Laudatio to PETER KOWALD
A laudatio by Bert Noglik
When paying tribute to Peter Kowald, particular stories come to mind. The stories he narrates on his instrument as well as those that happened here and there which he has passed on to us. Like all musicians, like all true artists who push beyond what is there, Peter Kowald furthers the lines of tradition - by taking on the challenge and calling into question their conventions. In spite of the break with everything that the traditionalists consider binding or obligatory, Kowald refers back to the history of Jazz, to the unspoken imperative of expressing oneself directly and unmistakably, of playing oneself. A story both ancient and ever new, a story from Body and Soul, which only manages to convince, when its dynamics originate from the wave-like movements of one’s own life and work, and not from textbook-wisdom learnt by note.
Peter Kowald's adventurous list of references, on the one hand, relates back to the history of Jazz, and on the other, to the experience of the European 'Moderne'. Jazz as Fine Art, even as Avantgarde, lacks the servility, the attitude of the entertainer, the components of trying to please. This is the first test of strength: is it possible, out of both traditions - the tradition of Jazz, of story-telling, and the tradition of a radical understanding of art and perception of reality developed in other areas, to create something of one's own without getting caught up in the role of an imitator or being consumed by the permanent revolution? Kowald’s playing, his improvisations, his compositions, his way of composing, the stories he tells on his instrument, which demonstrate his courage to take risks, enlarge on this theme.
He grew up in Wuppertal, the usual confirmation wrist-watch, ancient Greek in high school, double bass at 16, around the age of 17 or 18 played with the Wuppertal patriarch Peter Brötzmann, soon afterwards also in a trio with Irène Schweizer and Pierre Favre, had his own groups, from the early beginning he played in the Globe Unity, and in smaller formations with Alexander von Schlippenbach, intense contacts with improvisers from England, Belgium, Holland: these are the well-known facts. The rise towards a new free form of Jazz, the late sixties - the 'luck', as he once put it, of being young and on one’s way during an exciting period. From there, a jump to a different level. Later, in another place, far away in Asian Tuva, Peter Kowald experienced something that he related to us in the form of a story. From a singer of traditional overtone-music he learned: "Music has to pass through a small hole, through a very narrow channel. It is difficult, but it has to get through. And once it is through, it can open itself out, and you can hear all the animals and the wind, the whole of nature. But first of all it has to pass through this little hole." Like all good stories, this one is also complex, like the stories Peter Kowald tells on his bass: multi-dimensional and cannot be reduced to one linear or superficial reading of a fable. It is about the experience of limits, about the reduction to the essential, as well as about the opening up of a confining system of co-ordinates: "Grenzüberschreitungen - Across the borders", was, by the way, a title Peter Kowald used as motto for certain of the Wuppertal workshops series initiated by himself, long before this term became almost inflationary. Free Jazz, let everything hang out with as much energy as possible: this followed the tradition of musicians like Albert Ayler and - risking a rather bold comparison - also the tradition of German Expressionism. This was the first movement across the border. The second one consisted of 'taking-back', the experience that in certain situations with less one can say more. At the end of the seventies Peter Kowald founded a trio with trumpet player Leo Smith and drummer Günter Sommer, a trio which not only put the instruments into equal relationship with each other, but also the different traditions and experiences of playing: World-music, not in the sense of a reduction to the smallest common denominator, but a process of learning based on mutual respect. Here, Peter Kowald does not use the material in the foreground anymore, but works with the essence of different musical cultures. In as far as one can put something like this into words, he is impressed, for example, by the fact that Leo Smith never seemed to want to get anywhere, but was always there already. From that point onwards, Peter started to bring his playing into a certain context of values, both as source of inspiration and as a source of questions.
The small hole the music has to pass through - it can mean excessive giving of oneself, it can mean the wiping out of every conventional agreement, it can also mean withdrawal back to zero, Malewitsch’s black square, Marcel Duchamp's silence or John Cage’s peace. Kowald has passed through it, has reached this world, in order to experience the Blues with black Americans, a feeling for time based on meditation with the Japanese, and to experience a cult-like dimension of playing and being with singers such as Sainkho Namtchylak or Butoh dancers like Min Tanaka or Kazuo Ohno. The strange as something potentially one's own in the process of flow. Musical improvisation as "work in progress". Newly discovered 'Wahlverwandtschaften' (affinities) in a world which resembles a kind of global village, but still in no way creates the spirit of a society by itself. Peter Kowald finds allies in the fringe areas, in the border zones, in a no-man’s land between the more predetermined areas of style. Out of a trio with saxophone player Danny Davis and violin player Takeshisa Kosugi, there developed an improvised "Global Village Suite" in Tokyo in 1986. Between 1984 and 1990 Peter Kowald recorded duo-meetings with musicians from Europe, America and Japan, later to publish them as three LPs and a CD. And despite the fact, as Peter well knows, that only the sound tracks and not the actual living processes can be captured, wonderful examples of self-discovery and opening up in a variation of different dialogues, develop.
In 1994/95, after years of world-wide activities, came a decisive cut-off point, when looked at superficially. Peter Kowald lived and worked in Wuppertal and was there, "am Ort", for 365 days. He energised the scene, bestowing his home with a kind of magnetic attraction, in a similar way as he had done so, years before with the Wuppertal workshops, with "360°" the "Spielraum für Ideen" co-founded by him. Through the intensity, with which Peter Kowald concentrates on one special place, on his 'Place', he succeeds in turning it into a world centre. A small hole that everything passes through.
He wants to play the double bass vertically and horizontally, Peter Kowald once said. Jazz musicians, Improvisers have got a picture of what he means. He wants to play in a complex and at the same time simple manner: this, again, touches on a philosophical level, which, in Kowald's case, always shows a kind of sensuality. This directness enables him to put himself in relationship to others, not only to musicians, but also to dancers, to Visual Arts, to language, performance or film.
Peter Kowald, as sound- and visual artist, restless and tranquil, at peace with himself, putting himself in question through others and finding himself, has written the following notes for a Solo CD published last year - by the label, he has been loyal to since the seventies, FMP - Free Music Production - "What there is is quite a lot, actually almost everything".
This comes from somebody who went beyond everything he came across, who can now go out into the world from his 'Ort' (Place) and come back to it with everything he's worked out, everything he's played, everything he's encountered. "There is so much available", Peter Kowald says "for which I am grateful, and I try to understand and to grab hold of, to use and to leave out: take, what is there". With all the individuality, which is also there, this sounds like an overtone, in common with the musician whom this prize was named after - Albert Mangelsdorff, who allows himself to be inspired as much by the "Creole Love Call" as by common songbirds and whales of remote oceans, by the power of the collective as well as by the contemplation of this small eye of the needle, that all sounds have to go through. Peter Kowald has passed through it. He lets us feel, what is there: much more than enough. And for that we are grateful.
Speech made by Bert Noglik on the occasion of the awarding of the Albert Mangelsdorff Prize (Deutscher Jazzpreis) to Peter Kowald during the PopKomm in Cologne, August 1996
The foto is taken from the booklet of the CD Was das ist, FMP Berlin 1997, fotos by Nicole Aders and Dagmar Gebers