Essential New Music (Film): “What Is Man And What Is Guitar? Keith Rowe”

There’s no shortage of music documentaries that leave way too much in; how many hours do you really want to spend with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young? Others lack essential input; no matter how much inside commentary those Under Review docs muster, they can’t make up for the absence of the artists themselves. Director Bob Burnett has gotten it right with What Is Man And What Is Guitar? Keith Rowe.

Burnett gets around the daunting task of presenting a career that’s lasted more than half a century by just not trying. Instead, he goes short, taking less than half an hour to show the attitude and inspirations that have made Rowe, a founding and recurring member of improvisational group AMM, such a profound influence and example. The film mixes fragments of concert footage, preparations for performances and its subject in conversation. 

In the opening moments of What Is Man And What Is Guitar?, Rowe reads aloud from a text that Roland Barthes wrote about painter Cy Twombly. The Englishman is showing an example of how he uses non-musical art as the starting point for his resolutely abstract music. But Barthes’ meditation on the essential understanding that can be gleaned from an object that has been distressed could apply equally to the layers of industrial-strength noise, intuitively snatched radio chatter and paint-inspired smudges that Rowe extracts from the guitars he has set on tables, in emulation of American action painters who put their canvases on the floor. 

Rowe doesn’t play like that anymore. The film shows the Parkinsonism-induced tremors that have forced him to give up solo guitar performance. It also lets the viewer witness how Rowe has incorporated his reduced means into a new musical method that represents the task of living with the knowledge of inevitable decline. Rowe’s effort to remain creatively active in the face of such circumstances doesn’t come across as heroic, so much as the necessary continuation of a lifelong exercise in determination, creative problem-solving and rigorous self-reflection.

—Bill Meyer