Bill Shoemaker (1985)

Free Music Production

Though the role of improvisational musical forms within the ongoing political struggles of African-Americans has been well documented, it has been overlooked, for the most part, in English-language forums that the German free music movement has similar overtones. Yet, as is the case with African-American music, a full appreciation of this potent musical movement can not be realized without a familiarity with the political environment that nurtures it.

Essential to this analysis is the concept of Germany being a divided country occupied by two opposing armies, each, in the course of forty years, establishing a self-perpetuating political status quo for its sector. So entrenched is the idea of a permanently divided Germany within the respective strategic establishment in Washington and Moscow that a movement “from below” – a people’s movement – for reunification is theorized to be a flashpoint for theatre warfare that would, presumably, escalate to nuclear proportions. Hence, dictated by m(utually) a(ssured) d(estruction) logic, missile inventories are upgraded, Erich Honecker’s strings are yanked, aborting his Bonn visit, etc.

In December, 1983, as American Pershing missiles were being deployed throughout Western Europe, this writer spoke informally with Alexander von Schlippenbach, Albert Mangelsdorff, and Paul Lovens, who are among the avatars of free music in Germany. Their protests of the deployments were forceful, articulate, and, morally, correct: the superpowers inch towards using Germany as a testing ground for immediate range weapons and limited nuclear war theories, sending reverberations throughout West Germany political and economic life, of which reduced government support for the arts is a by-product.

Cuts in 1984 government subsidies for the arts halted the recording activities of Free Music Production, based in West Berlin. For fifteen years, the prolific FMP catalogue has meticulously documented free music, generally, in Western Europe, with particular emphasis on German improvisers. Though FMP continues to distribute its catalogue and those of other, artist-produced concerns, as well as produce concerts, the suspension of new recording projects came at a politically sensitive time in West Germany. Scandal plagues the government of Helmut Kohl, Ronald Reagan’s staunchest continental ally, at a time when currency rates are not favourable to the mark, the backbone of the problematic West German economy. Obviously, the West German government calculated that the cuts would produce little political backlash; but what is less obvious is whether or not the government perceives subsidies such as FMP’s as seed money for future political opposition on a broader scale.

Self-determination struggles require a cultural underpinning of political constituencies; the spiritual epitomizes the cultural underpinning of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Political solidification is the agenda of post-war German avant-garde art forms as diverse as Joseph Beuy’s social sculptures and Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra. Heard in this context, German free music begins to take on the socio-political dimensions found in such classic African-American compositions of the early sixties as Freedom Now Suite, Fables of Faubus, and Alabama. Perhaps, in the face of the emerging Green Party, the missile deployments, and political scandal, this is what the government heard in the music.

Regardless, FMP’s suspension is potentially permanent, and it is the musician’s task to provide alternatives, and generally to do more with less. Certainly, no single artist-produced label will match FMP’s output in the near future, as even well-established labels like Lovens’ and Paul Lytton’s Po Torch are currently geared to one or two new titles a year. Even if FMP resumes recording, (indications are that a reduced production schedule is imminent), it needs more assertive distribution in North America, a rational reprinting policy, and graduated artist royalties scales that will facilitate future projects (a way of doing more for less, particularly for the emerging musician).

Regardless of FMP’s fate, most of the label’s established will continue to record, if only on a less frequent basis. Japo, having already released three Globe Unity albums, should be in a position to maintain a modest release schedule with the poll-winning “big band”. Schlippenbach and Lovens also have Po Torch for an outlet, particularly for the quartet featured on “Anticlockwise”. (--)Yet, major exponents of the movement such as Peter Brötzmann and Peter Kowald could be effectively muted for indeterminate lengths of time (Kowald has recently recorded with two American free music groups, Borbetomagus and Cool and the Clones).

So, as 1985 begins with a bang in Heilbronn, this recommended sampling of German artists on FMP’s last releases may bring the real struggle into focus:

PETER KOWALD/MAARTEN ALTENA – TWO MAKING A TRIANGLE – FMP 0990 – Between the obligatory scratchings and overpluckings, there is a surprising amount of indigenously inspired materials here, serving as the basis of this summit between Europe’s most uncompromising bassists. Kora-like ostinatos, deltaesque shuffles, and Oriental pentatonics punctuate essays in textural interplay. Altena’s doubling on cello is an added facet, as the Dutch bassist’s melodic sensibilities come more to the fore.

ANDREW CYRILLE MEETS BRÖTZMANN IN BERLIN – FMP 1000 – Recorded during the 1982 Workshop Freie Musik, this encounter between Brötzmann and the masterful Cyrille underscores the free music axiom that energy creates structure. While Brötzmann’s Wolf Whistle is a vivid foray in flat-out intensity, it is Cyrille’s Quilt that contains the program’s most memorable moments; the opening section, featuring Brötzmann’s facile multiphonics dancing over Cyrille’s deceptively simple hand percussion, is particularly striking.

SCHLIPPENBACH QUARTET – ANTICLOCKWISE – FMP 1020 – The edges of Schlippenbach’s trio/quartet music have gradually feathered over the past dozen years, a process benchmarked by “Anticlockwise”. Evan Parker’s careening tenor prompts a dramatic sweep from the group that echoes Coltrane’s last period, as on Ore; his multiphonic-oriented soprano style elicits a more spiky rapport. The exceptional American bassist Alan Silva makes an intriguing debut with the quartet, his incisive phrasing and nuance-filled arco technique serving as a lynchpin between Schlippenbach’s densities and Loven’s asymmetries.

PETER BRÖTZMANN GROUP – ALARM – FMP 1030 – This 1981 Brötzmann nonet includes Frank Wright and Willem Breuker rounding out the reed section, trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, trombonists Hannes Bauer and Alan Tomlinson, Schlippenbach, the late bassist Harry Miller, and drummer Louis Moholo. Clocking in at thirty-seven minutes, the title piece affords a wide contextual variety for solo and collective statements; even so, the fireworks seem to end too soon. Wright’s jubilant blues Jerry Sacem is included as a rousing encore.

from: CODA Magazine # 201, April/May 1985. Used with permission. All rights retained by the author.

The copyrights remain with the aforesaid sources and/or with the authors.