Ulrich Kurth (2009)

40 Years of FMP

The long nights in Quasimodo, in Quartier Latin or in Podewil, the venues of the Total Music Meeting in Berlin, represent to many veteran ’68-ers vivid memories of their own rebellious youth. When Peter Brötzmann’s sound fusillades still made one’s own anger apparent, a bearded sound engineer would be sitting at the mixing desk with a grim look of concentration on his face, supervising the audio tape recordings which would be published as LPs or CDs on the FMP Label (Free Music Production) a few months later. Jost Gebers, the man at the mixing desk, has documented and thoroughly preserved these creative times of free improvised music through his concerts and recordings.

Looking back
See what’s happening. There was no real planning, actually. You just did whatever suddenly happened to come up. Jost Gebers, the man behind FMP, remembers the eventful times of the late sixties with a certain kind of atmosphere of change in society and everybody was touched by it. It was the time of political and social upheaval of the post-war generation, revolting against parents and the general state of affairs. Current notions of alternative ways of living put the egalitarian utopia within reach. The big musical event of the era was the Woodstock Festival, where new technologies and utopia paved the way towards groundbreaking changes in the Media. “Improvisation” became the magic word; it strengthened its position within popular music and allowed for “cross-border” incursions, an impulse which advanced the “delimitation” of romanticism. Improvising was also the foundation of Free Music Production in the autumn of ‘69.

Prelude: In autumn 1964, the politicized black musicians in New York proclaimed the October Revolution in Jazz with Free Jazz concerts and free admission. In London, the Musicians co-op was founded with the objective of taking the economic existence into one’s own hands, without promoters and publishers. A double bass player from Berlin (Jost Gebers) and a saxophone player from Wuppertal (Peter Brötzmann) picked up the impulse and organized the first Total Music Meeting in 1968, in the Jazzclub ‘Quartier von Quasimodo’. Brötzmann’s invitation to the official Berlin Jazz Festival had been cancelled, after he could not guarantee that the members of his band would go on stage at the Philharmonie wearing the mandatory black suit. The four nights at the Quasimodo – parallel to the Jazz Festival – represented, in the midst of the frowst of the sixties, a beacon of the new times. Here, European working bands and ad-hoc-line-ups were playing. American stars from the Philharmonie were coming to do latenight sessions and jammed together with European colleagues in front of an enthusiastic audience. However, there were mishaps. The disappearing cash box with the entrance fees and the tickets. Gebers, who himself had participated as bass player, therefore came to the conclusion that an active musician could not take over the organization of a festival as well as play. He was further strengthened in this view when, half a year later, a frustrated audience broke up a concert during a Workshop Freie Musik in the Academy of Arts, the programme of which he had put together with Brötzmann. They expected blues rock from the Alexis Korner Band, the headliner of the workshop, but not free music, even if Korner was involved.

FMP: also an Improvisation. In summer ‘69 Gebers spent more time in Wuppertal than in Berlin. Brötzmann had the idea of launching a company for the new sounds, which neither had the chance of being adequately presented by commercial promoters nor with record companies. Once again, the initiative came from Brötzmann, if I could take care of whatever had to do with management and such. And then we sorted it out somehow, between us, and in September 69 I founded the company Free Music Production.

But how? Nobody had any idea of how to do it. I didn’t know you needed a trade licence and things like that. I only did all that years later and finally made it official. Over the first years, until the beginning of ‘72, Brötzmann and I, for example, did all the programming for the Workshop Freie Musik and the Total Music Meeting, FMP developed as a company by musicians, with the intention of realizing the demands for emancipation of their times: Self-determination and self-utilization of one’s own projects (publishing and licence rights), no more dependency on a producer.

The initial enthusiasm obviously suffered a bit under the prosaic daily routine. Other musicians became involved, contributing their ideas because FMP was not a private party. This is how a collective developed which entered into a partnership agreement in the autumn of 1972: Gebers, Brötzmann, Peter Kowald, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Detlef Schönenberg. Jost Gebers became the managing director. Decisions as to who to invite and record productions were made by majority vote. The collective harboured conflicts from the very beginning. Should one position oneself under the logo “Free Jazz” or “Free Music”? In this respect, Gebers prevailed. It was he who was clear about the fact that the Europeans had more roots apart from Jazz. Free Jazz – that would have been a narrow restriction.

But how does one define which projects are taken on for the label or as concerts? Obviously this involves judgements which can break up a collective. The curators themselves were musicians, i.e. competitors standing up for their own causes. They occasionally fell victim to the misunderstanding of seeing themselves as business partners who were first and foremost trying to accommodate their own projects. Up until 1972 Gebers and Brötzmann were the decision makers for the Total Music Meeting and the Workshop Freie Musik in the Academy of Arts, from 1972 onwards, it was the collective. This worked until the beginning of ‘76. Then it collapsed because we all had completely different ideas. At this point Gebers altered the structure and took over the company’s fate as managing director having sole responsibility, without any other partners, at the same time, however, not wishing to give up the collective as advisory body. This is how the somewhat floating state in decision making continued which the musicians have always reinterpreted differently. Many rumours about the company policy were afloat. Gebers continued in his official job as social worker in a youth club until the end of the company in 1999, thereby maintaining his independence and not turning FMP into a commercial working enterprise. Originally planned as a management company, FMP became a promoter (Total Music Meeting, Workshop Freie Musik and many others) and a record label, always operating on the edge of bankruptcy, only existing through the self-exploitation of its own personnel. Only from 1989 onwards was there public funding. Only the Workshop in the Academy of Arts had a budget, sort of managing to cover its costs, even if at a very low financial level. The aim of the work was to document a kind of music which was only just developing and had no lobby.

In February 1975, FMP managed to get supporting staff. Businessman Dieter Hahne moved from the MPS label in Villingen and took over the internal finance and organization management as well as public relations work for FMP. The economic situation of the company was so poor that Hahne quit after a few years, set up a record shop and looked after FMP in his spare time. However, when FMP received annual support from the Berlin Cultural Senate, he returned, his salary secure.

Photographer Dagmar Gebers has accompanied the FMP concerts and studio sessions with her camera and shaped the image of the label with her clearly structured black-and-white shots. LPs and CDs as well as posters and brochures show her work. She does not produce Jazz photos with tobacco fuming saxophone players but a visual language documenting the musicians focussed intensely on the working process in a serious and unpretentious manner. She does not wish to interrupt the musical work and takes her photos from a chair in the auditorium. This gives her the view of a listener, as near as. She has always ingeniously succeeded in capturing the creative moments and to furnish the listener’s imagination with story-telling images of faces and bodies in improvisation.

Why Berlin? The bass player Peter Kowald gave an answer to this question from a French journalist: It’s the high level of culture in Berlin and the high budget for the Arts in comparison to other cities in the Federal Republic.

Since 1989, operations were supported by the Berlin Senate through an annual subsidy of DM 224,000, an institutional sponsorship of the entire FMP activities, not only the annual Total Music Meeting. This sum is very small compared to the millions for the budgets of opera houses and museums. At least FMP had managed to reach the lower echelons of public funding. But business operations could only continue through the self-exploitation of its own personnel.

Already in 1992, Gebers sold the publishing house (FMP-Publishing) to Anna Maria Ostendorf in Borken/Westphalia. In the meantime, Gebers is living there, busy with the detailed documentation of the FMP years which he publishes on the label’s website. At the beginning of 2000 he also sold the label to FMP-Publishing (Anna Maria Ostendorf) and only continued to work for the label as person responsible for production. Since then, distribution of the label was through a licence agreement with cultural manager Helma Schleif. This agreement, however, was terminated without notice already in 2003. A lawsuit brought by Helma Schleif before the District Court and to the court of appeal was to no avail. In 2007, Gebers took over the company FMP-Publishing and once again began releasing CDs with a new distribution partner.

The archived inventory comprises about 140 CDs and well over 220 LPs. On top of that there is an archive of tapes from which Gebers regularly releases particularly successful recordings as CDs. This body of work is more than the legacy of a faded musical era or a ‘tombeau’ of uncontrolled screaming and roaring. Not least through four decades of FMP, free improvisation has developed its artistic standing in the art of improvisation with its inner relationships and found a great resonance in the response by the Media. The sound recordings demonstrate the wealth and development of the Art of here and now, or in Peter Niklas Wilson’s appeal: hear and now.

Translation: Thomas Watson

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