(Photo by Yuko Zama)
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.