A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

The title of Peter Brötzmann’s book of conversations with Gerard Rouy, We Thought We Could Change The World (Wolke Verlag), reflects the powerful, and only partially naïve, optimism of the late-‘60s counterculture, whose rebellious spirit created political, social, and artistic shockwaves which, in the United States, while falling far short of its hippy-utopian ideal nevertheless ultimately led to the end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, but in Germany, a nation divided by the Berlin Wall from 1961 to late 1989 and crippled by post-WWII conditions both geopolitical and psychic, had less tangible effect. And yet, although Brötzmann acknowledges that “... of course we learnt very fast ... that it was just a dream,” it was this passionate, radical, compelling initial conviction that set him on the rocky but rewarding path which he has doggedly followed for over 40 years. Brötzmann’s music, commonly characterized as either nihilistic or cathartic, has changed the sonic landscape, but in ways not necessarily limited to those on which his rambunctious reputation rests. There’s more to the story than meets the ear.

In recent years, Brötzmann’s parallel career as a visual artist – to which he has since the ‘60s been equally committed, but chose not to actively publicize – has received more of the attention it deserves. Though he maintains that his artwork and his music derive from distinct impulses – that is, one is an individual, introspective response to visual imagery, while the other is a primarily collaborative, expressionistic performance – they share values and symbolic similarities which can illuminate the rich complexities of Brötzmann’s work in each discipline. To begin, both are typically based upon improvisational methods; designs are not predetermined, intuition and spontaneity shape the details, accidents are accepted as an authentic part of the procedure. The visual mediums in which he works are unusual and varied: boxed constructions and assemblages of wood, metal, paper, foam, feathers, and other unconventional, found materials; paintings where broad, scraped, slathered, opaque, or blatant brushstrokes suggest storm clouds, moonscapes, rock formations, ravens, fish, or flyswatters; subtle ink or watercolor drawings of flowers or imagined objects; woodcuts of humans in awkward or dangerous environments. The techniques used are often intentionally crude, blunt, forceful, and he appreciates the distressed quality inevitably caused by age or wear. For comparison’s sake, think of artists like Antonio Tápies, Joseph Beuys, Alberto Burri, and Jean Dubuffet.

A connection can be drawn from the manipulation of the surfaces of his artwork, with basic materials often roughly handled and combined in unorthodox effects, to the overtones, microtones, smeared pitches, and gruff tonalities of Brötzmann’s instantly identifiable instrumental sound – that is, in both cases extremes of color (usually earth tones or, musically, alternately dark, subterranean moans or pinched white squeals) and texture (thick slabs of sound, or pitches of uneven pressure) define their most immediate, palpable qualities. Critic John Corbett, particularly attuned to Brötzmann’s history and aesthetic, has located a “tactile brooding” in his artwork, a marvelous description that likewise corresponds to, musically, his less blustery, more introspective solo and small group perspectives. One wonders if his attraction to these dark, coarse, even bitter qualities and found materials may in part be traced back to the environment in which he was raised – born in 1941, he was a child during the last years of the war, and matured during the years of occupation thereafter, when Germany was a bombed-out shell of a civilization, cities were mostly piles of dirt and rubble, people scavenged for necessities and had to improvise to survive. Then too, Brötzmann talks to Rouy about how his generation’s anger and frustration grew to be vehemently anti-Nazi, anti-war, anti-fascist, and they identified the mistakes of the past with the traditional aspects of German High Culture, resulting in their rejection of “the Sublime” and “the Profound” in conventional music, art, theater, and literature, a rebellion against artistic and audience complacency, and a defiance in the face of accepted practices of form and content.

For Brötzmann, the burgeoning Fluxus movement of the early ‘60s, with its roots in the absurdity, irony, and incongruity of Dada and Surrealism extending into the conceptual avant-garde, provided him with the contemporary context that confirmed his ideas, visual and, with the release of For Adolphe Sax and Machine Gun (both initially released on his own BRO label, then by FMP, and currently available on Atavistic) in 1967 and ‘68 respectively, musical. The Fluxus association was established by his artistic collaboration with Nam June Paik as early as 1962, and reinforced by meeting Misha Mengelberg, a Dutch pianist/composer with similar interests, the next year. Ironically, perhaps, though famous for the explosively Ayleresque fanfares and fusillades of his most visceral, volcanic recordings, there are aspects of his music that are just as radical and “anti-art” in the Fluxus mode but more introspective, even intimate, with no loss of intensity, thus demonstrating a closer affinity to the values of his artwork. One example is Schwarzwaldfahrt (also originally released on FMP, and reissued in its totality on Atavistic), his 1977 open-air duet with Han Bennink and the environment. Singing birds, rustling wind, splashing water, and an overhead airplane – the found materials of Nature and the intrusion of civilization – contribute to the lyrical free play of Brötzmann’s horns and Bennink’s percussion, strings, and reeds. That is, lyrical in the sense of “a personal direct style or quality in an art” (in Webster’s words) that offers an alternative idea of Beauty intended to be indistinguishable from Nature (as, in his artwork, he has claimed “I don’t think what I’m doing is abstract”), and playful in the range of references offered, including evocations of dinosaurs, bird (and Bird?) imitations, “Sentimental Journey,” intimations of Ornette, Bennink’s bluegrass-ish plucking, pseudo-electronics, and “Skip to My Lou.”

Even if we accept the premise that Brötzmann’s first recordings owe a debt to the American free jazz scene – John Litweiler, in The Freedom Principle, wrote that “For Adolphe Sax” should have been titled “For Albert Ayler,” and many commentators, perhaps focusing too much on its surface and not its content, have suggested that Machine Gun is simply the European version of Ascension – his trio with pianist Fred van Hove and Bennink took pains to sever those ties, by a calculated if still wildly improvisational format that balanced expressionist forays with tongue-in-cheek distortions of European stylistic motifs such as marches, classical rhapsodies (mostly by van Hove), and familiar songs pummeled to oblivion. Brötzmann also implies to Rouy that the eventual personality conflicts that led to the group’s ultimate disbanding may have energized the internal musical tension that fed their performances. It’s apparent, however, that the subsequent, sadly short-lived trio of Brötzmann, Mengelberg, and Bennink was, a la Fluxus, an even freer group with more subversive tendencies. For all its disruptive freedom of form, the trio with van Hove sustained a sense of ensemble – of common group-think, reactive and interactive gestures, pieces that surveyed a thoughtful albeit ungainly process of construction – that was to prove even more cohesive when trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff joined in. Mengelberg’s point of view, however, was to keep things edgy and off-balance, even when – especially when – he was not playing, which was often, and gave Bennink more room and more impetus to be the wild card, as likely to match Brötzmann squawk for squawk on clarinet or dhung (a Tibetan conch horn) as to choose from his encyclopedia of drum beats (though I’m especially partial to his viola and banjo playing of this period). In fact, this was an anti-trio, more essence than artifice, more interested in excavating than constructing. Though there is a continually surprising flux of details on 3 Points And A Mountain … Plus (FMP), their truest nature emerges in an hour-long unreleased performance captured live in Lovere, Italy in 1977.  They begin, contrary to expectations, with nearly 40 minutes of individual solos, not continuous but like links in a chain with almost no overlapping, until Brötzmann insinuates a march into the proceedings, which Mengelberg deftly rephrases first as a tarantella, then a rollicking blues. The point seems not to support but to coexist with each other, emphasizing their differences without compromising.

And yet, the complexity of Brötzmann’s perspective allows that he never completely rejects or obscures his connection to jazz – not just free jazz, but the tradition as well, a point which seems lost on Stuart Nicholson who, in his entry on Machine Gun in The Essential Jazz Records, Volume 2: Modernism to Postmodernism (Mansell Publishing), claims that Machine Gun “arrives as a fully formed manifestation of the Godzilla principle, the appeal of the strong and ugly,” and that “Brötzmann’s own playing was allied to the abandonment of technique ... and fundamentally different from that of American jazz musicians.” Here, Nicholson falls into the classic Monk trap, buying into the artificial standard of an orthodox or virtuosic technique for its own sake and overlooking the development of a personal technique – which, after all, is nothing but “the method of accomplishing a desired aim” (Webster again) – by not understanding what the desired aim might be. Like the sometimes intentionally awkward or blunt effects of his artwork, Brötzmann’s technique on his various reeds suits his expressive needs, which change with his attitude and the circumstances. And by now it should be obvious that even in his exceedingly harsh, aggressive, turbulent moments he is not abandoning technique for sheer sound or nihilistic gesture, but rather extending the extravagant, expressionist techniques of, among others, Illinois Jacquet’s honk, shriek, and shrill whistle; Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’ devilishly guttural growl and bite; and the grunting, squealing exorcisms of the school of r&b saxists, most notably Big Jay McNeely – all of which set the precedent, not only for Brötzmann, but Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Gato Barbieri, and late Coltrane.

Moreover, apart from his teenaged Dixieland apprenticeship – whatever an amateur German approximation of it might sound like – Brötzmann has periodically dropped hints to his ongoing inspiration from and affection for great American players like Sidney Bechet (whom he called a “tsunami”), clarinetist Omer Simeon, and Coleman Hawkins. These most frequently occur during his solo recitals, when he is at his most considered, most intimate, and, as with his artwork, most open and vulnerable – witness the careful weighing of materials, colors, timbres, attacks, modes, and how he exploits them. For example, “Blue Balls,” from the 1976 Solo: Wolke in Hosen (FMP) where his clarinet starts out as an homage to Bechet and Simeon, is taken out into his own territory, and ends with a shout of affirmation. Or, from the same program, the slice of Dada Dixieland in “Jack-in-the-Box.” The way he inserts “In a Sentimental Mood” in the middle of a squalling a cappella bass clarinet solo during the aforementioned Lovere trio concert, or explores the lyrical contours of Ornette’s “Lonely Woman” on baritone sax in 14 Love Poems (FMP) displays a relationship to jazz that is deep and heartfelt, and has continued to this day, regardless of the improvisational format in which he finds himself. Or as he told Gerard Rouy, “You know, one of the reasons I was always interested in the American way of playing was not that I wanted to copy something or play like anybody in particular; it was just a different feel. I don’t know why, but I always liked the American way of playing songs, of playing the blues. When we come to the blues, which for me is the source of all kinds of music, it’s not just the twelve bars, it’s the way you handle the horn, the way you express your feelings, your way of looking at the world.”

[Full disclosure: In 2002 I produced an album by Peter Brötzmann, Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler, and Michael Zerang for hatOLOGY. I actually did very little on that occasion except make sure everything went smoothly. It was, I think, the only time I have met or talked with Brötzmann.]

Art Lange©2014

> back to contents