Peter Kowald: Musical Refugee

Antwerp, Saturday August 4, 2001

Peter Kowald's last interview was our very first. When Peter heard of our online masterclass correspondance with Eddie Prévost, he demanded to see the questions we were asking. That never happened, but we went on thinking about some new questions specifically for Peter.

Global Village: Peter Kowald, Xu Feng Xia, Gunda Gottschalk. Click here for more photos.

Global Village: Peter Kowald, Xu Feng Xia, Gunda Gottschalk

We never got them down right. Eventually we sat down with a tape recorder and a fistful of notes, ideas and half-questions. And Peter effectively answered all of our questions faster than we could formulate them.

For Peter Kowald, improvised music was not only a local (western, avant-garde, jazz-derived, etc) idiom but a universal musical philosophy that can encompass any scale, rhythm or song - or none of the above. He studied the sound world of his instrument with the focus of a monk deciphering the lost classics, while always having, as he put it, little stories to tell...

The interview took place on the first evening of Antwerp's 28th Free Music Festival. Peter Kowald had just played a duet with local bassist/sculptor Peter Jacquemyn (you can also read our shamelessly subjective review of that unforgettable set...) The next day he would be performing with his Global Village trio.

This magazine and the upcoming book The Birth Cry of a New Flute are dedicated to Peter Kowald, 1944-2002.

When I play, let's say a solo, tonight I played a duo, but - when I play a solo I feel I can show all my sides... So there's a meditative side, which I believe is in all of us, but there's also an aggressive side, or there's a playful side, and there's a serious side and there's a funny side... And the society doesn't allow often to show all your sides, because it's formalized, or it's limited - limits you. So for example, I cannot cry in public, really. But I can cry on the bass, and people take it as - well, this man can cry on his instrument. So there's a meditative side but there are also very many other sides. And this is maybe what I'm happy about, that somehow the music saves me sometimes, in terms of - that I can show all my emotional sides, all my sides, in the music, which the society doesn't allow me to show in everyday life. In all of us - so that's a privilege, basically, to be a musician, for example, to be able to live all your sides.

Xu Feng Xia, Peter Kowald, Vanita & Johanna Monk. Photo by Raymond Mallentjer.

Xu Feng Xia, Peter Kowald, Vanita & Johanna Monk.
Photo by Raymond Mallentjer.

When Peter Brötzmann recorded "Machine Gun" in 1968 - and I was part of that at the time - then he said: "A cruel society needs some cruel music" or something similar to that. And that's maybe that aggressive or cathartic aspect you are talking about. Then you have - and this is maybe what I tried to say before - we are not limited to one thing. As human beings, as people functioning or living in the society, we all have different sides. And actually my goal is to be able to live all these sides, as I said before. Of course in the sixties we wanted to be sort of destroying things too, and that means also of course to break down traditions, and to - but the destroying which has usually negative connotations, I also understand as something positive because you have to destroy certain things so there's space for other things. And even though - I'm not very much of a Bible man, but if you read King Solomon's text, he says there's time for destroying, and there's time for building up. And so this is maybe what I feel, that all these things should be there, you know? And there's time for hate and there's time for love. So in a way, after you have done the cathartic thing for a while, because it had a certain social function in the sixties, to tear down certain things which had been so established. Then after that you have a space in front of you which is free. And then you have to put in a plant there, and there are maybe, in the beginning - but since the space is there, they can grow. But if before, this space was still occupied by the old stuff, then nothing would grow.

Of course, there has been a history of John Cage, and 4'33'', his famous piece... And I believe actually Cage and the Fluxus artists have made us aware in the early sixties about the sounds around, because many of the pieces didn't have any sounds. In a Nam June Paik piano solo piece, there was no sound in the piece, he didn't play one note, but all the sounds were there. I've been following the Fluxus movement in the sixties quite a lot and I think the awareness of, that everything is there and to be attentive, to give attention to everything which is there, is, let's say in the western art movement, very strongly the Fluxus movement of the sixties... but then when you go into let's say Taoism or something like this, then anyway they have been talking for a few thousand years maybe, to talk about, just let us take what is there... we don't even have to change it, what is there is already okay... so this is something which of course spiritual people from all over the world have talked about. That there's a lot there which is for our disposal. Coming back to your question, there's a lot of sounds that you can listen to...

Let me go back then, then we have these sounds, and some of them might be more interesting than other ones, to an individual. You might find other things interesting than I do, and do other things than I do. But my image for this is that everything has to come on the table first. You have not to exclude anything. Whatever we exclude will be a problem later. You know, some political and social things, but also from everything, from - psychological, too. Whatever we push to the side will come back stronger. So we have to put everything on the table and allow everything to be on the table. Everything is there. But then, when everything is on the table we can still make our choice, and say, today I want the grapes rather, and not the melon... tomorrow I rather want the melon and not the grapes. So we can make choices after that. But first everything has to be on the table. This is my image, okay? And so once we allow, our attention let's say, to accept all the sounds which are there, that is what I mean, everything has to be on the table, but then once we do that, we can still say I like this sound a little better than this one, and that's where the music starts somehow, or the individual music, okay? But still everything is there.

Well, let me continue here a little bit. Because it's an interesting question. And of course the question between non-decision and decision is a very interesting question. So John Cage has decided to go very much to the non-decision, into the music of chance... There's an element of boredom in that too, because it's relatively little expressive, let's say. And I still believe somehow in the expressive side, I always call it expressionistoïde, which means - expressionistoïde, like you have fascistoïde, or, you know... it's not exactly expressionistic but it... And then, so when I play, let's say coming back to the solo concert for example, when I play all my sides, I feel that people have all similar sides in them... So people sometimes, especially in the last years, many old people come to me and talk to me after the concert, and then they say "I've been touched by certain things you have been doing" and then I can say "okay, something which touches me, might touch everybody else." Or as I say to the young people sometimes, if you don't believe in what you do, how can the people believe it? And so... which means that if I can live all my sides, then some people might understand that they have their own sides and some of them are similar. Or some of them are general. Everybody has similar things. So then the touching is basically that when I put something out of, let's say my soul, then it might touch somebody else's soul. And this is what John Cage was not so very interested in, but I'm interested in that. But then, Kosugi, who worked with him for many years with the Merce Cunningham company, Kosugi is a fantastic, interesting composer and mind, he always says "John Cage is more Japanese than I am". Says he's more Japanese than Japanese now. So he went very far with this chance thing. But of course that's fine too, I mean... But I still believe in emotional things, and I believe in... Still - or again! After Cage, let's say. I believe in personal things which are basically to say personal... the personal is political because you are there for everybody.

The bass is a traditional European instrument which is basically built for the music of European aesthetics. But then it went to other parts of the world and then it was in New Orleans, 1900, and people played it very differently, right there. I don't want to call it limited, I would call it local. Local in the sense that European classical music is local music, because - and then New Orleans music is local music, and then you don't talk about - yes, you see, and then of course the local music has always the aspects of a local music, it doesn't play everything, it just plays the local music... which is completely wonderful. And I don't want to call it with this negative thing, limited, but I call it local because it always is local, and when the local expands to something else which has been happening since let's say the sixties... then it's not so local anymore, maybe, this improvised music. Because improvised music is not so local. But this has to do - that since mid-century, last century, we have all information about every music in the world, I mean the very smallest tribe in any part of the world has a CD out now. Or the other way around, in 24 hours, in one day and night you need, you can travel to any part of the world and see those people play this music. If you want to hear the Ainu in Japan, then we just go to Japan and go to the village and see the Ainu people play their music, okay? This we can do now, since the fifties, before the fifties it didn't happen, but in the fifties it started to be like this, it's happening more and more now, which means that everything is there. And basically, local music still exists everywhere, but still also something else exists which is basically this music which is possible that everything is possible, I can play with someone from Shanghai who I haven't with played ever before, and we even cannot speak the language, but if we open up, if we leave the local melody behind, which Xu Feng Xia - Xu Feng Xia, there she is - which she's doing, she has left the local Chinese music behind, opening up into an open form, then we can immediately play together. And this is new, this is new since the sixties. But this is also new because airplanes could do that in the sixties, or because all the material of any music in the world was available since the sixties, fifties, seventies... So now anything is possible. Coming back to your question... I hardly play any bel canto sounds, or classical jazz, on the bass now, because I've been listening to all these musics from different people in the world. But I never wanted to copy their music. And then you come to the point where - I never wanted to copy other people's music, so I never got myself a sitar and learned the sitar, or a guitar and played flamenco. I had this bass, and so I enlarged the material of the bass, kind of getting sounds from other parts of the world and trying to transcribe them to the bass. And the bass can do all different, a lot of things. But I call this the filter of - it's always like a filter, I never learned an Indian raga, but sometimes I might play something which is similar to an Indian raga, or has a little context of that. And there's a filter there, it's not exactly that, it's a little different. It's a little my way. And this filter, I call it the filter of respect, because I've been taking, I definitely admit, from everywhere I've been taking things, but at the same time I didn't take it all the way, because it's theirs too, okay? This is what I call the filter of respect, to just use certain textures of it, or the feeling of it maybe, which is beautiful to me, and so I try to transcribe it, but it never works out okay, I never can play like the Pygmies or like an Indian raga player or like a flamenco guitar player, or like a Tibetan monk, I never can sing like this. But I like... well, we have to come back, we have to come back to Germany in the forties and fifties, when I grew up, all German tradition was used by Hitler, in fascism, so in the fifties when we grew up as children we - we didn't sing songs. Because Hitler had taken them all for himself, and then after Hitler suddenly all our roots had been misused, and then we didn't have any roots. I can say every black person in America likes the blues and says, this is my tradition, wonderful. But I didn't have that. So I became a traveler, because of that, sure. And then somehow... But a traveler still was, that way as I said before, that I didn't dare to take really the stuff from the other cultures and learn this stuff, learn the tablas, I didn't want that. But still take whatever I could take from my travels, and transform it into something of my own. Still... still end up sounding like something from another part of the world, but not being the same. That's what it is.

Of course I've been taking from other musicians, and actually, about this, let's say - I can tell you actually, you know the guy too, he's been very important for me in the mid-seventies, he's Maarten Altena. And he had a very interesting thing because he broke his arm in the early seventies, and he had to - his arm was in plaster for two months or something, and then he put the whole bass in plaster too, and he recorded a solo record. And I thought - I listened back to it a few months ago, and it's not so interesting anymore, the record, in the way I mean. But what it was, was a very radical point, where he said: okay, now I broke my arm, I cannot play for two months, that's what everybody would do, not play for two months, but I wanted to play and then suddenly I was completely limited, I couldn't use anything which I had learned. Nothing was left. Because the arm didn't work. And the bass didn't work, because it was in plaster too. And then he found all these things - that he was sticking the bow into the strings and making sounds with it and suddenly, he explained it to me, he said: I really had to forget everything I knew because I couldn't use it, but then so many new things came in because of this radical step. And then I really laughed, at his idea, that it was fantastic that somebody so radically does it like this. And then I can't go - hadn't broken my arm, and I didn't put my bass into plaster, but somehow mentally I always thought maybe if I don't use what I can do, but try something else, then maybe another sound comes out, and that's what more the technical side of the bass is. But it comes back to what I said before, that I feel that I have traveled, and taken sounds from everywhere. So then you hear the sound of let's say a Chinese instrument, or an African instrument, and then when you start to play what you cannot play, suddenly a sound comes in: ah, this reminds me of the guzheng, could we try and orchestrate it for the bass? And it never works, but something else comes out which is new. So now I try to combine the two questions, let's say the more technical side of the question, and the more, let's say philosophical, or how it comes to the technique. Because the technique is always the second step, I feel. First is something you have to have in yourself, or you have to - your ears open, your eyes open, and then everything comes, and then the technical side will be solved. The technical side is always which - well, sometimes the technical side is first, sometimes you just played something and said: how did I do that? And suddenly you like it, and then the technical thing might have been first too. But it's always something which kind of fits into each other, or helps each other.

Growing up in the sixties I listened to all of Mingus and Ornette Coleman, Coltrane, and this was the music I loved the most at the time. And then it went a little more open, step by step. And then also, let's say, if my concentration in my young years was a little more on black American music, it step by step opened up into China, into Asia, into Africa, into India, whatever, into... now we invite this guy from Norway who's doing the Joik music, do you know the Joik music which is - yes, the Lapland people we call them, the Samish people, they sing this traditional music which is very, very strange, I mean, very different tradition. One of the few traditions left in Europe of old music. And then the Basque singer Achiary, we played with him sometimes, he's coming out of Basque music which is very different from other musics. So there have been a little, a few traditions left, it's not just very far, not everything only Asia or Africa, in Europe there are little traditions left, Romanian, Balkanic music, I've listened a lot and I've traveled a lot there... What was your question again?

Were you ever a jazz player, and what got you moving on?

Not a good one. As I wouldn't be a good flamenco player, or a good Indian raga player or a good shakuhachi player. I've never been good in other people's cultures somehow. But then also - but I have done things which are coming out of jazz, I just recorded with Rashied Ali - it's out there, the CD - who was Coltrane's last drummer, and his saxophone player was a little bit in the tradition of Coltrane, and then I played the bass there, I guess the way they wouldn't ask me if they wouldn't know that I would do it good enough for them. So somehow this is a little more jazz. But still, then I can incorporate all - at some points, some of the other stuff I do too. But still, there I'm playing more functional bass, in the function of... So I do that too. But I don't mind to do that, in a way, you see, somehow it's something where you come from a little bit, and then you change, and then some people don't want to have to do anymore with where they came from... And I always find that funny, because I think it's okay to show where you have come from. And sometimes you might do something which sounds more like where you have come from. And somehow it comes from the changes of jazz in the early sixties, which was what I grew up with. But, through records. And then I was very happy one day when Rashied Ali told me: "You don't sound like you have grown up with us... But you have something else, and it's very compatible with what I'm doing. But you don't sound like you have grown up with us." And this is - the growing up, means, the natural thing comes with what you grow up, you know. Xu Feng Xia has grown up with Chinese sounds, so that's what stays there for the rest of her life.

Peter Kowald many hands

But then the form - and then we talk about, because to say the term "free music" - and "free" is a very big term about political movements and social movements and - from Gandhi to Mandela and whatever you - free, okay? But when we say free music, in the first step, I want to reduce it a little bit and say: it's free of a pre-given form. And then we come back to the term local music. All the music of the world has some kind of local form. And classical European music has been a local music too, even if North American or even Japanese conductors play it now, but it has been a local music 300 years ago, 200 years, it's been a local music, okay, like guzheng music or her music has been a local music, because it was local, however big the local is, it can be smaller or bigger, that doesn't matter. And then always the local music has certain, let's say melodies, and rhythms maybe, and aesthetics, which are local. But now, free means... Also, they have a pre-given form usually, even if they improvise a lot, then still the Indian raga has a very strict scale which you improvise on. Or the Inuit women, when they sing into each others' mouth, they have a certain form, how they do that, okay? And now the free music means, we don't have a form anymore. And this is quite new, a music where the form comes after. Usually the form is there first, and then inside that form the music is made. But the free music, you play a piece, you don't know anything what the form will be like, and in the end you can say: "oh, the piece had this and this form" if you listen back to it and if you want to analyze it, but the form comes while you do it. In each piece is a new form. But you don't have the form, the pre-given form, and that's the - free of a pre-given form. Free music is just free of a pre-given form... I'm talking like a German teacher.

Free music is also mercifully free of tunes that infiltrate your mind and stay there for days... Does your involvement with music make you somehow immune to this terror?

The way you talk about it jokingly, it makes it very clear what you mean. I would like to - actually, the problem is a little more complex to me, exactly this, and it's a very interesting question. European culture, bla bla bla, has abstracted very much. And I feel that - perhaps you can take it in religion, in philosophy, in art, there's been a lot of abstraction, especially in the 20th century, too. And I think the European mind has gone very much into this, let's say abstracting and - the intellectual thing, in a way, in many ways. Sometimes we have concept art, it's more of a concept than anything else, that any part of the body - concept, okay? Thinking. But then other cultures transport, often, most of the time, their wisdom through narrative things. Many cultures tell a story to make you understand something deep. European philosophers are telling you an abstract idea. And not a story. And this narrative and non-narrative thing is very interesting. I feel somebody like Derek Bailey improvises very much in a structural consciousness, but basically he's non-narrative, he doesn't tell stories. He's more exploring the sounds in a structural context - okay, very simplified, but let's say it this way. And then other people - melody is basically something narrative, it tells a story, okay? So I do, I'm kind of... I feel I have always little narrations, I have always little things to say, but they can break up, they can stop, they can... before it gets interesting, might - maybe they stop or something, or... I have always particles of things which are little stories, but it's not one big story. But then you come to, let's say Charles Ives, or the father of Charles Ives, he was a very interesting man, a composer and a bandleader, and so he had this - 1895, this is 106 years ago, a long, long time ago, he had this project where he was bandleading different bands in this little town, and then he brought them together coming from different streets playing different songs at the same time. Charles Ives learned this from his father, and then he incorporated that into his compositions. And then you come to this thing, when I was in New York in 1984, I was in someone's house and there was television, and then you could see all the thirty programs at the same time, like post-stamp size. And I thought: this is Father Ives. And then, now, but now you live it, now we do live it, I mean a hundred years after Charles Ives' father we live this, everything is there at the same time. And of course certain cultures are more, have more power, but I'm not so interested in power... But then you have - all these different cultures are there at the same time. Or when you look to television, then this happens there and this happens there, the information is there. But then you understand that Charles Ives' father was right - there's not really a center, everything is there at the same time. And I think this is... let's say... how can I say? When I play a bass solo, it's like a horizontal thing, a little narration and a little narration and a little narration, a little story, another little story... But if you think of this vertically, that I would play all these little things - I cannot do that, but theoretically speaking, or philosophically speaking, I could imagine them being there all at the same time. But since I cannot do that all alone, I have to get 25 bass players to do that for me, which is another thing then. I just feel that in a way, I do these little narrative things in a way because I cannot do it, so I have to do it the horizontal way, in the time. But thinking of a way I could do them vertically, playing... if I could do that... I would love to do that. To play them all at the same time. And then we are back to Father Ives, or then we are back to where narration is put into a completely other context, as Father Ives did. He said - this band is playing this melody, local music you can say - or this narration, and this narration, and then you have six or eight different narrations going on at the same time and it wouldn't work anymore, as I am telling my story and my story is really central, my story is really important - the importance disappeared somehow. And this is the interesting thing which is there, now we can say: everything is the same importance, every culture, every sound from somewhere in Africa or somewhere in China or somewhere in India, somewhere in South America, in Europe, wherever, every song has the same value because - and this was not a hundred years ago, that people didn't think like that. Except Father Ives. People didn't think like that. And this is an interesting thing... And then you come to things like Peter Gabriel of course, who makes a big soup, one beat and one chord, one scale, and then it comes from Africa, comes from India, and he threw it all together. But he gives it all one groove, but we don't use a groove. We use just the open space of form which we develop when we play. So that's - you won't hear the melodies then. But you hear little aspects of melodies - and she has beautiful melodies, I have some melodies... the melody is there, but they are not so important anymore. They're just in a bigger context of changing, doing other things too. Maybe I'm talking too much?

one man... Peter Kowald

Okay, let's go from different angles, we can go from this angle, that I believe most of the people, maybe everybody, likes the food his or her mother has cooked, okay? When we grow up and then we like this food, and we eat it maybe once a week, okay? In our home it was like that on Thursdays there was a certain soup coming, and on Fridays it was some... So you like the food which you have grown up with. But it's not just the food, it's the music, it's the feeling, it's the people, you know how the people react, the people you have grown up with. And then - her example, when she changed cultures, she lives here now, and - but she still knows her people best, I'm sure. She learns how German people react, and she learns maybe a lot of it, but somehow the organic thing is what you have grown up with, it's like what Rashied Ali said, if you grow up with something, then you have it, okay? So somehow, the melody in your head for four hours, it feels to me something like being home. Okay, a melody is like a home...

Or a prison?

Okay, but maybe you like it, or you dislike it, okay, it's different. But then the melodies you like, for me, or the melodies I like, that has to do something with feeling home, feeling cozy, feeling - Yes, oh, this melody, I love this, yes, I like to sing it again...

And again, and again, and again...

Yes! And the food! Same with Mama's food. I want to eat it again. No problem. Okay? So in life, of course there are always these things, how do you call that, which repeat themselves, and they come back all the time. Like, actually, Pablo Casals, who I like very much, he was asked one day: "How is it to play the Bach cello suites again, and again, and again?" And he said: every day it's new. Which means, not of course the musical material is new, but his attitude is new. So this is an important thing, the attitude. I find it sometimes difficult to play two concerts in one day, because if you play one at noon, and then you go to another place and play one at nine, then I think: this is not right, one is enough, you have to sleep one more time and then you have a new attitude. This was what Pablo Casals said: every day it's new. Okay? So then you come back to melodies. Melodies you have liked, or melodies maybe you don't like. Okay, they come easily, even if you don't like them, they have these home feelings. Otherwise they wouldn't stick in your head. The melody is something you can remember so easily.

We came here today in my car and I have this really kitschy Zucchero Pavarotti tape in my car, and it's a tape of forty-five minutes, I think the song is only about twenty-seven times. Right in front of the door, we opened the door of the car, and put the instruments out... and then all the audience and the musicians of the Free Music Festival thought that Kowald and Xu Feng Xia are listening to this kind of stuff all the time... And when it stops, there's no use playing the same song again, so I don't have to turn the tape. We heard it about twenty-five times. She wanted to change the tape. She looked: "what about another tape?" You can go for it too, you can say, okay, if this melody is there, if you push it out, if you try to push it out it doesn't work. Say: come here. Yes, I love you. And then it disappears by itself.

Monastery photo galleries:

Global Village: Peter Kowald, Xu Feng Xia, Gunda Gottschalk.
Free Music XXVIII, Theater Zuidpool, Antwerp, Belgium, August 3, 2001.
(29 pictures)

Peter Kowald, Hamid Drake, Assif Tsahar:
Calypso Theater, Rotterdam, Netherlands, April 6, 2002.
(31 pictures)

Find out more about Peter Kowald at
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All words and images copyright 2001 by Vanita & Johanna Monk
except interview photo copyright 2001 by Raymond Mallentjer.

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