Keith Rowe/Taku Unami ErstLive 006 (Erstwhile Records)

Almost my final musical acquisitions for the year were two live concerts from Erstwhile Records AMPLIFY 2008: Light festival held in Tokyo, Japan. I was in attendance of these shows and have previously documented these sets to the best of my ability(2,3).  These two sets, along with Sachiko M and Keith Rowe’s duo were my favorite of the festival (followed right after by Mitsuhiro’s Yoshimura’s solo and Keith Rowe’s duo with Toshimaru Nakamura) and it truly is a rare pleasure to be able to revisit these sets so quickly. It is interesting to see how my memory (and notes) compare when being able to hear something more then once.  Of course set and setting are an inescapable elements of a concert review, much more so then listening to a recording where these elements even out over repeated exposure.  A recording should never really change one’s impression about a live event, it is a different experience after all. But (assuming the recording was well done) it can add a lot to one’s understanding of the music and compliment ones experience.

Upon the conclusion of the festival it was the duo with Keith Rowe and Taku Unami that was my favorite. It was sonically rewarding, fraught with tension and unexpected delights and it was fascinating to watch. Listening to it again there is a lot there: Unami’s odd juxtapositions, Keith rising to the challenges and tossing out some of his own, the tentativeness of a first meeting combined with the surety of individuals very secure in their own processes. I wrote at the conclusion of my review of the concert:

This set was unexpected, slippery in that its structure and elements are hard to hold in ones mind and absolutely brilliant. This was the most interesting bit of music I’ve witnessed in a long time, a collision of two of the most interesting musicians around pushing each other outside of any sort of routines and boundaries. The set is so difficult to recall in detail as it was filled with constant left turns, change ups and dense amounts of detail.(3)

Being able to listen to this one again certainly confirms this. As I detailed in my report on the duo there were so many little events and unexpected elements that one just couldn’t retain it all. A review of a live set shouldn’t try to be a moment by moment detailing of it anyway, but should try to capture the essential nature of it, which in this case is it’s uncatchability.

“Music is a vagrant; it has no fixed abode. It’s a menace to society. It needs cleaning up. The impossibility of abolishing music. It’s omnipresence. It’s uncatchability. Perhaps after all we have to step down and let music pursue its own course.” – Cornelius Cardew(1, p.142)

There is in my mind few musicians who let music pursue it’s own course like these two. They are dramatically different yet they share many qualities.  A disruptive nature is one.  I think of the times that Keith would throw up some totally incompatible radio grab and force AMM to work with it, incorporate it. Compare that with Unami’s use of software to randomly pick samples from a sound effects cd to make up the elements of a piece. The orientation is different I think, Unami, though far less forthcoming in his motivations, seems much more intersted in subverting recieved notions of music and disrupting expectations. Rowe on the other hand is questioning his own notions of music and what it is for: “I  [On Harsh] wanted to make something that was not very liked, something that was not obviously a well-rounded performance, something which wasn’t aesthetic, something which wasn’t that satisfying…”(4).  The goals, the process and the tools are all different as are the approach and maybe even the degree of seriousness but there is I think a shared core.

In rehearsal Feldman would help his performers by describing the sounds as ‘sourceless’; he wanted them to take on that precious quality of transience, of uncatchabilty (Cardew’s word), to be free but not arbitrary, elusive but compelling — a perception which evokes and old Taoist dictum: ‘The greatest music has the most tenuous notes.’(1, p.141)

This quote I feel captures this performance very well. The uncatchability that I mentioned previously, the transient nature, the unexpected but not arbitrary.  This duo pushes all of the boundaries, it is right on the edge, the arbitrariness constantly threatening but it stays together, no matter how tenuous.  I’m reminded of Cardew’s view on structure: “arbitrariness is characteristic of the ‘feeling of structure’.”(1, p.96). Cardew celebrated ‘nowness’ and felt that the ‘feeling of structure’ dissipated that. This is the music of the now if there ever was any.

Keith Rowe
ErstLive 007 (Erstwhile Records)

In contrast to his duo with Unami the structure of Keith’s solo set was easier to grasp, after all it was a single mind following a loosely pre-planned route and my memory of it seemed pretty accurate.  In my conclusion to my review of the live set I wrote:

An amazingly powerful piece, once again somehow transcending the previous amazing solo sets I’ve witnessed from Mr. Rowe.  While his collab with Unami was probably my favorite piece of music from the weekend this I think one could argue was the most powerful, the most important and well executed.  He is working with ideas here that I think are of a greater depth then most people in the field and this piece in particular was very carefully thought out in its intentions. (2)

Having had a chance to listen to these many times I’d say that my impression of this piece remains.  I also think that it translates a bit better to disc and as a recording is the stronger piece. While the duo was the music of disruption, of tenuousness flirting with the arbitrary this is music in all of its power to work through ideas. Rowe set out with this set to explore some specific ideas and he was I think quite successful in this. Issues of beauty in music, of differences in cultures (he was the only western musician in this festival), of the place of electronic music in the western tradition and even more pragmatic notions such has having to playing four sets in three days were all a part of the construction of this piece.

I found it [playing with Taku Sugimoto] very easy. It goes back to AMM, I think, and an understanding of economy. Reflection, philosophy. It isn’t necessarily a question of what you do. As Michelangelo would say, “Drawing is making a line around your thoughts.” Your thoughts have to be very clear. My thoughts are very clear; Taku’s thoughts are very clear.(4)

This clarity of thought permeates this piece, which flows with an internal logic, but still retains that uncatchability that has been a hallmark of Rowe’s career. While everything may be questioned, explored worked through, there is a surety at hand, an understanding that it can be done through music if one’s thoughts are clear.  This piece has a depth to it that is rare in improvised music.  Sound orientated music is by it’s nature working with certain ideas and each musician brings to it their own notions as well.  But there is, I think, a bare few who are trying to work through ideas in the music itself. There is a strong undercurrent of music being solely for musics sake in this time and a genuine unwillingness to even try to connect it to the greater world. How many other musicians try to work with “difficult knowledge”:

We live in a world where we know there are lots of difficulties. Lots of things we know to be difficult: child abuse, for example. How do we deal with that as artists? Do we ignore it, or do we try to work in some way towards that?(4)

The most enduring music deals with ideas, it engages with the world.  There is a beauty and an attraction to all sounds and I would not disparage sound orientated musics in any way.  But it is in this realm that novelty is especially prized: there are always new sounds and new juxtapositions of sounds to be had and in this context newness is a feature. The music that lasts is one where novelty is a component that (if present at all) will wear over repeated listens but it is not what keeps bringing you back. No it is that from which the music springs that makes it rich, and constantly rewarding.  The hard questions, the deepest feelings, the big problems, these are things that have no easy answers. Filtering these through music doesn’t give us pat answers, it gives us nourishment, inspiration and contemplation. This is why they last.

“The musician’s pursuit is to recognize the musical composition of the world”  – Cornelius Cardew(1, p.490)

1) John Tilbury, Cornelius Cardew A Life Unfinished (Copula 2008)
2) Robert j Kirkpatrick, Amplify 2008: day 1
3) Robert j Kirkpatrick, Amplify 2008: day 2
4) Keith Rowe, interviewed by Dan Warburton