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Keith ROWE (b.1940) and Graham LAMBKIN
Over C [12:00]
Making A [15:15]
Wet B [15:15]
Keith Rowe (contact mic/objects/field recordings)
Graham Lambkin (contact mic/objects/room)
rec. 2013, Empty Stage Studios, Poughkeepsie, New York, USA. DDD

Collaboration is a complicated beast, and failed species come a dime a dozen. It is not enough that both collaborators’ voices are heard in equal measure, though even that seemingly simple conceit doesn’t occur as often as might be expected. Many collaborative efforts feature a dominant performer while the other takes the proverbial back seat to the music’s detriment. The best situations arise when the combined artistry and all its attendant elements produce a third voice, a combination that adds up to more than the sum of its component parts.
Making A marks the first time these two contemporary music veterans have worked together, and its remarkable success is attributable to the merging of styles to create a narrative that transcends each artist’s unique and well-developed musical language.
MusicWeb International readers may not be familiar with the New York-based Erstwhile label, but since the turn of the millennium, it has been fostering just this type of fruitful collaboration in a genre very loosely, and controversially, labeled Electroacoustic Improvisation, or EAI, a topic to be discussed at greater length in a forthcoming label feature. For now, think of EAI as mixing a distant relation to John Cage’s post-1950 music, where contact microphones explore minute sounds in detail, with the work of Alvin Lucier, where characteristics of an environment are exposed. Many of the pivotal releases in this genre, and on Erstwhile, have included Keith Rowe. Since he began to play guitar on a tabletop in the middle 1960s during his long tenure with the ensemble known as AMM, slowly dismembering the instrument and incorporating all manner of devices into his sonic arsenal, he has redefined the roles of guitarist, improviser, composer and musician in more ways than the scope of this review will encompass. This, however, is the first release where not a note of guitar is heard. Instead, he employs field recordings and contact microphones to capture the timbres of his drawing and sketching up close, as Rowe has always been equally interested in visual and sonic arts. Graham Lambkin shares Rowe’s diversity, fusing the visual arts and sound recordings in his own work. It was his 2007 album Salmonrun that first caught Rowe’s attention, and the collaboration took place in early 2013 at Lambkin’s Poughkeepsie New York residence.
There are no notes provided, so the ear and mind are left free to interpret. On one level, the disc presents a straightforward sound-picture of Rowe’s journey to New York, capturing ambiences of the airport, a plane flight and the house where he and Lambkin recorded together. Yet, as the rolled suitcases, airport announcements and passers-by dissolve into the droning sounds of flight as the first of the three long pieces proceeds, the ever-changing sound of drawing implement in motion becomes apparent. Those rustlings, broad strokes and refined shadings form the one constant throughout the disc’s changing environments and craggy soundscapes.
The first track, with the possibly punning title “Over C”, is a freely fantastic distillation of the plane trip, replete with stacked recurrences and jump-cut switches in perspective similar to those found on Lambkin’s collaborations with sound artist Jason Lescaleet. The subsequent two tracks may comprise similar procedures, but they’re more serene, any juxtaposition rooted deep in the mundanities of what Rowe, in titling his first solo album, called A Dimension of Perfectly Ordinary Reality. The room sound pervades everything, and it’s only at the beginning of “Wet B” that a wild sonic intrusion from the past occurs. Is that a plane’s lavatory in royal flush?
It is easy to catalogue what is being heard. I’m now confronted with a dilemma similar to those first attempting to find language suitable for describing the innovations of late Beethoven: how is it possible to make sense of such powerful abstraction that isn’t really abstraction at all? My own method is to look for unity, the unity inherent in the diversity of everyday sound as it is presented here. Despite the multitudinous timbres from which these soundscapes are constructed, there is a pervading stillness throughout, a meditative quality that not even the jarring airport announcements can dispel. The open and closed drone of plane and room are captured in such a way that comparison is both unavoidable and quite natural. My attention is continuously drawn to timbral length and contrast, so that the sound of gently running water complements the slow drag and patient percussives of what sounds like utensil on pottery. Even the flushing sounds, stacked in steps during the first track’s conclusion, soothe instead of simply stimulating. When the vast crinklings of the second track dissolve into liquid silence at its end, we get the closest thing to a climax in the whole 42 minutes. Through it all, like the commentaries in Boulez’s Marteau Sans Maître, Rowe’s intricate drawing encapsulates each environment. Like a magician, he conjures sounds in and out of existence by emulating and offsetting them, his strokes in perfect tune with a passing car, the slowly changing resonances of Lambkin’s room recordings, each drop of water as its delicate rhythms and pitches echo slightly and fade. His efforts lead to a few expressions of human travail along the way, these vocal utterances taking the place of the fleeting skin-on-string guitar notes gracing previous projects, such as last year’s stunning September.
Perhaps, beyond all else, Making A is a study in the encapsulation of passing time. As in much music that post-dates Walter Ruttman’s pioneering film piece Wochenende of 1930, sounds are highlighted, becoming larger than life in cinematic fashion, drawing attention to each other, but they are presented in stark opposition for more conventional musical effect. Here, an additional layer is added, so that a large chunk of time is dissected, laid bare in detail even as it seems to go by without interruption. With each listen, new levels of detail and relationship emerge as something as simple as a space reveals its internal workings, the lives passing through it, and the resonances that reflect its structure, history and evolution. This music is as intricate as it is straightforward, and like Berg’s Wozzeck, its developmental devices are concealed beneath the effortless mastery of sound and narrative at music’s heart.
Marc Medwin