(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.

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