Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Keith Rowe at New England Conservatory

Keith Rowe gave a Master Class at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston on Tuesday. He is visiting this week to participate in a residency with the composer Christian Wolfe. Four full days of performances, rehearsals and other activities of and about Wolfe’s compositions, are taking place in conjunction with the Classical and Contemporary Improvisation Departments.

I had only met Keith once before, in 2000 in Wels, Austria. Just like that first time when I introduced myself today he greeted me with a very nice warm hello. He is a very nice soft-spoken gentleman, who looks you right in the eye and seems genuinely interested in you. I told him that everyone was very excited to hear him speak. He responded by smiling and saying “I hope they aren’t too excited”.

His Master Class was mostly a talk with questions and ended with a group of students playing for him. He started by recounting his days as a student, being a jazz guitar player, and studying painting an art school in Plymouth, England, where he had the chance to jam in the basement jazz club with American GI musicians, but gradually getting bored with the constraints of playing jazz on the guitar. It was quite interesting to hear him discuss the issues of originality and ambiguity in painting versus jazz guitar circa 1958. I have always understood that in his case the decision to lay the guitar flat and deal with it in the same manner that Jackson Pollack dealt with the canvas was a creative and personal one that resulted in a different use and direction for the instrument and some beautiful music. It was great to be able to ask him why he didn’t just abandon the guitar and make a stringed instrument that was different than the guitar. His answer was that he enjoyed the challenge that came with the “burden” of the guitar—something he compared to the burden that painters of that period felt from the square canvas. When I said that I felt that playing normal guitar was a burden as well he agreed with a smile.

He was asked about his guitar-playing contemporaries in the UK, and of course Derek Bailey was mentioned, but I was really happily surprised when he mentioned John McLaughlin as the other player of importance in that period. He searched for the name of McLaughlin’s great record “Extrapolation” so I called it out and he asked me “What did you think of it Joe?” I responded that I thought it was beautiful. His casual interaction with all of us made for an easy exchange. I asked him a few questions I already knew the answers to, but that I thought the students should hear. His answers covered nearly the whole of his musical methodology, aesthetic and passions, and were delivered in a balanced and kindly but assertive series of declarations. One highlight was his story of a visit from some Japanese archers to a meeting of the secret society of Gurdjieff devotees that he belonged to, and how the focus, determination, precision and exactitude of their shooting of an arrow inspired him to think of making music in the same way—as if it you had one shot to make the perfect sound, so it must be exactly what should happen at that exact moment. He also talked extensively about how he classifies the objects he uses to generate sound on the guitar, how they are divided by the traditional use of the hands on the instrument, and how he thinks he uses 230 parameters of information to determine whether a sound is unique and useful.

Towards the end of the 90-minute Master Class he invited a few students up to play. I’ve worked with all but one of them and they are all terrific thoughtful players. They gave it a good one, but were ultimately a bit stumped by the issue of pitch versus sound/timbre and the problem of constant juxtaposition that Keith expected of them, instead of the kind of listening/interaction required in most improvised music. Keith spent some time helping them to work out the difference with a very honest and supportive assessment. He told them not to listen to each other. “Don’t listen,” he said. “Consider the experience of the room. Play the moment in the room and make the exact sound that needs to be played in this room at that moment” When a couple of students politely challenged him he quite respectfully answered with something of a “well that’s how you might work it out for yourself in your music” and finally a sincere “God Bless with that”.

It was clear throughout the talk that Keith Rowe's aesthetic and methodology is well defined and that it continues to grow. It was also clear that it is not meant in any way to prevent anyone else from discovering his or her own way. As he declared in the opening minutes of his talk “I have no dogma”. I know we all felt quite fortunate to have the chance to learn so much about this great artist and to enjoy the inspiration that his story offers.