Christoph Irmer

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We are all strangers to ourselves

Christoph Irmer (2019)


For an improvisation musician like Peter Kowald[1] it was still natural in an argumentation to see oneself in the first position and later on to postulate the opening to the unknown: “And if we look at our world, our world view today (…), then it is certainly very important that we learn to respond to something – humble, so to speak – which may seem strange to us at the moment. Of course you also lose something. Standards that you got used to, that you unserstood, do not work anymore. And perhaps friction with something foreign will make something new happen, and that, of course, is the big chance that the foreigner offers.”[2] Around 1990, Kowald saw in a foreigner or stranger more than just an enrichment of his musical expression. He talked about friction (“Reibung”) to create sound. But he did not see that the stranger in the first place constitutes the core of openness, the fleeting and the amazing of improvisation. He could have found out that the stranger shocks against us rather than it lies in our power and freedom of choice to perform the role “friction with something foreign” sovereignly and confidently.

In the same time, in the late 1980s, a book was widely discussed that dealt in a similar way with the theme of the stranger / the other: Strangers to Ourselves[3] by Julia Kristeva. The author writes that the stranger is neither “the apocalypse on the move nor the instant adversary to be eliminated for the sake of appeasing the group”, but: “Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder. By recognizing him within ourselves we are spared detesting him in himself”(p. 1). Without being able to undo these modes of alienation – even without a chance to ever dissolve the strangeness – Kristeva suggests to become friend with the stranger: “The foreigner´s friends, aside from bleeding hearts who feel obliged to do good, could only be those who feel foreign to themselves.” (p. 23). What comes our way Kristeva calls a “paradoxical community”: “made up of foreigners, who are reconciled with themselves to the extent that they recognize themselves as foreigners.” (p. 195)

Kristeva raises the question of the paradoxical community that concerns the community of alienated spirits. It has nothing in common with an ideality of communist or bourgeois ideas of identity. Instead, the future community within is supported by bodily-physical differences that are invisible and unpredictable (improvisational), co-existent and constellative, vulnerable and complicated. “It is not simply – humanistically – a matter of our being able to accept the other, but of being in his place, and that means to imagine and make oneself other for oneself.” (p. 13) Although in this postulate, the illusory idea that one can fill the gap with the stranger by somehow trying to be “able to live with the others, to live as others” (p. 2) and to say: “If I am a foreigner, there are no foreigners” (p. 192) – Kristeva updates Freud’s notion of the “uncanny” and challenges us “to call ourselves disintegrated, in order not to integrate foreigners and even less so to hunt them down, but rather welcome them to that uncanny strangeness, which is as much theirs as it is ours.” (p. 192)

In the 90s of the 20th century begins the great review: what has changed, what has been achieved? The political system that called itself communist has dissolved. The so-called “Free West” is celebrating as winner – what follows: wars in the Balkans, genocide in Rwanda and elsewhere. Julia Kristeva was right: we need to think about community. At the end of the 80s, Peter Kowald launches a project band called “Global Village”, a group in which he regularly integrates non-European musicians. His home town is still Wuppertal; his second residence is in New York. Traveling fever plagues him and he likes to return home: homesick for his house, for the street he lives in and where his neighbors are living. Strange disjointedness: On the one hand the double bass on his back, he is traveling through Japan, America, Greece, Switzerland and Tuva (Siberia), Turkey, Portugal, Spain, Italy. He gives workshops, meets musicians everywhere. A famous CD recording will be the “Duos Europe / America / Japan” (FMP 1991), duos which happened between 1984 and 1990. On the other hand, he remains anchored in his “village”, is involved in citizens’ initiatives, in cooperation with the local dance scene, especially with Pina Bausch.

Kowald seeks the foreigner nearby as well as in the distance, one after another, somehow simultaneously. In the mid-1990s he remains in Wuppertal for one year, the project is called “365 days in town”. He moves no further away than at a bicycle ride away from home, working and playing with artists from various disciplines, they come along for a visit. He plays for friends and residents from his neighborhood. Finally, a documentary is produced in which his impressive artistic and musical, ecological and social commitment is captured. But then Kowald had to head back to the world and sees himself again as globetrotter, a wanderer through countries and cultures. Looking back on the 60s and 70s, free jazz does not fare well in every way. From the encounters with Peter Brötzmann remain legendary recordings such as “For Adolphe Sax” (with Brötzmann and Sven-Ake Johansson) and “Machine Gun” (1968), but no friendship at all. Too different are the paths that everyone follows in the 90s. Today, the utopian designs of the period after 1968 are finally a matter of the past. But at the end of the twentieth century, no new political paradigm emerged – except the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion caused by brutal neo liberalism and its excesses until the 2008 financial crisis. But Kowald had already passed away….

Peter Kowald would have turned 75 this year (2019). Seventeen years after his death, other constellations of alienation appear today that make the type of globetrotters a romantic wanderer. Maybe this would not have been easy for Kowald to experience. The paradoxical relationship between affiliation and non-affiliation in society plays into our modern attitudes of life in the early 21st century: right down to a disintegration of the public rather than its strengthening. Previous ideals of collective forms of living together are going to get dissolved; we live in the age of political and social distraction. Julia Kristeva knew something of what is going on politically and culturally today – more than Kowald. Otherness today means an alienation that brings with it a sense of non-affiliation to each of us – in this globalized world, we do not become brothers or sisters, nor immediate opponents or enemies. In improvisation, whether in everyday life or in the arts we try to get an idea of ​​what we could call a political disaster. We are just at the very beginning of understanding our new world in an improvisational way: as a paradoxical community – and to learn how to live together in an improvisational mode in future.

(June, 26th, 2019)



1. The German double bass player Peter Kowald (1944 – 2002) was one of the main representatives of free improvised music. He started playing with Peter Brötzmann in Wuppertal in the mid-sixties and later became co-founder of the label FMP together with Alexander von Schlippenbach, Jost Gebers and Detlef Schönenberg.

2. Quoted after Noglik, Bernd, in: Fähndrich, Walter: Improvisation V, Winterthur 2003, p. 170f.

3. Kristeva, Julia: Strangers to Ourselves (1988), Columbia University Press, Publisher: Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hertfordshire / England 1991.