In early June 2009, multi-instrumentalist Keith Rowe made one of his rare visits to London to play a concert at Cafe Oto as part of Another Timbre's Unnamed Music Festival in a trio with saxophonists Martin Kuchen and Seymour Wright, before heading north to Leeds to play another set the following evening with the same trio. Having been in the audience for the first night of the festivaland seeing fine sets by Sebastian Lexer and Aleks Kowalski, Rhodri Davies, Lee Patterson, Louisa Martin and Lucio Capece, and by Tom Chant, Angharad Davies, Benedict Drew and John Edwardson the second night, hours before he was due to perform, Rowe agreed to give an interview to All About Jazz.
All About Jazz: Welcome back to London. How does it feel coming back to London and to England?
Keith Rowe: It's weird because I spent a long time down in the Elephant and Castle area [in south London]; I used to work down there, near The Bricklayers Arms. What is interesting is that this morning walking around there, I wouldn't say I didn't recognize anything, but the sense of change is enormous in Southwarkthe rebuilding of areas, the buildings which have gone, and other buildings which have been put in...
AAJ: It's the same around here [Dalston, near Cafe Oto]. Did you know this area?
KR: Yes, the Balls Pond Road. There is one aspect of the Balls Pond Road that doesn't change at all, but there are others... but it hasn't succumbed to the gentrification of some areas, I think. There is a little bit there.
It always feels like something I am familiar with, in a way. It's not exactly that it feels like coming home, but it feels very close to that. The general feeling, the attitudes, I understand. Whereas in France I can never be French. Deep down, if I see four old men sitting at a table in Vallet, where I live, I can never be them. They went to school together; they probably went to the war in Algeria together; they share stuff and I can never be them. Whereas here I can share what it was like to live in the period of the austerity; all of that.
AAJ: So is this where you feel most at home these days then? I suppose there are so many places to choose from...
KR: Well, the thing is I probably don't feel at home anywhere.
AAJ: A world citizen?
KR: I like the idea of being a European. Because nowhere's perfect. I suppose it's also something to do with being a so-called improviser, it is at the location that you are in. Maybe that was also true for Pablo Picasso, El Greco and Shostakovich; wherever you were is where you work, not somewhere else. Maybe that is the trick, to be where you are, not somewhere else.
AAJ: Before we leave the location thing, I'm increasingly aware of the Europe-US- Japan triangle being an important three-way pull now, particularly for the type of music you play.
KR: Yes. In a way that has completed a cycle, because the thing that influenced me more than anything else was that 1952 New York school of Cage, Feldman, Christian Woolf, Earle Brown, David Tudor. Of course, in part that also came from the influence of picking up and synthesizing Japanese culture to some extent.
We, of course, in England, majored much more in Chinese culture than Japanese. We were influenced by the books by Joseph Needham; Science and Civilisation was probably what we studied more than the Japanese. I think Jac Holzman, the guy from Elektra, recorded an album in the mid-'60s of classical Japanese music. That was very influential for us. Then you go to Tokyo and play with Sachiko and Toshi. So there has come a cycle.
AAJ: So the Japanese influence precedes the Onkyo stuff that you've been very involved in for a decade or more. Its roots run a lot deeper.
KR: That's right; it's a huge cycle.
AAJ: We are now three-and-a-bit hours away from you playing on stage with Martin and Seymour. What space are you into, in those three hours? Is there a zone you have to get into? Or do you just live your life and then once you perform, that's it?
KR: I think the thing is that when you sit down and you look at the instrumentor in my case, look at the stuff on the table in front of youI think you, within probably a second or two seconds (maybe it takes you three or four seconds) basically there is a mindset. It is to do with concentration. Maybe the only times I've actually fully concentrated in my life is those moments when you're performing. Maybe at all other periods I'm actually not fully concentrating certainly to the depths. Maybe what that period is, is totally concentrating and not being distracted. I think what that is, you quickly get into a mode of concentrating...
AAJ: And it is quickly, is it? Is it something you can do, or does it just happen when it is needed?
KR: I can do it, yes. My wife complains that sometimes I can talk at the dinner table like I'm not there. I think sometimes I inadvertently get absorbed in some process and then I'm away. She has to whack me on the head with a loaf of bread or something to bring me back into the real world.
I presume it is what a lot of people do in all different walks of life. I'm sure that some guy in the army in a battlefield who's done an enormous amount of training for a certain task will at a certain moment just be totally concentrated on that, and time will slow down. Or a Buddhist monk sitting down to meditate. So I presume it is nothing so unique to Art. I can imagine airline pilots at crisis moments, maybe taking off or something, have to be there doing that.
AAJ: For you, is it different for solo playing as opposed to duo playing?
KR: It is exactly the same thing; it makes no difference. The room is apparently a more complex room if you've got two or three... If you are on your own the room is quite complex and you are absorbing everything in the room. If you have two extra players then there is that level of complexity to what's possible. Then there are a couple of skills that I think become relevant. One is the skill of the option of not listening. When it is a solo, you do have a range of listening skills. The not-listening one doesn't activate itself so much at that end of the spectrum.
I think when there are three of you, as tonight, then you go into hyper-listening when you listen at the most extreme range of the spectrum; at the other end is not listening at all. Not just shutting your ear off. I learnt that from the Japanese. I would say that expanding the spectrum of listening in that way was very important. That would be one difference; I think essentially observing everything that is in the space in the room. If there are two people there, it does make a difference of course.
AAJ: Do you still have the feeling that the music is there before you play it? Is it here? Are you externalizing it when you play it?
KR: Of course, we never know, do we? What always seemed to me the old question was: Is it one piece of work inside you, like a novel you keep on writing, or one painting that you keep on repainting, or one piece of music that you keep repeating it in different ways or do you have one piece of music inside you and you do episodes of it? Maybe it is a mixture of both; I've never been sure actually which it is. In a sense, I probably don't need to know, because you tap into it.
AAJ: A variant on that. You, Seymour and Martin play here [Cafe Oto] tonight and then in Leeds tomorrow. Would you know at this point how those two would be different? Or is that totally unpredictable?
KR: Totally unknown because the room tomorrow will be differentthe space, the people. There is a sense in which the audience actually produce the music, not you. You are in the space, and the people are in the space with you. We're all in this space now. You can pick up a lot on them, on what they are feeling, how they are concentrating. So their concentration for example will allow you to develop material and extend material. If there is no concentration amongst the people in the room, you almost tend to go through an inventory, you rush through things. I think if they are concentrating, you almost tend to extend material a lot more. I hope that makes sense. And I think that must be true for Horowitz playing Liszt...
AAJ: You were at the performance last night, so you saw Rhodri Davies playing. In seeing people like Rhodri playingand there are many othersdo you recognize a legacy that you have left to the music, left to the current crop of improvisers?
KR: Yes. I can see the family relationship, if you know what I mean. I just recently worked with Rhodri in Wiesbaden. It was the Fluxus composer Ben Patterson's 75th birthday, so Rhodri and I were invited to do 75 minutes of music. So I got to know Rhodri a bit more. We'd not spent a huge amount of time together but it was very nice to see his thoughts and get his responses. And to see the technical things about the instrument because he has deconstructed the harp in the same way as I have deconstructed the guitar. Comparing notes, I'm probably slightly ahead of him in that I've got my guitar down to almost nothing, whereas I think he wants to go another stage in getting the harp down toI think somewhere he saw a folding harp in a magazine; I think he is interested in that [laughs].
AAJ: How about you? Are you evolving in what you do to the guitar or have you reached there?
KR: Some of it is based on probably quite negative sentiments. At this point, I won't mention names but just recently I saw a guitarist playing in a trio and the guitar seemed to be masturbatory. I think there is something in the way the guitar has been a masturbatory instrument, very phallic with the hand going up and down. So some years ago I decided to castrate the guitar, in fact; I cut the neck off which is a symbol of castration. Maybe someone could actually write something about the fact that as old men get older their penises reduce, so maybe you can tell something by looking at the instrument on the table. I'm not going to go there.
AAJ: It is a very symbolic reduction is it?
KR: (Laughs.) Who knows? Maybe it is all subconscious.
AAJ: I can leave that bit in, can I?
KR: Yes [laughs]. Do illustrations and drawings.