Ed Howard, Only the Cinema On Sunday, March 21, tabletop guitarist and AMM founding member Keith Rowe played a pair of duo sets at the Diapason Gallery in Brooklyn: one set with ultra-quiet snare drum improviser Sean Meehan, and one with tape loop manipulator Jason Lescalleet. It was a fine night of interesting music, the first time I've managed to make it out to one of these shows in several years. I'm very glad I did.
Rowe and Meehan played first, and as expected it was a hushed, extremely minimal set of very quiet music. Meehan's set-up remains as simple as it was when I last saw him: a single snare drum, which he acts upon with various small objects: contact mics, silverware, perhaps some rocks (it was rather dark throughout the performance, making it difficult to see exactly what he was doing at times). No sign of the cymbals and dowels that are probably Meehan's most commonly used set-up. Rowe, of course, plays with a "tabletop" guitar assembly, an array of effect boxes, shortwave radios, and other electronics, as well as various tools and fans which he uses to excite his guitar strings. Not that there was much of that during this set, which was very stripped-down and deliberately limited to a fairly narrow palette.
This aspect of the set was both interesting and, at times, rather frustrating. Rowe seemed to be responding to the dry, crunchy textures of Meehan's sounds by offering up very similar noises as counterpoint. This was especially true towards the beginning of the set, when the two players were leaving lengthy spaces of silence between sounds, then offering up tiny little cracks and pops. The two musicians often worked in surprisingly similar territory, as Rowe would match Meehan's discrete crinkles with a spiky, subdued shard of guitar feedback. At other times, Rowe created thin streams of fuzzy static, more or less a quiet background hum over which Meehan would occasionally interject with his own clusters of pebble-like clatter.
Maybe it was just because it's been so long since I've seen this music live, and thus had difficulty getting into this piece, but this set was rather distancing to me; I often felt as though the performers' respective sounds weren't truly coming together, or at least I couldn't get into the right frame of mind to really appreciate the space they were creating. This improved somewhat in the second half of the set, when they became (relatively) more animated, with Meehan inserting piercing scratches made by scraping a fork's tines across the surface of his drum, and Rowe moved into slightly more muscular territory as well. The ending was perfect, too, as after several false endings, moments when Meehan seemed to have lapsed into silence and Rowe kept playing, the duo ended simultaneously with a few last delicate sounds, intuitively in touch with one another. Still, I vividly remember the set these two did a few years back (which Erstwhile Records owner Jon Abbey, introducing them here, cited as their first duo meeting ever), when they created a gauzy, low-volume drone that seemed to cause a hazy state of half-consciousness in everyone who heard it. In comparison, this set was occasionally pleasant and formally interesting, but didn't really go beyond that for me.
The second set of the night was another matter altogether. I was very excited to hear what was only Rowe's second meeting with Lescalleet; the pair played together for the first time in Boston last week. As an improviser, Lescalleet is more like a builder, an architect, than anyone else I've ever seen play; he is always accumulating sounds, stacking them as though he's laying bricks side by side, establishing the groundwork for developments that he's already planning for later in the piece. He's a fascinating contrast against the more in-the-moment gestural improv of Rowe, who always seems so perfectly attuned to the contributions of his fellow musicians and the overall sound at any given moment. (Not to say that Rowe doesn't think ahead, too, or that Lescalleet obliviously tramples over his collaborators; it's a matter of emphasis, long-term construction versus more responsive playing.)
This was a complex, viscerally exciting piece of music, a mind-blowing performance with several discrete movements, often triggered abruptly by Lescalleet allowing large chunks of sound to drop in or out. The overall sound of the music was a dense, textural drone, with multiple layers and sounds moving within this overpowering totality. Although it was rather difficult to totally separate out the two musicians' contributions, Rowe often seemed to be both contributing to the drone and subtly working against it, inserting spiky blasts of ugly noise, jarring intrusions that disrupted the fluid and escalating overall drive of the music. If Lescalleet's typical sound is a slow accumulation, a steady build-up, Rowe was preventing this build from being too smooth with his gritty interjections, like the gnarled sound of a handheld fan's blade against his guitar strings. Some of Rowe's sounds were also processed rather obviously, with some rather naked pitch-shifting sounds cutting through the murk at a few points, occasionally recalling the more grating/harsh moments of Between, his second album with Toshimaru Nakamura.
The music was intense and powerful throughout, as Lescalleet's tremendous cascades of sound filled the small room, with Rowe moving within and around the space created by his collaborator's noise. There was so much going on within this cacophony, so much motion and layering: the hum and static of Rowe's radios and electronics just barely audible within the crunch of Lescalleet's noise; the high-pitched feedback tones wildly oscillating within the drone, as though bouncing around within a contained space; the occasional hints of pop music or voices eaten up and warped by the surrounding maelstrom. There was a real dynamic sensibility to this set as well; the two performers didn't remain in this battering, noisy mode for the entirety of the set, but instead transitioned back and forth between these barrages and more delicate, quiet passages in which Lescalleet often seemed to be setting up the next onslaught. At one point, he switched out the tape loop he'd been running for most of the set, replacing it with a loop of drastically slowed-down, distorted singing, which added a haunting element to one of the set's quieter stretches; it reminded me a bit of Philip Jeck's warped vinyl pieces.
Towards the end of the set, Lescalleet began working away from the table where most of his gear was arranged. Instead, he was moving around in the space behind where the performers had set up, even stepping behind the curtain at the back of the area. It wasn't clear what he was doing there until the very end of the set, when these preparations paid off with a stunning ending. The duo's latest burst of noise had died down, and as Lescalleet seemed to remove most of his contributions, what was left behind was a hushed and very familiar atmosphere, the quiet hum of some radio static, a few little sounds skittering around within the low buzz. This is a familiar place to end a set, perhaps a little too familiar; many improv sets eventually arrive at this place where it seems natural to simply let the music fizzle out. But Lescalleet, presumably with Rowe's foreknowledge, had a more dramatic twist in store, as he unleashed torrents of noise with what turned out to be an amplified, stretched-out metal slinky strung around in the area behind the performers' tables. As Lescalleet vibrated this metal strand, the noise became nearly deafening, and he slowly worked his way around until he was standing right next to Rowe, holding the strand aloft. Lescalleet froze in this position, the clamor abruptly disappeared to total silence (presumably because the engineer at the mixing board had been given instructions to cut out all the sound at this predetermined moment) and the set was over. It was a surprising and effective end to a thrilling set, a performance that again and again made me really happy. This was exciting, vibrant music, and I had a big grin on my face for much of the set. (March 23, 2010)
----------------------- Brian Olewnick, Just Outside Struggling to recover from an exhausting and entirely enjoyable weekend in the company of Keith. I suppose I should offer capsule summations of the two evenings of concerts at Diapason in Brooklyn though be forewarned, I wasn't taking notes.
I was very pleased to meet Sebastian Lexer earlier on Saturday, who proved to be an all-around fine fellow, causing me to look forward to that evening's events with even more anticipation. The performance was structured solo (Lexer)/solo (Rowe)/duo and all three were fine. Lexer had studied for several years with John Tilbury and while you could clearly hear the influence in the touch and preparations, he was very much his own person in how he structured his solo. One thing that struck me was his balance in varying attacks--he moved from place to place, often running the sounds through software but also letting them generate "naturally", but never seemed to be going through any sort of mental catalog, just flowing unhurriedly, revisiting certain areas that would begin to register as themes or guideposts.
Rowe also has a recent penchant for returning to the scene of approaches or individual devices he'd abandoned in recent years. He's mentioned that, just as one doesn't want to come to depend on a given sense of structure or device, so one also should never be afraid to revisit them. This performance hearkened back to somewhere in the area of recordings like "harsh," or the kinds of sets he was doing circa 2004 (on the US tour with Fennesz, for instance), much denser and more layered than recent outings (eg, "contact"). Details seem superfluous, but I noted one relatively long exposure of a distorted Latino radio station that sounded especially marvelous in contest. The duo worked quite well, though my specific memory of it is hazier. It was one of those events that, a couple hours after it occurs, you think, "Yes, that was very satisfying." Lexer wasn't so reticent as one might have expected (or, rather, as I might have expected prior to hearing him ably debate his side of various issues that afternoon). When he struck loud, ringing chords amidst a sea of agitated calm, they sounded entirely appropriate, not forced. As earlier, there was good conversation to be heard, tendentious here, accommodating there. I'd love to hear this pair again.
Sunday evening combined Rowe with Sean Meehan for the first set and Jason Lescalleet, a week after their Boston show, for the second. Sean chose not to bring his cymbals and dowels to the gallery, opting for his fork, some rice and I think a handful of other devices (I was sitting toward the back of the chairs set-up and, in the dim light, had a view (a delightful one) of only the top of the snare drum itself and Sean's hands entering and leaving my "porthole".) As you might expect, the set was a very quiet one, though extremely intense, the pair exchanging considered comments, pausing to reflect, moving on. Nothing that would surprise a listener versed in the pair's music, but a very moving half-hour of music nonetheless, in many ways my favorite of the weekend.
I was very intrigued to see the second collaboration between Rowe and Lescalleet in the space of a week, having had issues with the first such affair in Boston the previous Sunday. The good news is that it was a far more cohesive set. The "bad" (it wasn't a bad set at all) was that the cohesion seemed to come via the technique of drone maintenance, something that struck me as too easy, as gratifying as it was in other ways. On his own, Jason's way of layering massive, irregular planks of sound atop and in between one another can be nothing less than thrilling to behold. With others, those planks can become opaque, leaving little entryway for his compadres. Of course, this can be approached as a challenge by those musicians but I get the sense it can be fairly daunting. And there may well have been more Rowe in play than I picked up in the first 15-20 minutes of the set (lasted about an hour?) but it seemed to be a Lescalleet tsunami of sorts, exciting on a visceral level, less so to me when thinking about it (perhaps something I shouldn't do?) Still, there were certainly moments. Jason introduced a slowed-down (backward?) tape with vocal sounds that was extremely evocative and eerie and at one point doused his raging arsenal completely allowing otherwise inaudible (and beautiful) Roweian sounds to percolate calmly/agitatedly for several minutes. I think I wanted more of that give and take and less of a tidal bore (I mean "bore" as a drilled hole, of course, not as...)
Then there was the ending. Lescalleet mysteriously faced the rear of the room, adjacent to a think column. Eventually it became apparent (when I say, "apparent", I mean that the decibel level rose to cochlea-shattering levels) that he was manipulating his beloved Slinky, pulling and stretching its contact mic'd coils and creating an ungodly welter of noise, circling around behind the column, advancing on the poor, newly-into-his-seventh-decade Rowe (who, incidentally, was unaware that this was to be the finale, as it were). Jason reached to a point right at Keith's side, the end of the Slinky ready to take a bite, when the maelstrom abruptly ceased--end of set.
Was it spectacular? Assuredly. Was it more than that? I don't know, but I don't think so. I should say that, as near as I can determine, I was in the extreme minority (not alone, though) insofar as having some qualms about the performance. Ed Howard, for example, has an excellent and tightly-observed review here. So take all the above with the usual grains of rice.
But all in all, a marvelous weekend in the company of some great people. Thanks Keith, Sebastian, Sean, Jason, Jon, Yuko, Richard. Aside from the music and folk, I finally made it to the legendary Sripraphai, a wonderful Korean restaurant on W. 32nd whose name I forget (plus the waiter wouldn't let me order the oysters wrapped in pork belly--next time!), fourth time at Hill Country BBQ and had the most delicious chocolate almond croissants I've ever encountered at Madeleine Patisserie on West 23rd St. I'm now very fat.
----------------------- Billy Gomberg, IHM my thoughts, recollecting a really articulate weekend of performances. Saturday + Sunday were no less than a total showcase for Keith and by extension those who shared the stage with him. These are all musicians that I've seen before in various contexts, and I think everyone showed up with something special.
I haven't seen Sebastian Lexer since my visit to London back in summer of 2004, where I saw him in concert w/Johns Tilbury & Edwards at Goldsmiths, and in Eddie Prevóst's workshop, but I've certainly dug this recent releases. His solo showed a lot of the patience of his general London milieu, but the breadth of his expression, doled out slowly over around 35 minutes, hit a lot of good notes for me. Sometimes literally - studies w/Tilbury have given Lexer a great touch on the keys. His exploration of various preparations, traditional and more contemporary, moving in and out of touch with some nice laptoppery, pushed his performance along with an assured hand. Maybe a little too much push for me, personally, as I felt that sometimes the sound was pulled away from a nice momentum or drift, but this is a minor quibble, as I heard these moments as intentional, and delivered with accuracy.
Keith's solo, only the second solo performance I've been in attendance for, was really as expected. Which is to say, "great." Keith's great control of force and materials were on display in perfect measure. Not sure what else to say - I don't really feel the need to recap the performance piece by piece - though if someone could tell me what exactly that glowing red device was that produced a storm of electricity and sort of wandered around Keith's table of it's own volition, I guess that would satisfy some curiosity. Like the best of sets, revelatory and satisfying in equal parts.
The Lexer/Rowe duo brought these two approaches together very well. Especially after they settled in they was a great ebb and flow between the two. At this point I tired a bit of Sebastian's twinkling bandpass/resonant filters that would spark up every so often, but both Sebastian and Keith kept things lively and expressive.
Sunday of course was to be a different beast. Keith's duo with Sean Meehan was utterly transparent, each adding grain and swell to delightful silence. As I expect from Sean, there was nothing less than perfect timing throughout the duo, each adding just enough, at just the right moments. I think this was actually the most active I've ever seen Sean - crunching grain, scraping, whistling, and, in great rarity, turning on some metronomes. Keith sailed his hums and crackles with expected ease, and the whole set had a just perceptible tension that made the whole thing compelling and lovely.
I had great expectations for Keith's duo w/Jason Lescalleet, mostly owing to two stunning concerts by Jason that I've been fortunate enough to attend. After a very slow, hesitant start - Keith looking for signs of activity from Jason...well there was plenty of activity - Jason was, as always, very physical, it seemed to take a few minutes for thing to really get going for him. Keith's patience of course paid off, as once things got swinging they really got swinging. As opposed to the give & take of previous sets, this was force on force, entwined and propelled through hallucinatory + dense settings, disintegrating (tho never into silence), gathering together again & again. Fantastic climax with Jason wielding the slinkies and then a full cut out just as Jason seemed set to assault Keith with the slinkies in question. (3/22/2010)