June 13, 2010

Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet live in Moers 2010

(more photos on the festival website, quite wonderful ones)

Venit, videt, vicit – Moers veteran Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet rocked the tent and enthused the crowd, what else could be expected? A lot of tutti blowing at a high volume level, interrupted by a various solos and smaller group combinations. Glued together by a free funk rhythm unit, especially the twofold powerhouse drumming of Paal Nilssen-Love and Michael Zerang. Yet what was going on in my mind while listening and watching was rather alienating me from the enthusiasm of the crowd and the band. This process of alienation has been caused by my observation of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Joe McPhee with his pocket trumpet. My considerations were not so much musical but rather socio-political, which I think is fair in this context, as free jazz and a lot of free improvisation are coming out from a movement of socio-political progress. However, whatever I'm going to say now, in this article, about the political matters that I saw to be encapsuled in this Tentet's music, does NOT mean that I think the musicians on stage are having the political points of view that I'm going to describe. On the contrary, I think the musicians on stage are forward-thinking, liberal, progressive and free minds who contribute to a better world, after all. Nevertheless, in any piece of art the author's intention – and in this case the collective author's intention – is one thing, and the meaning contained in the work of art is another. Any great piece of art contains more meaning than what the creator originally intended. What I'm going to describe later is one additional meaning in this improvised work, not what the musicians intended it to be. Please keep that disclaimer in mind.

In conversation with Karl Lippegaus Peter Brötzmann said:
„Das Tentett ist auch ein Beispiel gesellschaft­li­chen Zusammenlebens, in der Nachfolge von Sun Ra's Arkestra.“ (Süddeutsche Zeitung Nr. 119 / 2010, p. 13, translation: „The tentet also is an example for social living together, in succession of Sun Ra's Arkestra“).
So, my impulse to interpret what was happening on the Moers festival stage as a depiction of a society is somehow covered by the author's intention. Yet what repelled me during the concert was that I definitely wouldn't like to live in a society as the one represented by the Tentet. But please allow me to make a little detour and let me ask about the positive aspects of freely improvised music in relation to social life.

In the preface to „Noise and Capitalism“, Anthony Iles writes: „There is strong field of attraction to the cultural space of noise for the politicised musician – a music that does not have a set code or form nor an expected mode of behaviour. Those packing a liberatory politics with their music often turn up here.” That kind of describes my original attitude to freely improvised music – and to the recordings of Peter Brötzmann that I have heard in my life. I perceive (rationally and emotio­nally) freely improvised music as a liberation, as a partial loosening from the cultural and social ties that we are bound by. At the same time it is an alternative way of communication: between the musicians as well as between musicians and the audience. (In high school I had a wonderful music teacher who held some free improvisation sessions with us kids, too, so I had some positive experience with this early on.) Certainly the liberation and the communication aspects of free improvisation were pointless if after all they wouldn't mean anything to us human beings – zoon politikon that we are. Our cultural achievements are related to the states of our minds and the ways we live together. Freely improvised works can speak to body and mind, the first one on a more emotional level of evoking and/or recalling feelings, the latter one on a structural level by letting us focus on non-trivial, complicated relations within the musical material and/or among the musicians and audiences and by relating these musical structures to other structures we are experiencing. So from the listener's point of view improvised music can be a catalyzer for broadening one's mind and one's experience. And it at least can evoke the illusion that a society where self-expression is less restricted and more evenly distributed among the individuals is at least possible.

And now finally back to the concert. First, let's look at Fred Lonberg-Holm. He's playing an instrument, that is by nature more silent than many of the others. This would be true for a non-amplified, naturally acoustic context: When the two drummers, three saxophone and three brass players start to beat and blow like crazy, they can simply drown the cello. Now, this concert was not "naturally acoustic", but amplified in a big tent for an audience of 2000 people. Shall we call the amplification „realistic“, because even in this context the cello could not be heard? Well, to be fair, I must say, that Fred Londberg-Holm was given a slot for a solo, where he got the chance to get his sound through. But on the whole, I estimate the time that he was audible to me was less than 5 minutes. As a listener one would ask: What's the use to incorporate a player in such an ensemble who doesn't have the ability to make himself heard – and we're not speaking about a symphony orchestra context here, where players of the same instruments are combined to groups and therefore deprived of their own, individual voice? Well, there is one thing imaginable, I admit: Maybe the audience couldn't here him, but the players on stage could. If that's true then Lonberg-Holm had the option of triggering or influencing the other players and therefore assist in shaping the overall sound of the ensemble. This is something I certainly don't know, yet given the nature of the cello, it seems rather unlikely – he was put rather at the edge of the stage as well, so that his physical presence was marginalized as well.
Now case number 2, which is different but of equal importance for the string of thoughts that was aroused in my head during this concert. Joe McPhee was not marginalized on stage. He was right in the center of it. His instrument, though very small, was powerful enough to cut through the noise even at the loud moments. Yet there was seemingly a problem with Mr. McPhee's personality that made him not really fit in: He looked like too modest, too humble a person. The people around him were using their elbows, fighting. When things were getting loud they were blowing in a „take-no-prisoners“-approach. At such moments, Joe McPhee often retreated a bit. Though he had the physical ability to make his voice heard through his instrument, he often didn't play in such moments. And when he did, he didn't cut through the noise either, he restricted himself – and in effect wasn't reaching my ear.

Now, analysing these two individual players' roles in the tentet and bringing them into relation with society, we could see a symbol for the workings of a fascist or social-darwinist version of society. There are those who are strong by nature. (In this concert the strong ones were the ones with the loud instruments, the big lungs, and the will to play loudly without making sure that the disadvantaged players could still be heard.) And there are those who are weak either by physical nature (in this context the lack of loudness in the cello) or by spiritual / ethical / mental „weaknesses“ (just like virtues and ethical considerations can be obstacles to a person within a context of a fascist society).
I don't want to live in a society as the one depicted by the Chicago tentet in this concert. Now some people who have seen the concert as well may reject my view and retort that the concert wasn't always a full-noise, loud blowing, but that there were the smaller-group settings where the playing was more silent and every voice could be heard. Yes, that's true. But isn't that just due to clemency from the side of the noise-makers? It's as if the strong elements in a society said: „Well, you weak ones, we let you speak out now and we'll even listen to you – but as we have just shown, you're depending on our mercy. Whenever we want, we can muffle you again.“ That's not freedom, that's paternalism at best. The social elements as depicted by the players in this tentet are not on par with each other.

In effect this concert has challenged my formerly unreflected idea that free improvisation is a more or less unmediated expression of and contribution to freedom. When I got back home after the festival, I started to dig a bit deeper, because this question kept moving me. And with the help of a review in the Eartrip magazine #5 I found the interesting book „Noise and Capitalism“, edited by Mattin and Anthony Iles (I have already quoted from it above). I found that the danger of chauvinism in improvised music was only something I haven't thought about yet, but others were well-aware of it. In the eartrip review David Grundy speaks about machism of noise music and goes even further:
„So: why are so many of the artists mentioned men, playing at gigs attended by men? Is there perhaps something – dare I use the word? – phallocentric about noise, about the whole rock and roll myth of the singer with his phallic guitar or saxophone? They don’t use the term ‘cock rock’ for nothing, and they might as well invent a similar term for less mainstream manifestations of ‘aggression’ and ‘energy’ in music.“
So is Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet the free jazz version of „cock rock“? Maybe... (though I must admit that in one way Grundy's quote doesn't really fit here, because there were enough women in the audience.) What was possibly lacking in this concert (or this group?) was what Mattin describes as the will to take risks: „
Improvised music is not progressive in itself, but it invites constant experimentation. When players feel too secure about their approaches, the experimentation risks turning into Mannerism. What I would like to explore here are the moments in which players leave behind a safe zone and expose themselves in the face of the internalised structures of judgment that govern our appreciation of music. These I would call fragile moments.” (Mattin & Iles, Noise & Capitalism, p. 20)
I didn't see any fragile moments in the playing of the ensemble as a whole. But well – didn't my descriptions of what I saw and heard from Lonberg-Holm and McPhee clearly reveil that there was fragility? What if it was all planned? What if these two players were assigned the role of breaking through mannerism and introduce fragility into the proceedings? I don't know. But even if that was the case: Is it fair to discharge one's own fragility by projecting it onto others? Sure not.
I have learnt something.
„Just as ‘noise’ is neither more nor less inherently subversive than any other commodifiable musical genre, so the categories invoked in order to decipher its political potency cannot be construed as inherently ‘critical’ while they remain fatally freighted with neo-romantic clichés about the transformative power of aesthetic experience. (Ray Bras­sier: „Gen­re Is Ob­so­le­te“, in: Mat­tin/Iles: “Noi­se & Ca­pi­ta­lism”, p. 69)
So, improvised music doesn't help me per se to become a better or freer person or doesn't help me to live in a better society. It's good to know that and will prevent future disappointments. But then again, maybe my view is too simplistic:
“The same is true of collaboration in performance, which can be both at once competitive and mutually validatory for participants.” (Bruce Rus­sell: „To­wards a So­cial On­to­lo­gy of Im­pro­vis­ed Sound Work“, in: Mat­tin­/I­les: „Noi­se and Ca­pi­ta­lism“, p. 92).
So, in order to dig deeper and get further in this question, I'd have to ask Fred Lonberg-Holm and Joe McPhee how they perceived their playing in this group. Maybe they felt "validated"? Maybe other people in the audience don't share my view (as usual) and didn't think there was any problem with the integration of Lonberg-Holm and McPhee? At least Ken Vandermark found it successful, as he writes on his Facebook diary:
„5/23: Another night of 2 hours of sleep, then 2 planes to Dusseldorf. In a panic about checking the baritone but it arrives safe. Unfortunately, Fred Longberg-Holm's cello does not- somehow Air France finds a way to break 2 tuning pegs made of carbon fiber. Short afternoon sleep and head to the Moers Festival to play. ...Once again the band delivers a strong concert despite the exhausted odds- a ferocious 50 minutes of music, but even in the density the Tentet remains clear. I believe that this was one of the best sets the band has played for a large (2000+) festival crowd in its career.“

I let Josh Sinton have the last word for now (though he wasn't speaking about this concert but the work of Steve Lacy in relation to „assault-like“ music):
„There was a time in jazz when dissonance like this [a recording of Steve Lacy] was much more the norm. So much so, that the aural landscape became over-saturated with ‘unlistenable’ sounds. It makes sense that the cultural pendulum has swung back the other way in the past several decades towards the side of ‘pretty’ music. Maybe it’s time for it to swing back. Not so much to a place of full-out assault, but to an egalitarian place where all sounds are treated and represented equally.“ (Josh Sinton: A Deathless Valley of Mysterious Motherhood)

P.S.: Nono, the very last word is given to my lovely wife. She always has the last word ;-) See her comment on my Carlo Mombelli concert review:
"one sees understanding, generosity, tolerance, cooperation from the atmosphere built up with their music minds, an atmosphere which could provide a healthy and cozy living of human being, or even other beings. (who knows)"
So, if my interpretation of the tentet concert here can stand as being valid, then we had both depicted on the Moers festival stage: the cooperative and "nice" society as well as the struggling and fighting society.


ayu1234 said...

My God! You really did a serious research on it. I feel so glad that you have got some new perspectives on "noise". Which means, I would suffer less in future from those merciless destructive music. hahah~~~~~~
Well done! Congratulations!

Rod Warner said...

This is a great review and demonstrates the strengths of the blogging world (as opposed to the many weaknesses! Mea culpa...). You give yourself the space to deal with the problems you perceive rising from the performance and by extension improvised music generally. One of them is something I identified a couple of times recently - the drowning out of stringed instruments in some ensembles which is related in my instances to what I perceive as bad miking - a technical problem of balance rather than of power relationships. Yet - that word 'balance' spins off into your critique here. I don't agree with all of what your are saying here - I do with a lot of it - but appreciate the elegance of the argument. Improvised music for me has always meant implications of social/political freedoms and the attractions of non-hierarchical/anarchic structures that liberate. Ironically, the Brit improv world has always been full of verbal claptrap from those who identified with killers like Mao and much of the factioneering seems a direct image of the fatuous splinterings of the armchair revolutionary/reactionary old left. Yet has produced some amazing music(s). Go figure, as they say. But the debate should continue - you have certainly given me food for further thought. (And if you want those reups, let me know!).

Spring Day said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, even though my writing especially on this gig was rather lengthy. A few remarks on your comment:

1) I don't think that your blog shows the weaknesses of blogosphere. There is no direct link between frequency and quality. So, your mea culpa is not accepted ;-)

2) You're much more active on the improvisation scene - because you are an active improviser yourself, but also because you are attending way more live improvisation gigs than I do. So, I'm neither astonished nor offended by your statement that you don't agree with everything I said here. I think you have a different and essentially deeper inside into it.

3) About what I said in the original gig review: I think I am usually quite good with finding and asking the right questions. Yet I'm not always good with finding answers. I didn't want to present a definite statement on this concert or the Brötzmann tentet on the whole here, but I also think that there were many people in the audience who didn't ask any questions, but just enjoyed it because they like to just physically enjoy the loudness and energy of the tentet or - which is worse - just because they have stuck a label like "cool" onto Brötzmann's music and don't question their own labelling practice anymore. People - including myself, I admit - often only like a certain music/ian because they think they have to. Anyway, as I stated above, in certain situations just asking questions is already a gain.

4) Not only in this gig, in several of my reviews I express some doubts with my questioning tone. To balance this I should insist more often that even those gigs that I didn't find fully successful (e.g. Donkey Monkey, Frisell / Kang / Royston or Steve Lehman's Octet) were still providing the chance to behold and behear wonderful musicians, compared to all the mainstream music that is going on outside of our little jazz / improv circles. A Brötzmann Tentet concert that raises some questions is a 1000 times better than a U2 gig. (Well, I'm probably never going to see a U2 gig in my whole life, so this again is just an assumption.)

ayu1234 said...

oh my goodness! now I've found out why is that you don't have much time talking with me. hahah~~~~ you are wirklich naggish

Rod Warner said...

Just a quick comment or two as I have to go out in the sunshine! Thanks for kind words re my own blogging. 3) Finding the questions is perhaps more improtant than supplying pat answers. Because the improv underground can be very closed in on itself, so it is important to continually question - otherwise one gets locked into a cultural ghetto. As most of the answers will be subjective - well, you pick and choose. It is (or should be) a heuristic process. I'm happier not agreeing with someone if I can see that their question raises important issues that should be thought about. 4) Continues this really - expressing doubts about one's questioning/critical tone is a good counterbalance - too often criticism is just sneering or ill thought out.
AS to the Tentet - agree wholeheartedly - better the questions they raise than blandout one-dimensional music - U2, in my opinion. I've seen Herr Brotzmann twice in the last year or so in small group mode and he has been brilliant - searching and questing still and not afraid to be melodic and restrained when the muse takes him. But a trio or solo gig gives more space perhaps than the Chicago Tentet's powerhouse swagger - no crit, I love them!
So: I think this is a debate that will continue - certainly I came back from the London festival Freedom of the City a few weeks ago with similar thoughts about the future of the music - one the one hand still vibrant, on the other perhaps in need of some fresh ideas and some of the music there frankly arid. Any art that cannot bear criticism is no art, in my book...

centrifuge said...

excuse my lateness, spring day... this made for interesting and thought-provoking reading. you raise many good points and ask some tricky questions.

and yet... fred lonberg-holm and joe mcphee must feel there is SOME value to their being in the group. the cellist was there right at the outset iirc (back when it was an octet) and mcphee joined not long afterwards; that they are still there and prepared to put in long, gruelling hours and days, schlepping around europe with no sleep etc, suggests that they are not totally marginalised or disenfranchised within this music. after all... surely it is not *just* personal loyalty which keeps them coming back?

Spring Day said...

Centrifuge, nice to see you here, and thanks for your comment. You must be quite right, with everything. Especially with your statement that I am tricky ;-) Because I am so tricky, your thoughts on McPhee and Lonberg-Holm don't really harm my argument, I think. I didn't mean to say that Mcphee and Lonberg as empirical persons were having any problem with their integration into this ensemble. My point is admittedly rather abstract: I was looking at the players "roles", as if they were actors, as if they were depicting a society of "free interaction". Hmm, don't know if I can express it any clearer than that. Yes, Lonberg-Holm and McPhee might have enjoyed this gig very much, and yes, I still wouldn't want to live in a society where weak or modest voices cannot be heard at all. (While I certainly cannot deny that in any human society weak and modest voices do have a hard time - yet occasionally they can find some "amplification".)

centrifuge said...


i didn't see the gig of course. (never seen broetz actually) - and it's been a year or so since i listened to any recordings by the tentet. i am still intrigued by the description of mcphee's as a weak/modest voice: he's anything but on reeds; i know he plays brass in the tentet, but thought it wasn't always limited to a small instrument, likely to get swamped under a sea of saxes and percussion. it does seem like a bizarre and curious choice. perhaps he was tired ;-)

as for the cello, this must indeed surely be a nightly problem. and it is interesting; i am not suggesting that i have "killed" your argument in any way... your points still stand as pertinent questions!

cheers, c