I was very fortunate to have had an opportunity to speak with and write about the great German outcat bassist Peter Kowald during 2002, the year he passed away in New York City. For Kowald’s 75th birth anniversary yesterday, I’m posting an obituary that I wrote for the Village Voice in their jazz issue of 2003, the transcript of a WKCR encounter conversation I had with Kowald and saxophonist Assif Tsahar in Sept. 2002, nine days before Kowald’s death, and a review column of Kowald CDs that I did for Downbeat earlier in 2002. At the bottom is an interview that I conducted with Kowald at the Vision Festival in May 2002 — it was for a prospective radio piece on the “avant garde” intended for Studio 360 for which I also interviewed Derek Bailey, Fred Anderson, and others.
Peter Kowald Obituary, Village Voice, 2002:
“I lead the life of a traveler who goes to play for the people, opens his hand, gets some money, comes back home, and goes to the next one.” – Peter Kowald, September 12, 2002.
In the mid-‘90s, the late bassist Peter Kowald-–a man Butch Morris says “could drive for 24 hours and only stop for gas”–spent a full year at home in Wuppertal, Germany. His intention, Morris speculates, was “to lock in on who the Kowald was in his body.” He kept his car parked, and rode only his bicycle. At his house, he presented concerts with world class improvisers, collaborated with various Pina Bausch dancers, held workshops with local amateurs, and made forays into spontaneous form-sculpting with a “conduction” ensemble. Befitting an abiding passion for all things Hellenic, he fell in love with and married a Greek artist. Then he returned to the road, and broke up with his wife. He flew to New York in 2000, bought a 1968 Caprice station wagon, and, accompanied by French filmmaker Laurence Jouvert and a small crew, spent 10 weeks circumnavigating the United States in a succession of self-booked one-nighters.
Not long after they returned, Jouvert made the documentary Off the Road, an account of Kowald’s musical and conversational encounters in more than a dozen cities across America and various points along the highway. Meanwhile, Kowald, who had established himself as an important figure in the New York improv scene through his frequent visits over two decades, purchased a Harlem pied-a-terre to solidify his base.
The final week of this robust 58-year-old’s life was entirely characteristic. On Thursday, September 12, 2002, a few hours after joining me on WKCR to publicize an upcoming series of New York events, he flew overnight coach to Italy for a pair of weekend concerts. He returned to New York on Monday. On Tuesday, he made a recording session and worked at Triad with saxophonist Assif Tsahar and drummer Hamid Drake. The next night he worked downtown with saxophonist Blaise Siwula and guitarist Dom Minasi. On Friday he would play at B.T.M. in Williamsburg with trombonist Masahiko Kono, guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi and drummer Tatsuya Nakatani. He was scheduled to perform on Sunday at CBGB Lounge in trio with White Panther blues poet John Sinclair and Loisada saxophonist Daniel Carter, and then with Last Global Village, an ensemble comprising three Chinese flutists, Korean cellist Okkyung Lee, vocalist Lenora Conquest, and percussionist Ron McBee.
After the gig at B.T.M. Kowald began to feel unwell. On the ride home, he asked Kono to drop him off at the East Village apartment of bassist William Parker and dancer Patricia Nicholson. There he expired of a massive heart attack.
Had Kowald been an actor, director Rainer Fassbinder might have cast him to play proletarian everyman Franz Biberkopf in his epic film Berlin Alexanderplatz. Burly and attractive, with close cropped hair, Kowald moved with the deliberation of a butoh dancer and parsed his words with precision honed during youthful work as a scholar of ancient languages and translator of Greek poetry into modern German. He was a utopian, a pragmatic activist, a skilled organizer who learned the art of institution-building in the fractious milieu of radical ‘60s German culture.
At last year’s Vision Festival, Kowald worked the food stand, constructing two-dollar cheese sandwiches with the meticulousness of a master sushi chef. We can trace the existence of this annual event to his friendship with Parker, which began with a chance sidewalk encounter in 1981. Within a year, Kowald brought Parker to Berlin to play with heavyweight European free improvisers in concerts organized by FMP, the do-it-yourself grass-roots German music collective co-founded by his old friend Peter Brötzmann, to which Kowald had contributed mightly for more than a decade. In 1984 he received a government grant to live in New York for six months. He brought with him a 50,000-mark stipend from the millionaire painter A.R. Penck, with a mandate to make something happen.
Acutely aware that New York’s outcat community would mistrust his motives, Kowald reached out to Parker as a liaison. They held meetings to plan the logistics of the first Sound Unity Festival, settling on the FMP payment policy of $100 per musician, including bandleaders. In 1988, again using Penck’s money, Sound Unity spent $1000 to rent the Knitting Factory for a week, and played to packed houses every night. This did not escape the notice of proprietor Michael Dorf, who established the Knitting Factory Festival the following year. In response, Patricia Nicholson launched the Improvisers Collective, which in 1996 evolved into the Vision Festival.
“Peter would stop by a place that an American musician would walk past 20 times, and get something started just by being personable,” Parker says. “Especially black musicians, it seems you’re fighting all the time. You get worn out. You can lose your perspective if you’re not on top of things. But Peter was always probing and looking for signs of life wherever he went.”
Wuppertal is an industrial city of 350,000 in the Rhine Basin, the home of the Pina Bausch Tanztheater and the birthplace of Engels and German Communism. During Kowald’s formative years, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic studio was a half-hour’s train ride away in Cologne, while Wuppertal’s own Galerie Parnass presented Nam June Paik’s first one-man exhibition and new work from Joseph Beuys. Saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who had come to Wuppertal to attend the local art school in 1959, worked as Paik’s assistant, and accompanied him on Fluxus happenings in southwest Germany and the Benelux countries. Brötzmann urged Kowald, a teenage tubist, to learn the bass, preaching Paik’s liberating dictum: “the space is completely open, you can use any material, any ideas–everything is possible.” They began to play on a nightly basis in Brötzmann’s basement studio.
During our WKCR encounter last September, Kowald spoke frankly about the no-holds-barred milieu that framed his formative years. “The mood was, `Okay, we can change the world tomorrow morning; there is a movement, we are not alone,’” he said. “Then you take a saxophone or bass, and do what you want–don’t worry what the teachers told you. I learned bass autodidactically until I was 26. We played in Berlin, and Rudi Dutschke, this famous student revolutionary, was in the second row. Grand times. I am happy I was in my twenties when I grew up in this climate, and that we always knew our enemies.”
Like most German radicals born in the aftermath of World War II, Brötzmann and Kowald came from educated, middle-class families in deep denial about the recent Nazi past. Brötzmann remembers that Kowald’s father had flown in the Luftwaffe and was an educator of the deaf, and that his mother was a housewife.
“Peter’s mother never forgave me for leading her son on the wrong path,” Brötzmann says. “But after the war we never got answers for the question, ‘Why did you do that?’ We had to look for our own answers and raise our own questions. We in Germany had problems with our fathers’ generation, and that’s why our rebellion was so strong and why our early music was such violent stuff, much more violent than in other European countries.”
Spurred by solitary investigations, encouraging encounters with passing-through expats like Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, and a few months on the road with Carla Bley, the young firebrands deployed American out jazz as a symbolic weapon, in Kowald’s words, to kill their fathers. Then they tried to kill the stepfathers, who proved to be unconquerable.
“Growing up in the `40s and `50s, it was very difficult to sing a German song, because it always carried this smell of Fascism,” Kowald said. “I saw that blues musicians and Jewish musicians related to their own tradition positively. My Greek wife loved her songs. But I never used my own culture in my music. I was always interested in what the other cultures had to say, and I took it all from there. When we started to improvise, our stuff clearly came from from jazz. But later we decided to do it the European way–not play Classical European music, but also not copy American jazz. Of course, looking back, I have to say we took a lot from saxophonists Albert Ayler and Pharaoh Sanders, and bass players like Henry Grimes, Gary Peacock and Reggie Workman.”
Lacking the virtuosity of early influences like Barre Phillips, Barry Guy, and Maarten Altena, or the force-of-nature blues anima of Fred Hopkins and Parker, Kowald functioned as a self-described chameleon, as comfortable playing in blood-and-guts trios with Charles Gayle and Rashied Ali or Floros Floridis and Gunter “Baby” Sommer as conducting extemporaneous musical dialogues with Tuvan vocalist Sainkho Namtchylak, body artist Ellen Z, or dancers Kazuo Ohno, Min Tanaka, and Jean Sasportes. His time wasn’t great, and he focused more on process than content. Nor was his vocabulary cliché-free; as he perfected his own novel techniques–like detuning his E-string and chanting low, gutteral tones over long drones in the Mongolian manner, or sticking the bow in the strings and rocking it to elicit seesaw overtones–he tended to use them regardless of context.
Somehow Kowald made his collaborations work. “Peter was looking to be a universal world musician,” Parker says. “He had what I call the X-factor, an ability to infuse the tradition of jazz bass in his playing and personalize it. He wasn’t coming out of jazz, so to speak, but he could play in all the styles, and added his idea of sound to the bands he played with. He always talked about wanting to play the blues, and I’d tell him, ‘You don’t have to be bothered with that; you are who you are, and whatever blues is there, it’s there.’ There was restlessness about him, and it seemed on all his journeys he was searching for something. I don’t know exactly what.”
There was something archetypally German about Kowald’s wanderlust. He was a nomad, a road warrior, a wanderer between the worlds–he hit the road not to escape his contradictions, but to confront them. “Peter was very social,” says Morris. “He wasn’t afraid to talk to anybody. If you said, ‘Hey, Peter, let’s go to Morocco and walk to South Africa,’ he’d say, ‘let’s do it.’ The adventures and the information he could get were right in line with his searching. Just to be on the way someplace satisfied him deeply. He could see that this music belongs everywhere.”
Peter Kowald-Assif Tsahar (WKCR, 9-12-02):
TP: Peter Kowald is one of the avatars of European improvisation, beginning in the early 1960s. You and Peter Brotzmann came up in Wuppertal, a city which also serves as the home of the Pina Bausch Dance Company. As you’ve told me, Nam June Paik was living there, and you came under his influence. Since then, Mr. Kowald has created a staggering vocabulary of extended techniques and ways of attacking the bass and creating dialogue out of those techniques. He’s one of the giants of that way of making music.
KOWALD: Shut up. [LAUGHS]
TP: Assif Tsahar is a generation younger, 33 years old, from Jaffa and grew up in Tel Aviv in Israel, and has been resident here for ten years. Peter Kowald is now a part-time New York resident, and has been for how long now?
KOWALD: A year-and-a-half. I found a place here now, and I’m going back and forth.
TP: Peter Kowald made an impact on New York as far back as the mid-1980s, when the Sound Unity Festival happened on 2nd Avenue and Houston, when you helped bring together what was a somewhat fractious community of improvisers into an extremely successful festival. It seems to me that this laid the seeds in some ways for the Vision Fest. So this is not New York’s first experience with Peter.
The two of you have developed a close musical simpatico over recent years. Deals, Ideas and Ideals is from 1999. How did you meet?
TSAHAR: Peter came to town, and he was staying with William Parker, who is his very close friend. Back then I was working on the Vision Festival maybe, the first year or so…
KOWALD: We met earlier, before.
TSAHAR: Yes, before. It was the Improvisers’ Collective. So we met there, and then I asked Peter if he had the time to play, to do a session. We played, we had a very good time. He was very supportive. One of Peter’s best qualities is that he has very good insights into the music; he’s very supportive in that way. That was the beginning. We played in the first Vision Festival. He played in the group I was playing in with William Parker and Susie Ibarra, and we’ve kept it up since then.
TP: This goes back to when? ’95 or so?
KOWALD: Somewhere around then.
TP: Assif, as a saxophonist coming up in Israel, how aware were you of the stream of music that developed in the ’60s in Europe…
TSAHAR: I was aware of the musicians. I was aware of some of the music. Growing up in Israel, more depended on what we could get, and those were very hard to records to get there. I knew of Globe Unity, so I knew of Peter from there — and Brotzmann. But I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about everything that happened there. I had more knowledge of what was happening here, just because that’s what we could get in the record stores. So I knew of all the things like Cecil Taylor… When I got to New York, I didn’t really know what was happening. I knew William Parker because of what he did with Cecil, but I didn’t know all the current things happening at the time in New York.
TP: But it’s the ’80s when you’re forming your musical aesthetic and sensibility. Was there a community of out players in Israel at that time, or were you operating in isolation? Are you operating with a peer group?
TSAHAR: It was pretty much in isolation. A very good friend was a piano player, Daniel (?). He came with me here. We were working together. Basically, we were almost it, along with a few others. A drummer, Egal (?), who also lives here now. We were kind of working together. There were five, maybe six people, and that’s it. Now it’s growing, I think. There’s a lot more awareness of it now in Israel.
TP: How frequently does this configuration play, the trio or augmented, of Peter Kowald, Assif Tsahar, and Hamid Drake, the drummer from Chicago?
KOWALD: We actually do play quite a lot in Europe rather than here in America, and we have a couple of tours. Like, every two months we have a tour or a couple of gigs together. So we’ve played quite a lot in the last one-and-a-half years, in fact. We had a tour in Israel last year…
TP: 50-60 performances in the last couple of years?
KOWALD: Maybe somewhere in there.
TP: That would seem to be a situation that would generate a lot of new music and a lot of ideas and new directions. How has the band evolved from the first meeting?
KOWALD: The trio is more organized that way, that we just improvise, and we don’t really use, or only rarely, any thematic material. But the quartet with Hugh uses the pieces. But then, the quartet doesn’t work that often. Only a couple of big festivals when they invite us. And we have rehearsals for the pieces. So the music is a little different between the trio and the quartet. the quartet sounds more like the structure of you have a theme, and then you have the solos and you go back to the theme, and the trio is completely open.
TP: Do you find in trios like that you tend to create compositions from a blank canvas? How do you sustain freshness in a situation like that?
KOWALD: I would say there are a lot of routines in a positive way, like things we bring… Like, we have a bag on shoulders, and in the beginning of the evening we pull out things, things we know, things we have in a similar way done before. But then also, new stuff is happening each night. Especially I find that the relationship with Hamid and myself has really developed over the time. It’s interesting, because he likes to go into rhythmical things, and I like that, too, but then I kind of seem to be the person who always takes him out of there again to go somewhere else. Then Assif is using the two instruments, the saxophone but also the bass clarinet, so we have different textures in the horn section. And then the bass is the bow and the plucked, like the pizz stuff, so it’s a different thing… The pizz stuff with Hamid is more of a free rhythmical thing, and then the bows goes to the bass clarinet. So there’s a lot of songs coming from different parts. Hamid sings, he plays the hand drum, and we have pieces where I sing and he sings. So there’s a lot of different textures.
TSAHAR: I think the group is interesting. When we were touring in Israel, because of Peter being from Germany and Hamid being a Sufi, who have a strong connection also to Islam, and myself being Jewish, it was very interesting. I think that comes off in the music. We come from different places but have a very strong meeting place. What comes together is actually very strong, but we all come from like different direction, but really meet in the middle. I think that interestingly works… It’s also socially like that. It also works out in the music like this.
TP: A number of Israeli musicians who have made an impact in New York, but in less open form situations, have all had quite a bit of exposure to North African and Arabic music. It’s part of their vernacular growing up. It’s unavoidable.
TSAHAR: Yes. It’s actually the stronger… It’s actually what we listen to. People think about Klezmer music when you think about Jewish, and actually when you listen to Israeli music, Arabic music is a much stronger influence.
TP: Now, what do you think that imparts to you that allows you to intersect with the broader realm of improvising, whether within jazz or a pan-improvisational manner? Is it that you’ve internalized these very complex rhythmic signatures, or certain scales that correlate to melodies…
TSAHAR: I don’t know. I can’t comment on that.
KOWALD: I would say for myself that in many ways I am playing a traditional European instrument. But I learned it autodidactically before I studied it. I played with Brotzmann ten years before I started to study the bass. I was autodidactic in the early years. Between 16 and 26, I was autodidactic. Then I studied classical European music, but it was kind of schizophrenic, because all the things I had to study in the day, I didn’t want to do at night. A lot of the things I did at night were forbidden in the day. So it was a real parallel thing, and the influences I had were rather not the classical European music, and the bel canto sound, as I used to call it, for the bass, and the classical European sound… I wanted to avoid that. I wanted to go into other aesthetics, and I took from all kinds of music. I tried to copy singers from Tuva and Mongolia and African music, and of course, it never worked on the bass, but then what came out was something… I was closer to the aesthetics of “world music” than of European aesthetics. That broadened the techniques, too. I had to find a way to put my finger on the instruments so it would make these kinds of sound I wanted to have.
TP: All the time. Have it not be an accident, but a systematic vocabulary.
KOWALD: Yes. And then I really tried to transform sounds and aesthetics of the pygmies onto the bass, and some of it worked, but of course, it’s not pygmy music. But suddenly I found out that the bass harmonics in a certain position with the hands do certain things which nobody does except me — but I got it from the pygmies.
TP: Can you relate what you were doing to the cultural milieu during the 1960s, the arc of the culture up to ’68 and the aftermath of that? Baader-Meinhof is happening…
KOWALD: Oh, yes. I can actually go back a little earlier. Because when I grew up in the ’40s as a little boy, and in the ’50s in Germany, it was very difficult to sing a German song, because everything had been used by Fascism and Hitler. So we didn’t sing our songs. It was very difficult. So I saw that every blues musician or every Jewish musician somehow related to his own tradition in a positive way. I used to have a Greek wife, and she loved her Greek songs, but I didn’t love my German songs. Then I became a traveler somehow. So I tried to be… I was always interested in what the other cultures had to say, and so I took it all from there. I became somehow a traveler from the beginning. But I didn’t ever use my own culture into my own music. Of course, there was Brecht and Weill and Eisler who were relatively modern people out of the last century, but in a way, their music was a bit of a tradition to me — or it became a bit of a tradition. But it was very difficult to sing a German song because it had always this smell of Fascism in it.
TP: It would seem that with Brecht and Weill and Eisler there’s a certain attitude or sensibility toward the material that becomes correlated through the years to what you were doing.
KOWALD: Well, the ’60s came… That was your question. Then the whole political movement came, and then there were two Germanies, East Germany and West Germany, and then we had all the sympathy for the East because Brecht was there, and things were discussed in a very different way — and some of them were not discussed, of course. But we were all left wing people, and we were part of this revolutionary thing that started in the mid-’60s, and then we had ’68 in Berlin and Paris and here in America, too, and in Italy and Japan… Many people don’t know that in Japan there was a very political thing happening in the late ’60s. We said, “Okay, we can change the world tomorrow morning — let’s go.” I was a little younger then. Brotzmann is three years older, and he was so confident when he was very young, in his early twenties. He knew what he wanted. He knew what he didn’t want. So I was kind of following him a little bit, in his shadow. So we played in Berlin, and Rudi Dutschke was in the second row, this famous German student revolutionary. So that was all part of it, yes. It was great. It was wonderful. Grand times. And I am happy I was in my twenties when I grew up in all this climate and always knew our enemies, so to speak.
TP: But you’ve mentioned to me that you were sort of imparted the notion that anything is allowable by Nam June Paik, who came out of the Fluxus movement, which in and of itself was an apolitical entity…
KOWALD: Well, it was not apolitical at all. But it was very open in terms of material, yes. Peter when he was only 20 was an assistant for Nam June Paik, certainly projects he did in Wuppertal, because we had this fantastic gallery all the time that would invite all these people in the early ’60s. Peter was a great painter and artist all the time also. He was much more advanced as an artist when he was in his early twenties than as a saxophone player. But then he decided for the saxophone. And I think he discussed a lot with Paik about these questions, about what is art today and what does it mean, what can we do in Art. I remember Peter saying that Paik told him, “Now, don’t worry about anything; you can do anything you want to do; the space is completely open; you can use any material, you can use any ideas — everything is possible; don’t worry about nothing; do what you want to do.” So that was the ’60s, which had all this air about this whole thing, and “okay, now we change the world tomorrow, we can do anything, we are able, there is a power there, there is a movement there, we are not alone” — and then take a saxophone, take a bass, and do what you want to do, and don’t worry about what the teachers have been telling you. [LAUGHS]
TP: Taking this broader political and cultural theme and applying it to the area you’re involved in, which is a specific way of translating sounds into vocabulary and narrative and creating this pan-national dialogue: How do you start reaching out and finding your peer group throughout the European Continent, which is sort of developing in parallel. While you and Brotzmann are talking to Paik, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker are developing what they’re doing in England, and Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg are doing what they’re doing in Holland, and people are dealing with different things in France and Italy. And eventually, the Globe Unity Orchestra forms, which seems to be an effort to incorporate these strands. Talk about your initial forays towards finding this peer group and embracing it.
KOWALD: Well, in a way we were very local in the beginning. We started to play together in ’62, I think. But I was 17, and had to be home… I had to go to school in the morning, so I had to be home early at night. [LAUGHS] My parents were pretty strict about that. Then we just started to play, and we had this little basement place which was a club, and sometimes on the weekend bands played. Gunter Hampel came by, I remember. Different people. But we during the week, we just came played for ourselves with different drummers at the time. Every Tuesday and every Friday we went, and then after one-and-a-half years, the first person came to listen. Nobody wanted to listen to us. They said, “Brotzmann can’t play, and why do you play with this guy, he can’t play — you have to learn other things.” After one-and-a-half years, the first person came.” We felt quite isolated in the beginning.
Then in the mid-’60s, Carla Bley came, Paul Bley came, Mingus came with Dolphy, Coltrane was there with the quartet in this club in Cologne. So we could see different people. But I think very important for us was when Carla came, and we sat in that night. She had a quintet with Steve Lacy and Mike Mantler and Aldo Romano and Kent Carter, and then she left…
TP: You and Brotzmann sat in.
KOWALD: We sat in on night. I think there’s still a tape of that.
TP: How did that feel?
KOWALD: Well, I was a little boy who was over-impressed by everything, and Brotzmann was much more “Let’s go into it and do it.” Carla liked him very much, and Steve also actually, and Steve encouraged us, and said, “Go ahead; this is good what you are trying to do there.”
TP: What was Brotzmann trying to do?
KOWALD: Well, he played alto… The drummers we had, they were always still playing time. Then I think Aldo Romano in this constellation, and maybe a few months earlier, when the Paul Bley Trio came, I think it was Barry Altschul… They were the first drummers who didn’t use time, who used more of an open pulse or free…
TP: This is ’65 and ’66.
KOWALD: ’65 and ’66, right. Then these records came out on Dutch Fontana, and then of course, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity came over on ESP Records. That was about the time when Carla was around, and then she asked us for a tour…she asked actually Peter to play a tour with her the last year, and she had planned to bring Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, but somehow it didn’t work out with them, and then Peter was actually very nice and said “I’ll only do the tour if Peter Kowald is coming also.” Then I was 22 years old, and I did a three-month tour with that group. That was a big experience for me in many kinds of ways. I did a lot of mistakes in all kinds of ways, but still…
TP: Were you playing her compositions on that tour?
KOWALD: We had compositions, but…
TP: And then taking them completely apart every night.
KOWALD: Yes. But the context was more like a free context. We had the compositions in the beginning, but then all the improvisations were free, and without changes, without time.
TP: Were you ever involved in situations as a younger player where you needed to deal with form all the way through your improvisations and were satisfied with that course? Did you come across those experiences, or were you always wanting to shatter form, as it were, within every performance?
KOWALD: Well, in the early years with Brotzmann, we still played compositions. We played Ornette Coleman compositions, we played Mingus stuff, we played Coltrane stuff…
TP: That’s what you cut your teeth on.
KOWALD: Yes. But we didn’t really use the changes any more. We freed ourselves and never really stuck to the changes and stuck to the bars, the whole clear form. But then, on the other hand, I did very strict things. I played the tuba also at the time, and I played with Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, and we recorded Cage pieces… There’s a record of this. So I did a certain amount of stuff of reading Contemporary Music and notation. That was the most formal thing I, in fact, did. It was very interesting, because they were themselves there. Earle Brown was conducting his own pieces and Morton Feldman was conducting his pieces. That was really interesting. But that was the most formal thing in fact I did while I improvised freely. We basically went to free improvisation.
And I think after the Carla tour was exactly the time when Globe Unity started to be. But Alex didn’t know us, because we were about 40 miles away from Cologne where they were, Manfred Schoof and Alex Schlippenbach. But then they heard us one night, and it was just when Alex was writing his composition “Globe Unity,” and he included the whole trio into his Globe Unity Orchestra. Finally there were two bass players and two drummers, and Peter was added.
TSAHAR: One thing I’d like to add, and see if Peter agrees with me or not. The free improvisation, there is something very natural about it that almost every musician goes through. Then, when they go to school, it almost makes you feel like they’re taken out of it. My first experience of music was free improvisation, was taking the instrument and playing, and then doing it with a friend of mine. I think there is something about that that’s very natural. It’s probably also what they were trying to do, without so much of the thinking that this is a revolution.
KOWALD: Well, I have to say that in Europe it was clearly forgotten. Improvisation wasn’t used at all any more. If you go back to Bach and Mozart, they could do it, and people like Messaien could do it, but in Europe as a method of working for music it was forgotten. But then Stockhausen came back and said, “Okay.” He gave a little advice, “Hear what you want to play and then play it.” He had very open pieces. But that was the same time we started to improvise, but our stuff came from Black American music, very clearly. It came from jazz. But then there was maybe a little step which I would call a healthy way of killing our fathers. I mean, I love jazz. I still love it. It’s the main music I’ve been listening to in all my life. In some way, I’m proud of it now, over these years. But we had a point in Europe where we said, “Okay, let’s do it the European way.” We don’t want to copy American jazz any more. We don’t want to play Classical European music, but we don’t want to copy American jazz.” Like, a lot of bebop players in Europe had done that for years. But looking back on it, I still have to say we took a lot. We took a lot from Albert Ayler, we took a lot from Pharaoh Sanders, talking about saxophone players, and I took a lot from all the bass players, from Henry Grimes, Gary Peacock and Reggie Workman. I will play a bass duo on the 15th November with Reggie Workman at Roulette, and I am very happy that he agreed to it. It’s part of a bass duo thing I’ve been doing with European bass players. There are 3 CDs out now, but more are coming. We are planning for one with William Parker to come out, and the concert with Reggie Workman will be recorded also.
TP: There are different attitudes to the form question. Someone like Dave Holland, a contemporary of yours, in the 1960s was playing with Derek Bailey and John Stevens and spent the ’70s playing totally free music with Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton’s structural music, and then he made a decision that he didn’t want to exclude closed form, that he liked both of them. He felt that without structured forms you couldn’t necessarily springboard to the next step, that they contributed to his creative development. So you’re coming from a similar milieu, albeit he’s English and he’s German, but reaching two very different conclusions. That’s not to make a value judgment, just to show how two very different ways of approaching an instrument and an aesthetic can emerge from similar set of circumstances.
KOWALD: Well, I would say that the (?), of course, is quite a different one. But what I find is that the music we have been doing found a form, too, but it is as a very organic, natural form. I am very interested in… When I work with younger people it is always my theme: How clear can the music be? How clear can improvisation be? Is it just this process of what I call a cold spaghetti music, where everything just glues and sticks to each other and goes on and goes on? Or is it possible to have a more intuitive, formal consciousness about when you improvise? I am very interested in people who play with a formal consciousness. Maybe that is the European mind a little bit related to the mind over here. But I find that a certain element of being clear and making decisions also, which is somehow a formal thing, is very important to me. I think, in a way, I feel that I am respected over here, too, because I have that. Even when I play a solo, I mean, it’s completely open, but I have formal sections. I have sections in there, and people understand that. People understand that a formal background without it (?) so much from. But the difference from Dave Holland is that it is not a pre-given form. The form is coming while you do it. And Dave Holland and many other people like to work with pre-given forms. That’s just the difference.
TP: Peter Kowald has also contributed to the stream of out jazz through working with drummers like Rashied Ali, through working with drummers like Hamid Drake, working with saxophonists like Charles Gayle and Assif… There is now and has been for at least 20 years that component to what you do.
KOWALD: I would say, yes, the saxophone trio with a saxophone trio and a drummer…
TP: Where the bass functions as a bass.
KOWALD: Well, that’s one side of the extreme. And then to play completely European, free improvised music with the young people, where you sometimes don’t make a sound for minutes and think all the time, I like that, too. That’s the other extreme. My whole pendulum has been those two. I love to do the more jazz quality stuff, like we do with Assif and Hamid, but I also like to have that improvisation. Then also I work with Sanko, the Siberian singer, who gave me a completely new value since the early ’90s because her voice is from this Tuvan Shamanist breath and overtone harmonic music section. I went to Tuva with her twice on the Trans-Siberian train. So that is another leg I am trying to stand on.
TP: Assif, you’ve played with a number of bass players. What are the qualities that Peter Kowald brings to this real-time encounter, this collective improvisation that distinguishes his instrumental personality from his peer group?
TSAHAR: Well, it’s exactly what he said now, because his pendulum is so vast. So we don’t get locked so much into one thing, one area, which is very common to do. So it’s very easy when we’re playing with Peter. It’s both ways. He keeps it as a compositional thought from beginning to end, and also keeps the variety going. Because it’s very easy, let’s say… I mean, I love those Sam Rivers records; it’s a good example. But in some ways, it always stays within that jazz vein. But in some ways, when I play with Peter, even though if we go there, and go somewhere that’s in the jazz vein and in the swinging tradition, it will always go out of it and go into different places, and always have the possibility of going back into it. That’s why I love the experience of playing with Peter.
TP: Peter Kowald is leaving for Italy. The life of an improviser. You’re going to Italy for maybe one night, two nights…
KOWALD: I play two days in (?).
TP: Come back here.
KOWALD: Come back Monday.
TP: Come back Monday, do a recording, play this gig at Triad, do some other gigs during the week… I’ve been watching you create a schedule, and is Einhoven on the way from Frankfurt… The troubadours.
KOWALD: Yes. The everyday life of a traveler who just goes there and plays for the people, and opens his hand, gets some money and comes back home, and goes to the next one.
TP: Very much in the medieval European tradition of the traveling troupes, the caravans. The modern-day troubadours.
KOWALD: Well, in fact, Botticini(?), the great bass player, he had a bass that he could take the neck off, so in the horse coaches he could travel, and then he did the gigs at the clubs!
TP: We don’t have time to go in tremendous depth into recent work… We have cued up a CD called “Aphorisms: 26 Looks On a Situation” with saxophonist Floris Floridis, and drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer…
KOWALD: He’s from East Germany. We were not allowed to play together for a couple of years, but we played secretly in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But in the early ’70s we were not allowed to play together.
KOWALD: [after Kowald-Barry Guy duo] …It means “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overvalued.”
TP: And why is it overvalued?
KOWALD: Well, it is something that Josef Beuys said. Josef Beuys was an artist of the area where I grew up. I really liked him in my early years, and he was very influential to me. Just to say it in short, he not only did his artwork for which people know him over here, but he also tried to put art in a social context in a new way again — again, something as a result of the ’60s also. He was very out there in the ’60s for us.
TP: Something that was antithetical to Marcel Duchamp, the idea of putting a context on anything.
KOWALD: He did a project which he called “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp has Been Overvalued,” and I thought it was really interesting because I liked Marcel Duchamp so much, too. Then Beuys said, “Okay, but let’s look what does it mean. Do we take certain things too seriously? Don’t we have to act in another direction now?” The ’60s again. Right? Actually, the Barry Guy record has all titles which are related to Art, which are actually sentences. Paintings used to be on the record, on one side, on the other side four pieces which are related to certain artists. Barry likes art very much. Then he decided for I think… Anyway, I decided for Beuys and Marcel Duchamp.
TP: The previous piece was a duet between you and Sanko, the Tuvan throat singer to whom you referred. An incredible sound. It catches your attention. Even Peter Kowald, who’ve heard this record and played with her hundreds of times, is sitting across from me… If you can visualize a totally attentive expression where no motion is possible for a moment until they reach the next moment.
KOWALD: These aspects… We are talking about Josef Beuys now, who on the one hand is an artist who comes very much out of my context, but he also has worked on the Celtic stuff. Or the Cayuta(?) piece, when he came to America, where he didn’t touch American ground, but was carried off the airplane and carried with an ambulance into a gallery so he wouldn’t touch American ground, and then spent a week with the Cayuta(?) (they didn’t know each other, and they became friends during this week), and then Beuys left again without touching American ground. It’s very interesting, because he worked with very old cultures, and he includes… When he came the first time to America, he wanted to talk about the old America, and the Cayuta(?) was the symbol for that. Then Seinko carries in her voice a thousand years — and maybe more — of musical knowledge that hasn’t changed much in that area. In Tuva and Mongolia, the music has remained similar. Then she carries that thousand-years-old knowledge and puts it into a contemporary context. This is wonderful and very interesting to me.
TP: This actually would connect you with a strain of European modernism that goes back to James Joyce and Ezra Pound and Picasso. Pound would use pre-Biblical language, Joyce recontextualizes Homeric myth, Picasso deals with African sculptural forms. And here you are using a similar process in this manner of making music. If there’s a narrative in the music you make, what would be the closest analog? Would it be vocabulary? Would it be the visual arts? Is it shapes? Is it colors? Because the words “narrative” and “vocabulary” are often used by musicians, but it’s obviously an abstract vocabulary.
KOWALD: I believe that artists and the way that we play music is a very similar process in many ways. I think a beautiful thing in the music (and some of my artist friends sometimes express jealousy about this) is that we do it in groups often, most of the time, and the artist is most of the time alone in a studio…
TP: You mean that music is a social even a social process.
KOWALD: Yes. Well, art is a social process, too. But then the artist usually works alone in the studio, while we work in a group on stage and in a direct way. The music is going out, and it’s right there. The artist works for months maybe, until the product is ready. But I believe certain questions are very similar, certain questions of how do you free your language, how do you work with form. I talk a lot with artists about this question of form and how to change… Once you have been doing it for years, the change gets smaller. When I was young, I thought every month something new came into the music. Now it is changing much less. Artists have very similar problems. That is classic with them. And artists sometimes have a more, like, formal consciousness, because they work on form for months; when they do a painting, for months they work on the form of the painting. Our form kind of develops organically and it’s right there when it’s just been developed.
But then you come also back to the question of form with Seinko from Tuva, the singer. What is interesting about her is she brings all the qualities of her culture, of her voice, all the Shamanistic breath techniques, all the overtones and all of that, but she left what I call the local song. She doesn’t bring her local song any more. She says, “I don’t sing my song any more. I put my stuff into an open context, so I can play with you or I can play with Evan Parker or Ned Rothenberg,” whomever she plays with. So she left the local song. But she still brings all that knowledge and all the thousand years with her. That’s a beautiful thing. Then suddenly, because the pre-given form, the local form is not there any more, the form is completely open, and we just all can work together. People from China, from Africa, from Tuva, from Israel, from Germany, we can work together instantly without even discussing the matters. That’s really good. That’s really what I call the Global Village. I have this group called The Last Global Village. We are actually playing at CB’s Gallery on the 22nd. We are playing with… [LISTS PERSONNEL] We don’t prepare the music. We don’t rehearse it. We just get together. And most of the people don’t know each other, have never played with each other. And it works, because we don’t arrive with a pre-given form.
TP: That brings me to another question. What do you observe your audience to be? And how has that audience evolved over the forty years you’ve been playing? Who do you find coming to the concerts? How do you think they’re receiving it? Are they involved-enthralled in the process of the music-making? My main response to hearing this kind of music is watching the interplay as it occurs from moment to moment. It’s not so much what’s being played as how I am perceiving taking shape in real time. Other people may have a different perspective. How do you perceive the process with your audience?
KOWALD: Well, the audience has been the same in many ways. There are little festivals in Europe where the same people come together every year to listen to basically the same musicians — the big family. That’s fine. But then, in the last few years, I see many young people coming. Also I play for a lot of artists, like for the art openings, and then you have an audience which has never heard this music. So what I tell in these workshops sometimes, the young people, what for me is important… We’ve talked about form now three times already in this little hour here. We talk about the believing and the love of it. This is important to me. I’m sometimes a little critical about some European players who do it so cold, in a way, with so much thinking and so much formal consciousness. I don’t mind the form at all, and I said that before. But I also believe that you need the love. You need to believe in what you are doing. If I don’t believe in the moment what I play, how can the people down there believe it? That’s what I try to tell the young people. Don’t just think about material. Just do that. Practice, check out the forms and do the work, but also try to come in contact with yourself. This is an esoteric term you read all over the place.
I remember this very young dancer of Pina Bausch who lived across the street, and we used to meet in the coffee house in the afternoon sometimes. He was 22, a French guy, Francois Durer(?), a fantastic virtuoso dancer, and Pina let him do all these little solos in the pieces. And then one afternoon he told me, “Listen, I know I’m a good dancer, but I haven’t found it in HERE yet.” And then he pointed to his chest. I found it really wonderful that a 22-year-old virtuoso dancer, a great artist already, understood that still he had to look for something inside. This is what I’m talking about. “If you don’t believe what you are doing,” I tell young people all the time, “how can they believe it? How can the audience believe it?”
That’s what you were asking about the audience. The audience believes it if you believe what you are doing, if you are in it, if you open your soul, if you open your heart. That’s the aspect people don’t talk about enough sometimes. I think in Black America people talk about it much more than in Europe. That’s I think an important point also to the question where I said I have this pendulum between, let’s say, Black American Jazz and very formal European improvised music. I think the music meets the heart.
TP: Assif, you’re from a generation for whom playing free music is almost another option for vocabulary. Last year I went to Cecil Taylor’s orchestra workshop at Turtle Bay Music School, and there were people who could play the music extremely well and lucidly. But in talking to some of these people, they might play bebop here, and here we’ll play this way, and here we’ll play a dance gig. There were all these options, and free music is one part of the craft of being a musician in 2001. It seems generational, that people with that attitude can embrace this music with extended vocabularies and extended techniques and tabula rasa playing as a genre of equal value to others. Maybe it has to do with the way education is presented now. Not to ask you to speak for your generation, but for you is this an operative thing?
TSAHAR: Well, it exists. Things are more formalized and more clear, and there’s more awareness that one is using certain techniques in a certain genre. Also, I grew up playing actually bebop on guitar, not on saxophone, so I had an experience of growing up and then being freed out of it. Because everything was done, there’s more awareness of what are the things that we’re doing. But in the end, the difference is of being a musician or being an artist, I guess. So for me, I’m trying not to think about it. I’m trying just to think about where I am, how I play, where do I find myself, and not think about playing like… If I find myself thinking about, “oh, I sound like…” Which was always with me. I think, “Oh, if I sound like Coltrane,” that’s not a positive thing. That’s a negative thing. That’s…
TP: Well, for a while you want to emulate a sound, and then move away from it, no?
TSAHAR: Well, I think that’s from the beginning, a certain awareness. I might have enjoyed it more in my earlier years, “Oh, wow, that’s cool.” But I was always aware this is not what I want to do, this is not where I want to go. I want to feel like I have no shadows chasing after me. Because all these thoughts of style and mentors, which could be like living mentors or dead mentors, are kind of shadows covering what I really want to do. So I’m trying to surpass them and not really… They only will get in the way, in a way. So being within a style thing of, “Oh, I’m playing free” or “I’m playing inside,” all those things, in a way, interfere with what I want to do.
But it is all there, because it’s all part of what I listen to, what I grew up with… You asked in the beginning how does Arabic music influence my music, and a lot of people ask me about Jewish music, and I say that for me I play Jewish-Israeli music if I want or if I don’t want. It’s like what I grew up listening to. It’s in my sound even if I don’t like it. A certain type of Arabic singing… Like, playing out of tune for me was the easiest thing ever…
TSAHAR: Or microtonal, if you want to be more intellectual about it. But it’s the way I heard people singing. The tone, the pitch always shifts and moves. It’s never like a very specific thing. That’s how I hear. That’s how I play. Because that’s what I heard growing up.
TP: Peter, you said before we went on mike that you could discuss some of the extended techniques you use on bass in the duos, say, with Barry Guy. And it’s interesting, because in some sense there’s a creative tension between the elaboration of these very specific techniques that comprise your sonic identity, and transmitting the heart and love and soul that is your ideal, the imperative for why you do it.
KOWALD: Well, there are different steps. On this CD here is Barre Phillips, who was a little bit my teacher in the ’60s when he came to Europe. He had studied with Fred Zimmerman here in New York. I met Barry Guy later, but then when I went to London in the ’80s, often I stayed at his house. We would drink until early in the morning, and then he would go to a studio and record this Mozart symphony which he hadn’t looked at. He went completely unprepared to the studio, and he could do them, and they all got these awards. So he is a fantastic classical player, too.
But now I want to talk about the third person, Martin Aaltena, who did something to me which really helped me a lot. He broke his arm in the ’70s, and he had it in plaster, so he knew he wouldn’t be able to play for two months. Then he put the bass neck into plaster, too, and then he started to play concerts like that. There’s a record out where there’s a photograph of the bass neck in plaster and his arm in plaster. I thought he had a courage which I don’t know if I’d have had to really go out and say, “I have to forget everything I’ve ever learned and do something completely new.” So he started to stick bows into the strings and made all this sound. The sounds he made were completely sounds that didn’t have to do at all with bass techniques he knew. He just wanted to spend the two months playing the bass, even with his arm broken, and he did that way. But also, all the sounds which came out really freed him from everything he had learned, and it helped to free me. Because I was kind of theoretically… I didn’t want to break my arm to do the same thing, but okay, let’s try really to put the hand on the bass in a way like I’ve never done it before. Then all these sounds come out which you don’t know where they come from. Then you have to combine. You have to combine your aesthetic will, maybe, something you have in your head and something which comes through the music you listen to, to combine with this how to put your hand on the instrument. If those two aspects get into a balance, then I think it’s really interesting.
TP: I’d like to pick up one other trope of this conversation, which is the relationship between your musical expression and the visual arts. So much of your music seems to be generated, performed, and perhaps even done in that context. You’re contemporaneous with German painters like A.R. Penck, Baselitz, Kiefer, painters who made an international impact in the ’70s and ’80s. I’m not trying to suggest any affiliation, but merely to note that their work was operating in parallel to you. Were there convergences?
KOWALD: I always like to hang out with the guys and discuss everything, and with the artists you often hang out and discuss… With the musicians, too. But then we discuss the methods, and discuss how does this function and how does this work. Well, artists don’t have an instrument. They have a very open way to use material. I have a bass. Of course, I could do other things, and now all the young guys do this electronic stuff, in order to have maybe a more free equipment to work with. But I was always quite a purist. I wanted to do all these things just on the bass. But then, artists have a lot of freedom. Many people do videos, installations… I just saw a documentary a couple of weeks ago in Germany. They are very free in terms of material. I think musicians can learn from that. That’s one thing I definitely have to say. But then our social thing is…I really don’t want to miss it. To go with Assif and Hamid on stage, and the three of us, and that smile, and then we just go, and we don’t know what the next minute will bring us. That’s the most wonderful thing to do.
Peter Kowald Review Column (2002):
“I sometimes like to be like a chameleon,” Peter Kowald said last May, five months before his death. “I like to change color related to the person or the group I play with. And it means that I don’t have a function any more. I am just a bass player, which means that I make sounds on the bass like other people do on the trumpet, on the koto, on the gu-cheng or on the pipa.”
Born and based in Wuppertal, in Germany’s Ruhr Basin, Kowald brought that fluid aesthetic to innumerable extemporaneous encounters with a global cohort of speculative improvisers. Deploying a vivid, original tonal personality that blended tropes from jazz, Euro-Classical, and Mongolian and Pygmy folk traditions, he was as comfortable navigating discursively conversational duos as the complex terrain of hardcore free-improvised jazz.
Kowald is both chameleon and functional bassist on APHORISMS (Ano Kato 2015, 44:17, 4 stars). True to the title, Kowald, Greek reeds and woodwind virtuoso Floris Floridos, and innovative Dresden-born drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer improvise 26 pithy vignettes from a veritable lexicon of extended techniques, parsing essences with precision and nuance, merging singular vocabularies into a collective sound that transcends instrumental gymnastics. Outcat trombonist Conrad Bauer, a multiphonics maestro who like Sommer was a pioneer of jazz in the GDR, joins Kowald and Sommer on BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH (Intakt 079, 52:46, 4 stars); they perform eight brief narrations with similar rigor and timbral scope, before stretching out for two vigorous extended blowout improvs that sustain compositional thought and variety from beginning to end on a minimum of thematic material.
Theme-solo-theme structures spur the intense interplay of OPEN SYSTEMS (Marge 28, 72:42, 3-1/2 stars), a sprawling, ritualistic recital by a first-time-out quartet of Kowald, post-Ayler saxophonist Assif Tsahar, bravura trumpeter Hugh Ragin, and drummer Hamid Drake. Convened in Paris in the spring of 2001, the unit only occasionally meanders, blowing with heat and wit through Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and four Tsahar vehicles that conjure up the apocalyptic feel of 1969 BYG record by, say, Archie Shepp or the Reverend Frank Wright. Kowald chants low, gutteral tones in counterpoint to Drake’s muezzin’s call on “Heart’s Remembrance,” an open improv, and presents an idiomatic Ayler homage entitled “Fathers and Mothers.”
Kowald once noted that he and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann – his mentor in early ‘60s Wuppertal — deployed radical jazz as a symbolic weapon to kill their fathers. After encouraging mid-‘60s encounters with expat American avatars like Steve Lacy, Don Cherry and Carla Bley, the young Germans set to work at eliminating the stepfathers; in Kowald’s words, “to do it the European way.” FOR ADOLPHE SAX (Archive-FMP Edition 230, 50:25, 3 stars) reissues a rawboned, to-the-barricades 1967 trio album on which Brötzmann blows with primal violence, Kowald bows resourcefully and dynamically, and Swedish drummer Sven-Åke Johanssen jabs and pummels ametric texture out of the drumkit, setting an expressionist template for several subsequent generations of the young and restless on both continents. Dutch energy pianist Fred Van Hove, Brötzmann’s cusp-of-the-‘70s partner in a trio with Han Bennink, joins the unit for a strong, though predictable disk-concluding track recorded at Radio Bremen.
Kowald at Vision-Fest (5-27-02) – (Peter Kowald):
[START PETER KOWALD AT 43:56, ABOUT THE EURO]
PETER KOWALD: …it’s about making a castle against the poor people. Like, America is a castle, and then Europe is another castle now. I guess in Asia there are castles, too. So it’s like a castle to defend certain things, certain standards.
TP: I know what you’re talking about. [ETC.] We’re in the boiler room of the St. Patrick’s Church Community Center, where the Vision Festival is being held… [ETC.] Peter Kowald, bass player, master of extended techniques…
What is your sense of the term “avant-garde” and how does it apply to what you do, to the projection of your musical personality?
[45:18] KOWALD: Well, the first thing I have to say: In Europe we don’t use that term so much. And it has been used in the last century…well, at the beginning of the century for artistic movements like Dadaism, Surrealism and stuff. Actually, it is a military term. As we know, the group in front. The group in front which may be in the most dangerous place, the most risky place, and also which can make decisions — or does make decisions which the people in the back don’t do. So that has been modified for art movements in the last century. The way we use it, or the way it’s used here in New York about this music we all are playing, it’s a way we wouldn’t use that any more. Somehow, the term smells a little bit in Europe. It’s a little old-fashioned.
TP: That leads to a question I was going to ask. If there’s a difference between the conception of the avant-garde in Europe and the American notion of what the avant-garde is.
[46:24] KOWALD: So I believe what it meant and what it means is that there’s a movement or a group of artists who do something new, something different from what has been before. And I guess in the ’60s the term came up for this music very strongly, and there has been a lot of breaking up of traditional matters. And so, it has been used now 50 years later…no, 40 years… Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” came out in ’62, no?
[47:04] KOWALD: Okay. 40 years later. I would say that’s a good moment, Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz,” which was definitely what at the time people would call avant-garde. It was breaking many, many rules, and trying to really open up the whole question of form. That’s what we maybe have to say first. Breaking up the form was what the whole goal was. Because all traditional musics, all over the world, they have a form. The Inuit singers or Indian Raga or African drum music, all this has form, however open or tight it might be. And I think the ’60s movement, what we relate to the term “avant-garde” now to what we are playing has completely opened up the form, which was not only the case in this music but also in contemporary art and… Remember Nam June Paik, the Fluxus artist, he came to Wuppertal in the early ’60s, and Brotzmann was his assistant for a moment, and Paik had said, “Now you can do anything. It’s completely open. Anything is possible now. Don’t worry about any tradition; don’t worry about any traditional form — anything is possible.” And that was maybe for us Europeans to think, “Okay, now the free…what does the free mean?” It basically means, in the first place, free of a pre-given traditional form, like bebop was and like a raga is or any other music has these forms. Free of a form. But of course, Ornette Coleman and Max Roach and the black musicians in America meant it also in another connotation of, well, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were around at the same time.
TP: Now, the Inuit musicians and the musics of India and the drum music of Africa, you don’t see this pattern of breaking up the form in this manner. These days it’s more that you see people who have mastered these forms intersecting with other people, creating this giant hybrid of vernaculars and cultural expressions. Why was the notion of breaking form so appealing to you at that moment?
[49:20] KOWALD: Well, I have been thinking about this a lot, in fact. What we might see in the ’60s…it started, and now it’s really obvious: That you could go all over the world in a plane in 24 hours, which means in one-night-and-day unit. Or you could have a CD or record at the time from any music of the world. I mean, there might have been very remote corners where you wouldn’t have something, but now everything is there. Everything is to our disposal. And at that time, at that exactly at this moment when this happened technologically, basically, that happened. The form broke open. So the traditional forms… They are still there, of course, and they are still very strong and they will stay. But exactly at that moment, the question came up: What does traditional form mean? Because traditional form is always a local form. But going around with a plane in a one-day unit means that the question of local has changed. And I believe that it’s very much connected, what I’m talking about now, that we can have information about all parts of the world, about all cultures, about all musics, about all art forms. We can have that now. We can discuss it. We meet people who play instruments who come from very different… Like, I play with Sanko from Tuva, and Tuva in the ’60s wasn’t even…nobody really knew about it here in the West, and now everybody talks about Tuva and the music there. So, so much has happened in these forty years. Which means that the local forms are still there, but they don’t have their importance any more. Or, they have it for the people who live locally. We all live locally, we have to say, too. But at the same time, there is a big exchange of all cultural values and traditions and all that is there. People call that the Postmodern maybe. I don’t know if I would like to use that term, in fact. But everything is there. Everything is to our disposal. We can use everything.
[51:30] So breaking up the form in terms of avant-garde, it meant — and Cage has said — that we can use any noise, and any noise is valued. And a saxophone player in New York, he would play saxophone in a way that would make certain screams, as we know, and certain noises. So noise has been with instrumental improvisers included, too. Noise was not excluded. So as Nam June Paik has said, anything is possible. We can include anything.
TP: You mentioned Nam June Paik twice, and in doing so you’ve touched on the next question. To what extent did artistic forms, cultural forms other than music — or politics — inflect the musical personality you’ve come to evolve?
[52:30] KOWALD: I mean, I grew up in Germany, and that’s why I talk about it. And I met Paik when I was 20. So he was very influential to me, in a way, through Brotzmann somehow. But also I was closer to the visual arts at the time, because I played the bass, and I played with Brotzmann, and I was 17 when I started to play with him, etc. But we didn’t grow up with the music like people here did. I was not Albert Ayler’s bass player at the time. What happened here, we watched really what came out here, the records when they came over here later — ESP and all of that. We really watched that and listened to it. But we were not here. We were in Wuppertal, Germany, which is a little town, and we were the only two people playing that kind of music at the time — or trying to. So we didn’t grow up with the music. So our connection with other art forms was more natural at the time. It was usually visual art, and then Fluxus was very important; it started in ’62-’63. Which again, the movement of Fluxus was about everything is open and everybody can what he or she wants to do.
So transporting this or transforming it to the question of playing the music: We tried to say, okay, we don’t want any tradition. We reject our own tradition in the sense of not playing Classical music, Classical European music, not even contemporary music in a sense, which is something which follows the classical music in the 20th Century. But then again, not what many Europeans had done before, learned the jazz licks and learned jazz and tried to copy or being with American jazz… We said, “We don’t want to do that either.” So that was our way to say, “Okay, we play a completely free, improvised music now.” And somehow, of course, Albert Ayler and Coltrane and Cecil Taylor and Ornette helped us to make these steps, and they were actually very influential to us in the beginning. But then also, we thought, okay, now we’ll try to have some European music which is just coming out of improvisation and no pre-given form.
TP: In the process, the most committed, adept improvisers developed specific identifiable vocabularies. Someone can tell you from William Parker from Barry Guy and so forth and so on. And you’ve evolved these vocabularies over many years. Has a music which was born from the idea of there being no form or the abolition of form become a formal entity unto itself, and how then does the music develop and advance within such a situation?
[55:36] KOWALD: Well, the pre-given form… Of course, in what we call now the avant-garde of this jazz music or post-jazz music…sometimes it has form and makes forms. But what I call the free improvisation doesn’t have a form — or a pre-given form. But each piece, of course, which is improvised, as a solo, as a trio, as a quintet, will have a form when it’s finished — has a form when it’s finished. Form is not something pre-given, but form is something which turns out to be in the process of playing. But this is basically a situation which is very open, open in the sense, too, that… And that’s what I love to talk about, too. I have played with a lot of people from different cultures. We all have. But I always looked for the question what the other cultures have to say. So from Sanko to Charles Gayle, or from a Japanese koto player…a Chinese koto player is in my group now, ..(?).., who is in my group in Germany now. to Pamela Z(?) from San Francisco, who uses body contact mikes. I like to play in other spectra. But that’s also part of the openness, too.
In a way, I sometimes like to be, as a bass player…like to be like a chameleon, which means I like to change color related to the person I play with or to the group I play with. Which means as a bass player I don’t have a function any more, like, up until the ’60s the bass player had. And still, sometimes, in a groups with saxophones, drums and bass, of course, I still use the function…I have the function of a bass player in that group, too, when I play with Rashied Ali. But in other times, I don’t have a function as a bass player. I am just a bass player, which means that I make the sounds on the bass like other people make it on the trumpet, on the koto, on the gu-cheng or on the pipa. And that means we are all individuals now. The openness is there. The openness… As I said, we can travel in one day to any part of the world. We can have music from everywhere we can listen to, and we can play with people who also live behind the local forms and just say, “Okay, we are open now, too.” We still use our aesthetics. Sanko, the singer, is an example I like to use often, because she is so obvious. She’s using the shamanistic breath techniques, and she is doing the overtones like in Tuva, but she opened up the form and she doesn’t sing the local song any more. And when we do that, then we can play together immediately, without any discussion. We don’t have to prepare anything.
TP: This is a very radical idea.
[58:45] KOWALD: Well, it’s an idea which sometimes… I don’t want to exaggerate, but sometimes I feel it could be a beautiful little model for how this world could function. Because of course, the forms… We need form, and that’s why many people also sometimes come back to it more than in the ’60s. Many musicians have gone back to pre-given forms — to compositions and to playing time and to playing chords sometimes. But all that is possible. All that can be included. We don’t want to exclude anything any more. Not the noise, but also not the sound. So we can include everything. And that’s nice. Because I believe if you look at it socially, politically, psychologically, everything that is excluded will be a problem later on. So we can include everything. Then when everything is on the table, then we can make our choice and say, “Today I eat the apple” and tomorrow the orange and then the day after the grapes. We can make the choice when everything is on the table. But everything has to come on the table first. And when it’s on the table, then we can make the choice.
TP: Now, this attitude, it doesn’t seem to me, was possible 40 years or, or 30 years ago, even. But now it seems a commonplace to say this. Why do you think that is?
[1.00.16] KOWALD: Well, that has to do with that the world got smaller, in fact, of course, and it has to do with attitudes of… We all travel more than we did in the ’60s. In the ’60s we had an old car, and went from Germany to Belgium, which was five hours. Of course, some musicians traveled at the time, too, but they were much less. And now everybody travels all the time to play concerts wherever in the world. Wherever people ask me to play, I go. Or if I were to invite a musician from wherever, I ask them to come.
So that’s part of that. But also the information has gone… I don’t look at television any more, but what they give you on television at least it’s a sign what could be possible of what we see from other cultures, what we see from other parts of the world. Television in Germany and in America and in the Western world don’t use that. But there are so many possibilities to get information. But then there’s so much information that we have to make choices again. We have to make choices all the time, because it’s too much. And then, okay, we made the choice to make free improvised music with a network of people between Asia and… Maybe there are people in Africa coming soon. I played with people in Africa who understood what I was talking about. Because they wanted to teach me their rhythms, which as a German I never would be able to learn, even as much as I would try. Then at some point, they said, “Oh, you play what you play and we play what we play,” and so we played together. That was a step into… Still people who were very related to their traditional form said, okay, you can do what you do and we’ll do what we do. That’s a step into that freedom you’re talking about.
[1.02.35] TP: You were saying just before that you will travel wherever anybody asks you to play, and you’ve been doing something like this for about 40 years in one form or another, and you’re 58 years old. How have you sustained your intensity and commitment?
[1.03.10] KOWALD: Of course, I have sometimes a longing for being in one place more. Now I have two places, because I am in Germany, as I used to be, and I have a place in New York now, too. So basically I have two legs I’m standing on now. Well, I don’t like so much to teach. I do these workshops sometimes, and I like to talk to younger people about this music, and maybe give away something I’ve learned over the years. But basically, I love to play. So I don’t want to be really a professor at a university and stay in one place. My family…my children are big and have children themselves, so I am completely free to travel. And that’s what I love to do — travel and play. Just play with anybody… Traveling is the biggest thing…it’s a little hard. But to play with as many people as I like to play with and who like to play with me.
TP: Derek Bailey kind of rejects the notion of performance as artistic activity. He refers to it as playing, which implies a workaday attitude. That he is a musical artisan, in a certain sense. If you were to use that general typology of what it is you do, would you characterize yourself as an artist? An artisan? Both?
KOWALD: Well, I would say that at the moment I play, I mean, this hour or two hours of a concert on a stage… Usually it is on a stage. But I prefer the little cafe, the corner of a little cafe; that’s my favorite place, where there are 50 people and everybody is in reach, really. That is my favorite. But this hour of music for me is a special moment, I have to say. I wouldn’t call it a holy moment, but a moment of great concentration. All I can give to the world is that hour, the music in that hour. So when I play with people in a situation where people listen to this music, and not just at home or in a rehearsal space or in any place, just playing… It’s a different thing, playing for the public, I feel, and playing for non-musicians. This is a special moment, and this is still what… I don’t care if you really call it art, but I believe it’s my art, yes.