Keith Rowe

By Brian Olewnick
powerhouse Books

By Ken Waxman

Brian Olewnick is an excellent record reviewer. This nearly 500 page volume devoted to the life and music of British table-top guitarist Keith Rowe demonstrates his skill in that specialized genre by frequently offering well-though-out and insightful reviews of many sessions featuring Rowe or the ensemble with which he became well-known: AMM. While this analysis of sessions released and unreleased, plus live encounters is an important addendum to any analysis of European Free Music since 1960, it often appears to takes the place of more erudite observations in the book.

In workman-like prose, American Olewnick, who counts Rowe among his friends, traces the life and career of the 78-year-old guitarist from his Plymouth, England upbringing to the present day, living near Nantes, France, with a reputation as one of the most influential string stylists of his time. At the same time the author also tries to deal with the fissure between Rowe and AMM’s other main figure, percussionist Eddie Prevost, the result of which has defined the parameters of recent improvised music as much as the split between Josef Stalin and Leon Trotsky after the 1920s defined the future of Communism.

Rowe would probably have liked this Socialist comparison, because over the years the self-taught, working class guitarist has been involved with many Far Left causes. In fact his first major break with AMM in the early 1970s involved the decision of Rowe and his associate, composer Cornelius Cardew, to quit the band to pursue agit-prop work for Maoist-affiliated associations both musically with the Scratch Orchestra of mostly non-professionals, while working at blue collar non-musical jobs. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Initially Rowe, a budding Jazz guitarist, was first involved in the experimental Mike Westbrook band, and then following a move to London, brought his art school ideas of complete originality to improvisation by deciding that he could express unfettered improvisation by not tuning the guitar or even practicing outside of gigs. Luckily in the creative ferment of the 1960s he was able to hook up with similar musical fellow travelers. By 1965, following prolonged sessions of rehearsals, taping and Marxist-like discussions and self-criticism, AMM, the definition of whose initials is still not revealed, was formed, with Cardew, Rowe, Prevost and several others.

Unbelievable as it may seem now, AMM’s first LP was released by Elektra records and some gigs were on bills featuring the nascent Pink Floyd, with Syd Barrett acknowledging Rowe as an influence. However as the international music scene became more professional, profitable and restrictive during the 1970s and 1980s, AMM’s seemingly endless programs that to paraphrase famously began before they started playing and ended after they had finished, plus uses of prolonged silences, radio-sourced interjections and the bowing and scraping of non-string instruments limited the band’s appeal. Like Soviet-era apparatchiks the group members argued and splintered for a couple of years. Although Rowe later returned – Cardew who had been converted to Maoism by Rowe’s interest in all thing Chinese, was killed in a hit-and-run – the gap between Prevost and Rowe remained, especially as the guitarist’s interest in contemporary and even traditional so-called classical music intensified as did his solo work. Meanwhile Prevost was formulating concepts about improvisation and concerning himself with the mechanics of managing the AMM-affiliated Matchless label.

Olewnick examines in detail many recorded sessions from those seminal years, involving an expanded AMM, with pianist John Tilbury and others, as well as Rowe’s collaborations with others players, many for the first time, especially the many of CDs released on the American Erstwhile label headed by the author’s friend Jon Abbey. Following a gradual estrangement between Prevost and Rowe, based in part on physical distance, the latter’s affiliation with an American label and growing musical differences, the second AMM break occurred in 2004, when without telling the guitarist beforehand, Prevost’s newest book posited that “if Radu Malfatti is the pope of reductionist music, then Keith Rowe is its Jesus Christ … Although at the moment even the messiah himself seems currently to be somewhat in thrall to the theology of reductionism”. While almost incomprehensible to the average music fan, which statement brought out the simmering animosities between the two, sometimes relating to what Prevost insists was Rowe’s unwillingness to listen to the others in performance. Although sporadic reunions have happened the partnership seems over. Despite his obvious sympathy with Rowe and his ideas, Olewnick must be commended for pointing out some of the inconsistencies in actions and statements that the somewhat mercurial guitarist has exhibited in his personal and professional life.

The book also includes several appendices including interviews with and writings by Rowe, along with a discography (complete as 2016) of the musician’s work. While Rowe is also given plenty of space in which to define himself and his ideas throughout the book, Olewnick has interviewed many observers and participants involved in the tale, with others’ point of view added for balance.

Still, rather than providing a definite assessment of the influence of the guitarist and how he affected the musical milieu, the tome’s chief value lies in the author’s perceptive analysis of the man’s musical contributions. Even in those circumstances though, Olewnick laments the lack of documentation from several of Rowe’s transitional periods.

Then again that’s the point of this study: these records are the man. Perhaps these mostly recorded sounds reflect the essence of Keith Rowe above all else.