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Rowe/Lambkin/Cardew: Notes on “Making A”

detail from Treatise, page 75

detail from Treatise, page 75

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 CompositionsThe 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:

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.

Fukushima! album cover


Review: Various Artists, “Fukushima!”

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that set it in motion are more than a year and half old this month. Ongoing cleanup efforts, which include removing contaminated debris and preventing further radioactive water from seeping into the ocean, will likely cost $15 billion over the next 30 years. As Otomo Yoshihide explained in his April, 2011 lecture, the residents of Fukushima face a difficult future, one made darker by the psychological and cultural impact the disaster has had. In response to that lecture, Presqu’île Records assembled this compilation, featuring superb contributions from the likes of John Tilbury, Greg Kelley, Michael Pisaro, Chris Abrahams, and Annette Krebs. Besides answering Otomo’s plea for a cultural response to the disaster, all funds raised from the sale of this 2CD set go to Japanese non-profit organizations.

Otomo Yoshihide’s April 28, 2011 lecture at the Tokyo University of the Arts is titled “The Role of Culture: After the Earthquake and Man-Made Disasters in Fukushima.” Delivered just one month after the Fukushima meltdown, it recounts and explains the fears and dejection such a disaster can cause, among them concerns about the presence of radioactive material found in Tokyo’s drinking water. But, much of the lecture focuses on the psychological and cultural impact felt by the people of the Fukushima prefecture. How, he asks, should musicians and artists respond to the disaster? What, if anything, can they do to help energize Fukushima so that the prefecture’s name doesn’t become a pejorative term (the way that Chernobyl did) and suffer the pangs of infamy? One answer, according to Otomo, is to find positive cultural associations for Fukushima. That’s where Presqu’île Records comes in.

Comprised of ten recordings spread across two CDs, Fukushima! lends its musical explorations to the prefecture’s name and, one hopes, responds effectively to Otomo’s call for positive associations with the region. It’s also a fund-raising effort, with all the proceeds going to non-profits in Japan. The featured artists come from all over the world: from California to Germany, the UK, and South Korea. But not even a single artist is from Fukushima, or Japan, which might seem strange except that Otomo’s lecture is partially motivated by how he hopes the world will perceive Fukushima in the future. This album, then, is a sign of solidarity from outside Japan.

Disc one begins with a monster 34 minute contribution from AMM’s John Tilbury. His performance of Dave Smith’s “Al contrario” is the longest performance on the CD by over ten minutes, and a curious choice for first song. Tilbury is undoubtedly one of the most talented pianists in the world, but Dave Smith’s composition, which feels clunky and a little straightforward compared to the other songs on this disc, does little to highlight his talents. Its repetitive structure, on the other hand, has a lulling effect that makes its duration less of a problem than it might otherwise be. It’s followed by two absolutely killer performances, and two of my favorites from the entire compilation: one by Magda Mayas, playing inside piano, and one by the quartet of Choi Joonyong, Joe Foster (of English, with Bonnie Jones), Hong Chulki, and Jin Sangtae, who all currently live in South Korea if I’m not mistaken. I’d not heard Magda play before hearing her contribution, “Foreign Grey,” but now I’m determined to find more. The tones, colors, textures, and variety of sounds she pulls from her piano are phenomenal, and the attention she gives to the volume and density of her piece makes it all the more hypnotizing. The South Korean quartet provides “From Dotolim,” a tense and delicate piece that takes textures and material noises as its primary elements. It’s a varied, somewhat subdued performance that emphasizes space and slow development, but its unpredictably and playfulness have me wishing it would go on longer.

Fukushima!’s second monster contribution (this one 21 minutes long) comes from Greg Stuart, who performs Michael Pisaro’s “The Bell Maker” fromFour Pieces for Recorded Percussion (Il faut attendre). Mysteriously dedicated to both Andrei Tarkovsky and Julia Holter, this piece, composed of numerous, tiny bell-like sounds, flickers as though it were fixed in space, not moving so much as hovering. I enjoy it, but find myself returning more to Mark Wastell and Jonathan McHugh’s “Eventide.” It’s huge low-end and hum and oddly lulling rhythm get my attention every time. There’s something vaguely machine-like and lonely about it, and whether by accident or design, it gets me thinking about the power plant and how it must loom over the area. Annette Krebs, Chris Abrahams, Burkhard Beins, and Greg Kelley all contribute solid performances, but it’s the Australian/Norwegian trio of Mural that sticks out in my mind the most. “Fukushima for the Time Being” is unlike anything else on the compilation, actually. It features Japanese flute, gongs, bells, possibly motorized strings and bowed metal, plucked strings, and numerous other sound sources I can’t readily identify blended into a ritualized improvisation with a little theatrical flair. Thanks to the melody provided by the flute, and some regularly recurring patterns, I’m convinced that this piece is a bit more composed than the others, so it sticks out among the other pieces and breaks the second disc’s flow up a little bit. I think it’s a great change of pace, though, and a definite highlight.

More than just a compilation for a good cause, Fukushima! is an excellent collection filled with beautiful music. The variety of talents present almost guarantees that listeners will be introduced something new, too, which is one of the best things any compilation can do.

Fukushima! is available from Presqu’île Records
Sound samples are available at