British musician and painter Keith Rowe is known as the godfather of electroacoustic improvisation (EAI). EAI departs from traditional principles of musical language—such as melody, harmony, and rhythm—in favor of a strange physics of spontaneous sonic gestures based around unorthodox approaches to both instruments and objects. As a founding member of AMM in the mid 1960s, and MIMEO, which formed in 1997, the music Keith has created endures with subversive conviction, continuing to inspire a passionate circle of nonconforming creatives well beyond the reign of mainstream culture. This conversation in part celebrates Keith’s 80th birthday.
Todd B. Gruel (Rail): You’ve mentioned in a Paris Transatlantic interview with Dan Warburton from 2001 that around the time of AMM’s formation you had an early interest in Gurdjieff, Taoism, and Buddhism. Can you explore how some of these philosophical ideas have informed your life and work?
Keith Rowe: Gosh, Todd, in at the deep end! It’s an ongoing problem for me to be reliable about accounting with hindsight what these areas contributed at the time. Looking back there is the temptation to romanticize, dramatize something that we at the time sleepwalked through. Regarding Gurdjieff, at the very least there is a struggle against sleepwalking through life, trying our best to be conscious of what we are doing during the day. In order to study Gurdjieff, it necessitated joining a group called The Work, a very secretive organization in which members had to pretend not to recognize each other outside of the room where meetings took place. This secrecy was the inspiration for AMM to keep its group name a secret, and it’s still a secret more than 50 years later.
I studied perception, with a monk from the North Indian tradition, which taught me how to “see” the world. But maybe at this point I should admit to the probability that I suffer from the Groucho Marx syndrome in that “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” I walked away from both these groupings, Gurdjieff and Buddhism, and I can add the small communist group to that list too. As Edmund Burke would have it, I was disappointed by the tendency of these groups “to be economical with the truth.” Nevertheless, was I changed by these experiences for the better? I hope so.
Rail: Although a net virtue, there’s a sense of hidden tension that sustains your work. How is this embodied experientially and conceptually within performances?
Rowe: I’m full of contradictions, I feel confident about what I’m working on, and how it’s developing, its correctness, and yet, simultaneously, I have a total lack of self-worth, a lack of self-regard, feeling that what I’ve produced is total rubbish, a total waste of time. Is this the tension you detect?
At its most stark and crude level, AMM’s counterpoint and politics comes down to a choice: Juxtaposition or Conflation? and, in the context of a performance, “What is the next sound I should contribute?”
One that fits in, or is an alien? An improvised or a pre-composed event? A sound that shows you have been listening, or not? What degree of opacity, allowing other sounds to become eclipsed? The degree of affectation, how wet or dry the sound should be? Where in the performance space should the sound be projected, near or far? Aligned vertically or horizontally? Disclosure or withdrawal? Presence or absence? Masking or un-masking? Delayed recognition of mood? Different rates of perception? Seduction or rejection? Self-canceling ambiguities? Danger of effect over evidence? So on and so on… It’s a long list, possibly 250 lines in length.
What AMM decides at each juncture concerns the politics of free improvisation. I cannot bang on the table to say this is right and this is wrong. I prefer to live in the Theatre of Questions rather than the Theatre of Answers.
Rail: In an interview of mine with one of your collaborators, Rafael Toral, he shared a story about a moment during a music performance in which the rest of the MIMEO players built themselves up into a grand crescendo while you pulled away from the rising tide, refraining from playing at all. What do such refusals to play along mean to you ethically?
Rowe: The “zone of indifference” was something that grew within me while at art school. I recall not wanting to become like the Modern Jazz Quartet, a group that represented “indifference” as lacking tension and invention. I preferred the daring of Fauvism, or the concepts of Analytical and Synthetic Cubism. Being drawn to anything disruptive, I stood against the opinionated establishment who were intolerant of any departure from the rules. I was hostile to anything popular.
As a consequence, I never developed a liking of pop music. “Iconoclastic” would be a description that I still adhere to. Being iconoclastic, I would want to develop a wider spectrum of listening, ranging from “Hyper Close Listening” to “Not Listening.”
Rail: How do you comprehend the historical context behind the rise of the type of music that you helped develop? And what distinguishes AMM’s approach to free improvisation in contrast to that of free jazz?
Rowe: If in the 1970s you were to ask a free jazz improviser, “What characterizes your music, and how does it relate to composition?”, a response might be, “Free improvisation is a work in progress, continually in the state of development. Unlike composed music, it is never finished. A composition is written down, signed off when completed, it is finished.”
Ha! No! It’s slightly more complicated than that. Surely the opposite can be argued, when we perform an improvisation, we arrive at the end, and with nothing more to say, we stop, it is finished, nothing more can be done to it. Whereas, when a young string quartet from Bratislava opens the pages to Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, they bring new perspectives, building on the earlier performances of the Borodin, the Beethoven, and Taneyev quartets. A composition is never finished.
Who knows what contribution to music we will have made (if any, that is). As an unintended consequence, it’s possible that we improvisers helped to put composers back in contact with the art of improvisation.
Rail: Within your 50-year history of music making, is there one recording that continues to surprise you the most?
Rowe: AMM’s The Crypt, recorded June 1968, most represents AMM’s impenetrability; an ugly brutality that is uncatchable and impossible to grasp. It does not care what you think. It screams, “Beauty! I’ll show you Beauty!”
Rail: Have there been any developments regarding technique or philosophy in your recent work?
Rowe: About six years ago I started the process of stripping away all redundant material, both from my music and my performance setup—everything I could consider as not necessary was assessed and possibly removed. It was a slow and painful procedure challenging every nook and cranny of my work and history. Bit by bit I managed to obtain a clear objective of what I was attempting to escape from. Asking myself, “What was I objecting to?”, and “What was it I wanted to remove myself from?”, I settled on three words, “Hyperventilating Visceral Chic.”
In May 2012 Adrian Searle wrote, “The urge to see everything leads to the frustration of not seeing anything, of always being driven on to the next thing, without absorbing the last.” This idea of absorbing became central. I became slower and slower, more and more considerate of every detail, reducing, reducing, reducing. Then in August 2018 at a performance in Sokołowsko, Poland, I arrived at a 24-minute construction containing 50 clicks, or musical gestures, performed in total darkness. I had arrived, this is where I wanted to be, I had reduced my traveling setup to 2 kilos and my music to 50 clicks.
Rail: As a musician and painter with a broad interest in cultural history, if you chose one piece of music and visual art to preserve for all time, what would it be?
Rowe: I’m sure you’ll understand that to single out one piece of work is difficult, but what I’d like to do is draw attention to minute details that might have been missed. Clifford Curzon’s first note on the Adagio from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, on the Decca recording from London in October 1967: the touch, elegance, timing. For me there is a sense that this single note contains all of music. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times.
Euan Uglow’s painting of a pie shares many of the qualities found in the Curzon: a slow painting measured point by point in careful, considerate navigation of its object. Curzon talked about how “No one knows the cost of a phrase.” For Uglow it’s the cost of measurement.