What Is Man and What Is Guitar? A Film About Keith Rowe

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There’s a moment in Bob Burnett and Alan Jones’s film about Keith Rowe, What Is Man and What Is Guitar? where Rowe is spending time with Christian Wolff and reminiscing about times they played together. Wolff tells a story about a show he played with AMM where his guitar wasn’t plugged in, but he played anyway. “You don’t know what you hear, who’s making the sounds – especially when it’s dark,” he goes on smiling, “It’s a wonderful kind of feeling … Am I doing that? Are you doing that?” 

Rowe, ever the good-humored agitator, responds, “Sometimes you hear this horrible sound and think, ‘God I wish they’d stop.’ And you stop playing and realize it was you!” 

This moment of genuine affection and respect that’s colored by this irreverent humor is a thread that runs through What Is Man and What Is Guitar? So many moments in the film like this represent why Rowe is such a towering figure and why his ideas have inspired so many. The boldness and seriousness with which he approaches his work is combined with boundless generosity. Rowe touches on this at one point when he talks about the most important aspect of performing over the past 50 years. “To inspire others to do their work. I think it’s really important to give permission, but I think also to also inspire.” 

Keith Rowe’s approach to his work has never taken any shortcuts. There’s a seriousness and focus that runs through his compositions and experimentations that elevate the ideas. Early in the film, he discusses this, using the example of running a contact mic over a piece of sandpaper, and matter-of-factly stating, “I should be performing that with the same consideration Clifford Curzon giving to the Mozart. Comparing your work to Mozart, obviously sounds incredibly pretentious on one level. I can see that,” he continues with a wry smile, “but it’s the way I’m going to do it. Like it or not.” He has always pursued his ideas in the ways that mattered to him and in doing so inspired generations of artists to push themselves to do the same.

What continually gets me throughout this film is how likable and how human Rowe is. As the film winds down and Rowe discusses his Parkinson’s diagnosis and the tremors in his right hand, the film points toward the inevitable. Rowe stares it down straight on, “There’s a fatalistic aspect of Parkinson’s that it will do what it wants to do. Whether I like it or not, it will have its way.” We often have a tendency to mythologize titans like Rowe, to think of people who have had such an integral influence on something as larger-than-life characters impervious to the ravages of time, but this moving portrait shows the realness of the colossus. What Is Man and What Is Guitar? shows that while his ideas have changed and progressed music in countless ways, Keith Rowe is simply a man. 

More information on the film can be found here.

The film will make its debut this Saturday, August 7th in Dallas at the historic Texas Theatre. More information on the event can be found HERE.

I can think of dozens of answers for this, but what was it about Keith Rowe and his work that made you want to make this film?  

Alan: I’d been listening to Keith outside of AMM for nearly 20 years, and it was early on in my relationship with his music that I was knocked out by the integrity of his music. Rowe’s work is so uniquely and consistently stimulating for the very personal process of grappling as a listener and observer of abstract music and other arts. He’s a master imagist who uses what is direct kin to poetic allusion in his music. When Bob proposed the kernel of the film idea I thought it more than appropriate, necessary, and simultaneously to be a serious and worthwhile challenge. 

What have been some of the biggest challenges and obstacles you’ve had to overcome to get the film made?

Bob: Al and I started shooting this film in October of 2018 with the New School event and interview with Keith. Those first shoots, which ended up being the core of the film, really started as exploratory; “let’s just shoot for a bit while Keith in the United States and see what happens” type feel. At first, we had plans for more location shooting in France. I was going to go to the Nantes concert event in France in 2019 but had other commitments here at home that prevented that from happening. Covid eliminated travel and any possibility of additional performance events, interviews, or shooting opportunities with Keith. But, while those circumstances presented as a challenge, in the end, forced me to re-think the overall direction of this film. I started the string-out edit at home, gave it over to Sean Peoples to edit– who thankfully took it to a new level. From there he gave it back to me at a place in the edit that allowed me to expand on it some more and finish the pictures. After that, Al and I began shaping the soundtrack—which remarkably stayed very true to our initial ideas for how to integrate Keith’s body of recordings into the film. 

Alan: There are so many dimensions to the subject matter, to Keith. Where do you start? Do challenges grow when you have such affection for the subject and for the music? And if so, how does one maintain objectivity? It was a messy, real feast of options, but you can’t eat everything at the buffet. We established that necessary objectivity early on, before filming, and Bob and I had a shared understanding of what we did not want the film to say. We knew, for instance, that some of the fun anecdotes or low-hanging historical fruit, like those surrounding people like Syd Barrett or Paul McCartney, would have zero place in this film. The structure really came together when the material was passed to Sean Peoples, who did the fundamental edit, and Rob Shore, who drove the initial phases of the post-production process. We were given a cut from Sean, and I remember spending a few days with it. I called up Bob and said something like, “This is excellent. And I’m thinking that this is not our cut.” We went from there with a rewrite, with some new structural decisions using Sean’s crucial edit as a framework. And then the scoring, which was an ongoing process throughout the production. 

The scoring was the biggest challenge for me, easy. You’re using an artist’s entire body of work, dating back to the Mike Westbrook Orchestra, for emphasis or to give abstract reference both as a musical element and as the de facto soundtrack to the narrative. And then operating in a parallel headspace: using that same body of work for virtually every aspect of sound design, including foley, in this process that is functionally independent of music choices. I started with around 45 hours of Keith’s music, from his solo work to ensembles to smaller collaborations. Revisiting the records in such a way was a kind of overwhelming thrill. Spelunking through all of those recordings, remembering that some time ago you’d heard something on one of them that would be a fit for these 4 seconds of video you’re sitting with. 

What surprised you the most when making the film?

Bob: When we started this project it was really loose—not really knowing exactly where it was going. Brian Olewnick wrote the Keith Rowe biography, The Room Extended, so there was a plan for Keith and his wife Stephanie to come to New York City for a reading and some sort of performance at The New School. Brian and I had had very wide-ranging conversations/emails for a while about me doing some kind of a Keith Rowe film. A plan was made for Al to fly in from his home in Washington state to my home in Washington, DC, and from there we’d drive up to New York City to shoot the New School event. Post-performance, we’d all go up to Brian and his wife Betsy’s home in Kinderhook, NY, and spend a few days there with Keith and Stephanie. We’d do an interview with Keith there and shoot some b-roll footage and drive a few hours north and visit Christian Wolff at his family farm in Vermont. The reason I bring all this up is because the stay at Brian and Betsy’s was a wonderfully pleasant time. We had such a nice time as a group going on walks, making meals, talking, playing clips on YouTube that it made for an incredibly relaxed shooting environment and in many ways shaped the feel for the film.  

Alan: This was new territory and a new level of responsibility in filmmaking for me, and lots of surprises came with that. Having a massive amount of respect for the person and their work made it, uh, intimidating. This internal commitment and unspoken, absolute requirement to do right by Keith in presenting his story to a new audience and also devoted listeners of his music, using the material we had. 

When it comes to Keith’s work, what are some of your favorite pieces of music?

Bob: Keith’s body of work is pretty much my touchstone and conduit for many listening experiences—both improvisation and classical. Unlike Al, I came to Keith’s work and EAI relatively late—probably 2005 or so. From there I absorbed the Erstwhile catalog offerings and then backed into AMM. I was a very late comer to AMM. I heard the AMM III release on ECM (It Had Been an Ordinary Day in Pueblo, Colorado) back when it came out in the late ‘70s and was……..um……..not swayed. It was John Tilbury’s “All Piano” release of Morton Feldman’s solo piano works (which I purchased when it came out in 1999) that truly led the way to discovering AMM later on. Several years later, I started gleaning through the Matchless catalog.

It’s hard to select favorites because I’ve found discovering the layers of Keith’s work leads me to so many other listening experiences: Purcell, Mahler, Dvorak for example.  

Some of my favorites—no particular order:

The Room
The Room Extended
September (Erst Live 011)
Erst Live 005
Duos for Doris (with John Tilbury)
Weather Sky (with Toshimaru Nakamura)
Cultural Templates (ErstLive 007)
Black Plume (with crys cole/Oren Ambarchi)
Before Driving to the Chapel We Took Coffee With Rick & Jennifer Reed (AMM)
The World Turned Upside Down (with Taku Sugimoto & Gunther Muller)
Cloud (Four Gentlemen of the Guitar)

Alan: There is this run of CDs that of Keith’s that Erstwhile released, specifically between 2000 and 2009 and most of them collaborative, that are for me the raw materials for appreciating the entire scope of Keith’s work. I spent so much time with those, admiring the flexibility and discipline in recording with an array of other musicians in small combos and duos over a period of like 10 years. The unique overall tone of each of those records to the other, it’s like this continued expansion and rarefaction into an ever-growing space.

For the desert island: mid-period AMM; the duos with John Tilbury, specifically on Sofa and Erstwhile; The Room and The Room Extended; the full Sound 323 concert on Confront; ‘Harsh’, a solo record on the Grob label is just legendary; and I have a real soft spot for Afternoon Tea, an ensemble recording with Paul Gough, Peter Rehberg, Oren Ambarchi and Fennesz, originally released on Ritornell/Mille Plateaux.

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