Dying Like A Dog: Peter Brötzmann
Photo: Pete Gershon
by Steve Kulak (Sept 1999)
The vibrator was invented in the 19th Century so that doctors could bring women to orgasm more quickly as part of a treatment for hysteria. Peter Brötzmann may have been invented to bring us closer to both.
In an abrasive exploration of saxophone texture, one of the loudest and most fearsome players of the European avant-garde is on fire on a cool, blustery Sunday morning in Frankfurt. Die Like A Dog is playing in the courtyard of a Frankfurt Museum concurrent with an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. Photos of big B-52 bombers line the foyer. Wearing his own version of a beaten black and blue leather vest, Peter Brötzmann that morning recreated the sounds of a different liberation. He didnít commemorate the airlift as much as replay the bombing of Berlin. Even the sky appeared to retreat, somehow further away with every blast of the horn. The fireworks on stage were incendiary, any perceptible shortage of oxygen not affecting the proceedings. Brötzmann devours oxygen. He doesnít waste much of it on talk, just sucks it in and blows it out at double the density. On fire, Brötzmann consumes oxygen. On fire, he reinvigorates the idea of consumption by throwing it back at us as something resembling hope. How many chemical reactions is Peter Brötzmann responsible for?
The musicians in Die Like A Dog are an unanchored tribe representing the great unsponsored. They answer only to themselves. It is the great privilege of the unsponsored to be free to push on towards the frontier unhindered, stretching the boundaries, energised by dislocation, travelling wherever work, inspiration and the cooperative challenge takes them. Always ready to move on, to shoot an arrow at the horizon.
Peter Brötzmann is a great modernist who attacks every reed instrument he can lay his hands on with an unflagging and inexhaustible commitment. Listening to him is like being caught in a tropical storm with all the doors and windows in every room in the house left open to the devious temper of the elements. His world of free improvisation is no place for running imaginary errands for the dead. Let Wynton Marsalis do that. As George Gruntz, bandleader and entrepreneur, once said to his detractors: ĎWith you music is made. With us, it can only be performed.í He was hearing Brötzmann, Saxophonberserker.
Peter Brötzmann is reminiscent of an escaped convict figure out of a Russian novel by Dostoevsky. In every novel Dostoevsky wrote, he generated a plot that was never something that merely happened to a character. In every instance, a unique character leads plot around on a leash like an obedient dog. Peter Brötzmann, creator and character, also plots it for us from beginning to end. And like the sensible dogs we are, we follow wherever it is he asks us to go. Yet like the escaped convict, he erases his tracks just as quickly as his feet hit the ground. There is no continuous memory of what Die Like A Dog played that Sunday morning in a Frankfurt Museum. Songs? They certainly werenít songs. More like a call to arms or a battle cry. Or maybe just a convictís running commentary, a film score to freedom.
It is always easy to exaggerate the importance of a subject in an essay devoted to them. Suddenly all their impacts become profound, all eccentricities become astonishing talents. Everyone knows that talent is not a prerequisite for getting attention. Peter Brötzmann will never generate the attention he deserves even as more and more people tune into his achievements and appreciate his prodigious talent. He is not well known outside his chosen music circle. The public still doesnít know who he is, much less what he represents. Knowing who he is is less important than appreciating what he represents. Because Brötzmann is a political inspiration to anyone who thinks that music has abandoned real politics. Brötzmann is not a sonic terrorist. He is not locked in a personal struggle which one observes awe struck from the bench. He is an activist, a fierce modernist. His sole agenda may be a musical one, but its expression is firmly grounded in a political base. In that way he is a subversive with a profound understanding of the revolutionary contexts his music operates in.
Descriptions of him as abrasive and fierce are misleading. The most commonly used words in the Brötzmann musical lexicon of dramatic adjectives appear to focus on the terminally violent. We veer from sonic terror, career half way across town to ferocity, throw in the domestic destruction of peeling paint, lifting roofs, bending struts and piercing boiler plate thrown in for good measure. These are exclusive terms. They exclude just how sensitive and compliant in particular company Brötzmann can be. He is a virtuoso on clarinet and every other steel tube appendage within the saxophone family and knows how to use them in a context appropriate to a true masterís understanding of his tools.
Most descriptions only serve to push Brötzmann further toward the margins, distracting listeners away from this maverick who strides the worldís free music stage like a colossus. This would be a gross misjudgment. Brötzmannís music and personality are ultimately nourishing. This is a critically important musician, playing earth-shattering music of consequence, reminding the sleepwalkers that the stupor which infects their lives can be shaken out of them yet. The implication is obvious. If the mainstream is ignorant of this music and the people who perform it, then it is because it is threatened by a form so devastatingly uncompromising, that it is an affront to it. And if ever the dominant state of affairs needed to be challenged, it is now. The merging of social and political systems has created a haven for mediocrity, its neutral politics defeating all critical engagement. The time is ripe for aggressive free expression. And Brötzmann on a Sunday morning in Frankfurt is letting everyone know it.
When people search for the most obvious source for his sound, comparisons are inevitably made with John Coltrane (1926-67), Albert Ayler (1936-1970), Pharoah Sanders (1940) and on to people like Charles Gayle (1939) and David S.Ware (1949). The dates are significant here. Peter Brötzmann (1941) is clearly in very black American company but apart from Coltrane, little distinguishes one date of birth from the other. But Brötzmann was a pioneer and arrived at his methods independently of any obvious influence, apart from Coltrane and the earlier exponents of the horn, who of course influenced every generation thereafter. Everybody begins by trying to sound like someone else. It is where it goes from there that makes the difference. Brötzmann was a stylist whose intensity and focus were already apparent from the early sixties.
Germany, and in particular Berlin, was a very special place at that time. Political inspiration, not race issues, inspired Brötzmannís approach. Like Albert Ayler, he shared an interest in the brass structures of New Orleans jazz laced with generous amounts of rhythmíníblues. These days his intensity may be extending Aylerís legacy but Brötzmannís conception is personal and fully realised within its own parameters. His was a parallel development, unique in its formation. It did not reflect an Afro-American political consciousness, as much free jazz of the day did, nor the Afro-mysticism typical of Coltrane and Sanders. The political dimension was and still is the common currency.
In Europe Brötzmann on the horn dominated whatever company he kept. Nothing has changed, he still does. In the pantheon of Euro-American Free Music, Brötzmann is unique. But whereas he was a fringe and basement dweller blowing the winds of change back in the 60ís, there has been a perceptible and positive shift in his fortunes in recent times.
The closest he may ever have got to a major label contract was with Virgin in 1988 as part of the legendary band Last Exit (along with Herbie Hancock, Sonny Sharrock, Bill Laswell and Ronald Shannon Jackson). These days he is clearly an international figure, although one without a major label behind him. Recording with Ginger Baker, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor and many other prominent figures, he continues to surround himself with equally persuasive and vigilant virtuosi to this day. Brötzmann only plays with people he feels good about. Thereís a certain impulse associated with such distinction.
The English commentator John Fordham once said of him that he took the abrasive post-Coltrane methods of Pharoah Sanders to the limits of turbulence, a style akin to the sound of a herd of elephants fleeing from a bushfire and about three times as loud. Approaching sixty it means he has kept it there for nearly 40 years. Thatís an achievement worth considering in detail.
The question of what effect the experience of 1968 has had on our time is emerging with Berlin assuming the role as the most left leaning capital of Europe. This was the expectation that fuelled the free music movement in Europe in the sixties. This was the music undergroundís legacy, the hope that what was represented by politics in Germany then could be recast as part of a new unconstrained international order with a manifesto of freedom as its core. The political and musical battle lines were drawn in November 1968 outside the entrance to the Berlin music club Quartier von Quasimodo. Here at the first Total Music Meeting, the German avant-garde presented an organised affront to the jazz festival of the day, Berlin Jazz Days. Itís been like that ever since, this ongoing battle for representation and choice.
In Europe the starting point was not American free jazz. It started with a heightened political consciousness that found its way into the musical underground as free music expression and went on from there. Back then jazz and its free music associations were a countercultural activity. They were necessarily at odds with that which surrounded them. Even today improvised music and other free music forms can neither dominate the airwaves nor the concert agenda for the same reason. They still in many vital respects represent a counterculture whose natural inclination is to subvert.
To understand Brötzmann, a study of the photos from the 1960ís and 1970ís is instructive. European basements became the real proving ground of jazz, just as they once were in 1940ís and 1950ís urban America. Not the academy or the textbook, but the listen-and-play-and-learn, and then keep playing school of jazz. Brötzmann and others like him defied critical indifference by setting up their own record labels and building up their own facilities to further their musical ambitions. It was music formed in basements shielded from the influence of any popular public life. Their rhetoric was critical and severe because they felt the times demanded it. The severity of their thinking was matched only by the ignorance of the general public towards their existence. They not only learnt to play differently but to link their playing to thinking differently. In the academy today, the stages are bursting with second-tier players who may be extremely competent and entertaining live, but on bloodless records prove to be just another group of players with technique and no gravity.
Together with Brötzmann, people like Derek Bailey, Han Bennink, Peter Kowald, Evan Parker, Alexander von Schlippenbach and others, became the vanguard of a specific European free jazz movement with roots in what was at the time a radical European political agenda. This avant-garde retained some of the sound of Ďoriginalí jazz, abandoned fixed scales and song forms and nurtured a firm belief in the cooperative spirit of collective improvisation. This was their primary focus. Whatever appropriation was involved is purely academic. A cultural artefact belongs to anyone who brings passion and effort to it.
Their freely improvised music developed in stages, jazz being only one among many influences. Integrated with the interactive aspects of jazz were the stricter rules inherent to composed music which were combined with an exploration of sound for its own sake. Specific combinations of players created special occasions where the accidental and the coincidental met. Few constraints existed on the performances other than the underlying assumption that there was always going to be a need for some kind of narrative. It was music pitched perfectly for people who loved the sound music made. Their ears were their main instruments even if there were times it all degenerated into a theatre of the deaf. It wasnít pure improvisation distinct from all influence. But the music revolved around hearing everything differently and at constantly shifting levels.
Whether we label Brötzmann a free player or an improviser is like the word jazz itself, relatively meaningless. Different forces are constantly redefining the word. What counts is what Brötzmann plays and what he plays means everything. Between the music and silence, a level of emotional truth is disclosed. We recover the sensation of life through hearing him. And Peter Brötzmann loves company. Able to sustain an album of music unaccompanied, he truly excels when working in a large or small group context. He has always been recorded on small independent labels with limited distribution but still maintains a high profile playing festivals all over the world and leading multiple medium to large groupings.
A label he co-founded with Jost Gebers, appropriately titled Free Music Productions (FMP), came out of that Berlin underground and represents his best work on record. The album titles obviously reflect a very personal sense of values. They range from the influential Machine Gun (1968) to Nipples (1969), Balls (1970), Free Jazz und kinder (1972), The Nearer the Bone, The Sweeter the Meat (1979), Opened, but Hardly Touched (1980), Low Life (1987) and on to Die Like a Dog (1993) and Little Birds Have Fast Hearts (1997). It is an impressive discography. These small historically significant labels such as FMP, Leo, ESP, Incus, hat ART are just as relevant to our times as the Blue Notes, Original Jazz Classics or Riversides were to theirs. Major labels in a conflation of art and commerce promote a particular sound to prominence by denying fire and passion from bursting out on the mainstream. It is these small labels and others like them with obscure catalogues that nurture the flame. They exist for people out there that want to listen to the alternatives and who maintain their right to a choice.
Representative of all manner of exhilarating muddle, the music on them sometimes sounded just like life. Poverty, politics and dedication were the defining principles of the time and it was reflected in everything from the cover art to the broad philosophy informing every act, influencing every decision, through to the performance of every piece of music. There are certainly difficulties listening to much of the output today, mostly associated with poor fidelity sinking many of the subtle textures woven into the dense sonic architecture. But these were cellar tapes and basement industries after all. To respond to what was actually going on between the musicians was the issue, critical to an understanding of the form and the reasons for it evolving in the first place.
Peter Brötzmannís music is a mirror of the times. It points to the greater social truth: that spontaneity is deficient in our modern cultural systems. This is its representative force. His music reflects society, itís success and failure, its fears and suggestions towards the new. Does it actually mean anything beyond the manipulation of sound? Because it points to a dimension beyond the mundane, it most certainly does.
His music is an assault on ordinary life. The underlying premise within the music is that life is tediously ordinary and truth only ever finds itself exposed at its extremes. For Brötzmann whatever violates the ordinary is a valid expression of potential alternatives. Brötzmann violates the ordinariness of life. His music emphasises the fact that ordinary lives are lived under nothing more than a tyranny of majority consensus. No one can ever look forward to anything truly progressive happening within that consensus unless they seek it outside of its constraints. Brötzmannís progressive music justifies its radical position within our culture. It would need a radical consensus before any level of popular interest could see it emerge out of its isolation and be heard. And there can be no radical consensus because it is a contradiction in terms.
Whichever way you look at it, Brötzmannís music is a representation of the unconscious underbelly of a society that has thrust its anxieties and fantasies into the safe keeping of a popular music tyranny. The ordinary has overwhelmed art and converted music into a eunuch of convenience and sterile commodity. Brötzmann will never represent the established order of things. He is a musical radical who doesnít give a fuck about the prevailing consensus. His music seeks to shift, change, revolutionise peopleís way of hearing things for people who want to hear things. Who after all are the arbitrators of taste in our society and who are they deciding for? Brötzmann may be pushing the outer limits of tonality and structure, but it does not end there. In some vital way it is a beginning. There is no logical, anarchistic end point of this quest for expression, neither in music nor in life.
His forward projecting and propulsively energetic music is everything most people are not. It doesnít help to throw your hands up and despair of ever understanding it. Thatís not its intention. It does not promise enlightenment. It is there to push people out of the corners of their life, out of habits blemished with mundane inactivity, into a defining moment of discovery and renewed vigilance. Be good to yourself and open the door to something different. Surprise yourself to just how accessible the tumult really is if you just let yourself go long enough to be wounded by it. The times demand vigilance once more and the call is out. Because with the decay of late capitalism and the rise of its ugly cousins, we cannot presume to know that what comes next will be better. We can only begin to guess what it might be. The thrill for Brötzmann is to play through the destruction. Witnessing the collapse of anything has always been interesting.
Brötzmannís early interest focussed on painting before his dissatisfaction there led him to music. He taught himself to play clarinet and went on to master the complete range of reed instruments. Born in Remscheid Germany in 1941, a meeting with Peter Kowald in 1962 set up a partnership which saw them, together with various drummers, playing everything from Mingus to Coleman via Stockhausen and Cage. 1966 saw the formation of the Globe Unity Orchestra with the impressive Alex von Schlippenbach, still a very much under-appreciated musician even today.
An association with Manfred Eicher of ECM records goes back to the heady days of Nipples (recorded at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg in April 1969). Eicher produced it for the pre-ECM Jazz by Post label and Brötzmann designed the sleeve. The players featured on it read like an honour roll of European free music. Then represented as the Peter Brötzmann Sextet, the album featured Evan Parker (tenor), Derek Bailey (guitar), Fred Van Hove (piano), Buschi Niebergall (bass) and Han Bennink (drums) together with Brötzmann on tenor. The association continued with an obscure ECM album, Heiner Goebbelsí Hörstücke (ECM 1452) featuring Brötzmann in an unusual setting, whilst on another, Leo Smithís Divine Love (ECM 1143), he was responsible for the sleeve design.
These days there is more to Brötzmann than the quartet Die Like a Dog. But anyone who is interested can read about his complex discography elsewhere. Today in Frankfurt the irony of the Brötzmann Quartet playing out the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Blockade might just be a reflection of how far the politics of the 60ís has infiltrated city hall. It may also have been a coincidence, which suits the music just fine. Of course, it was only a Quartet in spirit. William Parker, often referred to as one of the true keepers of the avant-garde flame, let it burn elsewhere that morning. Parker was a no-show. It didnít spoil the occasion. The attentiveness and the interaction were all the more evident as the trio made up for any perception of missing space in a celebration of pure sound.
Toshinori Kondo, a highly original trumpet expressionist, worked as a resoundingly effective foil for Brötzmann. His contrasting lines and effects-laden pocket trumpet an elegant and in some ways beautiful contrast to the rapacious whore of Brötzmannís beast. Responsible for several albums in his own right, nowhere do Kondoís startling effects impress more than within this Quartet. (Die Like A Dog FMP 64 & 97.)
The perceptive pulse of Hamid Drakeís percussion work was even more central to the sound of the Quartet as Trio. As an Afro-American his presence in the company of German and Japanese musicians completed the circle of global influences so important to Brötzmannís development. Dark corners and disfigurements of character separated their radical music from mainstream world music, too often tamed and homogenised with all the rough edges smoothed out and dulled. There was no mistrust of jagged rhythms and sharp angles in the bracing sound of the Quartet as Trio that needed distillation here.
But how do words convey any sense of the dynamics that animated this music? How do words explain the exciting pluralism and collaborative spirit of a form that allows all players equal space to develop their ideas? How does one communicate the dense textures, describe the open harmonic approach? This is engagement and interaction of the highest order, especially when one considers the duration of whatís going on here. This is not theme and solos jazz. Players who donít understand the intricacies of the form often create unsubtle dynamics inappropriate for an improvisational context. One soon realises just how high the standards generated by this music are. For a start, think about this. The demands of constant improvisation means these musicians are in a state of permanent creative alert. Basically maintaining a permanent state of creative alertness in order to be able to respond to the impulses surrounding you is an impressively elevated achievement. Of course it comes to some extent with fluency in your medium and familiarity with your instrument. But still, when it comes to listening, people want more than the music of experts honing expertise. So much of what constitutes excellence lies beyond the range of mere technique.
Brötzmannís solos are not always unpredictable in exactly the same way. Those listeners who shun free jazz for fear of just such episodes wonít have that problem with him. Exploring the thematic development that is always possible in free improvisation on every possible level, he never reduces decades of sonic exploration to a handy vocabulary of stock effects. In many ways the improvisers in Brötzmannís Quartet still represent the underground tradition of all great jazz, featuring sharp angles and unpredictable movements in the music in the same way early bop did. In too much jazz today the sharpness has been filed away to accommodate popular perceptions. Here is fury and edge reminiscent of the early cellar dwellers as much younger men. Here we have Brötzmann out of the cellar for sure. He understands that the sentiment propelling the music needs to remain consistent even above ground. Because tradition is always against innovation, the tension now is between conformity and individuality.
He doesnít say much on stage. He is too preoccupied expanding the range of contemporary music, investigating its enormous sonic possibilities. Most musicians who try to express themselves in words struggle to explain the sentiment behind their music. The form only suits those for whom the verbal imperative is equally important to the promulgation of their vision. Some such as Evan Parker, a man for whom the epithet genius may not be inappropriate, does so eloquently. He manages to contribute another refreshing dimension to our understanding of the form. But is there much more to say that the expressive power, liberating energy, dramatic possibility and the colossal sonic impact cannot? There is no need for talk in an area of music where the rewards other than the music itself are minimal. The music itself is ultimately the only satisfaction. True expression remains with the music in a way words can never be. These musicians could dedicate themselves to more traditional forms if that was their need but they would be tending the gardens of the dead. The paths Brötzmann and others like him tread are not the familiar accepted routes. They wander to discover the more alarming delights hidden out of sight at the back of the garden.
Why does Brötzmannís music, his way of talking in a Babel of languages, confuse people so much? Is it the foreboding exterior of the music or the soothing catharsis we fear? There is revolution within catharsis. There is a reason why the most progressive music has a harsh exterior.
Edvard Munch, a major influence on the development of German Expressionism with his most famous work The Cry (1893), symbolises the same modern anguish which typifies Brötzmannís approach. This icon of existential anguish expresses visually what Brötzmannís music explores through sound. It is a highly significant and appropriate European image. The psychologist Carl Jung once said that Art is a public contemplation, a working out of solutions to conflicts. Brötzmann is just doing what Jung expects him to do and doing it out loud.
So the question needs to be asked. Will there be a move towards this form of expression, towards improvised music, as people free their minds and become impulsive? Will we allow talent and innovation to become the dominant standard instead of the sterile populism imposed by cultural dictators? Jazz is 20th century music. New forms must undoubtedly emerge in the next. Either that or music will be pushed to the margins of peopleís lives and function only as commodity. The sound of music is no longer the issue. It sounds like everything now. We need to re-evaluate the social role of music. There is a veneer of activism inherent to free music that is sympathetic to progressive politics. The true end of history is the death of activism and involvement. With the subordination of the middle class to dreams and the elevation of the working class to the vast anonymous middle ground of mediocrity, the end of history may be closer than we think. Perhaps this is why the jazz conservatives have taken the jazz agenda back to traditional classical structures. They feel the need to start again, to stop the clock and hope it takes them somewhere else this time rather than their perception of the dissonant crowd it appears to thrive in now. To them it is over-wrought and representative of nothing. Perhaps they hope that this time another path will be chosen with a different end result. Perhaps they should go back to the basement and start listening all over again.
One last point needs to be made. Free music and jazz are associated with empowerment and expression from below. There is little funding or cultural support for improvised music whilst institutions like Opera attract massive funding for what are essentially dead defeated forms. It could be argued that Operaís past associations with ruling elites is the reason for its sustained elevation. Art forms such as Opera are pure spectacle with little or no emotional engagement. They impress people by their sheer scale. They function as if within a dream (or nightmare, depending on your point of view). It is a fantasy of little significance to those below the stage and even less relevance to the great majority beyond it.
Improvised music is by comparison a private small-scale exercise that imposes a fresh commitment between the performer and the audience every time contact is made. It encourages stylistic fragmentation and the refreshing tribal influences of sub-cultures. In crucial ways it is more demanding and therefore less appealing than most other forms. If we truly are on the verge of a very liberating epoch, the all-inclusive nature of improvised music will greet it enthusiastically.
Music is something we all carry within ourselves. And like all aspects of life, we refine and develop its appreciation without ever being conscious of it. Life and music are like that. Those who attempt to compartmentalise, control and define their life and their music in order to accommodate the dominant social formula, will continue to suffer the exhaustion of failure.
Too much that is contemporary music is nothing more than environmental pollution. It will always float on water. No one can expect us to be engaged or impressed by its habits. Peter Brötzmann doesnít float. It is not simply a matter of his intensity, but of the density. His protestations at the poverty of modern life continue to inform the sound agenda of his basement music. It is exciting today to see the survivors of those basements pushing their boats out further than ever before. There might be a void in counter-cultural activity but there is a lot of noise out there and more going on than we are led to believe. Some of it is musical. There would be a lot more if we recognised that the greatest human achievement is not competition but cooperation.
But that would be like trying to access the mind of God on a Sunday morning.
For the moment it is sufficient to respect Brötzmannís vision as a kind of spiritual enrichment. With fewer and fewer people wanting to take the risks anymore, it helps when one is picked up by the ears and launched into the adventure headfirst with the Brötzmann Quartet, sharing the excitement of a group working with something that is slightly beyond their control.
Peter Brötzmann surveys the crowd. The fringe activity he has been involved with all his life will always be a minority occasion. Exiting stage left after raising hell on a Sunday morning in Frankfurt, he appears humbled by what he has just put himself through. He has earned the affection of his audience. And he has his music and his freedom, both essential to each other. If he is bothered by the indifference shown by the greater public to his considerable achievements, he isnít showing it.
Die Like A Dog is dedicated to the memory of Albert Ayler. Iím not sure if that means anything. Brötzmann has been doing it for as long, for as far and for as wide as anyone and certainly doesnít need to worry about dedicating himself to anything other than himself anymore.
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