The first and only authorized biography about Keith Rowe, his solo career, and his influence as the guitarist in the cult British improvised music band AMM, a group who counted Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd, Sonic Youth, and composer Christian Wolff as admirers.
In London, in the fall of 1965, a group of four musicians, dissatisfied with the confines they had encountered in the British jazz scene, came together with a highly thought-out agenda to revolutionize the way music was created: no repertoire, no solos, no regular rhythms, no melodies, no fear of silence, 100% improvised. This rejected rules firmly in place then, as now, among even the most forward-looking of musicians.
Keith Rowe was one of the founding membersof this collective. They called themselves AMM and soon added the composer Cornelius Cardew, an associate of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who was seeking to escape what he thought were equivalent strictures in the avant-garde classical world. As a quintet, AMM created music unlike anything else being done at the time and, being immersed in the London scene of the mid-60s in which musical boundaries were amorphous, found themselves on the one hand sharing bills with nascent bands like Pink Floyd, The Who, and Cream while on the other working with and alongside Yoko Ono and Christian Wolff.
Rowe, a guitarist trained as a painter, adapted to his guitar the lessons he’d learned in the visual arts, placing it flat on a table or the ground as Jackson Pollock had done with his canvases, using it as a sound source to be approached with all manner of implements, opening up a vast new territory of exploration, one which would be enormously influential in rock and contemporary classical, as well as the field of free improvisation.
Over 12 years in the making and via exhaustive research and exclusive interviews Brian Olewnick has traced Rowe’s life from childhood through the present, with focuses on London’s mid-60s experimental music scene, the political unrest of the late 60s, the radical politics of the early 70s, the ongoing saga of AMM through the 90s and the accompanying advance of creative music over that time period, centered around Rowe’s participation in those events and his major contributions to the contemporary avant-garde environment. Through the many ups and downs of AMM and beyond, Rowe has become an éminence grise to generations of musicians and is still today continuing to push the boundaries of what is possible in the world of sound.
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“A very readable and well-researched account, with lots of great anecdotes.” —The Wire
Whether you’ve attended to Keith Rowe’s music for mere minutes or for decades, Brian Olewnick’s terrific biography brings home the fact that much of what you know about this crucial artist likely contains significant gaps. No longer. This marvelously researched life in its similarly fine telling—not to mention the bringing-together of a tremendous collection of written materials on Rowe and AMM—occupies a much-needed place in the literature on improvised and experimental music from the 1960s forward, and its nexus in Rowe of performance, politics, and visual art. —David Grubbs, Musician and author of Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording
Despite having extreme music as his subject, along with even more extreme politics, bitter feuds and the convoluted history of AMM and free improvisation, Brian Olewnick brings clarity, even-handed compassion, wry humour and insight to one of the great stories of post-war avant-garde music. —David Toop, author of Ocean of Sound and Into the Maelstrom