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Monday, July 31, 2017

Keith Rowe and Michael Pisaro - 13 Thirteen (Erstwhile, 2017) ****½

By Connor Kurtz

When the apes in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey first encountered the large black rectangular object known as the Monolith, they reacted with extremely strong senses of confusion, fear and curiosity. Soon after, the film showed the creation of the first ever tool, and it was clear to the viewers that it was the Monolith which allowed this to happen. The Monolith didn't bestow any intelligence upon the apes, but it opened them up to the curious abstract thinking that is responsible for all human discoveries (whether it is scientific or artistic). The Monolith has since become an essential concept in popular culture and subject to many metaphors within the art world, but I can't think of any recent examples that are more accurate than the new double album from avant-guitarists Keith Rowe and Michael Pisaro, 13 Thirteen.

Keith Rowe and Michael Pisaro are likely names that require no introductions, so I'll keep it brief (although they both have their own long and interesting histories): Rowe has been one of the most prominent figures in free improvisation for 6 decades and counting, with a career starting with the historic AMM group. Pisaro is likely the most famous composer to emerge from the international Wandelweiser group, a group of composers focused on the role silence plays in music and post-Cagean composition, although he has broken out of that role as a prominent avant-garde musician over recent years. They are likely the two most popular musicians releasing music on Erstwhile Records today, and have both become integral parts of the label's aesthetic. Both artists had independently released their own mammoth works which exceed the 2.5 hour runtime of 13 Thirteen on Erstwhile Records just last year (Rowe's 4 hour solo The Room Extended and Pisaro's piano work collection The Earth and the Sky, which isn't much shorter), so it comes as a shock that this album feels larger and more exhausting than either of them.

A likely reason for this comes down to the compositional idea which was used to create 13 Thirteen: both musicians independently created their own scores (sharing nothing more than a common duration of 140 minutes), which they then performed and recorded on their own. They then met and played the two recorded compositions over top of one another, and then improvised live over those recordings. If this weren't already complicated enough, they actually recorded two separate improvisations, which they then edited and mixed together, choosing their favorite parts from each recording [1]. The final result that the listener hears is the two compositions and the edited improvisation, all mixed together by Pisaro. All four of the aspects of 13 Thirteen (Rowe's composition and improvisation, and Pisaro's) stay distinct enough so that the listener can easily guess what the origin of a certain sound might be, but close enough to allow the album to work as a single atmospheric work.

From the album's concept, one might think that this would end up as an overcrowded chaotic mess, but it is saved by the fact that all four aspects end up being quite sparse. There are several moments when the listener is left to meditate on soft tones or static, as well as those where we patiently sit on the edge of our seats while anticipating what may come next in the duo's subtle guitar improvisations. There are, of course, also the occasional moments where egos clash and sounds collide into messes of disorienting noise, but for the most part this consists of nuanced improvisations which show plenty of respect to the other performer. There is no denying that the two play with attentive and cautious ears, making it so events can join together in sequences, allowing one to seem like a trigger for the other, or in moments, allowing the two to create an illogical harmony. I'd say that the album's incessant minimalism and often refusal to progress may become the album's most difficult aspect for many listeners, although I do believe that once the whole set has been digested, the slow pacing feels perfect in retrospect.

Keith Rowe named his score Fate, and his improvisation Life (a reference to Vasily Grossman's 1959 novel Life and Fate, which this reviewer has never read). Fate is a graphic score which was included in the album's beautiful packaging; a scanned image of the score appears below. It is of no surprise that Rowe's composition takes the form of a graphic score, given his long history with Cornelius Cardew's Treatise [2]. What did surprise me, however, is that the score relies heavily on the geometry of the page which it was written on. As can be seen upon careful inspection, several of the written events were designed and placed using straight lines which stretch along the page: this forces a sense of form, as well as patterns, into the otherwise abstract composition. What we also get is several instances of the number 13 used in the sequencing of events; this is something we'll see more blatant examples of in the Pisaro score. The most obvious event in Fate is the plus symbol which occurs many times throughout the score. This symbol takes the sounding form of a hammer-struck chord which makes itself just as obtrusively significant in the recording as it does in the score. Each time the sharp metallic sound rings, it feels important. It isn't a great exaggeration to say that it feels like an aural lobotomy. Every time it sound, it seems like a major stylistic shift should occur, which rarely happens, but it does often act as a trigger for the improvisers to try something different. An alternative reading is that it may represent the ticking of a clock, extremely amplified and slowed down; creating an allusion to the inevitable end that Fate brings to every Life.

Pisaro's score is titled Melody and his improvisation is Event. The score for Melody is sadly not included in the packaging, besides two glimpses of timed whole notes which are printed on the CDs. I'd guess that there are two reasons for this: 1) Melody exists in multiple forms and couldn't possibly be presented as a single image, and 2) Melody doesn't contain the painting-like beauty and intrigue that graphic scores carry. Pisaro's score has two aspects, both taking their material from Dmitri Shostakovich's 13th String Quartet. The first is actual samples from an uncredited recording of the composition. Pisaro takes four short samples from the score (taken from what Pisaro deems to be "turning points" within the piece), and places each of them within his score three times. It's worth adding that, as Pisaro pointed out to me over a very insightful email, four samples multiplied by three repetitions creates 12 sounds, allowing the piece to be split up into 13 sections. The 13th String Quartet begins with a 13-note melody, which makes up the basis of Melody's second aspect: sine tones. The sine tones are actually an extremely slowed and extended version of these first thirteen notes, replayed four times (each in a lower register than the previous). Sampled music is new to Pisaro's compositions, but minimal sine tone patterns are one of his greatest hits. This is an example of one of the album's strongest themes: the combination of the familiar and the new.

The two improvisations have their own surprises as well, as the two musicians refuse to fall back onto the genre's, or their own, clichés. On Life, Rowe performs possibly more subtle, more quiet and, well, less than ever. His interest in simple sustaining static drones seems to have hit a peak, so if the quiet simplicity of his 2015 collaboration with John Tilbury, enough still not to know, seemed slightly boring to you, you likely won't enjoy this one much either. On recent albums like The Room Extended and September, Rowe cemented the use of musical samples and radio snippets as a crucial aspect of his aesthetic, but after hearing that Pisaro would be sampling Shostakovich in his score Rowe decided to leave them at home. This seemed to be a beautiful and selfless idea, as it allows the Shostakovich quotations to play a larger role than they would among a field of radio music. It's no surprise that Rowe is in perfect form here; a lifetime of experience has ensured that the man can do little wrong at this point, even though he still tries his hardest to push himself into undiscovered corners. What I noticed more than ever is that Rowe seems to  listen closely to the sounds around him while performing here, when he used to play quite selfishly (what I mean is that he used to pay little mind to the sounds around him, not that this is necessarily a bad thing). I've already spoken about the idea of one sound sequence triggering another, but it sounds especially wonderful to hear what sounds can stir up change in Rowe's performance.

On Event, Pisaro subverts expectations by playing in a way which is surprisingly not subversive. Pisaro's improvisation covers plenty of ground, but what is most memorable is when he plays simple repeated melodies which would likely feel at home in pop or ambient music. In most free improvisation circles, this style of playing may be seen as too obvious, or cliché; but of course it's context which makes this style so exciting. A reference it carries is to the playing of AMM member John Tilbury, who doubles as Rowe's most frequent collaborator since leaving AMM, who brought subtle breaths of melody and harmony into his improvisations. Pisaro deliberately shakes things up by bringing this to the next step: removing the subtlety from the melody to make it fully present to both Rowe and the listener. Pisaro implemented this strategy in an attempt to pull a different response from him by introducing something foreign, which must have been a great success as I just wrote a paragraph on how unique Rowe's performance was from previous recordings. Pisaro's guitar sounds very clean in comparison to Rowe's, so it presents a welcome accessibility to this otherwise dense and off-kilter recording.

I usually don't mentally separate performers from each other so much when listening to an improvisation, especially when they play the same instrument, but for some reason it seems important here (perhaps due to the fact that the improvisations have their own titles). There is plenty to find interesting in the interplay between the improvisations, as I previously discussed, but they are both also interesting in their own rights. The two have one of the most interesting chemistries I've heard in this style of music (an exciting surprise, because I found that there was a lack of chemistry on last year's improvised Pisaro / Christian Wolff duo), largely due to their completely different styles while still using the same base instrument (an interesting thought brought from my brother is that this actually sounds like there is only one guitarist). This album makes me feel something that I've never felt before from an album, let alone an improvised release, and that's that I'm currently listening to four unique statements at once, and I'm actually able to both enjoy and take in the information from each statement. One could also say that the four join together to create a fifth statement, which allows for a surface level enjoyability before the listener begins to more carefully inspect the nature of what it is that they are listening to.

When we watch 2001 we recognize the Monolith as an unnatural object because of its flawless black colour, and its flat surfaces and right angles. 13 Thirteen is the same – we recognize this as not being natural improvisation due to it often carrying references which must be composed and pre-determined. And more importantly, just like the Monolith, we're left asking why?, and to which there is no answer. All we have is this massive black rectangle, or this two and a half hour piece of music, and we're left to marvel. The Monolith didn't carry intelligence, but it incited intelligence by inspiring curiosity. 13 Thirteen is an album that I am glad to say has both greatly excited me and inspired me, and I believe it is capable of causing a similar effect in many others. 13 Thirteen is certainly a great album on its own, and I think that it will stir up more great albums in its wake.

[1] I recently watched a documentary on the making of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which discussed many of the forward-thinking technological innovations used on the album. One in particular was the use of multiple similar tracks being mixed together, allowing the band to choose the aspects that they like from the individual recordings in a way not dissimilar to what Rowe and Pisaro do here. This tactic has since become extremely popular in popular music, but improvised music still tends to prefer the single live recording method. Here is Erstwhile Records founder Jon Abbey on the matter, in interview with Pitchfork: "The idea was basically to recreate a concert situation: You get into a studio and play a set like it was a show, but recordings aren’t concerts, and concerts aren’t recordings, and I think a lot of people fall down trying to make one equal the other. I also think pure collaborative improv in recording makes less and less sense these days. It can still be great live, in the moment, but as far as recordings, the boundaries of an improv session often kill it before it has a chance to start."

[2] Treatise is a 1967 graphic score by Cornelius Cardew, a member of AMM at the time, which has been performed by Rowe several times in several ensembles. For those interested, here is a link  to the full 194 page score, as well as a link to a fascinating animated analysis of the score.