If Keith Rowe and Graham Lambkin haven’t produced one of the most mind-bending records of 2013, they’re at least high in the running. Making A shares its name with one of Cornelius Cardew’s Schooltime Compositions. Written in 1967, these pieces were designed to help musicians and non-musicians develop their own methods of interpretation and music-making. Continue reading
I’ve listened to Keith Rowe and Graham Lambkin’s Making A a lot in the past week. The first two or three times I was unable to pay close attention to the music, so I had only a general idea about what Rowe and Lambkin were doing. That Rowe did not perform on his table-top guitar stood out among a few other thoughts: that the album was recorded shortly after a live collaboration in New York City, that Rowe and Lambkin were both aware of each other’s work prior to their performance, and that the tools used to make the album point quite strongly to Rowe’s painterly background. Besides that, I was quite sure that the album was totally improvised.
After just a couple of closer listeners I’ve changed my mind; I think there must be some hidden instruction or idea moving the music along. Certain sequences on the record repeat themselves in conspicuous ways. The editing of sounds, the cross fades, the accumulation of intensity and its subsequent release all point to an invisible but sensible order, and the track titles suggest that order. A, then B, then C, but rearranged for reasons unknown. And as Brian Olewnick points out in his review, the track times are suspicious. Two improvised pieces in a row that run exactly 15 minutes and 15 seconds? Something must be up.
Then I found the image to the left, posted to the I Hate Music boards by Erstwhile founder Jon Abbey. You can click it to get a bigger image.
“Making A” happens to be the title of a piece from Cornelius Cardew’s Schooltime Compositions. The inspiration for Rowe and Lambkin’s track titles are right there:
“Place WET B in glass bamer.”
“Draw off two full measure of hot boiling C and pour them over the dry A in the B.”
When Keith Rowe last played in Boston, he brought with him a copy of Nature Study Notes, a collection of instructions and “rites” written by members of the Scratch Orchestra and cataloged by Cardew. Along with musicians from around the area, Rowe performed a small number of these rites, illustrating how they might be interpreted and performed by a group. Someone had made enough copies of the notes to give to everyone in the audience. The performers picked an instruction to follow secretly, the audience got to guess what they were up to. Given the number of instructions available, it was nearly impossible to guess right, but the music was great, and the reveals were entertaining and funny. One of my favorite rites reads:
Take a stupid book. A reader reads aloud from it while the rest improvise. The role of reader may wander, a) through the reader presenting the stupid book to someone else, and b) by someone wresting the stupid book from the reader. A reader may attempt to terminate proceedings by ceasing to read aloud from the stupid book.
How that translates into a performance—or a recording—is completely up in the air. The same goes for “Making A.” How would I decide what “A” is supposed to be? If “A” fits in an “A-gauge glass bamer” then why do I have a “pack of A” sitting around too? Does “B” come wet, or should I prepare that? What is a bamer anyway?
More to the point, to what extent did Keith Rowe and Graham Lambkin use this score to record their own music? At first I assumed that the recording of Making A was an extension of the Boston performance—Keith seemed to have been thinking about Cardew there, so maybe he was continuing his line of thought in New York, with Lambkin.
Now I’m doubting that. Unless Ben Ratliff of the New York Times failed to mention it (which I doubt), Rowe and company didn’t distribute any of Cardew’s work before, during, or after their January performance in New York City. Without a way to line the score and the album up, the only link I have is either historical or superficial.
I figured I could start answering at least one or two of my others questions by looking a bit more closely at how and why Cardew wrote these pieces in the first place, and how other people have performed his music. To that end, I found a few great resources I’d like to share:
- A roughly half-hour radio BBC documentary about Cornelius Cardew in MP3 form. Love the quote about failure, and why failing is as important as succeeding.
- An excellent essay about Cardew written by friend and collaborator John Tilbury, who has also written a 1,000+ page book about Cardew and his work. Tilbury drops tons of great insight in just the first few paragraphs:
The indication here is already of his moving away from music as object towards music as process, and of a concern for the problems of the performers. Cardew was one of the first Europeans to grasp not just the musical but also the social implications of the new American aesthetic.
… what [Cardew] admired was Cage’s rejection of the commodity fetishism that had invaded musical composition, for which the super-objectivity of serialism and its corollary, the preoccupation with the perfection of the ideal object, was largely to blame. What also impressed him was Cage’s liberation of the performer from the constraints of oppressive notational complexities… With him ‘indeterminacy’ was not simply another compositional technique, displacing a previously discredited one, it was a logical musical expression of his humanism: humanism is the vital thread that runs through all his musical activities, making for a continuity that overrides even the most radical stylistic changes in his work. His rejection of total serialism freed him as a composer; with his espousal of indeterminacy, creative freedom was also extended to the performer.
- A Young Person’s Guide to Treatise. A massive resource hosted by Spiral Cage. Contains both the links I provided above, plus tons of information on Cardew’s most famous piece, links to recordings, references, and other of Cardew’s writings. Not directly related to Making A, but some of the information there regards the process of interpretation, plus it links to this animated analysis of the Treatise , which among other things combines performance history with a introductory taxonomy of the printed symbols and forms.
Of course, none of this gets me any further inside Keith’s or Graham’s head. It’s possible that Cardew’s “Making A” was just an inspiration and not a manual for the album. But still those hints of structure in the music hound me: the manipulation of field recordings, the emphasis on gesture and place, the sense that some formula is being followed, if only loosely. Am I imagining it? Would an answer change the way I think about or react to the music?
It’s a mystery beyond my ability to solve alone. But the album itself is superb, whether or not I know precisely how it is shaped.
Keith Rowe and Christian Wolff have been playing together since 1968, when Wolff first performed with AMM in the UK. Their history together goes back further, a part of the turbulent musical and political eddies set in motion by the New York School and Cornelius Cardew in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. But this performance, recorded live at NYC’s The Stone as part of Jon Abbey’s AMPLIFY 2011 festival, marks their first recorded appearance as a duo. It’s an inspired pairing. Together they produce quiet, sharp, and surprisingly gorgeous music that exemplifies the still radical ideas they started exploring over 40 years ago.
The political side of Rowe and Wolff’s music isn’t always apparent, but it’s there, hidden in plain sight. Looking for it can be enlightening, but is unnecessary. The music they make together on ErstLive 010 stands all on its own. It is by turns gossamer thin and concrete, whisper quiet and abrasive, lucid and impenetrable. Keith’s contributions consist of physical noises drawn and scratched into the strings of his table-top guitar, along with live radio broadcasts and the buzz of electrical signals emanating from various electronic devices. Christian’s contributions are on the piano and guitar. He hammers on the piano’s keys, pulls and mutes the strings, and drums on its body, preferring to play around the piano rather than directly on it—the way pianos are typically played. At the guitar he makes small sounds; plucks a solitary note here, draws a bow across the strings there, and then sits quietly back waiting for the next move.
Both musicians punctuate their performances with these (near) silences. Their pauses break the performance up and keep it from coalescing, which means all the focus is on the discrete cells of sound they produce. Ideas are ventured and tweaked, and then left behind. Seconds pass and only the tiniest sounds are made. Keith sketches out an idea, and Christian climbs over it with the occasional crescendo. It all sounds very deliberate in retrospect, but as it’s happening, anything seems possible. Wolff the composer and Rowe the improviser make the line between their methods difficult to spot.
The quiet and deliberate pace of the music also calls attention to the performance space. September 4th was a hot night at The Stone, but the air conditioning and fans in the room were turned off while Keith and Christian played. With those noises out of the way, I wonder what other sounds were audible in that room. The recording itself, helped by Joe Panzner’s excellent mastering job, is clear and close to the musicians; many of the tiniest sounds they make are audible, but I’ve yet to catch a noise from the audience, or from outside.
And that strikes me as odd, because each time I have listened to ErstLive 010, some environmental sound has crept covertly into the music: the sound of clothes tumbling in the dryer downstairs, wind and rain pressing against the windows outside, the low hum of traffic in the distance. Even with headphones on, I’ve mistaken sounds coming from the neighbors upstairs for something in the mix. Without Rowe and Wolff physically present to contextualize the music, my neighbors and environment unwittingly participate in it, and I think that must have been true at The Stone that night, too.
After I noticed this the first time, the music transformed for me. It bled into the walls and out into the neighborhood. In his April 1998 interview withPerfect Sound Forever, Christian Wolff remarks that he has “a strong anti-rhetorical feeling – I don’t think that music should be manipulative. It should be there and people should be able to do with it what they can and what they want… So there’s that kind of attitude about a musical work. It should just be itself and relatively free from manipulation and calculation to the extent that it’s possible.” ErstLive 010 exemplifies this. At the right volume, in the right circumstances, it can hide in book shelves, seep into the wood floors, and camouflage itself in sounds as small as a breath. Rowe and Wolff’s receptiveness to these tiny sounds, maybe even to subconscious and unintended ones, makes this effect possible. And the more open the music is, the deeper and more remarkable I perceive it to be, and the easier it is for me to spy the political and social ideas that have, at times, influenced their writing and performing.
The album ends unexpectedly, to the tune of humming amplifiers. I failed to notice it ending the first time. And the second. And even the third. In fact, I always fail to notice when the album ends unless I pay attention to the track time. Eventually the performance stops, but the sounds continue. They just happen, the way that many environmental sounds seem to. It’s as if Rowe and Wolff are disappearing into the music as they go, using it to get past or away from themselves. By the end, it’s as if they’re not there at all.
note: Joe Panzner’s name was initially misspelled “Panzer.” Sorry about that. Jon Abbey also writes that this was Wolff and Rowe’s first full-length performance together, not just their first full-length album. They’d played together once before, during the 2010 Christian Wolff festival in Boston, but that was only a short set.