On April 10, 1998, the German bassist Peter Kowald was a guest on my WPFW radio program. He played freely improvised duets with harpist-composer Anne LeBaron and sat for this brief conversation. He seemed startled by the final question, but gave an intriguing answer anyway.
[This is the first appearance of this interview anywhere in print]
Q: Where are you coming from, musically?
A: When I was 17, I met Peter Brotzman, who was 20 then. Everybody was telling me “why don’t you play with this guy, he can’t play the saxophone.” He was really an advanced mind in terms of all the arts, the contemporary arts. He was a painter then and he played the tenor saxophone. We played together for about 4 or 5 years in this little club in Wuppertal where nobody wanted to hear us because the music was so strange. So we played in this place every Tuesday and Friday and no one showed up for a year and a half, and then one person came to listen to us. We considered that kind of our school days playing there so much. Then we went on tour with Carla Bley when I was 22. She took us on a three month European tour. I was studying philology then, I left the university and never went back. Since then I played with the Globe Unity Orchestra, Alex Schlippenbach, Brotzman and basically all the European improvisers from the 60s on. Sometimes I played with American musicians coming over; people like Marion Brown, Jeanne Lee, Andrew Cyrille in later years. I had a fellowship from the German cultural government to go to New York in 1984-5 and that was fantastic because I played with so many people then from the American side. These were people I had admired since I was a boy. Suddenly I was playing in Rashid Ali’s band, so that was wonderful for me.
Q: Is recognition important to you?
A: Well, you see it took a long time. I did other jobs until just a few years ago. I was truck driving and bartending because I didn’t want to do other musics than the one I love. I didn’t want to do dance music or some stuff like that. So recognition means that now I have enough work to just live on the music. So in that way, it’s really important. I have two grown-up daughters and they want money from daddy and all that kind of stuff, so I’m happy that I really can live on the music now. And I know it’s not the case for everybody in this field of music.
Q: How did you create your unusual vocal style?
A: I was in Japan for a couple of times and I stayed with the Zen monks for a little while. Every morning at 4 am there was an hour of sutra singing and so somehow it comes from that. I don’t do the same thing exactly, but I really love that music. It’s very important to me and somehow it fits very well with the bass. I just love to do it now.
Q: Is your music spiritual?
A: Well, people say that. I really don’t know. If it is then I don’t know what to say, and if it isn’t then I can’t say it is. I don’t want to really say it’s spiritual, but I don’t know. I hope it is.
Q: How do you maintain the balance between freedom and discipline?
A: It took me a long time, a lot of things. I feel that in my younger years I was experimenting with the techniques and it wouldn’t come so much from the inside. Now I feel that I’m able to have the music come from the inside. I think that there is a problem with a lot of contemporary music, which seems a little cold to me. I’ve seen some interesting pieces like the Zimmerman cello piece, which he wrote for Sigfried Palm, they were friends. It’s an amazing string piece. It has fantastic virtuosity in it, but I feel it also has a certain distance or coldness in the way it is conceived and played. I don’t want that. I want straight warmth. I don’t know how to say it in English. I want a certain morality back in the arts. I think the black musicians in America have that while the white scene is more into this interesting stuff. Very soon this sometimes gets boring because there is a lack of a certain, I don’t know how to say it…
A: Well, soul has something to do with it. Definitely. You see, I talk with Pina Bausch a lot. She lives in Wuppertal and has a dance ensemble and she’s working so that all the dancers really work from the inside, and she’s really aware of this problem. I don’t think many contemporary musicians are really aware of that question. I feel that an artist like Joseph Beuys, he worked from the inside. As smart and as shocking as he was, he worked really from the inside and that’s the thing I’m looking for. The older I get, it seems to develop a little more now.
Q: What music would like played at your funeral?
A: I never thought about it. Maybe a hundred saxophone players and fifty drummers.
Bassist, composer Peter Kowald died of a heart attack following a concert in New York on Sept. 21, 2002. He was 58 years old.