The word “design” has a stiff connotation. It suggests predetermination, a plan or schematic, something plotted rather than expressed. It’s a cool term, nothing improvised or aleatoric about it. Indeed, design feels about as remote from Peter Brötzmann’s aesthetic as one could get. One of the most important and influential figures in improvised music, Brötzmann is a far cry from cool. Playing saxophone or clarinet, his music can be volcanic, explosive, tender, melancholy; it is emotive and pliant, not calculating and staid. As a visual artist, Brötzmann explores raw human images, textures, and associations. He often uses discarded materials like paper from tea and fish wrappers, coffee, tarpaper, feathers. Hardly the normal arsenal of Mad Men, his is a decidedly non-graphic battery of materials and techniques.

But Brötzmann has worked in graphic design as long as he’s been an artist and even longer than he’s been making music. In the late 1950s he focused on design as an art student in Wuppertal, Germany; even before that, Brötzmann worked in an advertising firm while living in nearby Remscheid, where he was born. Again, in the mid 1960s, after he had dedicated himself to the public pursuit of free music, he supported himself by working in his father-in-law’s ad agency, doing graphic design.

All along, as an adjunct to his music and the music of others, Brötzmann has made graphics: album and CD covers, posters, and flyers. Early on, Brötzmann acquired a large lithography stone, from which produced early posters for concerts like his first trios, quartets, and a Charles Mingus concert he helped organize in Wuppertal. He simultaneously made art lithographs and promotional print works. On a label he called BRÖ, he self-published his first two LPs, For Adolphe Sax (1967) and his best-known record, Machine Gun (1968); they sported hand-silkscreened covers designed by Brötzmann, as did his first releases a few years later on the fledgling label associated with the Berlin-based collective called Free Music Production (FMP).

Brötzmann’s design concept, which often incorporates a unique set of block-letter fonts that he devised and fabricated in art school, set the visual agenda for FMP. Over the course of 35 years he made dozens of posters for the organization, finding novel ways to announce their annual festivals: the Workshop Freie Musik and the Total Music Meeting. His own graphic voice was clearly infused into the overall look and feel of FMP’s productions. The 37 full-length LPs and CDs that Brötzmann recorded for FMP invariably utilized jackets and booklets of his design. Some covers featured his artwork, some used only his block lettering, some were simple and direct, some quite complex, others even used backwards text for the track titles.

On each of his two mid-1970s LPs, Outspan 1 and Outspan 2, Brötzmann took for a cover image a sheet of aluminum - one of his favorite art materials in the ‘60s - that he had distressed and worked into an abstract landscape; below this, the title is hand-stamped and details are handwritten. On Alarm, an LP from 1981, he reproduced a fragment of the score - a graphic score, in fact - as the key image, literally showing the directions that the band had for making the music. Brötzmann has used graphic scores over the years, in some ways harkening back to formative experiences with the Fluxus movement, including performances in FluxFestivals in Holland. The image for Brötzmann’s Machine Gun makes use of an appropriated icon of a gunner and a similarly detourned fragment of text from a dictionary; the title refers to the nickname trumpeter Don Cherry gave to the saxophonist in the mid-1960s. Brötzmann also designed (and produced in limited edition) two different sets of playing cards, Signs and Images, which can be used by any number of players to create structured improvisations.

In recent years, Brötzmann has issued a staggering number of CDs, many of them designed by him. A renewed interest in the medium of the vinyl LP has given him a larger format - 12 x 12 inches - and he’s designed some remarkable hand-silkscreened records on his revived BRÖ imprint, including a gorgeous duet with late drummer Walter Perkins, The Ink Is Gone (2002). For his 70th birthday, which was celebrated in 2011 with a four day festival in Austria, Brötzmann worked on graphics for an elaborate 5-CD box for the Trost label, one of his most ambitious commercial designs.

In his graphic endeavors, Brötzmann has in fact made a body of work consistent with his music and his art, an oeuvre that undermines the presumption that design is inherently rigid. More than just the decoration of information, Brötzmann’s five decades of design bear witness to a sophisticated, delicate, and earthy sensibility, along with a dogged sense of internal logic. His record covers and posters are passionate and thoughtful, playful and brutal, basic and human. Investigated in depth, they suggest ways that the graphic arts can be improvised and design can operate in a vividly flexible manner, drawing together and scattering and reassembling all the signs and symbols of a given project.

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