In London, in the fall of 1965, a group of four musicians dissatisfied with the constrictions they had encountered in the British jazz scene, came together with a highly thought-out agenda to revolutionize the way music was created, rejecting rules firmly in place then (and still today) among even the most forward-looking of musicians: no repertoire, no solos, no regular rhythms, no melodies, no fear of silence, 100% improvised. Keith Rowe was one of the founding members. 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, contemporary classical, and 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.
Brian Olewnick is a new music writer and visual artist. He helped run the avant-garde jazz loft Environ from 1976-1980 and was eventually seduced into writing about contemporary music in various forms from jazz to modern classical, free-improvisation and beyond. He has written for All Music Guide, The Wire, Time-Out New York and other publications in addition to his blog, Just Outside, one of the principal sites for analysis of new music where he has published over 2,000 reviews since 2006. He has given talks on the craft of writing about contemporary music in Philadelphia, Västerås, Sweden and Sokołowska, Poland. He lives with his wife, Betsy, in Kinderhook, New York.