Thoughts: Keith Rowe’s The Room Extended

Note: I promise it’s not going to become a rule that I only discuss abnormally long albums or songs on here. It’s just that a lot of times these works have a lot of content I want to examine. Maybe I’ll cover some abnormally short stuff next to make up for it (Yellow Trash Bazooka here I come).

British musician and painter Keith Rowe has recently become one of my favorite artists. I’ve loved pretty much everything by him that I’ve listened to so far, from his recordings with AMM to his various onkyo and free improvisation collaborations. But the records that have resonated with me the most are definitely his solo efforts, particularly The Room and its elder brother, about which this post is written. Rowe, commonly attributed to be the driving force behind the development of the genre of electroacoustic improvisation (EAI), works with an incredibly unique palette of sounds on these records. And when I say unique, I mean completely unique; there is really nothing else that sounds quite like it.

The Room Extended, like its predecessor, is an immensely intimate record for Rowe. The cover is a diagnostic scan of his brain, taken when it was thought he might have a tumor. Since then, Rowe has also been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. From this context, the personal significance of the album is certainly revealed, but not nearly as much as from the music itself.

Every sound within The Room Extended aches with loneliness and fatigue. It’s impossible to not consider silence to be an integral part of the music, as it occupies almost as much space on the record as the audible sounds do. Impossible collages and layers of unidentifiable frequencies, static, guitar, and objects breathe in and out of the quiet soundscape, rising to ear shattering climaxes before departing as quickly as they were introduced. Clocking in at over four hours, the record is quite long, but this dynamic structure makes it seem much shorter somehow – a phenomenon that puzzles me to no end. Then again, there are a lot of things that puzzle me about Rowe’s music, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Even more difficult to describe than the sounds themselves are the emotions they elicit. I found myself brought to tears multiple times throughout my initial listen, and I couldn’t really tell you why. It might be because the feeling of isolation is so palpable; frequently the bursts of sound are framed by distant recordings of human voices, cars pulling out of driveways, classical music, that all somehow serve to exclude the listener. It also could be the sheer exhaustion of the sounds themselves; the conclusion of the fourth disc is a prime example, where a piercing tone rises out of complete silence, growing louder and louder until it starts to waver and falter, eventually collapsing into nothingness.

Once again, Rowe’s music completely defies verbal description, so I hope I did alright. All I can really assert with confidence is that listening to The Room Extended was one of the most intensely emotional experiences I’ve had with music in a long time, and I certainly enjoyed it immensely. I hope you can too. Thank you, Mr. Rowe.

Further reading: Brian Olewnick’s fabulous review (certainly better than mine)an interview with Rowe by Paris Transatlantic.

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