photographed: Fabrien Siouffi
The Polish experimental musician and composer Zbigniew Karkowski died on 12 December 2013. Richard Whitelaw remembers an artist whose music could "suck the soul out of your body".
I met Zbigniew Karkowski in 2006, there are many who have known him longer. He was my friend.
Zbigniew was capable of creating amazingly powerful music live, but also willing to dive bomb his own shows if the mood didn’t take him. This could be down to the “fucking boolshit” PA, sound engineer, venue or just the moment not being right. With good live sound though he responded to the moment and his performances were intense physical experiences that could provoke altered states of consciousness. He could work powerful magic in the studio and there is impressive consistency across his solo and collaborative releases. Much like that other recently departed electroacoustic master Bernard Parmegiani, his studio music feels spontaneous and improvisatory. Zbigniew had a natural feel for textural change, drama and form. He was capable of working at the highest level with crack new music ensembles, virtuoso soloists and noise musicians, and he was one of the most significant and credible settlers in the sparsely inhabited space between modern composition and underground noise music. He had an amazing ear, listening intently to his own performances, and he was vocally critical of many noise musicians, whom he considered to have little grasp of, or interest in, live sound. Zbigniew was as adept at exploring gradual change as Eliane Radigue, as skilled in exploring extreme registers as Ligeti, and could ride crumbling noise textures to totally thrilling effect. His music can suck the soul out of your body. It can be terrifying, bewildering and violent, yet at times beautiful and meditative. It is never dull.
Zbigniew had an insatiable desire to travel and was always on the road. He was, in his own way, a paragon of a very active type of audience development, often presenting his music in places that had little or no local context for it. He was more interested in touring in China and the Far East, playing for paltry door money to (probably very confused) punters than to play cosy gigs on the European festival circuit. He once asked me if I knew anyone in at the British Council who could procure him the contacts necessary to organise a self-funded tour of the Congo.
He was an absolutely unique individual. Some have accused him of arrogance but I never saw this in him. He presented himself in exactly the same way when talking to a fellow artist, an audience member or the director of a major arts centre. If he didn’t like someone he’d tell them, or, on occasion, offer them a fight. This sometimes didn’t help him professionally. He didn’t give a shit. He seemed to know an impossible number of people. Some of these he had pissed off but most others were devoted friends. He had the contacts. As we have seen, if you wanted to go up river in Peru in search of powerful hallucinogens, he knew someone. He was very good at introducing people and I knew I’d probably get along with anyone who was his friend. He was good like that. I’m still making new friends through him, and I imagine I will continue to do so. He was totally devoted to his partner Atsuko Nojiri. He loved her totally and this relationship was clearly central to his life. If one can speak of such a nomadic figure as Zbigniew as having any kind of home, it was with her.
Everyone has their stories. Someone should probably collect them. Late one evening I had to physically prevent him from breaking into a child’s Wendy house in a rural Swedish garden. This small building seemed to him the perfect place to sleep it off. Somehow we got back to the hotel. I think I must have carried him. He woke up in a blood-stained shirt and banged on my door to ask me if we had had a fight. He seemed glad of the reassurance that I didn’t recall one and we went for breakfast. Spending time with Zbigniew reminded me of an earlier, more carefree time in my life when I could go out with friends, have a ruck, fists could fly, but the next morning it’s done with.
As his old friend John Duncan has pointed out, Zbigniew seemed totally without fear. Even, finally, in the face of death he seemed calm, determined and confident. In the last few days that I saw him in London he made me laugh just as hard as ever. I can still hear his voice, hear his laugh and see the fire of life in his eyes: “You know this guy that believes that we are all ruled by lizards, that the Royal Family are fucking lizards man, well, I tell you, I think this is all fucking true.”
Richard Whitelaw is the Head of Programmes at London's Sound and Music. He has compiled a Spotify playlist of Zbigniew Karkowski's music, and has helped organise a party to celebrate Karkowski's life which takes place on 11 January in London: details here.
Read Atau Tanaka's tribute here.
By Richard Whitelaw