Rothko for Six Strings | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Rothko for Six Strings 

Two idiosyncratic guitarists engage with abstract expressionism.

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KEITH ROWE THE ROOM (ERSTWHILE RECORDS)

LOREN CONNORS THE HYMN OF THE NORTH STAR (FAMILY VINEYARD RECORDS)

When Mark Rothko committed suicide in his studio in 1970, cutting deeply into his arms and bleeding to death, he ended a life marked both by brilliant artistic accomplishment--he was one of the key figures of the New York school of abstract expressionism, which moved painting away from figurative representation--and by great personal trials, including conflicts with family, critics, and other artists, drastic swings between near poverty and relative affluence, and worsening bouts of depression and illness. Though he was intimately involved in the planning and design of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, which contains 14 of his final paintings, he didn't live to see its dedication ceremony. Nor would he ever know that guitarists Keith Rowe and Loren Connors would draw inspiration from his work, even invoking his name and art to explain their music.

Rowe and Connors operate in different spheres and have never collaborated--the American-born Connors is basically a blues guitarist playing to an indie-rock underground whose interest in him has waxed and waned, and Rowe, as a founding member of AMM, is a key progenitor of English free improvisation. But their paths have crossed occasionally, most recently when they shared a bill at the Rothko Chapel on June 1. Each has since released a solo record, and though only Rowe's directly addresses Rothko's art, both albums venture into its emotional territory.

Both guitarists have painted as well as played--their visual and musical projects have often cross-pollinated--so both of them know something of what Rothko felt standing alone in front of a canvas. Rowe abandoned oil painting in the early 60s, repulsed by commercial forces that had turned painting into "a kind of very elaborate bank note, a kind of commodity," but he continued doing watercolors for record sleeves--when he took up oils again in 2001, it was to redo some of them in a larger format. Connors stopped painting after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1992, and since then he's favored photography. His New York street scenes adorn many of his album covers.

Connors, 57, who's also released albums under the names Guitar Roberts and Loren Mazzacane, traffics in traditional guitar sounds and familiar idioms--not just blues but also folk and even experimental jazz. Solo albums make up the bulk of his discography, and his most successful collaborators--guitarists Alan Licht and Jim O'Rourke, bassist Darin Gray--have adopted self-effacing roles, framing and reframing his playing rather than competing with it. He made many of his early records alone in his studio, playing to his own paintings, and self-released them in tiny pressings.

In response to a show of late Rothkos that came to New York in 1985, Connors recorded a Guitar Roberts LP called Blues: The "Dark Paintings" of Mark Rothko. "They seemed without ceremony of any sort and did not solicit your attention with any form of outward sensual presence," he writes in the liner notes--and he might as well be describing his records. The common denominator across all his work--the warped blues he favored in the 80s, the distorted wailing of his prolific 90s period, the wah-drenched atmospherics of the three recent volumes that share the title The Departing of a Dream--is that it does not embrace you. You have to come to it, but if you do, the music grows more haunting the longer you sit with it.

Rowe, 67 and now living in France, makes music that's even less immediately accessible. If you hear a tune or a melody of any kind on one of his records, you can be sure it didn't come from his guitar--not unless he tuned in one of the cheap radios he brings onstage and played it through the pickups. Rowe jettisoned his instrument's history, along with any notions of playing it correctly or conventionally, when he was an art student and aspiring jazz guitarist in the 60s. In a 2001 interview published on the Paris Transatlantic Web site he said, "One of the great lessons for me was the professor pointing right into my nose saying, 'Rowe, you cannot paint a Caravaggio. Only Caravaggio can paint Caravaggio.' Suddenly trying to play guitar like Jim Hall seemed quite wrong. Who am I? What do I have to say?"

He found the beginning of an answer in the work of another painter, abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. Not only did Pollock give up brushwork, instead dripping and smearing paint, he worked on a canvas laid flat on the floor--and Rowe adopted an analogous technique, laying his guitar on a tabletop and coaxing from it a confounding variety of hums, scrapes, and whistles. He prepares its strings with all manner of hardware--screwdrivers, alligator clips, lengths of chain, Brillo pads--and bows, plucks, or otherwise vibrates them, sometimes amplifying the instrument's body with contact mikes. He's never let familiarity dilute his unique relationship with the guitar: across more than 40 years of playing, both in AMM and more recently with electronically oriented improvisers, some of whom weren't yet born when he started, he's made it a point to find his sounds in performance, not in rehearsal. In fact he says he doesn't even take his guitar out of its case except at gigs, unless he's rewiring the pickups--he quite literally practices his art in public. Rowe's collaborations, too, whether harmonious or contentious, rigorously resist the usual jazz-derived solo-background relationship in favor of more collective orientations.

Rothko spent decades doing figurative work before coming to the rectangular color fields for which he's best known, and he worked through many themes. With some of his paintings he sought to inspire spiritual experiences, while with his most infamous collection--a set of abstract murals commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in 1958 but never delivered--he said he hoped to make "the richest bastards in New York" lose their appetites. (The Four Seasons is still open, by the way, and last I checked a plate of Dover sole cost $56.)

Ultimately Rothko strove to express what he called "basic human emotions--tragedy, ecstasy, doom," and Rowe's album The Room, released in June, confronts the darker feelings of the painter's later years head-on. In a recent interview for the Monk Mink Pink Punk Web site, he says, "It was to express something that's almost hidden in Rothko, the terror, the sheer terror of the painting, the terror of the process and the way the process partly causes suicide." For the album cover Rowe departed from his usual figurative work, reminiscent of pop art, and instead painted two Rothko-esque color fields in rich blue, green, red, and black. He also departed from a lifetime of precedent by making the record at home. In a recent e-mail he explained, "It's a real-time performance. I could have done this recording on a stage, in front of an audience, but wanted to do it at home in the room I live in, domestic situation. I made many attempts searching for the mood I was feeling."

In its 39 minutes The Room moves through an impressive range and density of sounds, few of them particularly guitarlike, but sustains a very singular mood of enervation and foreboding. Rowe used a setup he calls "cubist guitar," which includes MP3 players, a loop station, and a computer as well as his old hardware and radios; the guitar itself has had most of its body sawed off. The piece begins with low machinelike hums, shortwave whines, and electronically distorted crackles, all of which seem to coalesce out of the silence that recurs throughout. At points the quiet is broken by clanks and scrapes that suggest the hesitation and purposefulness of a person at work, trying this and that as they figure out how they're going to accomplish their task. Only twice, at 11:44 and 21:07, does Rowe pluck a string--perhaps to remind you that he is, in fact, playing a guitar.

Otherwise the gradual layering of sound recalls the way Rothko created his color fields from accumulated layers of paint; even the torrent of harsh static that drops in around the 24-minute point seems to be applied rather than played, as though he'd tipped over a bucket and let it pour out. Loud or quiet, gentle or forceful, the music always feels like something somewhere is falling apart, and when it fades to silence after 34 minutes it seems to do just that. But then a blitz of noise--between-stations radio garble, sine-wave tones, the distant buzz of a prop plane--pushes the music to a state of sustained terror that it maintains for four more minutes before ending as suddenly as a guillotine chop. The Room is as harrowing as Rothko's darkest paintings, but the care and rightness with which even its ugliest sounds are placed makes it, like them, absorbing and beautiful.

While The Room meditates on Rothko's hidden terror, Connors's The Hymn of the North Star seems to show how that kind of feeling can be outlasted. This is a remarkable artistic statement for Connors, especially considering the extreme bleakness of many of his previous releases and the trials he's been enduring in his own life. He'd been recording for nearly 15 years and his musical career was just starting to take off when he learned he had Parkinson's. Though he seemed to put out a record every month or two in the late 90s, even at that peak he never sold many, and since then his output has slowed down drastically--besides The Hymn of the North Star, released August 22 in an LP-only edition of 499, the only thing he's put out under his name this year is a CD-R of a seven-year-old gig with poet Steve Dalachinsky. As if parkinsonism weren't enough, he broke his wrist badly in 2004--he often has to wear a brace when he isn't playing--and then fractured his hip last fall. But he's continued to gig, even when it's meant he needed to use a walker to take the stage. "I take pills all day long," he said in an interview last year, "and if they're working, there's no effect on my playing."

The Hymn of the North Star, a six-part suite, opens hesitantly and never really picks up the pace. Each low note is cloaked in cavernous reverb, and Connors plays so sparsely you'd think he were being charged by the chord. A grainy patina of tape hiss covers everything, reinforcing the aura of impoverishment--it's as though he were a painter again, but working on cheap boards instead of canvas. But after two movements that toll like a funeral bell heard from the far side of town, the third introduces a brief, high-pitched melody that feels much more hopeful, like a prayer uttered in faith. Connors carries that feeling, if not that exact melody, into the fourth part, a duet with Alan Licht--though Licht, who can be heard tuning down his bottom string as the piece opens, plays with a wobble that never quite resolves, as though he were arguing the case for doubt.

Nonetheless Connors perseveres, eventually breaking into the open in the fifth movement. He abandons melody to alternate shyly struck, slowly decaying single chords with yawning silences in which even the tape hiss subsides. There's darkness here, but it isn't infinite--the momentary illuminations his playing provides let you suss out its dimensions. This is where Connors's interpretation of Rothko surfaces. "Rothko was very simple," he's quoted as saying in the liner notes for a 2005 CD, "and I tried to translate that into music--uncomplicated structures and simple colors next to each other." The final track is indeed simplicity itself, a brief ascending air that hints at lasting solace--something Rothko probably could have used at the end.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

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