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Keith Rowe - Absence Music Album Reviews

Keith Rowe - Absence Music Album Reviews
In this 2015 set marking his retirement from live performance, the veteran improvising guitarist explores the simpler, starker side of his abstract, purposefully formless music.

One of the many innovations of AMM, the influential improv group co-founded by Keith Rowe, was their use of silence. Formed by three restless young artists with jazz backgrounds, the group found an audience in the burgeoning London art scene of the mid-1960s, although their work often barely scanned as music. A painter as well as a guitarist, Rowe took inspiration from Jackson Pollock and laid his instrument across a table, striking its body and strings for textural effect. Played with unorthodox equipment like bows and needles, it sometimes emitted a low, electric hum; other times, it was an onslaught of noise. Musicians who weren’t on their wavelength found it difficult to collaborate. Concertgoers expecting entertainment were forced to sit with their discomfort.

As a solo artist, Rowe has maintained his vision into the 21st century. Keeping up a steady stream of releases and collaborations, he has served as a vital, inquisitive presence among a generation of electroacoustic artists, like Fennesz and Oren Ambarchi, who took inspiration from his inventive approach. His most recent solo album was a four-hour set from 2016 called The Room Extended. An uncompromising epic that sampled his own recordings dating back to the ’60s while sounding unlike anything else in his catalog, the music felt cumulative and deeply personal. On the cover was a scan of Rowe’s brain, an image taken from the medical examinations that would reveal a positive diagnosis for Parksinson‘s, in early 2015.

Less than halfway into a show that same year—captured here on his new album, Absence—Rowe decided to retire from live performance. He noticed a tremor in his right hand and immediately recognized the way it compromised his sound. (On the record, it plays like a dizzy, pulsing wave of static, lasting about 10 seconds, beginning at the 12:10 mark.) Even for those attuned to the cadence and rhythm of Rowe’s abstract, purposefully formless music, this moment might not stand out. But for Rowe, whose work has always been filled with cryptic references and well-kept secrets—right down to the name AMM, an acronym whose meaning he has never explained—it felt like a sign, a definitive stopping point.

The resulting album—which Rowe has decided to release, in his characteristically irreverent terms, “before it too departs for the dustbin”—is focused on a simpler, starker set of tools than The Room Extended. But it is just as intense. When asked about his relationship to the idea of “harshness,” a word often used to describe his art, Rowe meditated on the varying degrees of the term. “Going out into the vineyard very late on a winter's night, when it’s cold, it can feel very harsh, but there’s only silence,” he replied. “Harshness is comparative.” As opposed to the industrial fanfare of his noisier material, the music on Absence falls on the alone-in-a-vineyard-on-a-winter-night end of the spectrum: subtle, solitary, beautiful in theory but a little unnerving in practice.

By now, the sound of Rowe’s live setup has become familiar: the scraping of strings, the busted-cable buzz, the whirring of fans. You can hear all these trademarks during this single-track, 33-minute performance, which proceeds with the blurry momentum of a slow walk through heavy snow. In his usual way, Rowe intersperses his guitar playing with radio transmissions, adding an additional dusting of spontaneity, even dark humor, to the proceeding: the oblivious speakers blasting from a passing car just as you receive troubling news. Among the samples that turn up are a Nelly Furtado single about regret, a Justin Bieber hit about puppy love, and a euphoric ’70s funk deep cut about losing yourself to rhythm, which cuts off so abruptly that it sounds like half commentary, half punchline.

Absence concludes with a recording of a symphony by Haydn, and it’s the longest sample here. When asked about his interest in improv over composition, Rowe spoke about his appreciation for both forms, asking why we listen to music in the first place: “When you go to hear a Haydn string quartet, there are no surprises, are there? In terms of newness. People listen for the exquisite exposition of the quartet.” While his usual process involves cutting the sample before your brain has time to place the melody, this time he lets it run. You might find yourself slipping into the music, even forgetting about the larger work around it. Then it fades: a minute of near silence, someone coughing, a few shifting chairs, and applause. As a listener, we hear the audience lift from their trance, respond, and move on. Then we do the same.

“Retirement, or stepping away, is difficult and painful,” Rowe writes in the liner notes. “It requires a recognition of certain realities, that you are not important, that the world does not care that you have stopped performing solos, actually the world does not notice that you have stopped, life outside your bubble continues, get used to it, you are not at the centre of anything.” His words are a blunt reminder of the ethos at the heart of his work, which values exploration for the greater benefit over any mere sense of achievement or personal fulfillment. He wants the ideas to be what lives on. At the same time, it feels natural to hear this one, more than any other album he has released, and consider the gravitational force at its center, to miss it when he leaves the frame. It is a portrait of an artist slipping the borders between the silence he can control and the silence he cannot.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Keith Rowe - Absence Music Album Reviews Keith Rowe - Absence Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Wednesday, June 23, 2021 Rating: 5

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