with Sam Rivers and Michael Welch
Rollins College, Orlando, FL • March 4, 2000
Peter Kowald is a German improvising bassist and multiphonic throat singer who has made the rounds. He played on Peter Brotzmann’s epochal Machine Gun , and his discography reads like a virtual Who’s Who in the improvised music community. Before I went to the show, I knew little of this. I knew that he would be playing the first set solo, and on the second set, two special guests would accompany him. I knew that one of them would be ever-innovative drummer, Michael Welch. When I heard in the car that Sam Rivers would also be playing, I knew we were really in for something special.
Peter Kowald shatters notions of how the bass should be played. Kowald exploits his double bass to create a massive palette of colors. During the course of the show, it seemed that there was a constant sense of discovery in the air. He could take a simple gesture, like pushing his knuckles down the board, and use it to create a new language to speak in. Of course, it was clear that he had perfected each of these methods over the years, but he explored each one so thoroughly that he seemed to be playing each one for the first time. None of this should imply at all that this concert was merely an exercise of Peter Kowald’s chops. His entire solo set was one 45-minute improvisation, and worked as a cohesive piece. The set began with Kowald playing a deep, dark, staccato bassline while improvising with his voice. The bowing and the singing complemented each other perfectly, creating dense cloud of tones. Kowald suddenly fell into a dramatic knuckling of the strings. From then on, everything was a blur. Kowald would spontaneously detune his strings, pull them away from the body of the bass and bow them furiously. Once he took the bottom of the bow and drummed against the strings. The range of technique he has is completely and utterly astounding. Through all of this was a simple, folk-like melodic motif that united the disparate arms of the performance.
The second set had Kowald playing with two of Central Florida (and one of the planet’s!) finest musicians. Michael Welch has devolved an idiom that reminds me of Han Bennink in terms of sheer inventiveness. Welch has an ever growing percussion toolkit which includes maracas, a spatula, sheet metal, a squeaky toy, a tambourine, a mini-cymbal thing that sprouts from his hi-hat and countless other goodies. Rivers took up a saxophone on this occasion. He and Kowald played first. Both came on very strong, and established a quick rapport through which they pushed the improvisations. A duet between Welch and Kowald were next. This bit was a bit more spastic and out than the previous duo. The two built up to dizzying levels of intensity; you could fuel a thousand cars with the energy that was built up in that hall. On the final number, all three played at once, which was as astounding as you would expect.