Review: Keith Rowe

Keith Rowe: Drawing by Geoff Winston (*)
Keith Rowe
(London Review Bookshop on Wednesday 18 June 2011; review and drawing* by Geoff Winston)


The London Review Bookshop, by the British Museum, was an inspired choice as a venue for free improviser/ tabletop guitarist Keith Rowe's solo concert. The shop's lower floor, with its full width staircase forming a raked seating area behind the 'stalls,' held an audience of about fifty people, who heard two concentrated sets of around 20 minutes each.

Rowe got into jazz from art school, playing with Mike Westbrook, but ultimately found the genre too restricting, and co-founded the exploratory and fluid music collective, AMM, in 1965. He now works independently, and is based in France. Rowe prefaced the proceedings by explaining that Cornelius Cardew, the pioneering composer, who was another early associate would have been 75 this spring, so the "point of departure" of the first piece would be a page of Cardew's 'Treatise' - page 68 of its 193 graphic scores which impose the discipline to interpret the score firmly with the performer - followed by Christan Wolff's 'Edges', also a graphic score, written in London for an augmented AMM in 1968.

Rowe had surrounded his 6-fret table-top guitar with small electronic devices, a cheap transistor radio, various objets trouvé and the two scores. The dense and intense sounds which ensued had both a spatial and a mineral-like quality - something of the compressed, coloured layers of certain rock formations. Surrounded by books on all sides, nearest to 'Cultural Studies' and 'Religion', Rowe created a flow which included unearthly background hissing and glass-like radio signals, crackles, creaks and drilling sounds, scutterings, scrapings, screeches like unwinding packing tape and the thudding beats of helicopter blades - even an odd guitar strum. Working directly on the fretboard with a metal scouring pad he extracted sharp, angular stutters and applied light brushings, reminiscent of Cage's 'Fontana Mix', and blended in the amplified whirrings of a toothbrush and fan, both battery-operated.

Live Wimbledon commentary was picked up to form another strand, later echoed with a brief excerpt from a chamber piano quintet, either broadcast or sampled. Rowe said in a 2007 interview that "I've always considered what I do on the guitar as an act of painting", an apposite metaphor for the magical soundscapes that he had created in this small central London oasis.

* Image copyright Geoffrey Winston. All Rights Reserved.

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