The Wire, David Toop
Minimalism: there's a lot of it about. Trombonist Radu Malfatti had some interesting points to make on the subject in The Wire 211. I tend to associate Malfatti with steamy nights at the 100 Club in the early 1970s, Brotherhood Of Breath on the rampage. Malfatti now feels that improvisation is locked into its own repertoire of gestures and reduces his level of action to the bare minimum to find alternative strategies.
Keith Rowe has always been a 'full' player. In his solo work there's always something happening-a burst of short wave radio, a drone, a conglomerate of insistent sounds-but this new release suggests a desire to distill this activity. On Weather Sky, the constancy remains but dynamic levels are reduced and flattened. The 'field' in which sound motion occurs is shifted to an unfamiliar level. Listen very carefully, on headphones in a silent environment, for example, and the contrasts are just as marked as they always were. Unfortunately, I hate the discomfort of headphones, the sense of enclosure and detachment and as fo the silent environment, I can only dream about that.
Is a guitar present? Again, by listening carefully, the distinctive relationship between pickup, string, amplifier, loudspeaker, human body and ancillary implements can be recognized, just. Really, it doesn't seem to matter that much anymore. In terms of technology, I imagine Toshimaru Nakamura's contribution as a cluster of taps, all of them streaming with jets of water distinguished by slight variations in velocity and texture.
Hum is important -- heard when most of the foreground elements drop away. The phenomenon that technicians of the analogue world struggled to eliminate for decades. The phenomenon that a digital tool can eliminate in seconds, 'intelligently', is now given its own place in the sound field. Yet hum is simply a word that describes our categorization of desirable and undesirable sustained pitches of a certain frequency. Dimmer switches and neon tubes, for example, hum. Do they make music? They make a sound that might be mistaken for music like this and possess a certain appeal in their own right, when you're in the right frame of mind, but what is miraculous about Weather Sky and not at all miraculous about dimmer switches and neon tubes is the meticulously detailed, highly mobile and unpredictable interaction of sounds that could be confused with the ambient sounds of a contemporary interior.
In other words, the human element as opposed to the kettle element. The relationships between players in improvised music have changed. Having begun very hot in the free jazz days, they are cooling rapidly and threaten to reach frost levels. Keith Rowe's cover painting depicts an iced bun, which may be a coded reference to this trend. I think this may be a reflection of shifts in social relations, though not necessarily an indication of a lessening of listening abilities or interactive sophistication.
All Music Guide, Brian Olewnick
At the time of this session, Keith Rowe, as a member of AMM and on his own, had been recording for some 35 years at the absolute vanguard of improvised music. His ability to continue to find fertile, unexplored ground is nothing short of astonishing. Teaming with Toshimaru Nakamura, a leading member of the Japanese "onkyo" scene who performs on "no-input mixing board," he once again produces an album of supremely creative and beautiful music unlike the conception of anyone else. Nakamura tends to provide extended drone-like sounds, varying in frequency from ultra-high to subsonic but always consisting of a layered, remarkably subtle number of elements. At first blush, the listener may hear only one dominant aspect, but a closer aural inspection inevitably uncovers at least one if not several more strata. It's rather like looking at an everyday stone, seeing only gray at first, then looking closer and discovering a universe of shapes and colors. Rowe almost seems to take Nakamura's sounds as the general ambience in which he's working and proceeds to offer discreet accents, suggestions of molding and insightful commentary from his prepared guitar. It's a testament to his ongoing search for new conceptions that little of what he contributes here even sounds "Roweian"; indeed, it's often difficult to tell who is doing what, so seamlessly interwoven are the improvisations.
The first piece is, in a surface sense, narrowly constrained, with a sustained (if infinitely varied) drone throughout, occasionally interrupted by eerie squiggles of noise. It's unrelenting at the same time as it's luxurious, bathing the listener in complexities of sound and is as fine and wondrous, arguably, as anything produced by AMM. The relatively brief second track, with it's almost tonal drone, functions as a respite between the two longer, more demanding improvisations, but is delightful in and of itself. It serves, in this heady context, as kind of a pop-song, though light years removed from that genre. The final improvisation returns to the general territory of the first, though with a more darkly hued drone. Rowe somehow supplies what sounds for all the world like an ultra-quiet cello continuo underneath, providing an urgency and anticipation that's palpable. A rumbling, throbbing tone predominates, surrounded by a cloud of high-pitched whistles, like a generator in a haze of oil and steam. When it finally subsides with an irritated buzz, the absorbed listener awakens into a world where the sounds of modern life may never be heard exactly the same way again.
Weather Sky is a signal document of electronic improvisation at the turn of the century and sets a standard that may well last for the foreseeable future. No one interested in the state of contemporary creative music should be without this disc.
Paris Transatlantic, Dan Warburton
That said, "Weather Sky" is another thing altogether. Bruno Meillier invited Toshi to play a duo concert in St Etienne with AMM's no-concessions table guitar master Keith Rowe, and took them into the studio the day after to record for Erstwhile. Sensitivity to pitch is less important here (Rowe, remember, hasn't tuned his guitar since the early 1960s): the album's three tracks are real slow-burners. Rowe can be agile and aggressive when he wants to, but his preferred working method is to lay down long drones and gently adjust them - which is basically what Nakamura does: the two are therefore totally compatible and neither feels any need to bounce the other in a new direction. The album's structure - two long pieces framing a shorter central one - is the same as Nakamura's first Erstwhile outing with Sachiko M, "Do", and the total listening experience is equally purifying for the ear (though where Sachiko's piercing sine waves belong to the dental surgery, Rowe's grainy buzzes wouldn't be out of place in a barber shop). This is not to give the impression that the music is painful to listen to - far from it (though prolonged listening at high volume through headphones might not be the best course of action): like the albums of LaMonte Young, Charlemagne Palestine and Tony Conrad, this music inhabits the listening space, and even tiny movements of the head can reveal new and surprising combinations of tones that listening to more conventionally "active" music tends to exclude. In its austere way, it's as direct, colourful and appetising as Rowe's trademark pop art cover - which is, literally, the cherry on the cake.