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.