Houston TX, 9 April 2000
In March 2000, bassist Peter Kowald embarked on an extensive three-month
concert tour of the United States. His program was to include about
50 solo performances in cities all across the country, and he would
also play with a duo or trio of selected area musicians as the second
part of each performance. He purchased a station wagon and began negotiating
the country. In Orlando, Florida, he included Sam Rivers as his second-set
partner. He continued to North Carolina and a union with Eugene Chadbourne;
New Orleans, where he hooked up with Kidd Jordan and Alvin Fielder;
and numerous other cities before arriving in Houston. The Houston
date marked his 28th concert appearance on this tour that would take
him westward and to several cities in California (playing with Vinny
Golia among others) before culminating with an appearance at the 5th
annual Vision Festival in New York in May. The entire event was documented
by a traveling companion who videotaped each performance for eventual
distillation and issuance as a documentary of the tour.
Houston venue was a most unique downtown site. An antiquated, multi-story
dry goods store has been converted into a Bohemian coffee shop named
No Tsu Oh, where crowds gather to sip exotic brews, play chess, and
indulge themselves in the arts. The performance space is filled with
numerous overstuffed sofas and easy chairs that had seen better days,
racks of empty shoeboxes, and two large live-in dogs that share the
territory. This all seemed to be the appropriate atmosphere for Kowald
to turn on his creative juices.
set-long solo opened with furious arco playing accompanied by his
own guttural throat singing. It was a massive beginning, energetically
fueled by the muscular use of his left-hand knuckles to massage the
strings while he bowed. Kowald appeared to be conducting an exorcism,
willing the instrument to do his bidding. When he switched to pizzicato
mode, the mood turned solemn as he played abstract rhythm in hymnal
fashion. He also turned the bass into a percussion instrument while
beating the strings with highly reverberate results. On returning
to arco, Kowald grabbed a fist full of strings and muscled the bass
into submission. His style featured the use of short phrases or groups
of notes that he worked into variant forms of reiterative rhythm.
Heard within the music was the aura of the American Indian culture
interspersed between the predominant European musical esthetic. The
performance was one of contrasts, alternating between the violent
and the serene. Foreboding arco romps with deeply ominous emotion
gradually transcended into high-energy squeakiness. His visual effects
were equally overwhelming. Kowald used a circular bowing technique
to develop eerie tones amid a recurring theme. He finished the set
as he began, using knuckles and throat singing to reestablish the
heavy drone tone.
the second set, Kowald featured two of the city's premier avant-garde
musicians in duet with him and as a trio. Pedal steel guitar player
Susan Alcorn and Kowald set an ethereal stage of serenity on the
first duet. Alcorn uses the unusual instrument much the way oriental
string instruments are played and completely disguises any association
it may have with country music. She played in sensitive, atonal phrases
while Kowald matched the mood. Alcorn used a steel bar and picks
to produce eerie tones of elusively twisted notes to establish the
The piece methodically built in tension that was only released when
the two reverted to serene musings. Kowald admitted he had never even
seen this instrument before, let alone played along with one. Yet
the meeting was as natural as could be. He intertwined his string
bursts around Alcorn's spatial playing in perfect union.
second duet found Kowald playing with freewheeling trombonist David
Dove. Dove is a forceful and physical musician whose playing draws
comparison to the great German trombonists in his phrasing and execution.
He produces a heavy sound typically expressed in staccato style with
interjections of punctuated tonality. Dove spewed a consistent flow
of molten lava from his open or partially muted horn. Still, his music
exhibited smoothness. Kowald again merged his frantic bowing with
Dove's blasts to provide a cacophonous symphony of brooding music.
Kowald's throat singing was a natural for the opposing tones of the
trombone and proved to be an effective technique. Kowald is a traffic
director in these situations. He subtly changes the pace and rhythm
to achieve his spontaneously realized goals.
evening closed with a trio performance. Again, Kowald set the tone
and direction while Dove produced waves of deep trombone groans and
Alcorn showed a more frantic style in manipulating the steel guitar.
Kowald played fast and furiously as Alcorn oozed out shades of color.
The trio displayed extensive group empathy.
Kowald announced he was off to Austin, Texas for another performance
the following night. He has put himself on a grueling schedule, yet
he showed no signs of fatigue or lack of inventiveness. Apparently,
he is recharged with each new challenge that faces him along the torturous