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Keith Rowe - The Room

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Artist: Keith Rowe

Album: The Room

Label: Erstwhile

Review date: Jul. 30, 2007

It is a truism that words cannot adequately describe music; if they could, would the music need to exist? This phenomenon gives rise to such bons mots as “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”; it is also why cover-mounted CDs and online sound samples convey far more information than words ever can. However, (given that Dusted only uses words!) as well as just describing the music, words give readers history, context and – most importantly? - value judgments, which is presumably why they keep reading.

What has prompted this burst of introspection? Well, not for the first time, Keith Rowe has produced music that is almost beyond description. So, let’s start with some easy bits.

The History:
The Room is Rowe’s third solo album, following A Dimension of Perfectly Ordinary Reality (Matchless, 1989) and Harsh (Grob, 1999). It is the first solo release on Erstwhile, which has released many Rowe recordings since the turn of the millennium, and it inaugurates the new imprint, ErstSolo.

The Context:
In the years since his last solo album, Rowe has become a mainstay of the music known as eai (electro-acoustic improvisation), largely as a result of his releases on Erstwhile, in duos, trios and quartets. In 2004, he severed his relationship with AMM, which dated back to 1965, partly out of a desire to cast his net wider and – maybe – because of friction between himself and AMM percussionist Eddie Prevost. The Room is, in part, a tribute to two of Rowe’s heroes, (one time AMM member) Cornelius Cardew and painter Mark Rothko. Rowe’s own cover art for this album pays clear homage to Rothko, the brooding inner triptych being very reminiscent of Rothko’s Seagram series, the outer triptych being less oppressive, more uplifting.

The Description:
OK, the harder bit. The Room consists of one long track, some 39 minutes long. In contrast to the music on Harsh, unless you know that Rowe is a guitar player, you wouldn’t guess it from this music. (After about 21 minutes, there is the sound of a string being plucked; it comes as a shock, and almost sounds accidental; it doesn’t happen again.) Instead, the music consists of electronically generated sounds of differing qualities. Even live it is difficult to determine exactly how Rowe generates all the sounds; on disc, it is impossible.

The real difficulty in describing the music is conveying the subtle differences between the sounds, so varied are they, not just in volume and frequency – easy enough to describe – but in timbre. The vocabulary doesn’t exist to adequately convey the many gradations between pure tones and white noise that are displayed here – and even if it did, it’d make dull reading! Rowe combines these sounds in many ways, employing sounds that contrast sharply, like those at opposite ends of the aural spectrum…but here I go getting sucked into that trap of trying to describe the indescribable! Suffice to say, your only answer is to hear this music – and hear it at length rather than via a brief sample.

The Value Judgment: The easy bit. In duos, trios or quartets, it can be difficult to fully appreciate Rowe’s contribution, especially if other players are working in similar territory, although the totality can be breathtaking. The Room lays bare the extent of his creativity. Rowe is also a painter, and it is not fanciful to hear this music as painting with sound… or maybe sculpting with sound. He continues to extend his palette whilst being sparingly economic and disciplined in its use. The end result will keep us enthralled until he records solo again, no matter the wait.

By John Eyles

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