Friday, October 28, 2011

Keith Rowe - The Room

Now, back to something really weird.  Keith Rowe, formerly the guitarist for house favorites AMM, is probably one of the most influential underground guitarists of all time.  He was one of the first guitarists to pioneer a tabletop prepared guitar technique wherein the instrument is placed flat on a table and manipulated with various found objects to create unusual and unconventional timbres.  After quitting AMM for the second time in 2004 (a move of which he's apparently quite proud), Rowe's solo performance and album release schedule has picked up markedly, as has his further exploration of the possibilities of Electroacoustic Improvisation (EAI), a loosely-defined branch of free improvisation with an emphasis on live computer processing of improvised sound sources.  This, a 2007 solo release, is regarded by some as Rowe's best solo album and was released on Erstwhile Records, which courageously releases an impressive amount of good EAI to a generally apathetic public (awesomely enough, the label also eschews barcodes in their packaging).

While Rowe's contributions to AMM often seem intended to amplify the sounds of his unusual guitar approach into a space (i.e. a room or concert hall), The Room sounds to me much more inward, as if he is listening to the innards of the things producing the sound.  This impression is probably intensified by the fact that Rowe's improvisations sound like they're directly input to the recording device, rather than amplified and miked.  In any case, the result is a single 38:57 continuous track (though there are brief silences between sections) of droning guitar tone, amplified signals and electronic processors, some traces of Rowe's signature radio frequency manipulation, and some visceral textures produced by Rowe's physical manipulation of the guitar's strings.  If that description doesn't sound like much, please be aware that the actual sounds contained on this disc are very difficult to verbalize!  Though this album is much too indie to appear on YouTube, this video of Rowe playing prepared guitar will at least give you a better idea of what some of this sounds like (though I personally prefer not having these bizarre sounds attached to any visual explanations for their origins).  To me, the dominant timbres of the music are a sort of ambient hum (presumably the guitar), and a more rhythmically dynamic, twittering, upper-frequency sort of repetitive digital bleeping.  It's fascinating how the textures overlap in a sort of progressively sliding series of layers, with one tone source pulsing gently while another simultaneously rapidly dances on top, and before you know it one of the sounds has disappeared while your ears were transfixed by another, and a new one is just moving into the picture.

How does this music compare to free improvisation like AMM?  Well, for starters, I think it's not completely discrete--if there was some way to only hear what Rowe was doing during certain AMM performances (I'm thinking especially of the drone-heavy 2001 album Fine), I think it might sound a lot like parts of this album, despite Rowe's written assertions that it's an attempt to go somewhere completely new.  In other ways, though, it's much colder, more alien and less organic than AMM's albums, conjuring a claustrophobic atmosphere (perhaps there's a connection to the album's title and the feeling the music conveys) and a sort of digital industrial feel that never really occurs on AMM albums.  Not that it's a particularly bad thing--I vividly remember on my first listen feeling (perhaps around the 22:30 minute mark, when Rowe starts scraping the strings beneath a piercing electronic tone) a powerful sense of unease and a strange, alien emotion that no other music has ever made me feel before.  Though it's far from the warm-and-fuzzy elation that most listeners hope to achieve from an album, the experience remains ingrained in my memory as an inspirational example of music's unlimited emotional potential, and as a sort of revelation (how often do you feel a feeling you've never felt before, right?!).  Don't get me wrong--Rowe's sometimes laughably-strident views on musical aesthetics (which seem to come with the territory of free improvisation) inform this music with an uncommon level of academic seriousness--but attempting to deny the music's very real emotional power in the name of disagreeing with Rowe's artistic choices seems to unjustly disregard his contributions to the ever-growing palette of potential moods and emotions available to listeners and musicians alike. 

It's hard to really assess the quality of music like this--it's so fundamentally different structurally and in its aesthetic goals that even when talking in terms of elemental sound, it's hard to separate what's "good" from "bad," and the subjectivity of personal preference that's present with all music becomes a starting point rather than an ultimate conclusion.  Despite Rowe's professed anti-virtuosic method, though, he clearly (in my ears, at least) has a flair for space, flow and tone/timbre choice that few other improvisers do.  Though I think The Room occasionally suffers from the sort of repetitiousness and aimless structure that understandably pops up in a lot of free improv, the frigid atmosphere and occasional moments of revelation (like the digital explosion at about 24:25) make it a much-appreciated part of my collection (though I'm not sure I currently have the interest to sustain a lot more similar additions).  Support some fringe indie music facilitators and grab a copy from Erstwhile!

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