The scene: Recombinant Media Labs Compound, Hunters Point, South San Francisco, circa 2003/2004. The Compound was a space located on a desolate abandoned Navy ship yard. The land lay in the shadow of Candlestick Park that had been deemed uninhabitable due to a high toxicity in the soil that the Navy had left. We were instructed not to drink the water when there. Inside the one unaccompanied dilapidated building on the site was a tiny studio/control room overlooking a bigger space equipped with a 16.8 surround sound system with a performance area in the middle of the room. The speakers were arranged in a circle, 8 above and 8 below. RML was run by a character named Naut Humon (pronounced "Not Human") who apparently re-christened himself after a particularly heavy LSD trip in the 70s. Humon had used the space for decades as a research lab for his industrial music project Rhythm & Noise. RML and its record label, Asphodel, was generally the hub of all things weird in experimental music in San Francisco at the time. Most of the artists that played at the Compound used software my friend Peter had designed for the space that enabled one to spatialize the sound, meaning to bounce sound from speaker to speaker around the room: horizontally, vertically and diagonally; a technique first developed by Karlheinz Stockhausen. While rare to find such a system to play on, especially in 2003, Karkowski would forgo it to take his own approach on this particular night.
Those that knew had packed the room to hear the Polish visionary and were standing in a circle surrounding him. Karkowski had existing on the fringes of extreme new music for some time. After studying composition, sonology and computer music at various institutions he settled in Tokyo in 1994. He had composed for orchestra, chamber and opera but was largely concerned with the raw energy and power unleashed by sound at high volumes. Karkowski always worked entirely experimentally and experientially. I was standing behind him. The way I remember it, the music was basically one huge electronic tone emanating from his computer that got louder and louder and louder as it went on until it totally engulfed every part of your brain and body. Think about the deepest bass you’ve heard at a dance club, concert or rocket launch and multiply it by 16 and have it coming at you from every angle non-stop. This was beyond music and into the realm of pure sound, pure vibrational energy, a shamanic force being conjured from deep within the void. He was using a very old, beat up Macintosh that had code cascading down the left side of the screen and a mysterious black box on the right side. I don’t know if he was running Supercollider or MaxMSP but it was some kind of code he had written himself. This was, without a doubt, purely electronic music. The computer screen kept blacking out - I’m not sure if that was because it was old or because he was maxing out the processing power, he had to continually, violently, slap it to get it function, trippy colors would shoot across the screen when he did. As the music got denser he kept smacking the Mac and yelling at the engineers “louder, louder!” It was earth-shatteringly loud already but he was getting authentically upset that they wouldn’t turn it up. Over the sound Peter would try to gesture to him that he would blow the speakers if he turned it up more but Karkowski wouldn’t listen. He continued to intensely stare straight into the screen or scream for more volume. The engineers refused and it got so intense at one point I thought a fight would break out. All of this while 100 or so people are shoved into this tiny room perched on a forgotten wasteland while the heaviest sound ever was blasting away. I have no idea how long this went on, not long. The energy in the room surpassed any hardcore rock or punk show, was more transcendental than any rave, more enlightening than any new music masterwork and ultimately more exciting – and beautiful -– than anything I had seen before or since. Eventually Karkowski got mad enough he slammed his computer shut, stopping the music, and stormed out of the building. All I could think was “wow”. I had never heard of the guy before but I came away from that performance with a new hero.
Zbigniew went on to collaborate with RML in the following years but he Compound closed shortly after that. RML now occasionally takes its show on the road doing a version of the old system, with more video incorporated, called Cinechamber. No recording ever will reproduce a Karkowski live experience but he has some amazing releases nonetheless. For extreme noise there is the “ALBUM” release with Peter Rehberg under the name POP (Product Of Power). In 2005 he released a sweeping 40 minute epic titled One and Many. You can buy that along with his new piece for cello and computer called nervecell_0 at Sub Rosa. He takes a subdued, heavy approach on the LP Choice Points for the Application of Force. There is also an amazing set of releases with Tetsuo Furudate called World as Will, of which you can hear the piece Mix White below. It’s a Karkowski composition from World as Will 3 performed by the Zeikratzer orchestra in
in 2004. If you know of any music that sounds more apocalyptic than this please
let me know. Finally, if you want to dive
into the man’s mind here is an essay he wrote titled The Method Is Science the Aim Is Religion.
UPDATE: Karkowski died December 12, 2013 after being diagnosed with cancer 10 weeks earlier. Apparently in his final days he took a canoe up the Amazon in search of shamanic healing and "his final wish, if the treatment failed, was to be left in the jungle to be eaten. No ceremony, no grave."