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Keith Rowe: One Bird Flying Through

John Eyles By

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AAJ: They've shot your fox...

KR: Exactly. When I go on, it has all been said, which is actually quite difficult.

AAJ: The last couple of times I've seen you play, solo at the Tate and at the ICA with Philipp Wachsmann [at the end of November 2008], I've been surprised at how many young guitarists are pawing over your table afterwards—almost taking notes with a view to recreating it.

KR: I suppose there would be a little bit of use in looking at the actual painting palette of Whistler. Maybe you'd learn something from that.

AAJ: With guitars, it has been there since year dot. Get a Stratocaster like Hendrix and you can be Hendrix.

KR: That's right. Imagine going to the paint shop next door, Reeves. Are they still in there or is it just preserved?

AAJ: It is a gallery space now.

KR: So if you went into a shop and got exactly the same colors as Rothko, you wouldn't guarantee you would do a Rothko at all. So I don't know why they bother. It doesn't help at all.

AAJ: You need both elements. You couldn't be you without your set up.

KR: It hasn't happened. Well, it has to an extent—when I did have a fully-fledged guitar, it went missing on Air France. (They have improved at Charles de Gaulle, but there was a period where basically unless you had a two hour correspondence your instrument would not make it.) So, I have actually turned up at concerts with no instrument and just had a blank space on the table, just had the foot pedals and the cables and no instrument. You do manage, and somehow it does still sound like you. Kind of odd. So maybe the security blanket of the guitar, that's all it is. Reducing it to almost nothing is probably an appropriate thing to do. But it is quite nice to have reference to it, a guitar-like thing.

At the moment I am using a thing called a finger trainer which you might have seen. A finger trainer is a device for classical guitar players to practice their fingering. It is just six frets and no body. It really is for the professional development for classical guitar players. I like it because it reminds me of Degas. You know when Degas draws the ballet dancers; they are doing their shoe laces up and preparing for the performance. He rarely paints them actually in full flight. They are resting afterwards or preparing.

AAJ: There is also a sense of ritual about that preparation, isn't there?

KR: Well, it goes back to what you were saying about how do you prepare for something.

AAJ: Well we've got this far and I haven't yet mentioned AMM. By my reckoning, you were in there for something like 35 to 40 years. And now, you've been out for five years, as of the first of May this year. So, the question is how have those five years felt? Obviously it has felt different, but how has it been?

KR: It has been fine. Obviously if I'm being honest, when I made that performance [on May 1, 2004] with AMM on that day I had no idea it was the last performance. I didn't know it was the last performance. It wasn't until that June, almost exactly a month later that I got emails from friends in America who'd actually picked up the book [Minute Particulars (Copula, 2004), by Edwin Prevost] and read it. Then there was a review by Walter Horn. The subject in the email I got was, "Holy shit, what is happening in AMM" and in the email it said, "I can't imagine that Rowe will ever play again." I didn't know Eddie had published the book. I didn't know what was in Eddie's book; I wasn't privileged to any pre-reading of the chapters, so I didn't know what the chapters were.

AAJ: So was it out of the blue when you saw these emails?

KR: Yes. Eddie never gave me a copy of the book, so when I got home I had to buy a copy of it from Jerome in Grenoble. When I read the book, my immediate feeling was that I just couldn't trust Eddie, you know. I just couldn't comprehend why he just didn't speak to me about any of these things. I think within a few months I came to the conclusion that I was just a complete irritant in Eddie's side, and I don't want to be an irritant to anyone, so it would be best if I just left and got out of it. At first I was pretty negative but by the Christmas I'd got a handle on it and I made a decision not to respond, not to write a letter to The Times as it were, to absorb it. I don't know why he did it. Still to this day, I don't know why he did it.

AAJ: But at the time it was out of the blue? You couldn't have foreseen? You had no sense of, as you say, being an irritant?

KR: Yes, again if I'm being honest, of course, Eddie and I are very different characters. Over the years, we will have disagreed, quite violently about things. But I didn't know that was the content of the book. Had he sent me, pre-publication, the chapters in which he is critical of me, I would have had something to say. Like the thing on Harsh (Grob, 2000), he has got it completely wrong. I really object to the conflation he uses. I would say that in the notes for Duos for Doris (Erstwhile, 2003) that, what I've just said to you, in the spectrum of listening for me I wouldn't necessarily listen or I might not listen or not listening is important to me. That is entirely different from saying that I never listen. He accuses me of never listening, and I never said I never listen. I said sometimes I don't listen, sometimes I do.

Anyway, the thing on The Hands of Caravaggio (Erstwhile, 2002) was totally wrong. What he is saying is just wrong; it's nonsense. In fact, I met someone a week ago in Slovenia who was at the concert he is critical of, and this guy had done a mini-disc recording and he said the mini-disc recording is very much like the CD that came out as The Hands of Caravaggio and yet you'd think from Eddie's essay that it was a complete fake, a hatchet job. In fact, I got a call from an Italian journalist asking me if The Hands of Caravaggio was a fake production done by Marcus Schmickler. I find it all offensive. I think if he'd asked me, I'd have sat down with Eddie and I'd have talked through all of these things. I would have had a proper talk to him about all of that, but he didn't; he just published it. How do you respond to that? I just kept my trap shut basically, and got on with life.

I do miss it. John Tilbury and Eddie are dear old friends and colleagues. But to lose two of your oldest friends in one week was very painful. AMM itself was the closest I get to playing in classical music. I know so much of the structures, the internal nature of it, so when I played in AMM it was like playing Schubert or Haydn or something because I knew it so well. There was very rarely anything fresh or new. I love that spectrum. I love doing new things, fresh things, going into it blind. I also love the other thing, working with material which I know extremely well. I think there is room for all of it. So I feel robbed of that experience.


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