I just received word from Italy that Zbigniew Karkowski - one of my foundational influences, and closest allies in the world of music - has succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
There were plans for me to participate in a book / DVD about Zbig's work that was to appear later this year, entitled "Order is an Exception," that featured an essay by myself and contributions from other very talented individuals. It appears this will now be an elegy, but will also remain a celebration of a man whose very credo was relentlessness. Needless to say, his attitudes and creative techniques inspired my first book on music culture, and he's been a reliable and welcome source of quotations ever since. We batted around the idea of an actual audio collaboration for many years, although I think that - in the end - I felt it would be a disservice to Zbig to water down his already potent work with my lesser contributions.
Zbigniew embodied, in so many words, the person I have always wanted to become: a man who could travel nearly the entire year, setting foot on every populated continent, working simultaneously as an educator and artist, and getting at least some kind of remuneration for working in a field whose very lifeblood is psychic and physical challenge. Zbigniew studied under the architect / composer Iannis Xenakis, one of the pioneers of computer music and of graphic user interfaces in music, and moved later to Stockholm and Amsterdam to become a key player in two of the world's most vibrant and eclectic sound arts scenes. His eventual move to Japan would cement his status as a man always in the right place at the right time, and as a sort of 'Johnny Appleseed' of his craft, sprouting new acolytes wherever he went. His work in small ensembles (The Hafler Trio, MAZK, etc.) and as a soloist set a high bar for what could be done with psycho-acoustic electronic music; and theoretically he walked a very fine line between esoteric ideals and hard sciences.
The sheer volume and complexity of his music also pointed to a world where intellectual stimulation met bodily rapture. He was one of the central figures in a new movement built in the 1980s-1990s that sought to take "academic" techniques and wrest them away from the closed circuits of the academy itself: to retain the precision and discipline often associated with such work, but to make it far more relevant to a world in which change is the only constant. In short, he was obsessed with the regenerative potential of creative fusion, and many figures who have gained greater popularity in this culture than him are greatly in his debt.
John Duncan has already spoken eloquently on this subject, and, with his permission, I want to make use of some of his own observations about Zbigniew. One in particular that struck me was the account of his final journey; I have little doubt about the truth of what is said here:
Zbigniew always seemed utterly without fear. His final gesture, traveling for hours in a canoe into the Amazon jungle directly after flights from Europe lasting nearly 24 hours, to be treated by a Shipbo shaman is perfectly in keeping with everything else he did. All the way, no compromise. His final wish, if the treatment failed, was to be left in the jungle to be eaten. No ceremony, no grave. If it succeeded as he hoped, he said he would bring back stories of the adventure. Somehow, I still expect to hear them.
This fearlessness is something I can attest to, and it led Zbig to sound off regularly on those who are supposedly "off limits" to criticize. He had an unapologetic, constantly vocalized hatred for pandering, for soliciting audiences, for all forms of cowardice, and for creative compromise (all of these items he usually put under the catch-all category of "bullshit," and already I miss hearing his characteristic Central European accented claim that something "is bullshit, Tommy".)
At the core of this was, I truly believe, a desire to see people - and especially those identifying as artists - released from various forms of self-inflicted mental slavery: to see people create something truly their own and not decided for them by some panel of out-of-touch tastemakers in one of the three major financial centers of the world. His love of intensity was also a love of personal and spiritual growth, and this also meant a healthy anger directed at all that impeded that growth while pretending to facilitate it. It also meant refusing opportunities to gain more popularity if this was done at the expense of his vision being misperceived (he once requested, after a fairly popular UK music magazine made a poor critical assessment of his music , that they never write about his music again despite their having one of the largest readerships consuming such music.) Another quote from a conversation we had in 2010 is also worth sharing:
In 2001 and 2002 I refused to be part of the Ars Electronica jury. I was invited to come there and I told them that I will do it only if we listen to music without knowing the names of the artists, and we choose winners in this way. They told me that it's impossible, and I refused to take part in this market hype competition.
Despite all the complaints of Karkowski's bouts of drunken hostility - some of which may be exaggerated, some not - he was a gracious host who occasionally shared his very small Tokyo home with me (I slept in the kitchen a couple of times) and cooked for me along with his girlfriend. Incidentally, he loved to spar verbally over good food and drink, and as such was one of those people who just did not "translate" into email or IMs - you had to know him in the flesh to truly appreciate the joy he got from making you question your own deeply held beliefs (he always had such a huge grin on his face during arguments!) Despite his seemingly pugilistic nature, he was in fact a warm and giving person who could provide plenty of consolation when needed, and wouldn't hesitate to put you on the guest list for those always entertaining Tokyo concerts that began at the witching hour.
There is more that can be said, and I'm sure will be said, in the coming days.
In the meantime, I plan to honor ZK's existence in the only way I really know how - by aiming for (after Xenakis' suggestion) 'tireless renewal at every instant.'
* kudos to Mark Stewart for providing the original inspiration for the blog title.