Bert Noglik (1988)

Wildhäger in February

Radepur im Februar. On the cover a little blurb: seven minutes and thirty-four seconds. Leo Smith/Peter Kowald/Günter Sommer on Touch The Earth (FMP 0730). A piece of improvised music, hovering over that nexus where heat and cold fuse. For that matter, "Ein Stück über dem Boden". 7'34". Moments anyone can grasp, can interpret. To your heart's content (discontent). Knowing the names of the most common tranquilizers in the GDR will help clarify the title. Well, maybe not. Anyway, you need a prescription for Radepur. Sometimes a beer helps; one's good, two's better. Jost Gebers rings me up, in January, and tells me to write something for his Booklet. Come on, write something for us. Well, okay, but what? How about my doing a portrait about one of the musicians? Well, actually something with a little broader scope would be better; something quite general, about the scene; it's undergone so many changes…..(No, Jost didn't say "scene", but that was his approximate meaning). Well, that's a possibility, but I've already dealt with that several times. And besides, it's all constantly changing; I'm not sure that there is a scene; maybe there never was one. Actually, you know the more I think about it, the more it seems my first idea is the one to go with; I mean, what could be more universal than writing about an individual? Listen, says Jost, can that one; do something where a lot of names come up. (Of course no name dropping, the thought flashes through my head). And Oh, says the voice on the telephone, I almost forgot: you've got to get it in, at the very latest, by the middle of February.

It doesn't have to be in an expository style. Well, that's a relief. Finally. In this leaden winter, that's not even a winter, the keys on my typewriter are a bit sluggish. A contour less transition. Bouts of speechlessness. That the present tense is always a transition from past to future is lousy consolation. Wildhäger (The People's Socialist Distillery at Meerane) instead of Freibeuter. Wildhäger in February.

Surrounded by the sounds of all the old FMP records. What's the next step? I have to be on guard against making a Big Statement. What was, was. And wasn't. And the music was, well, beautiful. It was all, well, a piece of life. And besides: "Beauty is a Rare Thing" (Coleman). "Do you want to know what's beautiful", Rühmkorf wrote: "Simply this: A couple of leaves blown together by the wind .../You and I, we'll model our lives on a archaic example that no longer works ..." >>rien ne va plus<< (Günter Christmann/Torsten Müller; FMP 1100). And still, one has to make an effort. You've got to give it your all, if the moment is to count. Anyone who swears allegiance to this music is a Now-Tripper. I'm a clown and I collect Moments. Something like that must be in Böll. The much quoted Dolphy on my mind. Scratch Music, Scratch Video. Scratching with words, quotes, moments. Scratching with reality. Reality woven out of improvisations. Last date. Eric Dolphy with Misja Mengelberg (Right: in those days he still spelled it with "sj"), Jacques Schols and Han Bennink. Recorded on 2 June 1964.

"…..after it's over, it's gone, into the air. You can never capture it again." An excerpt from a ten-minute interview faded in at the end of the cut "Miss Anne". At the end of the discography stands the sentence: Eric Allen Dolphy, Jr. died suddenly in Berlin, Germany, on Friday, 29 June 1964. You got it; that's the way it was; that's the way it is. We should know more about Miss Anne. Well, not necessarily. The alto sax pretty much says it all. Gone, into the air. An early composition of Dolphy's was called "Miss Movement". Derek Bailey: "Improvisation dispenses with preparatory or documentary aids, in full accord with the non-documentary nature of the music itself." One can describe states, situations; moments have to be experienced, recorded. The Mysterium of the Snapshots, old like Thelonious Monk's hats. Ear-witness. The ear is always open. Internalizing hEarmoments, on tape, on film. Creating models, knowing that each Moment is inimitable.  Movements, moments.  For Example/Workshop FreieMusik (FMP R1, FMP R2, FMP R3). Snapshot/Jazz Now/Jazz aus der DDR (FMP R4, FMP R5). Evanescent traces wrested from fleetingness. Sound-traces. The recording and rerecording of a process. Trotzdem und Dennoch (also on FMP 0840/50, there with the trio Peter Brötzmann/Harry Miller/Louis Moholo). However and nevertheless, the music continues, and it burns its way into your skin and Harry is not living anymore. And the nightly trips on country roads continue too. What Schlippenbach said almost ten years ago is just as valid today: "Thus the Free Jazz pioneers became partisans for their cause: by making the endless rounds in their shabby cars, by knocking on the doors of those inhospitable locales where their music was played." With due respect to those euphoric words, we shall proceed a bit more cautiously, speaking less of pioneers and partisans, and also less, or at least differently, of Free Jazz. In the meantime, no one can deny the continuing inhospitality of those locales; and of course, all would be lost without the struggle of the musicians and the warmth of their music.

I remember a late night discussion with Brötzmann. Cottbus, Hotel Lausitz, twenty musicians and their girl friends in one room. A call from the front desk. No, somebody says (I think it was Kowald, but my memory fails me here), we're the ones who should be complaining about the noise; you're disturbing us. Hardly had he put the phone down when John Stevens starts playing his trumpet again. Well, then Brötzmann says: not like that, not like some decrepit Italian street-lamp. "Nie Gesehen" (Ulrich Gumpert/Günter Sommer: Versäumnisse; FMP 0740); "nichtsdestoweniger" (Günter Christmann: Nevertheless); it's clear what this is all about: don't lead your life like that. If you're going to do something, then really do it right: burn; be a blowtorch, not some polite, half-assed street-lamp. However and nonetheless. In the interview with Thomas Mießgang, Brötzmann put it this way: "Playing the sax, playing jazz, is something that demands your utmost; it consumes your body; it consumes everything. You just have to live with that." Body and soul. Whereverywhere.

Here are the cuts on Versäumnisse, recorded in 1979: "Clap Canyon (nie gesehen)", "Hombre (nie begegnet)"; "Kalle Malle (nie verstanden)", "Scheihawa (nie getrunken)"; "McKenna's Gold (nie besessen)". Well said. Once missed, missed forever, to put it bluntly. And nevertheless: Music is not about words, not about titles. God help us if the book publishers discover the title index of the Bielefelder Katalog. Nothing will be safe from them then. And when that loses its appeal, they'll just pounce on Braxton's "Composition 113" and all his mathematical and graphical designs.

Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky recounts how he used to collect maple leaves. Early in the morning, in the park in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Once he ran into Rüdiger Carl, and probably Sven Åke Johansson and Hans Reichel as well. Possibly they were embarrassed to meet like this, each believing himself unobserved because of the hour; thus they approached one another: silently, with leaves in their hands. Allentown must be a suburb of Bohnsdorf. (See "Bohnsdorfer Holz" on FMP S-18 and "Bohnsdorf" on FMP 0140.) Played directly under the flight path connecting heaven and earth. Sven once said: I feel like I'm on a different planet when I'm here.

The words, the words, the words. Marion Brown: "I don't play words." Period, and then an addendum: "Words can be explained by other words. Music cannot be explained by other sounds." That applies to all music, even if it's still alleged that the analysis of European art-music should be the official cornerstone of any musical education. The fleetingness of improvisation shatters whatever remains of that belief; by its very nature, improvisation hinders documentation, takes offence at the record collectors, the producers, the public relations people. It resists everything that tries to impose permanence on the Momentary; that attempts to find, even in the utterly whimsical, a manifestation of a trend, of a general principle. And still, what can happen with sounds in space, what can happen to us in time - still, it really is so grand. Musical magic versus musical pollution. Vibrations, intimations of the Healing Forces.

If the essentials are really at stake, we properly manage to forget, quickly and mercifully, a great deal. Everything - this is what's so despair-inducing (perhaps also the most comforting) about it all - everything, not counting ourselves and the Moment, is not so earth-shakingly significant. Art Blakey phrases it more pointedly: "The moment you're born, you start to die. (...) We're not so important. The garbage collector is more important than we are, because if the garbage piled up, we'd all die. We all come and go and the sooner that sinks in, the better off everybody will be." Okay, but it's not so simple as that. It's crazy how the most subtle of musical distinctions are capable of unleashing such bitter controversies. As though the only thing involved are those very sounds and that very moment. And perhaps everything is important, even if it means that we really would choke to death on the garbage. "Gegenwart, Gegenwelten". No Gossip (Keith Tippett/ Louis Moholo; SAJ-28), Go-No-Go (Peter Brötzmann/Alfred 23 Harth; FMP 1150.) Go, No-Go: the last possible moment, in which a missile’s launch can still be called off. One is, as they say, Without the Possibility of Cancellation. In improvisation, as in life, nothing can be taken back. Cancellation is a non-acceptable option.

An excerpt from the novel Rayuela by Julio Cortázar: "Ronald had now put on an old record of Hawkins, and the Maga appeared indignant about the explanations of the music; they ruined it for her, and besides, they weren't what she expected from an explanation: a tingling of the skin and the need to inhale, deeply, presumably like Hawkins as he once again took up the melody….."

Jürg Solothurnmann tells of a course George List gave at Indiana University, in which List played a piece of music and then had the students make transcriptions of it. Afterwards, when he compared these with one another, he found that, while there was hardly anything really incorrect, some of the discrepancies were so striking, that you could scarily believe they were describing the same passage. So what do we in fact hear, when we listen to music….?

The pygmies sing at night in the forest to avoid getting lost. Every year the humpbacked whales sing a new song; each clan follows its own melody for twelve months, whereupon the old song is exchanged for a new one, quite different in structure from its predecessor. Capitol Records, acknowledging the whales as legitimate copyright owners, regularly sends residuals to the Whale Fund of the N. Y. Zoological Society. As far as the pygmies are concerned, it's doubtful that similar help for them will be forthcoming anytime soon.

Peter Brötzmann: "I've had one story in mind my whole life long, and that was Billie Holiday; did she ever have a voice! You know, to me, a sax is not that much more than a voice - actually less, in fact?" Billie Holiday: "People have told me that no one sings the word 'hunger' like I do; and they say the same about the word 'love'. (...) Knowing that means more to me than all the Cadillac’s and mink stoles in the world - and I’ve had my share of those. Everything I’ve learned from everyone everywhere is wrapped up in these two words. Before you can listen to some preacher tell you how you ought to act, you need a little food in your belly and you also need a little love. All I am and all I want from life goes right back to those two words." Billie Holiday: The Billie Holiday Songbook. Then silence. And then Peter Brötzmann/Solo: 14 Love Poems ( FMP 1060).

It's strange how tightly the stories in this music mesh together, as if they were all part of a single, unending narrative. Until the definitive end. Once Sam Rivers, on the verge of a breakdown, was performing with Billie Holiday: "I was having an attack; I broke out into a cold sweat, and was about to faint, when Billie saw what was happening and told me to go outside. She'd look after my horn, she said, just like she had for Lester Young whenever he had to go outside. When I came back, she sang 'Detour Ahead', and I heard the pain in her voice; suddenly the text seemed to be about me, and I began to cry."

Dolphy, Jr., died suddenly in Berlin, Germany, on Friday, 29 June 1964. The endless stream of words. Death, Berlin, Germany. 1964, a class trip to Prague, the early Joachim Kühn trio, the commencement of the Vietnam War. Far away today, still not fifty years after the capitulation: World War II. The History and the Moment. Twice German, many times German. Attempt at a synopsis, "Krisis eines Krokodils" (also on FMP 0240 with the group Synopsis). Radepur in February. In this leaden winter of 1988, which is no winter, in this landscape which is nevertheless cold. Wildhäger and Freibeuter. The beginnings of an essay. Or a novel. A confused disarray. And Jost G. and E. Jost will be horrified. And the reader will still want to know: Whatever happened to improvised music? Here's my answer: it established itself. Further: it's now branching off in different directions.

Established doesn't mean Establishment, and it certainly doesn't mean that the musicians playing this music (for which the term "improvisation" is far too simple) are thriving. Still, the music has in fact nestled its way into the nooks and crannies of the larger cities and built up a supportive network; one can no longer dismiss it as a passing fad, and it's existence has become securer, if not economically profitable. At the same time, no one expects a great musical revelation to emerge from it any time soon. After the novelty of a new idea or style has worn off, the important issue becomes refinement, and this is always more strenuous, both for the creators and for the listeners, than those initial grand, revolutionary gestures. For the purists, then: the possibility of refinement, the goal being not perfection, but concentration on the indispensables. As foil: Opening up to new influences, wild style-crossovers, at times garish collages. Cross cultural as the rallying slogan. Branching off in new (stylistic and international) directions.

For some time now, those European echoes of the late 1960's have given rise to echoes of their own, and the new American improvisers now represent a significant challenge. And while the survival of European improvised music seems more certain, increasingly often questions are being raised that no one would have even dreamed of before. If the one-time innovators wish to avoid becoming "classicists", then they must keep their creative energy (not to be equated with playing loud and fast, but with motivation and inspiration) at a high level. Those cross-cultural influences and cooperative networks help enliven the musical source-materials; that comparatively non-glamorous activity, self-introspection, essential to any analysis of one's own creative dynamics, can also help shield against stagnation. Musicians like Steve Lacy, Derek Bailey, and Evan Parker manage to resist constant pressure to be superficially innovative, and they do so without a loss of depth and richness. There's thus less and less to be bunched together under the catch-all concept "scene"; there's more and more that has to be considered piece by piece, individual by individual.

And yet one must acknowledge, unceasingly and forever: the fleetingness of Being and Doing, of desire, of despair. Coltrane's music, wrote Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka (thereby formulating one of the most splendid thoughts since Camus pecked out his early prose) - Coltrane's music "is one of the reasons why suicide is so boring". That's not an explanation; that's something from a purification rite. He then expounds (in reference to Coltrane Live at Birdland): "The music on this album is Live Music; who cares if it was created in a recording studio, or at Birdland, in front of all those uncomprehending clowns and drinkers?" "During the recording of "Ascension", the people in the studio - this is a much-quoted story - couldn't suppress their spontaneous cries. The holy drinkers searching for moments may have misunderstood the self-immolating, luminous Trane; or maybe they understood him perfectly (as perhaps, in the end, Liefland understood everything, even if he couldn't get it down on paper).

It's too early to say what it all adds up to. But: if you dig this music (whatever name we want to give it), you're in another continuum, in another aesthetic (in case that word is at all on target). You stand, precariously balanced, on the edge of so-called High Culture, in the same life, but with different chances. What counts is measured, not quantitatively, but by intensity of feeling. Meinrad Buholzer quotes Cecil Taylor: "Improvisation means the magical lifting of consciousness into the trance state."

Jazz/lmprovised music as cry, as adversary; as resistance to the mundane. Sound of the Cry. Also its structure. Social connectedness or individual mythology. The archaeological dig in the sediments of one's own memory. Political and thoroughly apolitical; at times, both simultaneously. Last Exit: It could be that each definition leads to nought. In the fast lane: The Noise of Trouble.

Duke Ellington: "There were marvellous musicians who had already made a name for themselves, and for 'Jazz', long before I ever turned up. 'Jazz' is only a word, a meaningless one at that; we haven't used it since 1943." Here he puts it more specifically: "The concept 'Jazz' is still used, with great success, but I really don't see how one term can cover all the different extremes of today's music."

The concoction "improvised music", allegedly so unrestricting, is hardly an improvement. For one thing: improvisation is more and more conjoined with notated composition. For another: the improvised components are in fact not nearly as free as one would like to think. Bailey: free improvisation "can be an activity of enormous complexity and refinement, or it can be a simple-minded succession of ideas: a life's mission or sheer dilettantism". An all-out effort and pure sham; 18-carat gold and cheap imitations thereof - all these cohabit the same dwelling, appear on the same stage. The criteria for quality aren't listed in any catalogue; neither can they be detached from situation and context. The magic of the Moment: "Let's lift the bandstand." That was Monk's musical imperative, so recalls Lacy. Simply lift up and take off.

From jazz to improvised music, to "just music", to: however you want to call it, so long as it (a tribute to St.Cage) effects commands, gets in the ears; and thus, to some degree be it small. Or large, participates in your existence. Listen man, listen. Aleatoric and organized sounds. Patchwork and sound strategies. Acoustical waste-products, innovation and recycling. When you have everything to lose, the world of sound attains unspeakable value. At the same time, we know that an acceptance of the individual paths through life precludes consensus in music; it raises doubts as well about the possibility of a mainstream, no matter how it might be structured. Even the of invoked allegiance to one's own cultural roots can be shaken, legitimately, be a genuine longing for experiences and influences from outside one's immediate sphere. In sum: fewer and fewer certainties.

John Cage chats with Brian Eno and even gives a performance with Sun Ra. Miles Davis gushes over Prince and Michael Jackson. Bill Laswell and Peter Brötzmann create a collage of deep-voiced street sounds. Fusion, if the term weren't so worn-out because of all those lukewarm Jazz-Rock compilations, could become the new slogan. Puritanism and sexual desire, poles of our culture, have gained in magnetism. But, as in any definitional continuum, there's more activity, more tension, than one gleans from the concepts of everyday discourse. Duke Ellington: "Categories are like the echoes in the Grand Canyon: Someone makes a dumb remark and it gets repeated a thousand times. If you're concerned that the person you're talking to doesn't understand what you're saying, sometimes you're forced to rely on things like style-descriptions, schools, labels - in short, pigeonholes, to help get your point across...". Right on, Duke. Terse, broad-scoped; in another place, he puts it even more felicitously: "I'm a singer." Beautifully said; more beautifully played (the so-called beauty; the so-called music). It's only a few leaves blown together by the wind...

A couple of beers in February, surrounded by the sounds of all the old FMP-records. In this February, which drives one neither to Carnival or to the typewriter, and where the thermometer never drops below freezing, what it all adds up to I can't say. Still: it's good that this music exists, through Coltrane, through others after him. (Now there's a proper subject for an essay: Which music? Which others?) Improvised/Creative Music (henceforth, any concept qualifies as dubious, if, when enunciated into the Leipzig Tieflandsbucht, it doesn't immediately return as an echo) - Improvised/Creative Music has achieved cultural permanence; no longer can it be thought away overnight. Continuing to develop on its own momentum, it draws energy and liveliness from its contact, its friction with reality. The preceding twenty year struggle has thus not been without its fruits. A great deal of the output (some trivial, some significant) has disappeared, evaporated, melted away like a succession of intensely lived moments. Nonetheless, this music, which once seemed so unprecedented (and unprecedentable), has created, inevitably, its own traditions. And: that makes everything both easier and more difficult.

This is the dichotomy of improvised music: Permanence versus liveliness. Here is the challenge: Containment or expansion. What the future is, thank God, no one can say. "The only thing that matters, in music and elsewhere", says Steve Lacy, "is Life or Death. Every style, every path can claim validity, if it alive!"

Jazz. Free Jazz. Free Music. Just Music. Derek Bailey, disappointed by all the descriptions, holds one of the most comprehensive statements about jazz to be that favourite expression of the old-timers: "I just play, man!" No other choice besides keeping the ears open, the intelligence receptive, one's own vibrations on standby. Possibly it's true that, in comparison with the beginnings, there's less expectation, less Utopian thinking in evidence. This much is certain: no less important than a sensibility for the sounds in the air are the concepts in the debates, the words that run through the brain; the images that run through the dreams and the films; the images that get under the skin.

Translation: Daniel Werts

from: Booklet “improvised music” by Free Music Production (FMP), 1988

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