Bert Noglik (2010)

Instant Coffee in August

A quote from Eric Dolphy, in the back of my mind: “When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” Free Jazz musicians, balance artists of the ever-elusive. Free Music producer, field worker at the interfaces of the paradox. Capture something that was created for the moment and what you are trying to divest of its expiry date. But also conceive things, bring together, initiate, trigger. An amazing amount has been put down on paper about Free Music Production, which itself has published very little explanatory material about itself. And all that even though one places oneself at risk with every single sentence.

Wildhäger in February, written in 1988 and to be found on the website of FMP is, to my mind, the best text I have written about FMP. Jost Gebers would like a new one, another one. Once again I put off its writing until the very last minute, hoping that the pressure will open the doors to getting something down on paper. “Wildhäger in February” developed out of the closeness, the following text rather from a retrospective distance. Stimulants in order to bring back to mind: Instant coffee for a clear head and a record by Peter Brötzmann, Harry Miller and Louis Moholo. Harry, who left us a long time ago. Louis, who I met again only recently. Brötzmann, constantly on tour, ever present. The three of them out of the loudspeakers: the sound of a sworn community. Louis’ voice in my ear, about what has been achieved and what is going to remain, whispering, almost imploring: “Free Jazz, free jazz…”

FMP - in retrospect.
This sounds like a closed chapter. Obviously it is not, this much we know when we think of this music, living on. In terms of Jost Gebers’ achievements, the events, the productions and recordings, it is. A life’s work, documented on countless records, reflected in numerous studies and essays, with continuing effects as initiator.

Carefully feeling my way around the phenomenon of FMP, I recapitulate a somewhat overused statement (with a certain subjective résumé and unavoidable oversimplification). The founding of FMP marks a significant stepping stone in the process of self-discovery of European Jazz. Cutting the cord from the American role models and the inner dynamics, requiring more and more freedom, contributed as much as did the cultural and political climate in the Federal Republic of Germany at that time. Musical protagonists such as Peter Brötzmann, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Peter Kowald did not only push forward the musical development but also got involved in taking presentation, production and promotional channels into their own hands.

1968. No coincidence, that the Total Music Meeting was launched in the politically hot year of 1968, with Peter Brötzmann and Jost Gebers responsible for the original idea and realization. In the following year around Easter time, the second long term series of events was started, the “Workshop Freie Musik” and, in September 1969, Free Music Production. Jost Gebers, who performed on the first Workshop Freie Musik as bass player with the Donata Höffer Group, from then on dedicated himself entirely to the fortunes of FMP. With energy and skills aplenty, Gebers contrived to mediate between the musicians’ interests and, at the same time, give FMP a clear direction, a concept, a “line”. The forces behind FMP were the intentions of the musicians which only in part could be reduced to a common denominator. Only Jost Gebers’ head, steering in the background, however, has moved FMP forward in the cultural perception: with significance and sustainability. He was equally “servant” and “master” in equal measure and was constantly put to the acid test also in these regards.

Among the production principles of Free Music Production were the proximity to the musicians, the preference for live communication between players and audience alongside the studio work, the primarily “true-life” recordings as well as the workshop concept. With regards the latter, it was no longer about presenting music in its more or less preformed shape but initiating musical processes and allowing, through appropriate concert arrangements, several performances and/or intentionally initiated encounters, or by keeping the possibilities for encounters open, a “new” kind of music to develop.

Aesthetic goals. In terms of content, the direction of Free Music Production was defined through the actual musicians involved, their concerts, workshops and record productions (primarily realized by and through the responsibility of Jost Gebers). There was and is no verbally stated programme. Looking at the multitude of names involved and the associated styles of the individual musicians and groups, one realizes that a common aesthetic platform could only exist to a very limited extent. At the beginning there was the axis Cologne/Ruhr Area - Berlin. Since the early years the musicians forming the core of FMP were looking to make contact with musicians in Switzerland, Holland, England and wherever similar things had opened up. What at first seemed relatively manageable developed into widely complex networks over the years while there were indeed split-offs, as well, when musicians concentrated on their own or different distribution channels or, in addition, recorded for them, eg. for Incus, Matchless, I.C.P., BVHAAST, Birth, Po Torch Records and a multitude of small labels, later also Intakt, etc. Far beyond the first years, however, it was a definite (if not unspoken) concern of FMP to present concerts and workshops with the most important protagonists of free European improvisation and to document their work on recordings.

“European Echoes”, the LP of the Manfred Schoof Orchestra marked the beginning, both logically and almost programmatically - recordings of a large formation including many of the musicians associated with FMP at that time. Looking back just over the first ten years of FMP you discover an ingenious outsider such as Hans Reichel, the first acquisitions, or rather, productions involving Jazz musicians from the GDR, a solo album by Gunter Hampel and one of Karl Hans Berger, on the SAJ-Label also Americans in Europe the likes of John Tchicai and Steve Lacy as well as the Duos Willem Breuker / Leo Cuypers and Heiner Goebbels / Alfred Harth, Michel Waisvisz with Live-Electronics and many more. The “Main stream” of FMP in the aesthetic sense, however, was formed by the different playing constellations by and with Peter Brötzmann alongside the various formations of the Globe Unity Orchestra. Acoustic, free improvised music took centre stage which was not only groundbreaking and European oriented in its self-conception but also managed to distinguish itself from American Jazz through its sound. Far reaching and acting as a definite dividing line was the effect of the demarcation from any kind of electrified Jazz Rock, even in the case where this was moving into experimental/innovational areas. If the FMP was formulating an answer from Europe (this would be one way of understanding the title “European Echoes”), it was referring to the Free Jazz-development in the USA but managed to find a new foundation in its own milieu. Out of this force field - the connection to American Jazz on the one hand, a conscious attempt at countering, on the other hand - a very own dynamic developed.

Closeness to Jazz. Between ‘remote’ from Jazz (“improvised music”, at times approximating to the bodies of sounds from New Music) and ‘nearness’ to Jazz (while retaining certain basic Jazz gestures), Free Music Production predominantly tended towards an attitude to playing which, definitely, retained an affinity with Jazz with its rhythm-oriented inflexions as well as in the expressiveness of the tone formation and phrasing. After the “Kaputtspielphase” (‘play it to the death’), well known as the term used by Peter Kowald to refer to the temporary smashing up of the aesthetic coordinate system, a multitude of different ways have been pursued which justify talking of European Free Jazz. Looked at from a distance, the playing/music of Peter Brötzmann seems to me to express the “spirit” of FMP in the most concise manner. With the octet “Machine Gun” from 1968, the collective instrumental cry had turned into a manifesto. Subsequently, however, Peter Brötzmann left no room for doubt about the possibilities for differentiation of this “scream”. The title of the album “14 Love Poems” sounds to be programmatic. The European Free Jazz musician, of all people, whose playing was the most associated with power and energy, demonstrated (in his own way), poetic tenderness. The fact that Peter Brötzmann in interviews also referred to Billie Holiday seems just as remarkable as the fact that the “ Wuppertal guys”, Peter Brötzmann as much as Peter Kowald, also introduced a close connection with contemporary visual arts. Brötzmann had been an assistant of Nam June Paik. Fluxus as well as conceptions of art as those of Joseph Beuys had an indirect effect on the music. There was a preoccupation with the Jazz tradition among the musicians gathered around FMP, almost without exception, while any expression in its favour was at times suppressed, in other cases, ostentatiously emphasized. When the slogan “Jazz, no thank you!” was going around among certain “improvising musicians”, Alexander von Schlippenbach countered with an ostentatious “Jazz, yes, please!” A lot of mischief has been done with the term “Free Jazz”. Not only serious musicians but also frauds have taken advantage of it. On top of that - as with all these terms - there was the danger of being pigeonholed under the term “Free Jazz”. If we succeed in decoupling Free Jazz from a predefined (stylistically characterized) concept, the term still seems to make sense, in the sense Evan Parker formulated: “Free Jazz is not a historic phase but a living method.”

At times, as with many groups of artists, there was the impression of a closed circle in connection with FMP. And he who dared to ask must have felt like the pupil of a Zen master who gets the answer you must be a fool if you ask. There are things in connection with FMP which are self explanatory. And, looking back, to me one of the decisive factors appears to be authenticity, a far reaching unity of life, music and doing - even more important than a shared musical identity in a more specific sense. A foundation insisting even more on mental equivalence than on an agreement regarding style.

No pleasing.
Even though it seems difficult and problematic to characterize the diversity of musical approaches, it can be said with certainty what the music represented and distributed by FMP was definitely not. It never followed commercial success but was always and uncompromisingly oriented towards the expressiveness of the musicians involved. It was not about the “ Aesthetics of the ugly”, but in no way about something decorative or pleasing. No trompe l'oeil, but - in as much as it can be expressed through sound - often something like a relentless view of reality. At the same time, the expression of elation played a role, at times ecstatic escalations came up, and a ‘lifting off’ from the ground surrounded by an aura of Here and Now. Certainly also the shared experience within the In-group was corroborative in this respect. And even though or because the Free Jazz musicians didn’t want to be stars in the sense of entertainers (and also couldn’t become such stars because they didn’t take on a role or a guise but always, and only, presented themselves), there were also insiders who looked at them as idols. In general the group affiliation in Free Jazz circles probably reinforced a collective feeling of “Being different” - an often unspoken mental opposition to the musical and social “Mainstream”.

Closeness and diversity. To outsiders, the Free Music represented by FMP seemed now and then relatively monochrome. The opposite turned out to be true. Looking closer, listening closer it is possible to distinguish a remarkable differentiation in the musical languages - for example in the way Alexander von Schlippenbach, Irène Schweizer, Fred Van Hove or Ulrich Gumpert play the piano. Dozens of other comparisons could be called upon. It was exactly this concentration on a specific segment of the musical spectrum which brought forth this maybe unexpected diversity. Certainly, FMP represented only facets of contemporary Jazz. Taken as a whole, one could speak of dogmatism. If, however, one understands this limitation as deliberate focus, one realizes the wealth of special things it brought into being.

The ECM label took a different path, with different aesthetic premises. Even so the two labels seem comparable in a certain way - not only because they were founded in the same year, not only because Manfred Eicher and Jost Gebers changed over from musician to producer, but also because there was a common starting point: music, looking for new kinds of freedom in the process of improvisation. From there on, obviously different directions were followed. Nevertheless, here and there, one can detect connecting channels between the alleged musical parallel worlds of these two institutions. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that there are similarities also regarding the visual appearance. Like ECM, FMP as well has often given its products a certain kind of style creating a visual context. Whereas in the case of ECM it has more of some magically beautiful creation, with FMP the workshop character prevails.

Once again: Music and politics. There can be hardly any doubt that an important initial phase of European improvised music / European Free Jazz was closely linked to the cultural and political atmosphere of departure of the late sixties and seventies. The music managed to express a variety of moods, to convey, to reflect them, which in those days affected both the audience with its – in the broadest sense – alternative orientation and with a critical view towards the establishment as well as, naturally, the musicians themselves. In a document published by FMP in the early eighties Achim Frost wrote: “In its best moments, this music in fact reaches beyond the free, only intuitively connected collective of the musicians, and then maybe really turns into the ‚fiction of a socialist society’.” It seems unavoidable to point out that by no means the real socialism in the society of the GDR was being referred to, but an alternative to both diametrically opposed systems of the time. In a further documentation published by FMP “Snapshot - Jazz Now - Jazz aus der DDR” Wilhelm Liefland concluded a fictitious dialogue with the words. “Yep, this is Utopia. We draw it with the help of our instruments in the wind. All of us together.” If you will, it speaks for the musicians of Free Music Production and for Jost Gebers, that they did not allow themselves to be recruited, in any way, for a political programme - of any kind whatsoever. Whoever wanted to, could think “oppositionally”, East or West, but there were no statements made about it. It is and was about music, free of contents submitted from outside. All the same, this music had its own “contents” (unspoken and difficult to verbalize), and was on no account “l’art pour l’art”. Day to day life alone, existence, the atmosphere in West Berlin characterized by a variety of factors, made palpable the conflicts happening in the world every single day. And the kind of music, represented by FMP, was in no way conducive to having a stabilizing effect on the system.

FMP and the GDR is a chapter in itself. Jost Gebers has championed - in the broadest sense - musically allied Jazz musicians in the GDR by encouraging musicians from the West (initially with one day visas) to travel to the East in order to play with their GDR colleagues, by buying the licenses, by later also presenting concerts with musicians from the East and producing records with them.
Along with the most definitely positive fall of the Wall, utopian ideas have, in part, collapsed or moved into the far distance. I’m not sure if it would be going too far by saying that a certain kind of Free Jazz did not fit the times of the Cold War regarding the atmosphere. No, of course I don’t mean that it directly expressed this feeling of inner turmoil. Precisely because it didn’t allow itself to be instrumentalized in any way, it managed to survive, live on and maintain its values, to renew itself. It has, however - depending on the mentality of the ones who play it or listen to it - lost connotations. It is not necessarily healing, but it can be.

Innovation and wear and tear.
The fact that sounds which are relatively new or even revolutionary in a social, in a cultural situation, attract more attention than previously well known aesthetic structures is self-evident. Also in that respect European Jazz of the late sixties, the seventies and maybe also even the eighties was “more exciting” than later developments. The significance of the musical languages which were developed does not least depend on the persuasive power of the musicians’ personalities. The fact that many of them are still active on the scene allows this music to be experienced in an authentic manner. Will it turn into something “historic” when this generation leaves the stage? Certainly not, for the one reason alone that the younger musicians will take up the impulse. History, however, does not repeat itself and also whatever has a connection to FMP in the future will, and will have to, sound different.

Every thing has its time. In order to make this clear, taking stock can evoke a sense of calm or melancholia. On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of FMP Misha Mengelberg wrote: “Celebrations of this kind may be a little bit dangerous - you might think: something has happened in these 10 years - not totally impossible, what is definitely clear is you are nearer the grave.” Well - is it all just a way of passing time? This is what, in the end, any kind of art is, be it circus or opera. But, as a consolation, not totally impossible, not as a self-protective statement in one’s own defence, but a kind of certainty that something did actually happen.

A Personal View. My perception of FMP was through: the recordings which made their way to the GDR - sometimes via devious routes, through the musicians connected to FMP who played in the East (at “Jazz in der Kammer” and subsequently mainly on the events of the Jazzwerkstatt Peitz) and who I interviewed extensively at that time. Jost Gebers, as well, I first met in East Berlin, until I was allowed to travel to West Berlin for the first time in July 1988 (upon Jost’s invitation) on the occasion of a Cecil Taylor concert organised by FMP.
It was the last evening of the series of meetings of Cecil Taylor with European drummers: the duo Cecil Taylor - Tony Oxley. In my memory, this seems - even though I only was only able to observe this one instant - like a highlight in the history of FMP. It has come full circle. In the beginning there were the “European Echoes”. Now one of the central figures of American Free Jazz came to Berlin in order to play with the musicians from the Free Music Production stable. Maybe there was a bit too much idolatry in the air. European Free Jazz, after all, was long since in no need of any blessing. And anyhow, special constellations such as the one with Leo Smith, Peter Kowald and Günter Sommer had already demonstrated the intercontinental building of bridges. But the feeling at the Cecil Taylor Workshop was positive and grandiose and also a little bit as if it was the end of an era.

Jost Gebers once said to me that, as a producer and promoter, he only moves into hazard areas up to the point where he can recover the losses through hard work. Measured by the sum that was mentioned, he would have to work in a mine for a number of years. Jost Gebers was a social worker in Berlin and carried out his main job, FMP, in his “spare time” - “often until he dropped”, as Peter Brötzmann observed. I try to picture how much motivation it would require to take up the fight for its realization time and time again - after financial losses, after violent break-ins (there were quite a number of them) and, first and foremost, also after personal disappointments. In an essay about FMP Achim Frost wrote: “The FMP is a non-profit organisation where the requirement (of not making profit) unfortunately always corresponds with the reality (of having no profit at all).” After the many “active” years of work for FMP Jost Gebers now dedicates his time to documentation with much energy and diligence (in the form of publications / reissues and a website providing detailed information). In this way, a kind of music which was created for the particular moment is being documented in an authentic manner. And even though such different improvisers as Derek Bailey and Keith Jarrett have remarked that recordings of improvised music should be destroyed, the documentation at least creates reference points (in the consciousness) for an art which is as “volatile” as improvised music. Written on the imaginary flag waving above our heads is the sentence: FMP has created a ‘Sound’ manifesto of the era of European Free Jazz. This may sound like Agitprop, at least better than some advertising, and is in the end only just a statement. FMP - in retrospect. Here, a musician who starts up without hoping to change the world has no place.

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.