Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink
An Die Musik
October 7, 2006
Few, if any, would claim that Peter Brötzmann is a tune meister. He has been referred to by some as a "sonic terrorist", while others describe his performances as "aural punishment". One story, perhaps fictional but credible nonetheless, relates that his explosive playing once caused him to burst a lung. Whatever the description, one does not expect an evening with Brötzmann to be an event enveloping one with the comforting gauze of nostalgia and warm feelings.
Although percussionist Han Bennink is often placed outside the jazz mainstream, and within the school of Dutch absurdism and the musical avant-garde, he is, in many way, the musical foil to Brötzmann's intensity and expressionistic anger. Bennink's humor is always below the immediate surface. Moreover, although he is well able to communicate effectively within the musical language Brötzmann utilizes, one has the feeling that Bennink is always smiling as he does so.
The two musicians have been performing together for almost forty years, in a seemingly endless array of different machinations and contexts; from the group within the truly revolutionary and Earth shattering blaze of sonic destruction within "Machine Gun" to the "Globe Unity Orchestra's" almost joyous cacophony. Their momentous duets have been recorded in a live format on any number of occasions, and their recording in Germany's Black Forest in 1977 (where the liner notes list "water" as an instrument) is, if anything, a brilliant curiosity in the history of spontaneous performance art. To this listener, their partnership and longevity are rooted in seemingly opposite musical perspectives.
It was their brief October tour that brought them to Baltimore's "An Die Musik" recently for another quick reunion. The first of the evening's spontaneous four compositions began without warning, as Bennink slammed his stick on the sole snare drum and Brötzmann countered with sudden tongue slaps articulated into the clarinet. The wild vibrato of the instrument created an almost middle eastern sound structure, but the tonal sonic line quickly deconstructed into a series of unrelenting runs, which became only an aural blur and were almost impossible for the ear to process. Shrieks. Screams. Guttural growls. All are the actively vocabulary of Brötzmann.
Bennink, at one point, placed his feet on each of the two toms in an effort to mute the enveloping percussive discourse; the rapid and continuous pounding of the cymbals morphed into a high toned alarm, which was suddenly juxtaposed with the gentle placement of his moistened fingersstroking the skin of the drum. Bennink then placed a long white sheet over the entire drum set, so that his almost indiscriminate expressions appeared distant to the audience in the small room. During Bennink's distracting display, Brötzmann continued with his characteristic growls and largely sweeping wild vibratos.
In the second improvised composition, Bennink articulated an almost naïve Latin rhythm, but Brötzmann countered such complacent time keeping with a scream into the mouthpiece. Short staccato phrases catapulted palpable bursts of tension throughout the performance space. Bennink countered with a rapid replacement with brushes. The soft stroking of the drum skins reduced Brötzmann's stream, and perhaps calmed him, into gentle breaths pushed through the horn. He began, however, to create a slow crescendo to cataclysmic heights, where is tone became nothing more than a gurgled scream, barely able to contain itself. Indeed, there were times when Brötzmann was seemingly unable to express his anger effectively.
Bennink then brought out the snare drum into the center of the platform/stage, and articulated a rhythm with brushes. His stomping feet created a rhythmic counterpoint. Bennink sought broke out into a whistle of "whistle while you work"clearly in good nature and humor. Bennink's brief excursion provided a welcome reprieve and salve to the audience needing an emotional break from his partner's expressive therapy.
Throughout a career span of over forty years, Brötzmann has created and shaped his primal aural landscape into an existential colloquy with the listener. His is music of considerable pain and anger. Whether roosted in personal philosophical frustrations, or larger geo-political concerns, or mere hostility to the intractable traditionalist culture of mainstream media avenues, the cause is irrelevant. The listener should absorb Brötzmann's propulsive intensity and utilize the distinctive language for personal reflection. Any encounter with his music, whether in a recorded context or as a witness to a live performance is, or should be, an exhausting experience. It is a cathartic exercise into primal expressive therapy; succumb to the form. While many listeners may insist upon focusing upon more pleasant and escapist artistic forms, Brötzmann's language brings us closer to a darker part of our existence. We may not always enjoy the discourse, but we emerge healthier as a result. His voice is singular within the improvised art form. High art, indeed.
A friend recently remarked that the devolution of the retail music store, sweeping corporate conglomerate ownership of media outlets and a dwindling selection of available performance venues have forced the independent music arena to resemble early religious groups. The latter huddle in underground grottoes with their treasured tomes and exchange interpretations of the sacred texts, all in an effort to save their respective souls. He commented that unpopular music forms will follow a similar fate; we will clutch our ancient records and compact discs and trade clandestine news of recent developments, hopelessly hoping that others will share our views. Whether such an assessment is accurate or not, we must respect those avenues that offer us exposure to these art forms.
Accordingly, and as I have in the past, I must express considerable admiration for "An Die Musik". It is rapidly becoming one of the most important performance venues on the Eastern seaboard, south of New York City. Its seventy-five seat second floor room is an intimate space for musical conversations. It showcases jazz, improv, classical and world music events several times each week. A partial roster of performances in just the last two years is awe inspiring; William Parker, Dave Burrell, Ralph Towner, David Murray, Tomasz Stanko, Andrew Hill, Bobo Stenson, Henry Grimes, Marshall Allen, Fred Hersch, Reggie Workman... The list continues. Nevertheless, the only accolade it could receive in this year's "Best of Baltimore" contest was the "best chairs" award. Support the musicians and those who have the courage to present their art to the public.