KARKOWSKI - composer and rabble-rouser

Published: 2001-10-10 by Stellan Sagvik

By Magnus Haglund (transl. Sven Borei) (Published in Nutida Musik no. 1, 1990)

"Darmstadt? It's an institution kept alive through artificial respiration. The interesting and challenging music is somewhere else." Göteborg composer Zbigniew Karkowski has little time for 20th century academic music. He's part of a composer generation as coloured by the Sex Pistols and Einstürzende Neubauten, as by Boulez and Stockhausen.

Zbigniew Karkowski’s music intrigues, not least because of its artlessness. The lack of decorative elements and sonoral refinement lend the music a touch of primitive and untrammelled power. It is raw and rude, often with a provocative air. Karkowski is clearly drawn to extreme expressions – deafening volumes, rough and ‘ugly’ sounds, massive sonoral carpets.

In the beginning of the year the Göteborg Symphony performed Karkowski’s orchestral piece named The Life of Death. It is a supremely condensed and pithy piece of music where a tense and neurotically charged Mahler-sound is exploded from within. The music sooner contains a ritualistic, than an intellectual meaning, it is physically tangible and places the listener in a feverish mental state: ‘music as a body’.

Rolls Royce
“It was interesting to be able to command a sound apparatus of such size for an orchestra is truly a type of musical Rolls Royce,” says the composer when we meet at his flat in the Haga district of Göteborg.

“During the rehearsals I asked the orchestra members to give everything they had since I wanted the music to express a feeling of physical exhaustion. But most didn’t really dare. On a scale of 1 to 100, they managed a 70 perhaps and then stopped.”

Zbigniew Karkowski was born in 1958 in Krakow, Poland. His mother was a language teacher and had a passionate relationship with classical music. The boy began playing flute and piano early. From 11-12 years old, Zbigniew attend the Chopin Upper Secondary School in Krakow – “it was strict, traditional and academic, six day a week from eight in the morning to eight at night.”

When punk rock reached Poland at the end of the 70s, Zbigniew immediately joined in. The feeling of revolution in punk released a previously dammed need to express himself and soon his head was filled with the barbed wire guitars of Clash and the Sex Pistols. The endless screaming gained in strength against the backdrop of the norms and formalism of his school.

After completing his studies he travelled out into Europe and, through falling in love, landed in Göteborg. Soon enough he met a number of similarly inclined wild ones, including Michael von Hausswolff, Ulrich Hillebrand, Erik Pauser and Johan Söderbergh, and all of a sudden Göteborg had become one of Europe’s strongest habitats for experimental music.

During several busy years the various constellations performed on Ny Scen (New Scene), a facility that was somewhere between a cabaret and a music facility located on Linnégatan in Göteborg. Karkowski participated in several groupings, including DNA, Texas Instruments and Yeomen. After New Scene closed, the Radium 226.05 Association was formed, at the start as an exhibition hall for various installations and subsequently a record company.

Radium catalyst
The importance of the Radium Association for Göteborg’s musical life can hardly be overestimated. The record company has become a conduit for both underground rock, including such groups as Blue for Two, Sator, Union Carbide Productions and Mobile Whorehouse, as well as for the more avant-garde art music, with such artists as Sten Hanson, Rune Lindblad and Dror Feiler finding a sanctuary at Radium.

“Radium has played a big role, not least as a catalyst,” says Karkowski. “For me it has meant greater chances to meet a public, which in turn has given me greater self-confidence. Otherwise there is a great danger that a composer becomes a retiring hermit, sitting in his basement for ten years polishing the ‘final work’.”

However, the fact that Karkowski has moved so freely in the no-mans land between rock and ‘serious music’, has created a number of problems when it comes to getting his music accepted. Especially the ‘serious’ camp has exhibited some highly remarkable reactions. In spite of the fact that he is one of the Swedish composers whose music has drawn the greatest attention in recent years and then mainly in West Germany, France and the US, he was recently most surprisingly refused admittance to the Association of Swedish Composers (FST) with the motivation that his music did not belong to the ‘serious’ side.

Industrial rock
“While there are many composers who stress their background in rock music, there is almost no-one who continues to work with both types of expression. Up front it may be open to experimentation among the various genre, but when push comes to shove most everything is very dogmatic – you have to stay within the given frameworks.”

In 1983 at the same time as he played in the industrial rock group DNA, influenced by bands like Einstürzenden Neubaten, SPIC, Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, Karkowski began to take private lessons from Sven-Eric Johanson. Much of it was naturally twelve-tone, but there was also traditional counterpoint and fugue technique. When the School of Music in Göteborg started a composition class in 1985, Karkowski was admitted along with such as Anders Hultqvist. During the fours years he has attended classes there, his main teachers were Mikael Edlund, Bo Holten, Åke Parmerud and Lars Johan Werle. During the summer months he has also participated in seminars on the continent studying Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen and Iannis Xenakis, among others. And there is no doubt that Xenakis made the deepest impression.

Karkowski describes Boulez and Xenakis as two opposites. Boulez, the coolly intellectual, the composer in a laboratory with full control over the musical substances, constantly conscious of his position in relation to competing colleagues; and Xenakis, the intuitive, warm and caring, a Renaissance person with an interest for the most varied subjects, completely independent and uninterested in competition.

Experience in small pieces
“During his lectures, Xenakis would talk about the most varied subjects, jumping from chemical reactions to African tribal music. The remarkable with Xenakis is that through his whole career he has stood to one side of the establishment trends in art music. As opposed to Boulez, he has never gone through tradition in to modernism. As early as 1953-54 when he presented Metastatis, he had a ‘ready’ style. I am attracted not least by the sonoral expression itself in Xenakis’ music, an expression that breaks completely with the formalism of the academic avant-garde. It is physical and intuitive.”

This is also how we must approach Karkowski’s music, demanding as it does for a new way of listening called for by that free zone gradually growing between genres and the various style traditions. What is decisive in this is an interest for the ‘resistance’ and for the artistic friction, that which makes our experience fall apart into small pieces.

Karkowski’s latest project moves within several layers. Working with the drummer group Mental Hackers, he has completed an LP with ‘acid voodoo’, a mixture of acid house and ritualistic drum rhythms. The music is constructed using rhythmic displacements and Karkowski describes it as a type of hard core version of Steve Reich.

“You’ll break your legs if you try to dance – the warps are such that the brain misfires.”

Musical ‘action painting’
Towards the end of February 1990, Radium put on a festival called ‘Knogjärn 90’ in a giant rock shelter near the Nya Varvet in Göteborg. At this ‘Knuckle-duster 90’, Karkowski’s ‘act’ was of a new piece with the title For Me and For My Gods. Using a self-built instrument consisting of an ingenious link between two sampling synthesizers and an infra-red light, Karkowski created a musical version of Jackson Pollock’s ‘action painting’.

“I have a frame built up around me which sends out infra-red beams,” says the composer. “When I break the beams with my arms, I control the tempo and dynamics of the ultra-sounds which are emitted by the two sampling, 16 channel synthesizers. In that way there are 32 ‘fictitious’ musicians with me functioning as some sort of conductor. The hard disk contains a selection of different sounds and structures for the synths, a sort idea bank which forms the point of departure for the music which I then ‘compose’ in front of the audience.”

He's also found time during February to improvise with Dror Feiler at Fylkingen under the label of ‘Trash Music’ – a collage of video, band compositions and noise from electric guitars and saxophones. Why then this interest for broken sounds?

“I like when music becomes a physical experience,” says Zbigniew Karkowski. “If the volume is sufficiently high, the listener enters some sort of Zen condition – the music breaks through one’s defence mechanisms.”


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