Observations by Wayne Spencer

With the room barely illuminated by a single red light, it began with the broadcast from Rowe's radio of a live Canadian programme about current events in Iraq, evidently intended to serve as an irruption of wider socio-political realities into the performance place. Almost immediately the air was thick with dense swathes of radio chatter, harsh noises from Rowe's tabletop array, and insistent, ritualistic playing on rubbed drums and bowed cymbals from Beins, creating an atmosphere that could certainly be taken as conveying something of the dark obscurantism and ugly violence of contemporary global conditions. At length, the inspissated gloom was overlain with a somewhat surprising new element: a clear and lengthy extract from a broadcast of Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man". For Rowe and his listeners, radio intrusions can serve a multiplicity of purposes (see Rowe's article "Above and Beyond" in Volume 5 Number 2 of the London Musicians' Collective's magazine Resonance), but if nothing else this particular extract from the airwaves supplied a reminder of how ugly social circumstances lie half-concealed beneath the ubiquitous delusions of inane and narcotic popular music. In any event, the song was at length submerged beneath a series of crashing metallic sounds from Beins, and a later relay of Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go To My Lovely" was permitted to bubble to the surface only briefly. Towards the end of the set, the density of the duo´s soundscape grew thinner, yet it remained a fierce, intense performance and was warmly received by the audience of its conclusion.
- Wayne Spencer, Bagatellen -

Their previous collaboration, Grain (Zarek), especially the track "Grain 3 (Live)", demonstrated how full-on their performances can be. Beins is well known for his role in what was once termed Berlin Reductionism, a music low on volume and high on restraint. But stroking his drumskins and cymbals into life isn´t always an option here. To begin with, jingles and the voices of DJs and continuity announcers on Radio Canada International, marked by electronic pulsations and single bell strokes, give way to blossoming low amplitude feedback and a repeated spoken phrase distorted beyond recognition. A much more choppy music then ensues, with periodic lulls.
Gradually, the dynamic range increases. Around the halfway mark, "Son of a Preacher Man" (the Dusty Springfield version) at first underpins cymbal sweeps by Beins, then, as it gets louder, he and Rowe raise a fearsome barrage of noise against it. This is a moment of great power and complexity, of sheer exhilaration, the kind of thing that makes the hairs stand up on the back of one¹s neck. An excerpt from Peter Sarsted´s "Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?" gives Beins and Rowe pause for thought, before a choppier but no less fascinating collage-like music plays out.
- Brian Marley, The Wire ­

This is one of the busiest, most dense and most frightening of any Erstwhile disc yet. While a jazz or classical critic might not want to call this "music", it is one of the most effective and intense experiences I've heard recently. And at less than the half hour length, it is just right for one episode our own "Human Drama". The inclusion of the long excerpt of "Son of a Preacher Man" is rather funny, especially when it becomes submerged in louder noises. It reminds too much of real life in New York City.
- Downtown Music Gallery/DMG Newsletter -

(...) The guitarist's gig with percussionist Burkhard Beins bursts any preconception that electro-acoustic improv yields only silence and stasis. After a haunting five-minute introduction, the performance explodes: Rowe churns up a defiant din on tabletop guitar, motorized gizmos and shortwave radio, punctuated by Beins' rippling rolls, pealing cymbals and booming bass drum. A looped sample of a newscaster and snippets of hits by Dusty Springfield and flit through a stressed-metal maelstrom, sounding like a radio station being shredded by a hurricane.
- Steve Smith, Time Out New York -

The Rowe/Beins duo (recorded on May 10th, not the 13th as the disc says) is a beautiful soft/loud/soft-again arch with aberrations in the form of animalistic growls. From the outset, a raw energy threatens to overpower even the quietest moments. Beins´ fluidly powerful percussion work increases in intensity as Rowe´s guitar treatments, reminiscent of late 60´s AMM, thrum and writhe over his trademark radio interruptions. As the sound builds toward climax, a Dusty Springfield "Preacherman" moment provides transcendental humor amidst the intermittent groans, presumably courtesy of Rowe, of some electronic beast.
- Marc Medwin, Dusted -

Erstwhile Records´ new ErstLive imprint is a continuing series of CDs documenting modern improv performances. So far the first four volumes have concentrated on music recorded at Erstwhile´s most recent AMPLIFY festival, which took place in Berlin and Cologne over 6 nights in May 2004. The first installment in the series, a collaborative performance between legendary guitarist Keith Rowe and percussionist Burkhard Beins, was recorded on May 10, in a break between the two halves of the festival, and it´s an incredibly audacious way to kick it off. Rowe and Beins have actually recorded together before, on 2001´s Grain, but no amount of familiarity with either artist could prepare anyone for the brilliance of this set. The disc begins subtly; after a few opening words and chatter from the musicians, the music fades in with the easily recognizable sizzle of Rowe´s shortwave radio, accompanied by scratches, scrapes, and chimes that could be coming either from Rowe´s arsenal of electronics and gadgets or Beins´ percussion. The radio picks up fragments of news reports about the war in Iraq, swirling the voices into the fuzz so that only a few key phrases stick out. The nature of improvising on a radio means that this topical capture must be primarily a coincidence, but Rowe clearly seizes upon this happenstance, staying with the radio announcer until the report is over. In the usually abstract landscape of Rowe´s music‹and electro-acoustic improv in general‹such intersections with reality and politics are rare, and all the more striking when they do occur. This early political commentary sets the tone for the rest of the performance, which is decidedly stormy; characterized by shifts from uneasy quiet to explosive and seemingly unrestrained anger. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Rowe´s radio happens upon the Dusty Springfield classic "Son of a Preacher Man", which Rowe presents in a rare moment of clarity. For a few odd and unsettling moments, the song hovers on its own, left virtually untouched except for the subtle fuzz of static in the background. It´s unquestionably a moment of contemplation, the musician presenting a piece of music for the audience to listen to intently. In that way, the gesture is perfectly attuned with a driving idea of much modern electro-acoustic music: a deep attention to every sound must be paid. But, perhaps more importantly, this is also a political gesture, since in context the song seems implicitly directed towards the religiously motivated American president who started the war hinted at by this piece´s opening. In this sense, too, Rowe is directing the audience to listen, but it´s clear in this case that, for once, he wants us to listen to more than just the sounds, but the message underlying them. This is the ultimate gesture away from abstraction, towards an explicit political content of improv that is hard to imagine without such small concessions to the tangible as opposed to the abstract. The moment established by Rowe´s "Preacher Man" capture is in short order enveloped by a particularly fierce intrusion from Beins, a visceral clatter of chains that in context can only summon images of destruction and anger, the pummeling of the pop song until it´s submerged under chaos. The rest of the piece continues this up-and-down battle, as though the musicians can hardly decide whether to be distraught or enraged‹a confusion of emotions that perfectly captures the modern condition.
- Ed Howard, Stylus -

Each of these releases is a document of the May 2004 AMPLIFY: addition festival in Köln and Berlin, with co-curator Keith Rowe (guitar and electronics) featured on the first two releases. Rowe´s duo with percussionist Burkhard Beins is their first release, and I believe their first performance as a duo since 2001´s wonderful duo Grain (on Zarek). As intense as was the predecessor, this 27-minute set is a genuine powerhouse, with Rowe contributing some of his densest, most harsh playing in years. Largely eschewing the laser-like intensity of his more recent pared down approach (heard on subtle entrancing records like Duos for Doris, Flypaper, and Weather Sky), Rowe blazes forth as if propelled by Beins´ huge scrapings and reverberations. Together the two construct a huge slab of noise that is as detailed as it is forceful. At times the music sounds like a metal beast disemboweling itself; elsewhere it gives the impression of being a kind of mediated singularity, where a thousand thousand TV and radio broadcasts are imploding at a single point. Beginning with a fairly high level of activity, the piece encompasses jarring high tones, muffled voices (often radio captures selected by Rowe, ranging from Canadian radio broadcasts about Iraq to Dusty Springfield´s "Son of a Preacher Man", and massive metallic swirls generated by Beins. There is an inexorable quality to the development of this improvisation, one which - given the musicians´ preoccupations with global politics - seems to capture some of our moment´s dark inevitability, its relentless hostility. Though the power and menace of this music ­ Rowe´s buzzsawing and Beins´ slashing or thudding - grips you immediately, the density and layers yield up multiple details on subsequent listens. A raw, compelling, passionate document.
- Jason Bivins, Signal to Noise -

Guitarist Keith Rowe and Berlin-based percussionist Burkhard Beins have appeared on disc together before, on the album Grain on Ignaz Schick's Zarek imprint (Zarek 06, 2001). On paper, Beins's exquisitely-paced friction (check out his work with the groups Perlonex, with Schick and Jörg Maria Zeger, and The Sealed Knot with Mark Wastell and Rhodri Davies) along with the slowmotion grit associated with Rowe's Erstwhile and Grob back catalogue might lead punters to expect an austere Weather Sky-like affair, but this set, recorded on May 10th 2004 in Berlin (not May 13th, as the booklet states, in a rare mistake for Erstwhile) is exhilaratingly combative. Rowe's radio, which has never been all that prominent on his previous Erstwhile releases, is in full effect here, picking up Radio Canada dispatches on the Iraq war (a timely reminder that while punters sat in reverential silence in the clubs of Berlin, dirty deeds were afoot in faraway lands) and, at the 15 minute mark, a chunk of Dusty Springfield's "Son Of A Preacher Man" long enough to have Tarantino fans reaching for their Bibles in awe before Rowe and Beins blast it to shit. The torrential downpour of crippled pop and vicious noise that follows should be required daily listening for any stick-up-the-ass snob who complains about this music's supposed sterility, lack of energy and, most importantly, lack of humour. I'm normally no fan of live recordings that explode into enthusiastic cheering for minutes after the music has ended, but for once the decision to let the tapes roll long enough to catch the whoops and hollers of the delighted audience and the joyful, surprised laughter of Keith Rowe himself is to be applauded.
- Dan Warburton, Paristransatlantic ­

Die Begegnung von Beins mit KEITH ROWE am 13.5.2004 im Club der Polnischen Versager, Berlin (Erstwhile, ErstLive 001), war, wie schon erwähnt, nicht die erste. Friederike Paetzolds Design mit leeren Plastikstühlen schließt ein Konzertfoto mit ein, das die beiden zeigt wie zwei Schemen bei Vollmond unter einer kaputten Straßenlaterne. Die nur gut 28 Minuten des Zusammenpralls von Perkussion mit Tableguitarnoise und vor allem Radiozuspielungen waren alles andere als diskret und nicht einmal besonders "flat", "Flatness" ist zwar der Begriff, den Rowe für seine Ästhetik akzeptabel findet, ohne dass sich seine Klangwelt seit AMM-Tage darauf reduzieren ließe. Neben den Firmpaten Cage und Duchamp hat Rowe immer auch die Ferne dieser Ästhetik zum afrodiasporischen Blues hervorgehoben und auf die östlichen Wurzeln, ein Zen-, Sufi- und Nô-Zeitgefühl hingewiesen. Nur dass dieses andere Zeitempfinden mit einer ganz unesoterischen Volte zurück gebunden wird an den Lärm und die Banalität, die Chaotik, Indeterminacy und ausweglose Gesamt-"Verschmutzung" aller Klänge und Sinne. Nicht mit kulturpessimistischem Unterton, vielmehr als Herausforderung zum Standhalten, Driften, Eintauchen. Ohne Angst, sich dabei dreckig zu machen. Der Mitschnitt schließt die Liveatmosphäre, Konzertvorbereitung und Beifallgeholler, wie mir scheint ganz bewusst, mit ein. Diskant pfeifende oder schleifende Drones, das Quietschen schlecht geölter Scharniere und knurschendes Geprassel von Beins und ein sonores Brummen der Gitarre, die zwischendurch sirenenhaft aufschrillt oder flatternd vibriert, werden immer wieder von scheinbar beliebigen Radioanpeilungen begleitet oder sogar überlagert. Und das ist schon ziemlich irre, wenn man "live" Radio hört. Rowe dreht von einem amerikanischen Sender weiter zu Berliner Verkehrsfunk und Wettervorhersage. Die kakophonen Schübe nehmen zu, auf genau halber Strecke gähnt jedoch ein Luftloch. Aus rumorendem Mulm schält sich plötzlich Dusty Springfields Stimme heraus mit dem souligen "Son of a Preacher Man" von ihrer Memphis-Scheibe. Beins mit wildem Kettengerassel und Rowe mit diskantem und knurrigem Krach versuchen den Hit abzuwürgen, aber erst bei Peter Sarstedts Walzer "Where To You Go to My Lovely" wird mitten auf dem "Boulevard St. Michelle" der Stecker gezogen (wenn auch nicht endgültig). Andere mögen das auffassen als einen sarkastischen Clash Avant-Noise vs. Pop-Virus - der als Hiphop wieder ins Spiel eingreift. Was das Radio hier - zufällig ? - ausgespuckt hat, ist das Jahr 1969. Mir klafft dabei ein Zeitloch von 36 Jahren unter den Füßen auf. Ohne Kitsch, ohne Zeilen wie "Confusion will be my epitaph / As I crawl a cracked and broken path / If we make it we can all sit back and laugh / But I fear tomorrow I´ll be crying" (Epitaph - King Crimson, 1969) oder "See the blind man shooting at the world / Bulletts flying taking toll / If you´ve been bad, Lord I bet you have / And you´ve not been hit by flying led / You´d better close your eyes and bow your head / And wait for the ricochet" (Child In Time - Deep Purple, 1970), wäre mein Teenage-Wasteland ein noch größerer Irrtum gewesen. Die blauen Flecken auf der Seele zeugen selten von gutem Geschmack. Aber mit Geschmack hat das auch nichts zu tun. So don´t step on my Little Girl Blues, Burkhard, and you´d better bow your head, Keith.
- Rigobert Dittmann, Bad Alchemy -

One of the dicta of AMM was to the effect that a given performance actually began several minutes before any of the musicians touched an instrument. Given this, it was surprising that they issued no recording that started with the ambient sounds of the room. That missing aspect is remedied here, albeit with only one of the original AMM members present, when the first sounds one hears are the room hum, the shuffling about of feet and the two musicians discussing how they'll start, then amusingly discovering that they've apparently already begun. This entirely relaxed yet anticipatory atmosphere, this "non-music", is a perfectly appropriate prelude to an extraordinary performance, the initial release on Erstwhile's sub-label, ErstLive devoted to live recordings. Rowe and Beins had previously recorded as a duo on the fine Grain on Zarek but this concert (from the AMPLIFY 2004: addition festival held jointly in Berlin and Cologne) was an entirely different animal, a violent storm of popular and war-related imagery as opposed to the edgily serene ruminations of the earlier disc. Rowe makes more extensive use of radio grabs here than ever documented elsewhere, beginning with a Canadian radio-extracted discussion of the war in Iraq. Backed by a throbbing, droning undercurrent and Beins' always-to-the-point percussion, it's a chilling displacement of context that sets the tone for the performance. Rowe secures a brief loop from the radio show which weaves its way throughout the first half of the piece, gradually distorting beyond recognition save for its rhythmic character. About midway through, just as the tension level is settling a bit, Rowe happens upon a radio broadcast of, amazingly enough, Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man", imparting to it a new political resonance in this environment, which he allows to gradually rise in the mix (far longer than he normally let such song samples go) until it's the principle element in a swarm of electronics and percussion. It's an astonishing moment, one brought to a terrifying climax when Beins assaults his instruments with what sounds like handfuls of heavy chains. The surreal intensity continues however, as Rowe manages to locate, even more absurdly, Peter Sarstedt's revoltingly sugary concoction, "Where Do You Go to, My Lovely", as uncomfortable a song as one can imagine when placed in contrast to the war-related imagery that's gone before. It's subsumed into the general din, leading to a ferocious section where Rowe uses whammy bar effects and rapidly forwarded and reversed loops to devastating effect, eventually coalescing into a thin, disturbing drone before evaporating back into the room. Lasting less than a half hour, the length is perfect for the material and that material is some of the very strongest ever put to disc by either musician. An often brutal, sometimes sardonically funny, exceedingly profound performance and one of Rowe's very best outside of AMM.
- Brian Olewnick, All-Music Guide -

If you´re expecting another discful of ultrarefined hiss`n´crackle electroacoustic improv, think again: this may start with amiable chatter between the musicians, and end a mere 28 minutes later with audience applause and a burst of laughter from Rowe, but in between comes a sonic minefield, cratered and littered with debris. The venomous mood is set nicely by an opening grab from Radio Canada International ­ talking heads nattering on about Iraq. Rowe lets them burble away for a few minutes, then singles out a half -intelligible fragment from the program for further treatment, repeating and successively deforming it until it´s a shapeless smear. Dusty Springfield´s "Son of a Preacher Man" makes an appearance halfway through: someone turns up the dial; both musicians sit listening without comment for a solid minute, then let loose a terrifying onslaught, sounding for all the world like a bicycle chain dropped into a blender. It´s hopeless trying to figure out who´s doing what here, though Rowe (credited with "guitar, electronics") seems to be responsible for the buzzsaw-encountering-sheet-metal racket and fastforward/rewind activity, while Beins ("percussion") contributes everything from tingling bells to rusty playground-equipment shrieks. The results are a terrific earcleanser of an album, a salutary blast of spleen and perversity: it makes for a fine start to Erstwhile Records´ brand-new ErstLive series.
- Nate Dorward, Exclaim -

The duo performance by guitarist/electronicians Rowe and percussionist Burkhard Beins snuck out just before the end of the year, but rocketed into my "Best of" list. Their previous duo release Grain ( on Zarek), was one of my favorites of 2001, and a frequent companion during a memorable summer walking around London. But this 27-minute concert recording is altogether more powerful and concise than its predecessor, not only because of the growth of the musicians in question but because of the strength and self-assuredness of the music itself.
Over the last few years, roughly from the recording of his aptly named solo release Harsh (Grob), Rowe has been reinventing his sound. Finding himself mostly in the company of younger collaborators from around the globe (Oren Ambarchi, Toshi Nakamura, and Beins, just name some of the most frequent), Rowe's densely layered sonic assaults - with manifold scrapings, intensely provocative (and ironic) radio captures, and walls of feedback - have ceded frequently to a more stripped-down (not to say austere) approach. This 28-minute concert recording seems superficially a return to form, but instead of density Rowe is more interested here in contrast. He has been consumed by reflections on the meaning(s) of music, the guitar, and communication in a time of dialogic closure, of political silence or ineffectuality.
The piece begins with teeming and dense activity, billowing clouds of noise. As high tones and muffled voices engage one another, muffled and initially enigmatic radio captures emerge from Beins' unique slow swirl of percussion. What are we to make of the bluntly idiomatic, matter-of-fact statements ("Radio Canada International" or a fragment of tonality or a long, lingering chunk of Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man", all of which are in time brutally deconstructed) that make their way through the non-idiomatic sound which ripples around it, bounces off it, envelops it? It strikes me, after multiple listens to this performance, that - whether or not this was the artists' intent - one way to think about these contrasting materials is to see the slashing, brooding sounds of the duo as suggestive of the ominous, portentous feel of the contemporary geopolitical context (and certainly, as many of these captures actually refer to political events, this is no stretch).
The hostile reverberation of metal and wood, the buzzsaw shock of Rowe's guitar, the relentless layering of sound, and the sheer weight of the duo interactions themselves unsettle in a way that - even for those familiar with the players and this kind of music - is memorable. Things don't simply build up and decay; they tumble forward unexpectedly, revealing themselves from new dimensions in your listening space, developing at awkward angles and obeying no logic other than its own, no discipline other than that which is self-imposed. The menace and bitterness of this music is audible from the first, even as it reveals new layers on subsequent hearings. But the passion, the raw human integrity of it, is in the subversive intent of exploring these contrasts and juxtapositions in the first place. An extraordinary performance.
- Jason Bivins/One Final Note -

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