Sunday, April 24, 2011

(photo: Yuko Zama)

Radu Malfatti/Keith Rowe - Φ (Erstwhile)

In some ways, the cover image sums things up very well. A piece of fibrous paper that's been subjected to a world of wear and tear, resulting in extreme unevenness, holes, tatters. Yet Rowe has drawn on this erose surface as straight a line as he can, as purely as possible, an impossible task given the terrain. The ratio of top to bottom sections isn't quite that golden (1.618 to 1) but perhaps that's also something felt to be ideal but, in reality, unachievable, like an unbleeding, uninterrupted line.

Rowe is a man of very strong opinions as is, I suspect, Malfatti. While open to all manner of challenges, there are certain premises to which he holds fast and the Wandelweiser group, generally speaking, doesn't accept them. Given the popularity of these composers in recent years among many of the same listeners who hold Rowe's work in high esteem, he's spoken about his misgivings a bit, acknowledging certain positive aspects of the music while feeling it's overly restricted in others, as though (my interpretation of his thoughts, possibly not his own) their music is but one subset of possibilities and unnecessarily limiting in and of itself. So an encounter with Malfatti, a leading exponent of the Wandelweiser aesthetic, was bound, at least on Rowe's part, to engender an amount of tension. And they run headlong into it on the very first piece.

The three-disc set, an extraordinary document, is beautifully structured: two pieces by composers each musician admires on the first disc, one composition by each musician on the second and an improvisation on the third. Malfatti chose to bring along Jürg Frey's "Exact Dimension Without Insistence". I've no idea whether or not he gave any consideration as to how anathema a piece like this would be for Rowe to perform. After all, the guitar part calls for eleven repetitions of a specific pitch, at preordained times over the course of 20 minutes. While he had often performed graphic scores over the years, I'm not sure there had been an instance of Rowe playing precisely notated music since...Amalgam, in 1978? The notion runs counter to several of his deepest precepts, including the freedom to inject whatever sound one chooses (or not) at moments one deems appropriate in the context of the room (and more). Much less having to tune his guitar! Or at least one string. The piece ended up taking the better part of the day to record, such was his difficulty in "just" playing these eleven notes and in the end was compiled by Christoph Amann from fragments derived from several stabs. To my ears, however, the result was worth it. As with much of Frey's music I've heard, there's an underlying sensuousness, even a plaintive quality that comes through the severity of the score in a way I think of as Beckettian. I can't help hearing Malfatti's three notes (I might add that though the score calls for three evenly spaced quarter notes, Malfatti, more often than not, allows a slight bit of extra time between the second and third, indicating he's perhaps not so subservient to the score either) as a kind of call: "Where are you?", with Rowe's single response, "Here." Frey's sequencing, sometimes alternating, sometimes not, is wonderfully poetic and touching; one almost expects an answer from the guitar after the trombone call; when it doesn't occur, you're worried. Similarly when the lone guitar note is sounded three times with no reply. So much drama wrung from so little material.

Rowe brought along Cardew's "Solo with Accompaniment", a piece he knew deeply and containing a "solo" part that would seem to suit Malfatti well, which is to say, one consisting of single, lengthy lines. I'm not at all sure how one is to interpret the score, with its tic-tac-toe-like grids, except to assume that the accompanist, here Rowe, has a great degree of freedom as to how to render the markings therein. Rowe is marvelous here, using some manner of electronics (I've no idea what, exactly) to generate piercing, short wave radio-ish slivers, rich, deep lows and crunchy tinkles that may be scouring pad sourced. The two often sound in quasi-unison, Malfatti's sonorous, pure horn the perfect foil for Rowe's scattered abrasions, yin/yang, Malfatti steadfastly tracing that line across the ravaged, bedraggled soundscape.

The score for Malfatti's "Nariyamu", as reproduced in the tray behind disc #2, appears to be fairly simple (only one page is shown--I'm not sure if that's it in its entirety or not) but its realization is very complex and subtly beautiful. The essential element is unison or near unison held notes by trombone and electronics, Rowe generating a multi-layered buzz, crescendo and decrescendo, more or less matching Malfatti, with a substantial rest between sequences. But right from the beginning, there are tiny activities occurring alongside: what initially seems like Malfatti gently tapping his fingernails against his horn as well as drip-like sounds. A kind of regularity nonetheless accretes via the main sequence, but several minutes in, this falls apart, orients itself, re-coalesces, continues on. As in much of Wandelweiser-area music, the real beauty lies in the poetics of the choices made--where to alter the schema, where to allow extra silence, what groupings to choose, how to subtly inflect the sounds generated. "Nariyamu" does this brilliantly, becoming a living, breathing creature and, going out on a limb, I can hear in Rowe, given somewhat more freedom of exposition, a growing appreciation of this aspect of Malfatti's, and by extension, Wandelweiser's work.

Rowe brought along his "Pollock '82", a new set of pages created for this session. Unlike the Malfatti or Frey scores, his is pure graphism, consisting of actual details from Pollock paintings, reproduced in ink by Rowe and laid out, intuitively spaced, on staves. Though the score, as seen beneath the tray for Disc 3 here, includes several sections of dense blottage, the rendition as heard continues along the sparse, quiet path previously followed, albeit with an absence of clear pattern. Malfatti, who had introduced percussive elements in the prior piece, here presents breath tones and windy growls for the first time; he still pretty much maintains that respiratory rhythm, exhaling to produce sounds, inhaling in silence, a slow, subtle pulse. Rowe keeps his palette light, using high, scattered tones, the odd plucked note, scraps of static and tracings of contact mic, as though these particular spatterings of paint are microscopic portions of the whole. It's a very strong, very complex performance, the intricacies of which I think I'm only just penetrating.

The improvisation making up Disc 3 is easily the most difficult to write about or, for me, to grasp. I do have the impression that it's Rowe at the helm to some degree. He's operating in what I think of as "Twombly mode". As opposed to the Rothko-inspired "tingeing of the space" approach of several years ago, I get the sense of him encountering a very large, white canvas upon which he make art marks, leaving much of the surface untouched. Dots, squiggles, smears, a dab of REO Speedwagon. Not that Malfatti is merely tagging along, hardly so. He supplies much of the color, the stains of hue that give depth to Rowe's marks and often links to surprising emotional power as when he inflects, up or down, his low trombone tones so as to recall whale song. The space is so vast, so little to hold onto. I'm not sure there's another improviser willing to cede so much space as Rowe though, at least in this respect, he fits right in with the Wandelweiser aesthetic, an arrival at a similar point via differing paths. There's a quiet monumentality achieved here, an appreciation of the sheer largeness of space, with a tacit acknowledgment of how little, how subtly, we affect it. Again, this piece will doubtless reveal more and more for years to come.

A great, great recording.



jkudler said...

brian, does this refer to a private conversation, or an interview somewhere that i missed?: "he's been forced to talk about his misgivings a bit. . "

Brian Olewnick said...

For some reason, I was thinking he had written a little on this somewhere, maybe IHM, but perhaps not. I don't want to overplay it either (and perhaps will edit that section of the post to be more accurate), but he did express some thoughts in conversation about the Wandelweiser aesthetic, wondering about the more precise compositional aspects to the exclusion of other approaches. He wasn't being judgmental so much, just perhaps a bit skeptical, given the degree it seems to have won over a high percentage of listeners (including this one) who also enjoy his work, given his commitment to different premises.

jkudler said...

thanks. sure, that makes sense, particularly given his background, of course. the tension between improvisation and wandelweiser, which seems to have intoxicated a lot of improvisers, seems under-remarked upon, though i think yuko zama wrote on it. your language, though, just made me legitimately wonder if it was something public i'd missed.

recovering ok?

Brian Olewnick said...

thanks, yes, walking around (stiffly, a bit slowly) without assistance now. Still uncomfortable to be in one position for more than 20-30 minutes, especially sitting, but that's to be expected.