: No. For me that is someone elseís idea. I would try never to steal or appropriate someone elseís idea. I would always want to work it out myself.
Q: Are you using the computer programs like Reactor, are you making computer music?
ROWE: I donít very much. When I first got it, I tried using it but it was so slow. Maybe it was just me, but it seemed really really slow.
Q: It is almost like you have to compose something in advance. Or you can improvise with pre-made material.
ROWE: I wouldnít rule out using the sound capabilities at some point, but just at the moment I find it slow.
Q: And you still prefer direct manipulation.
ROWE: Yeah. I donít suppose I will do that forever either. There is lots of other stuff which is equally interesting. CD players or iPods, use the platter from the iPod, one of them that has a hard drive [as opposed to flash memory]
Q: I have read instructions how to send music signals to hard drive motors to turn the actual spinning of the hard drive platter into a speaker.
ROWE: Yeah. I like the exploration. The result, whatever comes out, comes out. Portable telephones, cell phones, the array of information coming out.
Q: How do you approach playing with someone new? Youíve played with Rick once before. Have you ever played with Michael?
ROWE: I had about two years ago in Maryland. We did a performance of [Cardewís] Treatise together. Obviously when you play with someone for the first time, you usually have an idea of what theyíre about.

pages 94-115 of Treatise
Q: ĎCause youíve heard their stuff?
ROWE: Yeah, but just recently I played with a laptop musician I knew nothing about. He did the first set and I did the second set and then we did a brief collaboration, so I got an idea from that, but sometimes people for their solo set have a completely different approach to live improvisation, probably good, too, I think. But it was odd because his solo set was very convincing, but when it came to the improvisation [with me], I think what Iíve been saying now, I really think the computer wasnít fast enough, or whatever he was doing, wasnít fast enough to interact in a sense. I felt he was running a program and I was decorating it. There is a natural kind of tentative nature, I think that is one thing that obviously happens, you both try not to get in each otherís way, try not to step on each otherís feet, try to leave space for the other person. And that can lead to a tentative and weak environment, and so much so that on this occasion after ten minutes I thought, ďeither Iím going to sit here and make a completely pathetic evening of music, or I can push it,Ē which I did. The kind of overplaying I wouldnít normally do. But that just woke the relationship up and I think I gave him the confidence to come back at me and [he thought] ďheís making a lot of noise, so I can.Ē I think sometimes not to make a lot of noise, not to have a lot of activity you have to have confidence. It has always seemed to me, you have to be more confident in what you do to be able to use less material and the more material you use can be a feature of insecurity. It doesnít have to be; Iím not saying it is a mechanical relationship but I think it is often the case, people over compensate. The danger is playing too much so that youíre not sensing the actual environment youíre in. For me, the most important things that you find in the room, in the space, is continually changing. Like last night in the first half, the space was a certain kind of space and then after intermission, as I sat down to play I felt that the space was very different. Not good or bad or anything like that, but just a different kind of feel of space, a tactile sense of space.
Q: In relation to being in back of the room and watching Rick and then coming to the front of the room?
ROWE: Partly it is the psychology of the people there which you can obviously sense, you can sense the kind of attention people are bringing to it. When youíre primarily using visual material, because we are primarily visual animals, the concentration of the [audience] is visual, and in fact when there is no visual there seems to be a process around the irises, scratching around, looking to derive information, which is not there. And what one would think would happen that the ears become more active, but the ears begin to close down. But if you have a visual image and a high volume. The ears are closing down from the volume and also closing down from the eyes taking most of the concentration. So I think that needs a particular kind of awareness from [the audience]. So often the intermission is totally different. I just sense it was different. And that was why I choose to talk a little to try to negotiate that different. And then playing, the first five minutes is just exploring the space, bringing up a soft drone as a way of probing and when it came back, I knew that what I had done was to pull peopleís concentration in the sound. I think prior to that it didnít feel very good. They were still trying to locate themselves in the space. A performance is a collaboration between everyone who is there and the room itself, the quality of the room, the expectations of the people and their actual concentration; it seems to be tangible.
Q: Youíve played in the room twice before, plus given a workshop, you have a history with this room. Have you ever played to video like Rick did?
ROWE: I just did a tour of Portugal with a video artist from Oslo. Itís hard.
Q: To make music that fits the video?
ROWE: Well, I can do that easily. He uses a lot of flicker, generated flicker images, nonobjective images so they are abstractions. We each have an analog monitor on our tables. And what I do is use different pickup coils and radios, like long-wave radios, most television monitors you will pick up the monitorís process, where it is trying to hold the image in sync around the edge of the screen, you can pick that up very strongly. You can explore the top part of the monitor, you get a very hard-edged sync with the flicking image. He then takes a an audio feed which he puts into his Doppler which changes the flicker rates which then change the sound. So we have a loop. Itís a very hard-edged electronic sound. Itís quite punchy. Sometimes Iíll break away from that and do something contrary. It gets very intense.
Q: And you run this through your effects?
ROWE: Yeas. We were given some money by a Norwegian arts association to spend a week away to experiment with the relationship between radio waves and monitors. It gave me a big headache at the end [taps on table]. But itís wonderful to combine short-wave possibilities, exploring the different aspects of the sync locking, very extraordinary sounds.
Q: Thatís a different way of working with visual material than... you make compositions using elements from peopleís paintings. How do you interpret those elements? For example, the compositions for MIMEO.
ROWE: Last night I did something based on the Rothko paintings in the room in London, and in Houston. In MIMEO weíve also done versions of Rothko in a different way. Looking at a Rothko, I think of two elements, the high pitch and the low pitch, the upper part of the frame, [and the lower]. The instructions are always simple for these painting works, at least for Rothko, the hard, hard Rothko, without any consultation from the other people you hit either a very high frequency or a very low, and without any sense of degradation or deviation, hold that pitch at a very loud volume for an hour and then stop. So it is like being inside a 747 engine [laughs]. For me, it was to express something thatís almost hidden in Rothko, the terror, the sheer terror of the painting, the terror of the process and the way the process partly causes suicide. All the difficulties of making that, for him. I think Rothko reopened things, like Feldman, very soft and green, and I think a romanticized version of it, and understandably so. And we have a soft in Rothko, which is the same instruction choose a high or low frequency and play it incredibly soft for an hour. The Caravaggio we used,ďThe Taking of Christ,Ē (1602) which was a lost Caravaggio and only recently rediscovered. It is too complicated to explain now, but there is scheme involving John Tilbury as the Christ figure, the acoustic instrument surrounded by electronic ones, and the electronics betraying the acoustic instrument. John Tilbury is actually betrayed inside the piano [Cor Fuhler performing directly on the piano strings], his ability to move is restricted. But not aggressively, no one is trying to stop him.
Q: Is he aware of this, like Christ, does he know the betrayal is coming?
ROWE: We talked about it, but I'm not sure. I thought he was, but maybe I didn't make it clear enough. I gave him drawings of the hands. In the painting the hands of Christ are fairly uniform in composition, which is usually interpreted as resignation, and I encouraged John to use that hand. In the performance I imagine he must have known, because we had a press release, and it was in the program and we had a press conference the day before. John was there; we all discussed it. The last painting project with MIMEO we did, we just finished it and it will be released in a few weeks is based on Cy Twombly.
As you know, Twombly was a cryptologist in the army and part of that he had to be able to work under difficult circumstances which involved being in the dark. And you know the legend of painting blindfolded and using the wrong hand... I thought about how we could do a version of that in MIMEO, so what I got people to do was each person in their home take a 60 minute CD-R and put onto this about 2 minutes of music, 2 minutes of sound, spread over the one hour of time, and while doing this, think about what the others could be doing, but obviously not knowing, and to be considerate of the other people, and think about Cy Twombly's paintings. Everyone then sent their CD-R to Marcus Schmickler, who piled them on top of each other without listening to them, and then sent the master, having not listened to it, to the record label [Cathnor], who agreed to print it without listening to it. So the label boss, Richard Pinnell, his idea is to go to [Sound] 323 and buy it over the counter and listen to it.
Q: Can the people at the plant listen to it, to master it?
ROWE: I don't want to make a fetish of it, but the idea was that none of us should listen to it. So it is like taking the blindfold off and you have the work.
Q: Are you playing blindfolded, or with the wrong hand?
ROWE: AMM was often played [lost to tape change], and in the Scratch Orchestra we had a piece called ďHoudini RiteĒ where youíre all tied up with rope. For example, you could do Rachmaninoffís Piano Concerto No. 2 with John Tilbury at the piano with his hands tied behind his back.
Q: Was he playing backwards?
ROWE: He tried [laughs].
Q: Rothko and Caravaggio are interesting together because of their intensities, Caravaggioís black backgrounds and Rothkoís color fields. Do you see a link between that?
ROWE: Thatís right. Particularly in a Rothko. I think Rothko said the ideal viewing distance is eighteen inches from the surface of the canvas. Eighteen inches and youíre totally immersed in it, it is an intense viewpoint, there is nothing else in your world when you are that close to it. So the high volume comes from that in a sense. For the question of the color in Caravaggio, we talked a little about that fact that Caravaggio hardly ever used blue in his paintings, which is odd given where he lived [Rome], but what we worked on more was the black and white, the contrast, the tonal quality of the painting rather than the dramatic. In fact, what we used, if you look at ďThe Taking of Christ,Ē itís almost like a photographerís flash, a scoop photograph of an arrest. Itís almost a 1600ís version of some famous person being arrested. So, slightly humorously, we used flash guns in the performance to trigger interference in the radios. Itís a technique that JťrŰme Noetinger particularly used over the years. The flashes replicated that technique of painting, that very hard tonal quality.
Q: There is a Caravaggio in Fort Worth, if you ever go there. Itís an early one, the one of the girl stealing the boyís ring.
ROWE: His paintings often have tricksters and card sharps [actually, ďThe CardsharpsĒ is the Caravaggio at the Kimbell -Ed.], people stealing something.
Q: Thereís always a sense of story, not just people displayed.
ROWE: That was one of the things about the taking of Christ, is that you have a sense of animation of the profiles. In fact, everyone is in profile except for Christ. You can imagine making an animated film of the hands. And in the painting there are references to earlier works, the fleeing nun on the left hand side is taken from an earlier painting.
Q: Have you thought about turning your paintings into music?
ROWE: In a sense, Iíve always considered what I do on the guitar as an act of painting. At the very least the process of painting.
Q: The physical gestures?
ROWE: No, the process from the ground upwards. For example. in the world of musical arts, I can change... and I think this is one contribution in our area of music, I think in the world of music generally speaking, originality is not something on top of the list. If you go to conservatory, originality is not what music is about. Not a particularly good idea, I think. In rock and roll you have a little notion of originality, you try to find the new sound, but there is also a lot of copying, a lot of product. But in the music we make, there is much more a notion of originality. Finding your own voice is a major part, and for a lot of people, the most important part. So I think I had that idea right from the start, certainly in the early to mid Ď60s. I thought my primary responsibility was to find a new angle for the instrument, like in painting, searching for a new angle. Thatís what you do in art school. Iíve always considered what Iíve done is painting, and for me it is the perfect painting, there is no commodity, it canít be traded like a painting can. Improvisation was a perfect way of making a painting, so I could be concerned with all the issues of painting.
Q: Does that imply that an improvisation is one distinct thing that you build up through layers or through time?
ROWE: Yes. There is a slight problem there because if you line ten or fifteen Rothkos up, you could say they all look the same, like oak trees all look the same. But the trees are all different, and I think improvisations can be like that. I think that is quite legitimate to have the improvisations to be very same-y. And you might not have always caught me saying that, at one point I might have said that they should all be different. But I think there should be that possibility. When you go to hear a Haydn string quartet, there are no surprises, are there? In terms of newness. People listen for the exquisite exposition of the quartet. They have a Haydn-esque quality to them, theyíre always Haydn. Same with Schubert. Maybe we have in our maturity, as a group of people working on this music, as a community, what we have to think about this issue of newness, of freshness, and maybe there is also room for repeating something, what youíre getting involved in is the exquisite nature of this exposition rather than the newness. It still seems to be in the air where everyone needs to be creating new stuff all the time. I have no dogmatic stand on this, Iím not thumping the table, but it does seem to me that we should be thinking about it.
Q: How much new music do you listen to? Iím sure people send you things all the time. In fact, Iím about to give you something.
ROWE: Quite a lot. I think it is still vibrant, the world that weíre in, people are working hard, very conscientiously. Of course, there are some people who think weíre going through a crisis at the moment. In a way, if we do have a problem, we need more people who have spent time in classical music, as opposed to the people who have been brought up on rock and roll. One of the important things in AMM was the inviting of classical performers. This was important for us. I think it true of our whole scene. We badly need people who have another kind of perspective.
Q: What about from other cultures?
ROWE: Oh, there are many from painting, arenít there? Voltage Spooks, three people from art schools, art backgrounds. Just last night, two or three people I talked to were art students. It seems there is a lot when it comes to people involved in the visual arts. I think there is a real connection between the visual arts and the way the visual arts have developed and this type of music, this approach to music.
Q: And other geographic cultures, the Middle East, for example?
ROWE: Well, that will come, presumably, because we saw the effect the Japanese had on the scene, pretty dramatic, almost as dramatic as the G3 computer appearing.
Q: I was surprised to find there was a lot of performance art from Japan in the 1950ís, which is rarely discussed.
ROWE: I think there were a lot of interesting developments around, from Italy, Japan, people like Kosugi, and Toshi Ichiyanagi. I think there have been a couple of movements which have passed us by, I think we could have derived more from them, like Fluxus. I think weíre still very much orientated towards a traditional way of performance.
Q: Last year you worked with Bill Thompson in Scotland. Heís one of our friends who moved away. What did you do with him?
Bill Thompson & Keith Rowe
ROWE: I worked in a festival right in the center of England called Darby, and we did Treatise, some sound recording, "Pondlife" with Lee Paterson, very interesting. And later in the year, in November, I went to Billís sound conference in Aberdeen. I went up and played with 2 musicians from the Indian subcontinent, Rohan de Saram [cello] and Rajesh Mehta [trumpet], and that was actually very different to be playing with them. Raga is a very different way of approaching the instrument than the normal, European improviser.
Q: I imagine they were more familiar with Western traditions than you with Indian traditions.
ROWE: Absolutely. Rohan spent his whole life in the Arditti String Quartet, so he knows all that inside-out, backwards, upside-down, reverse. Rajesh has a multi-arts discipline, deeply rooted in the Indian tradition, too. Which, the Indian tradition, SriLankin improvisation has always been a very strong part of the culture, hence a very strong part of the classical music, too. For them, improvising is very normal.
Q: Indian improvisation has certain restrictions, just like our improvisations, a raga uses a particular scale, uses a particular rhythm at the beginning and a different one at the end...
ROWE: I think our restrictions are obviously different, but are equally important. I think the restrictions are more important than the freedoms, in a way. One restriction which I would go so far as to say is absolutely essential is that there should be a reason for everything you do. In the world of painting, the expression would be every brush stroke has to be justified. Somehow, in our music, we seem to be terribly wasteful, we have lots of stuff which isnít absolutely needed.
Q: I know you are influenced by Jackson Pollock. How is the flicking/splattering of paint justified? Or was it just the passion behind his actions?
ROWE: The genre, not always--some of the drip works are just one or two lines, almost like calligraphy. Take John Coltrane with the ďsheets of sound,Ē I donít feel there is any superfluous material in there at all. He put into it what it needed to have that sensation that he wanted. I think it is always like that. All I am saying, we should think about that a bit more. We should think about justifying everything.
Q: And thing brings us back to your admonishments against fidgeting. I forget the actual word you used [in the Austin workshop].
ROWE: Roland Barthesí expression was ďthe petty digital scramble.Ē [laughs]
Q: Iím sure youíve read "Keith Rowe Serves Imperialism."
ROWE: [laughs]
Q: I havenít done my own translation from the French, but it seems he is attacking you for having a personal style, listening to the people you play with and releasing CDs.
ROWE: I would have to admit, I havenít read the French version. I only read it the day before it was released. I got an email from Mattin the afternoon before the release and said this title it coming out and hoping I wouldnít be offended. So I wrote back and said, I wouldnít be offended if it were intellectually coherent. And then he sent me a link to the text and I read through it pretty quickly. I felt intellectually irritated and annoyed, insulted by the lack of rigor in the discussion. Particularly that he used ďStockhausen Serves ImperialismĒ as a launching pad for this in the title. If you read Corneliusí essay, whether if you agree with it or not is another issue, if my memory serves me right, why he says Stockhausen serves imperialism is that Stockhausen 1) detaches himself from the progressive avant-garde, 2) in the manner of the notation changes the relationship between him and the performer, and 3) goes around talking a lot of mumbo-jumbo, which maybe has something to do with religion. There are some real issues there, about whether you detach yourself from the progressive avant-garde, what does that mean, why would you do that, what are the consequences of doing that? The way you change your relationship through the notion with the performer? I can see how the concepts of arrogance, godliness, Iím not saying fascism, but you can see the issues there. there are issues to be discussed, whether you agree or not. And then the whole thing of justifying your work and these kind of extraterrestrial backgrounds, again there is something to be discussed. I think there is something there. When I read the [Mattin] I felt it was really cheap, nasty stuff. Maybe I shouldnít say this, but sometimes I think it is not me they are getting at. I wish they were more honest. I think they are having a go at Jon Abbey [Erstwhile Records], partly because heís American and partly because he spent his own money on promoting a label. I see much more to do with that than anything Iíve done. Personally, I donít think I have served imperialism. If I have, I would like to see the evidence.
Q: Not more than any of us do.
ROWE: Not any more or less than the next guy.
Q: This is something I think of myself, but I going to point my finger at you, but having an Apple laptop, using these electronic devices, releasing CDs... there is no alternative mode to doing that kind of stuff. Having an Apple laptop means there are people in Singapore or where ever who are getting paid a dollar a week to make these components. There is no way to get around that if you want access to this advanced technology. Do you ever think about those aspects?
ROWE: Of course, and in fact [my] last solo CD, ďHarsh,Ē was about that, was about the ability of harshness in our genes, the slave labor, the harshness of that is invisible. I think our lives implicated in a way. Clearly. In Nantes, there is quite a strong movement for Linux, anti-Bill Gates, anti-Macintosh. Downloading, only using open-source software.
Q: But you still have to run that on chips which you canít make yourself.
ROWE: No, but in the end, they would say you have to do the best you can. I really donít have a problem with it either way, within limits, of course. I think maybe both of us would not buy software from a company which we knew was contributing to an Italian Fascist march or something. I think there probably are things we could do if we know, but itís a big mess. You just have to do the best you can. If you donít run an Apple Mac, youíre taking a risk there...
Q: If I want to be a progressive Leftist, do I have to carve my own instrument? Generate my own electricity? I donít have answers for myself.
ROWE: No, like you, Iím aware of what the issues are. Iím also aware that one can delude oneself into thinking that youíre making a some very big statement about it and actually it wouldnít matter a hill of beans. I can see that possibility too. Maybe in the comfort of your own home, you can feel very righteous in a sense. Itís like coming to America, because primarily because of the war in Iraq. But then I look at it differently. I come to Austin, Texas in a way to support the people who I want to support in that culture, which is actually in opposition to a the culture that supports the war, those families, those political institutions. I think to do a Voltage Spooks tour with these guys in seven cities supports those alternative cultures. I feel thatís what I will do. I really understand the other view, not to come to America. You have to make a choice. Iím not going to be sanctimonious about what Iím doing.
 

In June, Rowe returned to Texas, to perform at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Loren Connors and then Rowe performed solo sets I cannot describe. Being in the Rothko Chapel with 160 other lovers of music, hearing Rowe exceed himself, hearing Connors' beautiful phrases and shimmering chords was a magical experience. The show was arranged by Dave Dove, the trombonist and teacher.

previous contents next

Contact:

Josh Ronsen
joshronsen (ate) yahoo (dote) com
2001 Brentwood
Austin, Texas 78757 USA