Wolfram Knauer (2010)
Free! Music! Production!
"Free! Music! Production!" ... Somehow each one of these words represents a particular thing within the history of FMP, as the label is generally known listing, it among the series of three-letter-independent-Jazz labels - ESP, BYG, ICP, JMT, ECM. There are also quite a number of four and five letter labels, but they always sound more like whole words and, right from the beginning, they don’t hold that mystery of an abbreviation in themselves, and were also often not spelled as capitalised initials. "F! M! P!", "Free! Music! Production!", amongst all these three letter labels somehow has got the most challenging character, it seems, and it makes you want to shout it out, again: "Free...! Music...! Production...! What things could one read from these words alone.
Free: The postulate of freedom, of musical freedom in particular, at the same time a call for liberation, as well as this sigh of relief at the recognition of finally being free.
Music: The contents per se. It is not about business, about selling records, about charts but solely and merely about music. There is nothing more to say.
Production: Well, even if it is about music, the result of one’s effort still remains a product, documenting the results of the creative act of a scene which defines itself through the previous two terms.
At the same time, there are any number of connotations hidden within these three words which are hard to see at first glance, reflecting the social and aesthetic reality, or rather what felt like the social and aesthetic reality, at least of the sixties and seventies. What is hidden behind these terms is an almost nostalgic seeming dream. How, surely, do you produce free music? Hidden behind these terms are stories of a musical development which enabled European Jazz, as Ekkehard Jost most poignantly formulated, to find itself (Jost 1987: 9).
During the sixties, European Jazz had emancipated itself from the American role models – at least, this is what quite a number of musicians thought who, alongside the Afro-American tradition, turned more and more towards their own aesthetic ideals, from musical ethnological excursions into their own folklore via experiments with the methodology of contemporary (composed) music through to their own interpretations of the ideas of "free" and "freedom". In any case, from the beginning/middle of the sixties, more and more musicians were pursuing projects who were not so much looking for role models in the American avant-garde of the time but rather dedicating themselves to the individualisation of European Jazz.
The European Jazz of those years did not only follow new artistic paths, but also new organisational paths. Something similar had already started in the USA sometime previously: Since the early fifties, musicians had, bit by bit, not only attempted to take responsibility for the musical part of their career but also to take the business part into their own hands. They founded musicians’ cooperatives with the aim of keeping the marketing of copy rights, concerts and tours, records etc. in their own hands and thus under the control of the musicians themselves. One of the first musicians’ owned record labels of those years, for example, was the Debut label founded by Charles Mingus and Max Roach in 1952. The foundation of those self-controlled companies was usually accompanied by vociferous protests against the exploitation through larger record labels, club owners and tour managers. Along with Free Jazz there was a downright boom of so-called "independent" labels in the sixties. By that time, there was now an additional reason, on top of that: Through the development of Jazz in those years towards more and more complex and, at the same time, less audience-friendly forms of music, less and less of the large record companies signed artists from the contemporary sector. The label Impulse was an exception, publishing Jazz records by John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and other avant-garde players at that time. But also in the case of this label, it only worked because the head of the Jazz department had made a lot of money with some pop stars in other company divisions and was allowed this as a kind of ‘hobby’.
The foundation of several smaller labels in Europe in the sixties definitely was for similar reasons. The best-sellers in those days were the recordings of American musicians. European artists only sold if they were considerably pushed. In 1966, for example, the impresario Horst Lippmann persuaded the American label CBS to publish a series with projects of prevailing German musicians for the German market, a series which maybe earned the label a bit of prestige, but definitely not too much money.
In 1966, the New Artists Guild was founded in Cologne or Wuppertal. Musicians of the young German Free-Jazz scene were involved, the likes of Manfred Schoof, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Peter Brötzmann, Peter Kowald and others. In the same year some of the same musicians organised a series of concerts in an underground car park in Cologne, with the title "Jazz am Rhein". In those days, Berlin was (and is to the present day) host to the Berlin Jazzdays (today JazzFest Berlin), a festival founded by Joachim Ernst Berendt in 1964. The Jazzdays quickly ranked among the most important European festivals - even if only because they took place outside of any competition, as some American critics argued, namely, not in summer, as is customary with events such as these, but in grey November. At the initiative of Peter Brötzmann, the first Total Music Meeting was planned, organised and realised by Jost Gebers in 1968, a kind of anti festival which, in contrast to the Jazzdays did not want to represent the established scene but present young improvising musicians who, over the course of this meeting, were supposed to be prepared for spontaneous encounters. The Total Music Meeting was set up for musical as well as organisational improvisation right from the beginning: a confined circle of individual musicians was invited and not only put together in previously rehearsed bands but rather, in addition, were also encouraged to collaborate with each other as part of the actual concert performance. Apart from some American musicians, mainly European musicians played within the framework of the Total Music Meeting. And it happened again and again that musicians who met during the Total Music Meeting developed new projects out of the intensity of their encounters.
Around Easter 1969, a further event was organised: the Workshop Freie Musik. Jost Gebers, double bass player, later head of FMP and, already in those days, one of the main players behind the activities of the Berlin free scene, recounts:
"In 1970 the three-day event [of the first workshop] turned into a five-day workshop with public rehearsals, two stages in the exhibition hall [of the Berlin Academy of Arts] and a dyed-in-the-wool Free Jazz programme. Now this showed that our first attempt to take this kind of music out of the concert halls and the clubs into more open spaces was the right way. The constraints on the musicians and audience could thus be considerably reduced. We adhered to this concept until 1972. But also in this area there were considerable misunderstandings. Musicians and groups who wanted to return to closed concerts with a predetermined course of events from the open form of the workshop, groups from the audience who wanted to play along with or against things (the tin whistle industry must have had a massive turnover). However, both sides, the musicians and the listeners began to make better use of the possibilities." (Gebers 1978)
In September of that same year, and once again through Brötzmann’s initiative, the company Free Music Production (at that time still without the short form FMP) was founded by Jost Gebers. Up until the beginning of a collective leadership, all Free Music Production projects (ie including record productions as well as concert programmes) between 1968 and 1972 arose out of the cooperation between Brötzmann and Gebers. On October 1 st 1972, the programme planning was placed on the more firm footing of a collective which, apart from Brötzmann and Gebers included Peter Kowald, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Detlef Schönenberg. The musicians not only wanted to organise their own concerts within the framework of FMP but also produce their own records. The collective lasted until 1976; after that time, Gebers was solely responsible.
The first record on the young label was called "European Echoes" (FMP 0010), recorded by the Manfred Schoof Orchestra. Some of the most important young improvisors of the European Jazz scene were present, playing with Schoof: the musicians of the Peter Brötzmann Trio, the Manfred Schoof Quintet and Irène Schweizer’s trio. In 1970, a production with the line-up of Peter Brötzmann/Han Bennink/Fred Van Hove was published as the second recording with the title "Balls" (FMP 0020). During those years, FMP, alongside its own recordings, also incorporated recordings into its catalogue which had previously been self-produced by some of their associated musicians, including Brötzmann’s "For Adolphe Sax" (FMP 0080 recorded in 1967) and "Machine Gun" (FMP 0090 recorded in 1968).
Alongside the record productions, FMP was responsible for the programme and organisation of the Total Music Meeting and the Workshops Freie Musik. In the late seventies and early eighties, the entire programme structure was more and more organised by Jost Gebers. He formally became head of the label – as a sideline alongside his main job as social worker. In 1978, Gebers describes the structure:
"Every year, the Academy of Arts provides us with the financial means, the space, the staff and its know-how, but leaves the entire concept and the realisation to Free Music Production down to the last detail. For some years now, there has been additional financing through the sale of broadcasting rights; this means we offer complete programmes, in accordance with our own intentions, to the ARD radio stations. I think this is a unique example of collaboration between an institution and a collective of musicians." (Gebers 1978)
And in 1989 he says: "Even after the structural changes within FMP collaboration between the musicians and myself continued. The musicians involved are directly included in the preparation and realisation of the current project." And he talks about some of the organisational problems. "Some people think of a few interesting records when they hear FMP. What’s behind all of it is often unimaginable: the permanent hassles for money, battles about projects, the clinch with the tax authorities, recording technique, book-keeping, and organisation." (Noglik 1989)
The concept of FMP was successful from an artistic point of view because FMP tried to fit its programme in accordance with the musicians’ demands. However, the starting point was a concrete idea of what "free music" was supposed to be, how "free musicians" were supposed to work. Anyhow: the musicians remained true to FMP, as promoter and as a record label which surely was not able pay the best money or fees but in return was providing continuous work in the area of concerts and recordings for almost 30 years. In 1978, Steve Lacy expressed his satisfaction with FMP and its projects:
"Each time, the conditions were good! Not just one concert, but 3 sets on different days, giving us a chance to present a variety of pieces and performances, and for the public to understand better the music, by seeing and hearing in several contexts, and different vantage points. Always an attempt was made to achieve good sound, and to photograph, record and otherwise document the music, so that FMP is a sort of living history, as well as a set of archives of what happened in Free Music in the last 10 years." (Lacy in quote Gebers 1978)
Presentation and documentation: These were in fact the most important lynchpins of FMP’s work: Jost Gebers wanted to present and document the status quo and the development of international free music: under the most favourable concert conditions, the most favourable line-ups, the best possible recording equipment etc. This self-assigned task of documentation first became evident in 1978 when FMP gave itself a kind of birthday present in the form of a three LP set and a detailed booklet (For Example) documenting FMP and its projects. However, this task was to become even clearer in 1988, the year Berlin was the "European capital of culture". FMP was to take advantage of the month-long stay of the pianist Cecil Taylor, with concerts in the most diverse line-ups, creating a unique documentation which would result in a cassette of 11 CDs (and more publications to follow) documenting the concert programme of the exceptional pianist. "Cecil Taylor in Berlin" is maybe the most impressive documentation of the work of a single musician at one particular point in time, in Jazz. No American label would have attempted such a project - and also in Germany, the long standing experience and conception of FMP was necessary to convince the Berlin Senate of the importance of such a project.
FMP was a Berlin based label, and Jost Gebers organised contacts with the GDR already fairly early on. Musicians the likes of Brötzmann, Schlippenbach, Kowald, Bennink, Mengelberg and others travelled to the east part of the city on a visitor’s visa, where they performed together with their colleagues from the East on Monday sessions in the Melodie-Bar of the Friedrichstadt Palace or later at official concerts and workshops. In addition, FMP also published some important recordings of GDR musicians in the West - partly as their own productions, partly as co-productions with the state-owned Amiga label, for example the LP "Auf der Elbe schwimmt ein rosa Kro kodil" (FMP 0240) of the Zentralquartett (at that time still called Synopsis), recorded for FMP in 1974 by the GDR radio.
One has to be aware of the wheels within wheels at this point: a musicians’ coop decides to take matters into its own hands. A label with a full-time manager is singled out over the years which has, through its evolutionary history and through Jost Gebers’ strong will, the backing of the musicians, "street credibility", as one would maybe call it today. The idea, (and also the continuing ideas for the projects), come from the musicians, but Gebers holds them together, pottering around in the background in order to be able to realise them, establishing links, creating structures, which allow the musicians to devote themselves to their art. It is the ideal of intermeshing of organisational spirit and creativity, based on mutual trust and respect for the experience of the corresponding side. It is, as it so often is in the arts (or in real life) the work of a lifetime, born out of the idea of the collective and pursued with the idealism of somebody who never lets up, who out of conviction hatched out an idea of free music which for its part needs freedom in order to develop. You just have to imagine how Gebers, year after year, wrote letters to high-ranking cultural bureaucrats in East and West in order to finance his projects, to secure venues, or just make possible for musicians to travel (from East to West Berlin, in particular). The relationship was certainly not without friction: Neither Gebers nor the musicians who were connected with FMP over the years, are backward when it comes to stating their opinion. There were arguments, disputes concerning aesthetics as well as the business side of the label and the FMP activities. At least there was one thing nobody ever accused him of, unlike the cases of other heads of labels, and that was that he was doing it for the money. On the contrary, Gebers put a considerable amount of his own capital into the FMP activities.
FMP is music history; it is, at the same time, part of the cultural history of Berlin as a divided city. The landmarks of the label’s history coincide with the important stages in Berlin’s history: the student revolts, the cultural rapprochement between West and East, the fall of the wall, reunification and, closely related to it, the cultural upheaval. FMP has reacted to all these developments, it has accompanied them, has integrated them into the network of improvisational encounters. One distinctive feature of the FMP programming policy was the fact that actually all its activities were closely interconnected: the concerts, workshops, recordings - one thing led to the next, brought about the other. What Jost Gebers had to juggle with was a fragile structure, in danger of collapse as soon as one of the elements involved threatened to give way. The fascinating thing about all this juggling, as the American musicologist Mike Heffley describes in his extensive documentation of the Berlin scene around the FMP label (Heffley 2000 / Heffley 2005), is that the label manages to hold its own, even though it pursues a policy of artistic quality rather than market objectives.
However, with the fall of the wall and the consequential political and economic developments and their effects on culture, things became even more difficult for free music and its activities.
The range of music represented on FMP ranges from hard-core, “uncompromising“ Free Jazz via sound tinkering through to the critical-ironic handling of the tradition or traditions. There are a number of examples within the FMP catalogue, and it is in fact not only Sven-Åke Johansson’s relish of words and percussion acrobatics which literally inspire a smile but, at the same time, somehow suggest that you can deride society with an ‘artistic’ laugh.
However, God only knows that European Free Jazz is not merely fun and entertaining. There is also the other extreme, the one of a kind of music with the aesthetic aim of educating the listener rather than entertaining him. The kind of music which presents itself as even more serious than the ‘official’ serious music. There are musicians to whom their own experimentation seems to have higher priority than its communication to the audience. Without an audience, however, even this music would not work. And, on the other hand, since the seventies, there has also been an audience which didn’t want this kind of communication, didn’t need it, and maybe was even proud of being among the initiated, who understood what it is about and who knew how to appreciate the seemingly uncompromising Free-Jazz-excesses.
"Uncompromising": a word willingly used in connection with FMP. The music is uncompromising; they say and mean that it makes no attempt to satisfy the expectations of the market but only those of itself. This adjective is often meant as the highest praise in Jazz: "uncompromising"! But is it really so desirable not to accept any compromise in one’s music? Isn’t the very activity of the Jazz musician, the musical communication, playing together with other musicians, already the foundation of every compromise? That it is about an aesthetic compromise is the standard objection one just cannot make as an artist, in order not to betray the cause, to remain true to oneself. Mike Heffley talks about a concert planned by FMP in 1996, where Steve Lacy and Cecil Taylor were supposed to perform together. Lacy arrived with a concept planned down to the last minute, which crossed contemporary poetry with music which was, to a large extent, composed; Taylor, however, improvised from beginning to end. In the end, Taylor refused to play with Lacy and Gebers fully understood his decision, since he as well saw Lacy’s bow to the high virtues of literature and composition as a misinterpretation (Heffley 2000: 605-606, foot note 16). In this sense, this unwillingness to compromise can prevent communication even from the beginning. This, as well, is no judgement, but merely a statement.
However, unwillingness to compromise in music is a double-edged sword. Often enough it emanates from a Eurocentric rather than an Afro-American understanding of culture. That is to say the latter always includes the reaction of the audience, alongside the musical direction. From their tradition, American musicians see themselves as intermediaries between tradition and avant-garde; they carried on the tradition just as much as they explored new ground. Their unwillingness to compromise therefore, at the utmost, lay in their determination to go their own way within this continuum of the tradition. The European reading is, however, that the unwillingness to compromise often resembles more an aesthetic manifesto rather than, as a matter of course, something arising from within itself. Although also with music, a balance between seriousness and the fun of the whole thing is required, as is the case in almost everything in life. Even revolutions have to be planned. Whoever was present at the Total Music Meetings can tell a few stories about how the “unwillingness to compromise” was part of the atmosphere of the events. The stories may sound a bit nostalgic at times. However, as with all nostalgia: This is actually how it was: There was a time where music was, at the same time, a philosophical manifesto, was supposed to help to change thinking. There was a time, when long and complex improvisations did not put off, but spurred on. Also at that time, the music was connected to externals, for example the spaces the concerts took place in, to the conversations entwining around them, always with the communication which was possible between the musicians and the audience allowing the artists to become touchable in the true sense of the word.
The balance between musical communication which can be experienced and its documentation, between the actual physical process, the dialogues, screaming it out loud, the simultaneous listening and witnessing and the subsequent re-listening and opportunity to refashion it is what Jost Gebers and FMP wanted to achieve, a balance in musical communication. And, by means of the documentation of the seemingly uncompromising, one was able to identify the consistency of the developments as much as the side tracks, creative meanders which in the end they turned out not to be, because creativity requires exactly these kinds of meanders in order to check out the possibilities.
Yesterday and the present
You can still hear the connotations that FMP has cultivated over the years. The idea of freedom has changed in the meantime, in Jazz as well. The music still takes centre stage in the creative process, but is no longer necessarily in complete opposition to the market. Times have changed and along with them also the conditions for the music. Free improvised music still has its justification, is still producing exciting results, still has an (albeit limited) market. Musicians still have the need to play, to find their audience and to capture and disseminate the findings of their creative path. With the introduction of the Internet, however, structures for distribution have fundamentally changed - and I’m not even talking about downloads and the other worries of the commercial music industry. The introduction of the internet made it easier for musicians to remain present with all their projects, no matter whether it is that they sell their latest CDs on their own website, offer individual titles or a complete album for download or make available titles of their current programme on their MySpace page which haven’t even been published yet on CD. It is not a question of cost anymore to make live recordings which are worth hearing even without elaborate technology. And CD productions can be handled either via a label or as self productions within a reasonable budget - these days; Jazz recordings are, often enough, no longer sold in shops anymore but mainly at the concerts of the musicians anyway.
However, there is one point where labels are still ahead of the new distribution structures: In the best case, they are a kind of seal of approval for the music produced by them. Good labels have managed to develop their own profile which then stimulates the listener (= the buyer) also to take risks with this label, to listen to musicians and projects they maybe never heard of before. ECM, Enja, ACT have succeeded in doing this, by the freer (and European) standards also ICP, BVHAAST or Hat Hut, Cryptogramophon in the US and many other labels – and, in fact, on completely different musical territories. Today, FMP may rather represent the creative past than the aesthetic discourse of the present, also because the last recordings of the label (with a few recordings after 2000) were recorded in 1999 and Gebers since then has meticulously dedicated himself mainly to the documentation, that is to say the archiving of published and unpublished tapes, the reissue of important recordings including previously unpublished tracks, planning and realisation of his website where every single album of the label is documented and a great number of source texts regarding FMP can be referred to. However, FMP may rather represent the creative past than the aesthetic discourse of the present, because the work of the label and Jost Gebers’ work have been consistent also in this respect. With all the diversity of the music documented on FMP you also have the feeling of a particular aesthetic consistency, as it were, you almost know what tones, sounds and musical communication channels are being talked about, when it is about "FMP". Because FMP, most certainly even up till now, stands for a creative tension placing more emphasis on the unpredictable than on the predictable. Because the kind of free music FMP has been representing since the end of the sixties also gives rise to a certain freedom in the 'ears'. Because you still want to shout out "Free! … Music! … Production!"
Gebers 1978: Jost Gebers (Hg.): For Example. Workshop Freie Musik 1969-1978. Photographs, Documents, Statements, Analyses, Berlin 1978 (LP Booklet: FMP/Free Music Production)
Heffley 2000: Mike Heffley: Northern Sun, Southern Moon. Identity, Improvisation, and Idiom in Freie Musik Produktion, Middletown/CT 2000 (PhD thesis: Wesleyan University)
Heffley 2005: Mike Heffley: Northern Sun / Southern Moon. Europe's Reinvention of Jazz, New Haven 2005 ( Yale University Press)
Jost 1987: Ekkehard Jost: Europas Jazz 1960-80, Frankfurt/Main 1987 (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag)
Noglik 1989: Bert Noglik: Ball Pompös, Arte Povera, Daily New Paradox. About Free Music Production (FMP), in: Jost Gebers (Hg.): 1969-1989 Twenty Years Free Music Production, Berlin 1989 (FMP/Free Music Production)
Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton
from: Book of the Special Edition FMP in Retrospect
The copyrights remain with the aforesaid sources and/or with the authors.