Andrew W. Hurley (2010)

Of Breath and Paper

For a 69-year old, Peter Brötzmann is remarkably busy, not only as a performing and recording musician, but also as a visual artist. As we will see, these two sides to his creative practise have run in tandem for much of his life. Born 1941 in the West-German town of Remscheid into an upper middle class family, Brötzmann was early attracted to the fine arts, and at 19 gained admission to the Werkkunstschule in Wuppertal, where he studied painting and graphic design. Nevertheless, he felt rather nauseated by the institutionalisation of art and the opening–night gallery set. Jazz was initially more of a pastime, something which the autodidact saxophonist first took up at secondary school in Remscheid, where he played with a semi-professional group. Not so interested in pursuing the life of an exhibiting artist, he found his jazz activities, which he continued in Wuppertal, especially in conjunction with the bass player, Peter Kowald, far more exciting. During the early 1960s, he performed regularly with Kowald and various drummers, but he also kept one foot in the world of conceptual art and music. He met Karlheinz Stockhausen, and also heard John Cage and David Tudor, who performed in the nearby Cologne. Via his connections to Wuppertal’s Galerie Parnass, he was exposed to the Fluxus movement activities of George Brecht and, especially, the Korean artist Nam June Paik, who spent some time in Wuppertal, and for whom Brötzmann worked as an assistant in the mid-1960s. On a day-to-day level, Brötzmann was also undertaking design work for an advertising agency at this time in order to provide for his young family.

What’s free jazz got to do with it?
It is primarily as a free (jazz) musician that Brötzmann is best known. Although he now performs just as much with American musicians as with Europeans, his place within what is often referred to as the European jazz “emancipation” needs to be understood. Ekkehard Jost has referred to the period between 1945 and the early 1960s as an “epigonal” epoch of European jazz. During this era, most West German modern jazz musicians allowed themselves to be inspired by American musicians. From the early 1960s, however, having an American idol was seen as crippling for those with serious artistic aspirations. Among other things, it was this realisation that initiated a European jazz “emancipation” that unfolded during the 1960s and 1970s, and in which Brötzmann was a prime mover. As Wolfram Knauer has shown, the principles and strident rhetoric of American free jazz, as practised by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and others, were received in Europe in a dual sense: as in the USA they fundamentally contested the traditional rules that governed jazz technique, but in Europe musicians now also questioned the norm that innovation must necessarily come from the USA. Nevertheless, it took some time for West German musicians to work through the radical innovations of free jazz: Jost writes of a “phase interval of 5 years.” In (West) Germany, the first (recorded) fruits included Gunter Hampel’s Heartplants (1965), the Manfred Schoof Quintet’s Voices (1966), the Globe Unity Orchestra’s debut (1966), and Brötzmann’s recording, For Adolphe Sax (1967).

Unlike some other members of the first wave of (West) German free jazz musicians, such as Schoof, Brötzmann did not have conservatory training. As we have seen, he did have art school training, and was influenced as much by figures from the world of conceptual art such as Cage and members of the Fluxus movement, as he was by the avant-garde jazz of Ornette Coleman et al. This ought not be forgotten. Indeed, in a 1968 interview with Siegfried Schmidt-Joos he identified himself primarily as an artist, rather than as a musician. At the time, Brötzmann was interested in incorporating noise in much the same way as some modern artists had been incorporating junk into their art for years; it was all concerned with an “expansion of the notion of material,” as he put it. It should also be borne in mind that whilst performing with European and visiting or expatriate American free jazz musicians, Brötzmann was also carrying on a practise as a fine artist––as he had done since the late 1950s––even if some of these works have only come to be publicly exhibited in the last few years, at exhibitions in Remscheid and Chicago. Some of these works incorporated junk, or demonstrated an “arte povera” approach. And whilst maintaining a day job as a graphic designer with an advertising agency, Brötzmann’s activities as a jazz musician and enthusiast also allowed him to exercise those same skills and training. From the early 1960s, he had designed posters promoting jazz concerts; after he began to record for his own label in 1967 and then set in train the establishment of the annual Total Music Meeting and the Free Music Production (FMP) organisation in 1968–1969 (see below), he was also able to continue to design record covers, posters and other materials.

Brötzmann’s music from the late 1960s was intended to be challenging for musician and recipient alike. From the musicians’ perspective, “each person has the greatest possible freedom, which he must also exploit,” as he noted in 1966. Jost observed some ten years later that Brötzmann’s doing away with “tonal centres, discernible melodic runs and themes,” as well as with swing and “‘workmanship” in the traditional meaning,” means that his music can be “ ‘destructive’ […] of an experience that has become dear and familiar to the listener, an experience not only of Jazz but of Music in general.” His approach, partly influenced by Paik, was purposefully destructive: “One ought to have no scruples in simply toppling over traditional,” he told Rainer Blome in 1966 At one stage, Brötzmann’s colleague, Peter Kowald, summed up this approach under the rubric “Kaputtspielphase” (an almost untranslatable word involving the idea of a phase of “playing something to pieces”) to refer to European free jazz during the mid-to-late 1960s. The zenith of this music was probably the Brötzmann’s Octet’s 1968 recording, Machine Gun, which Wolfgang Burde has memorably described as “[a] powerful thumping, scarcely comprehensible ‘chaos’, remote fringe-realms in which savagery and music reigned.” The impulse behind music like Machine Gun was always an aesthetic one (so long as this is not understood in too restrictive a manner), but the aesthetic achieved, together with certain important aspects of German free jazz production, distribution and reception, also had close links to the critical “1968er” habitus held by Brötzmann and others of his generation. For them, more so than today, music and artistic practice were conceived of in a political way.

1968 in West Germany
As the 1960s proceeded, and free jazz embedded itself in the West German cultural landscape, intergenerational tension was building within West German society, which both resembled and differed from that exhibited elsewhere in the world, and which is often associated with the critical year of 1968. Broadly, left-leaning members of the younger generation came to be critical of what was seen as a postwar “restoration.” Konrad Adenauer, the elderly, conservative Chancellor between 1949 and 1963, had presided over the rearmament of West Germany in 1955, and countenanced the strategic use of atomic weapons in 1958, matters abhorrent to many on the Left, given Germany’s militaristic past. There also appeared to be problems emerging in the West German polity. After Adenauer’s conservative successor, Ludwig Erhard’s government fell apart in 1966, it was replaced by a so-called “Grand Coalition” between the major parties on the Right and the Left. The lack of an effective parliamentary opposition proved a major concern, especially when emergency laws were introduced, which it was feared would be similar to the powers invoked by Hitler in 1933 to assume dictatorial control. A key concern throughout was Germany’s recent history, and the manner in which this past had been swept under the carpet. A range of events in the 1960s brought this to light again for a younger generation, which had been born “too late” to have participated in the atrocities of the “Third Reich,” but whose parents either did, or might have witnessed them. Firstly, there was a series of new war crimes trials, beginning with Eichmann’s trial in Israel in 1961. Lenient sentences handed down at the Auschwitz trials held in Frankfurt in 1963, together with ongoing debates about the expiry of the statute of limitations kept this “unmastered past” in focus. In addition, there was the fact that various former National Socialists had been rehabilitated and now held high-ranking positions. All sorts of other issues were also criticised by the younger generation. These included the smug consumerism of the postwar era. It was perceived that the period of sustained high growth in the 1950s had contributed to heightened consumption, but also to a lack of collective introspection about the past. (In their attack on consumerism, many members of the 1968 generation took up Critical Theory’s critique of mass culture and an “affirmative” culture industry.) The media landscape––especially the concentration of privately-owned West German print media in very conservative hands––was also criticised, as was the foreign policy of West Germany’s close ally, the USA. Escalation in the War in Vietnam especially exacerbated anti-American sentiment, which in turn raised fundamental questions about the presumed “Americanization” of postwar German culture. This complex set of issues had a clear influence on many free jazz musicians including Brötzmann, and on the whole “emancipation” of European jazz.

1968er and free jazz
The 1968er habitus impacted on the West German jazz scene in a wide range of areas, from aesthetics to jazz historiography, through to modes of production and reception. On the aesthetic front, what Brötzmann called their “very aggressive way and means of […] expressing ourselves” was not without political aims. Machine Gun, which was recorded in May 1968, just as the German emergency laws were being passed and as rioting occurred in Paris, especially prompted questions as to whether it was “program music” for a revolution. Some years later, in an interview with Bert Noglik, Brötzmann strenuously denied that it was programmatic “in a superficial way,” and disputed any direct link between his music and radical Leftism, but did admit “that one can scarcely dispute that the political movements and moods of these times have also influenced our musical development in a certain way.” (In actual fact, the title Machine Gun derived from the way American free jazzman Don Cherry had referred to Brötzmann’s rapid staccato style of playing the saxophone). In the 1968 interview with Schmidt-Joos, he elaborated on the not undesirable shock-effect of his music: “one must know in which times one is living and that many things must be changed. And for this reason of course one doesn’t just noodle around […].” Citing Nam June Paik, Brötzmann hoped that, through his music, he could actively contribute towards waking up “50 Million sleepy people” and bringing about social change. In this respect, Brötzmann considered that jazz was a more appropriate medium than the visual arts.

Another important way in which the 68er habitus had an influence lay in the way music like Brötzmann’s was disseminated. In 1968, he instigated the first Total Music Meeting, which was organised and realised by the Berlin Bass player Jost Gebers. This was initially conceived as a sort of an “Anti-Festival” in opposition to the annual Berlin Jazz Days, West Germany’s largest jazz festival. The Jazz Days were part of what might be thought of as a ritualised “tie-culture” and were also described by Sounds magazine in 1968 as “a commercial event, through which the organisers want to enrich themselves.” By contrast, the resolutely avant-garde TMM was independently organised by musicians. Rather than presenting established musicians, the TMM assembled younger improvisers, who were supposed to spontaneously collaborate. The mode of reception was also quite different: as Gebers later observed, the idea was to reduce all festival trappings to a minimum. Instead of being perched on a distant stage in the “high art” Berlin Philharmonie, concerts took place in a down home jazz club. The groups were not required to wear suits, as was typical for the Jazz Days, and other “disruptive factors” were also avoided.

Steeled by the success of the 1968 TMM, a further event was organised: the Workshop Freie Musik, held around Easter 1969 in the exhibition hall of Berlin’s Akademie der Künste. In September 1969, Brötzmann had the additional idea of founding a company, Free Music Production (or FMP as it was later abbreviated), which Gebers then proceeded to do. This reflected both some of the attempts at self-organisation that members of the free jazz community had attempted elsewhere in the world, but also other initiatives being taken by members of the West German 68er generation, such as the establishment of “small,” independent publishing houses. FMP, which organised both concerts and record productions, was initially exclusively dedicated to European free jazz (or what it simply preferred to call “free music” given the links many of these musicians also had with European new music). Its recording philosophy was to document existing groups and to avoid dictating terms to them, a la the commercial record industry. Along with the recording and distribution of these self-produced records, FMP organised a range of events, including the annual TMM, the Freie Musik Workshops in the Akademie der Künste, and even special concerts for children. It was also initially intended that FMP would act as an information service for European musicians. There were various motivations to form FMP. On the one hand, it gave free musicians the ability to release and distribute records which were uncompromising and of comparatively little interest to the commercial record labels; it also provided a concert platform to musicians such as the Swiss Irène Schweizer, whom it was thought had been unjustifiably neglected by events like the Berlin Jazz Days. On the other hand, FMP had a political dimension for at least some of the musicians involved. Whilst the earlier FMP productions came about as a result of the fruitful collaboration between Brötzmann and Gebers, on October 1 1972 a collective structure of FMP was settled upon so that several other musicians, including Peter Kowald, Alexander von Schlippenbach, and Detlef Schönenberg, joined Brötzmann and Gebers in its ownership and control. Gebers noted that year that FMP was interested in “co-determination and democratisation within our musical areas.” Brötzmann has also recently observed that “as good old Marxists, we wanted to have our own tools … our own business.” The Marxist approach also extended to the equal distribution of income from concerts, which contrasted with the way in which musicians were remunerated at events like the Berlin Jazz Days, and with the “star system” typical in the USA. Record production royalties were also uniform, although total earnings were dependent on the number of records pressed, which differed between productions according to popularity.

The 1970s experienced a splintering in the 1968er generation, just as there was increasingly a fragmentation amongst German free jazzers. For the Left, the election of left-wing Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1969 represented a cleaving point. Some members of the 1968er generation supported him; Others (including many of those who went on to form the Greens) began a “long march through the institutions,” whilst others still took a more extreme path, which was to have significant ramifications towards the end of the 1970s, with the culmination of left-wing terrorism in the so-called “German Autumn” of 1977. In the jazz scene and beyond, free jazz lost some of its early oppositional stance. After a rough start, a symbiotic relationship developed between the mainstream Berlin Jazz Days and the more avant-garde Total Music Meeting. By the late 1970s, the FMP label––whilst still very active––had also become largely depoliticised. After a number of difficult years, Gebers had become the sole owner of FMP (in 1976), and the question of politics was now expressed to be entirely a matter for individual musicians, as Gebers observed in an interview with Lothar Jänichen. During the 1970s, various musicians also began to resile from the harder line positions taken in the late 1960s. Some free jazzers ended up playing “Krautrock.” Some, like Manfred Schoof, began to re-engage with less “out,” more melodic types of jazz. Others, including Brötzmann, widened the palette beyond the “Kaputtspiel” whilst remaining true to the free music idiom. He and others like him also began insisting less on “emancipation” from the US jazz scene, and have performed more and more with American musicians from all sorts of genres, constantly testing out new fields, and challenging himself, his colleagues and listeners. Brötzmann recorded regularly with FMP throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and subsequently he has maintained a high output of recordings––reflecting his busy schedule of concerts around the world––for a variety of small labels, including Bruno Johnson’s Chicago-based Okka label. Almost all of these have featured cover art and design by him.

The graphic work
Even in the early days, a link between FMP and the fine arts was evident: the first Workshop Freie Musik was held, in 1969, at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste in conjunction with an exhibition of young British minimal art, for example. (The fit between art and free music almost backfired on this occasion, however, when various music enthusiasts sat down on some of the artworks, and used others as “found” percussion instruments: minimal music; performance art; or wilful damage?) As with his first two self-released records, which sported his own cover designs, Brötzmann’s subsequent releases for FMP, beginning in 1970 with Balls, also provided a platform for his striking graphic work. (In fact, the first pressings of Balls were also accompanied by a book and a print). Brötzmann also contributed much of the graphic work for events and for some other recordings associated with FMP; so much so that he became responsible for what, in retrospect, might be seen as its house style. Stark, unadorned, and using a simple palette of colours (often black, white and red), his designs typically have a grainy aesthetic, and feature simple lettering, often of the hand-cut variety. This aesthetic is evident also in his design for the publication, For Example (1978) a three-record and book set, published by FMP and the Akademie der Künste in 1978 to mark the tenth anniversary of the annual Workshop Freie Musik. Many of Brötzmann’s subsequent post-FMP recordings have also maintained that instantly identifiable grainy aesthetic, and its distinctive hand-cut sanserif lettering, ably demonstrating that he has pursued his graphic design with the same consequence that he has applied to his musical development.

Andrew W. Hurley

This sketch is based on various sources, including, in chronological order:
Rainer Blome, “Ein neues Gesicht im Jazz: Peter Brötzmann.” Jazz Podium (August 1966): 216;
“Anti-Festival Berlin,” Sounds 9 (1968): 4;
Siegfried Schmidt-Joos, “Weil viele Dinge geändert werden müssen,” Jazz Podium (April 1968): 128–9;
Geges F. Margull, “Gespräch über die Ziele der Free Music Production in Berlin.” Jazz Podium (June 1971): 209–13;
Jost Gebers, Letter, Jazz Podium (November 1972): 6–7;
Wolfgang Burde, “A Discussion of European Free Jazz.” In For Example [1978], ed. J. Gebers, 46–52;
Ekkehard Jost, “European Jazz Avantgarde – Where Will Emancipation Lead,” In For Example [1978], ed. J. Gebers, 54–64;
Lothar Jänichen, “10 Jahre Free Music Production in Berlin: Ein Gespräch mit Jost Gebers.” Jazz Podium (October 1979): 15–17;
Bert Noglik, Jazz-Werkstatt International, Berlin: Verlag Neue Musik, 1981;
Ekkehard Jost, Europas Jazz, 1960–80. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuchverlag, 1987;
Wolfram Knauer, “Emanzipation wovon? Zum Verhältnis des amerikanischen und deutschen Jazz in den 50er und 60er Jahren.” In Jazz in Deutschland [1996], ed. W. Knauer, 141–57;
Mike Heffley, Northern Sun, Southern Moon: Europe’s Reinvention of Jazz, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005;
as well as an interview I conducted with him in Wuppertal on 25 September 2004.
The FMP website ( and
Brötzmann’s website ( also contain a wealth of material.
Translations are mine.
Thanks to Jost Gebers for his comments on an earlier draft of this text.

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