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.