Zbigniew Karkowski was one of the most important Polish noise musicians, a legend of anti-academic alternative music and the terror of sound technicians from around the world. Beside recording and performing solo, he collaborated with numerous musicians and composed (although his compositions were discovered only after his death).
Born in 1958 in Kraków, Zbigniew Karkowski left Poland in 1979, and since then he considered himself a nomad more than a citizen of a particular country. As a young man he played flute (at the Fryderyk Chopin National Music School), then he studied composition and aesthetics at the University and School of Göteborg (the alma mater of quite a few important figures in modern music, such as Mikael Edlund, Bo Holten, Lars Johan Werle, and Åke Parmerud) and computer music at the Chalmers University of Technology, also in Göteborg. At that time Karkowski was involved in a group of industrial artists centred around the Radium record label. He also studied sonology at the Royal Conservatoire in the Hague, participated in courses such as the Centre Acanthes in Avignon and Aix-en-Provence (the master classes were run by Iannis Xenakis, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, and Goerges Aperghis).
One of the most important moments for Karkowski’s artistic formation was his trip to Japan, where he got acquainted with Masami Akita (aka Merzbow) and the local noise scene. Karkowski himself considered theses influences, along with the methods of Iannis Xenakis, as having a decisive impact on his development as an artist. Karkowski collaborated with numerous musicians from around the world: Edwin van der Heide and Atau Tanaka (Sensorband), Lars Åkerlund, Sebastian Öberg and Johan Söderberg (P.I.T.T.), Aube, Ulfi Biltingi, Antoine Chessex, Xopher Davidson, Tetsuo Furudate, Li Chin Sungi, Francisco Lopéz, Daniel Menche, Merzbow (MAZK), Brian O’Reilly, Robert Piotrowicz and Kasper T. Toeplitz (Le Depéupleur). In 2013 Karkowski was diagnosed with an advanced pancreatic cancer; having undergone unsuccessful treatment in Sweden, the artist went to Peru in search for an alternative treatment from local shamans, but he died soon after arriving to the jungle.
In an interview conducted by Marcin Barski, the artist spoke of himself and his music:
I don’t consider myself a noise musician and I never have. Of course, I collaborated with various noise musicians and recorded some albums in this genre, but to me it was always only one of the things I was involved in. If you think about it, for the last four years I have released only one album, [Infallibilism], consisting of material that can be considered noise, but mainly because it was recorded during some noise concerts in noise clubs in Tokyo. My music is often categorised as noise, but this is a total nonsense. It is so probably because my concerts tend to be loud, and because I use textures that sound best when the intensity of sound is high. And also because most of the people writing about music are idiots. You know, noise music (Japanese, American and harsh noise wall, HNW) is formed by people (both artist and fans) who strongly identify with this scene and create strong communities around it. They have their internet forums where they discuss music, organise noise conferences, festivals etc. I have never wanted, and I will never be, a part of this scene.
Regardless of Karkowski’s antipathy to the genre of noise, it is probably impossible to consider his music outside the context of this aesthetic (although his beginnings in Swedish new-rave group P.I.T.T. could have lead him in a very different, more psychedelic direction). First of all, he related to the rebellious, anti-establishment, punk-industrial attitude characteristic of many representatives of this genre, from Merzbow to Menche. Karkowski has many times expressed his disagreement with contemporary classical music as it was highly attached to the idea of musical notation and antediluvian trends, and relied on subventions. Secondly, he clearly preferred sounds that are intense both in their texture and dynamics and often construct veritable walls of sound. Therefore, it is worth noticing that contrary to the stereotypes, the dramaturgy of Karkowski’s music is very diversified internally and full of contrast. Finally, performances of Karkowski were an unforgettable experience for both the audience and the organisers, as the artist often set the loudspeakers on fire and would leave the stage when asked to turn down the volume.
Some of his numerous projects are particularly memorable: Sensorband (1993–2003), exploring the borders of sound art and noise (Datastream), extreme duos with Merzbow combining the vibrancy of analogue and digital noises (MAZK), Depéupleur (1999–2013) melting noise in the orgy of echoes and feedbacks (Disambiguation), or a sample collaboration with Tetsuo Furudate developed over a number of years (World as Will).
As a solo artist he was in constant evolution: from the mystic bourdon/drone music of Uexkull (1991), through the pulsating basses and tweets of in Choice of Points for the Application of Force (2000), contrast and ascetic One by Many (2005), to rich in sounds Perceptual Interpretations of Ambiguous Figures (2012).
In a review of The Last Man in Europe Wiliam Z. writes about the uniqueness of Karkowski’s music:
(…) it is a record of Karkowski’s performance for a TV production of George Orwell, conceived for the BBC in 1954. The performance was recored in the former hospital The Horse (currently a centre for independent music) in London on 31st October 2013. To me this recording is like nothing I’ve heard before. Its uniqueness makes it impossible to categorise. However, if you try you could probably say that he is a master of dynamics, but also of the frequency of electronic music. Tones here range from the medium register to registers that are hard to listen to. There are other moments (as in 3’30'', in the second part) where the bassline which meanders and flows is covered with some sort of a sound of blowing wind. This is precisely the moment when the recording becomes a brain-changing experience. Few albums produced on the experimental or noise scenes have such a power of provoking the brain, as The Last Man in Europe has. This effect is beyond our common expectations and motivations to listen to noise or experimental music.
As a composer Karkowski was ignored by Polish music critics for many years. The situation has changed only recently after the death of Karkowski and the success of the international tour of his project Karkowski/Xenakis, where pieces for the same instruments and line-ups of the master has been put together with those of his student.
But these pieces were created as soon as at the beginning of 21st century, as a result of an intense exchange of ideas and sounds with virtuosos such as Daniel Buess, drummer (Form and Disposition), Anton Lukoszavieze, cellist (Nerve cell_0), Kasper T. Toeplitz, bassist (Fluster), Aleksander Gabryś, double bassist (Studio Varèse), Ensemble Phoenix (Brain Zapping) or Apartment House quartet (Field); the performative dimension and pushing the limits of instruments was essential in all of these projects. In tribute to Xenakis, Karkowski created a moving remix of Persepolis Doing by Not Doing where, similarly as in the case of collaboration with Zeitkratzer (monochromy), the original sounds have been rewritten, copied and transformed creating a kind of an electronic palimpsest. The artistic strategies of Xenakis and Karkowski have many common points, for example stochastic and algorithms, and opting for clear-cut, physical sounds – this approach was shared by Karkowski with the older generation of Polish sonorists (Kazimierz Serocki or early Krzysztof Penderecki).
Many of Karkowski’s subsequent orchestra and band pieces still wait to be discovered and interpreted anew (this is also true for the opera adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot). Thanks to his charisma, consistency, and originality he gained a lot of friends and fans; an impressive collection of homages gathered in the album NO BULLSHIT and in tributes on the Shooting the Bullshit blog prove it without a doubt.
Originally written in Polish by Jan Topolski, July 2017, translated by NC