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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Frank Gratkowski: Recent Recordings

By Eyal Hareuveni

German reeds player-composer-bandleader Frank Gratkowski traverses broad context of contemporary improvised music. There is no clear distinction between composition and improvisation in his work, as his recent albums testify.

Frank Gratkowski & Ensemble Modern - Mature Hybrid Talking (Maria de Alvear world edition, 2024) 

The democratically organized Ensemble Modern was founded in 1980 and at home in Frankfurt am Main with aesthetic spectrum includes musical theatre works, dance and multimedia projects, chamber music, ensemble and orchestral concerts. In 2022 a ten-musician version of Ensemble Modern, with Gratkowski as conductor and playing flute, alto sax and bass clarinet, performed Gratkowski’s Mature Hybrid Talking, dedicated to composer Iannis Xenakis, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth, and to an author James Joyce, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Ulysses, as both had a major impact on him, and Gratkowski was one of the leaders of the Multiple Joy[ce] Orchestra.

Mature Hybrid Talking was inspired by the rhythm and sound of Joyce's language, with its almost constant accumulation of complex utterances, connected and within themselves in a way that seems to echo the precipitous wordplay of Finnegans Wake, and Xanakis’ unique architectures. British electronics player Richard Barrett (who played in Gratkowski’s Trokaan project and the Skein ensemble), who contributed insightful liner notes, observed the wise manner in which Gratkowski applied his personal, non-idiomatic improvisational strategies, with the kaleidoscope of colors, densities and unpredictable shifts of direction, to the notated score, in terms of rhythm and pitch (incorporating quartertones for all the instruments that can play them), and the structure of the composition. Gratkowski conducted the composition using hand signals to gather and channel the ensemble’s collective imagination and contributed the cover photo.

This complex and arresting chamber composition captures the immediate, unpredictable spirit of spontaneous, improvised dynamics when anything might happen at any time but its has a mysterious, cohesive structure, consistency and interconnectedness that testifies to Gratkowski’s ability to compose for the distinct, articulate voices of Ensemble Modern. And as Barrett concludes, “It’s authentically 21st-century music, combining a maximum of freedom with a maximum of discipline in a way that represents a significant and vital tendency in contemporary musical thinking”.


Frank Gratkowski’s Entrainment (Klanggalerie, 2024) 

Gratkowski’s Entrainment is a power quartet featuring long-time comrade, Japanese guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi (of Altered States and Otomo Yoshihide's seminal Ground Zero), who has worked with Gratkowski in his Trokaan Project and the second incarnation of the Skein ensemble and keeps performing with Gratkowski as a duo; Norwegian, Berlin-based electric bassist Dan Peter Sundland, and American, fellow Berliner drummer Steve Heather (who plays in Sundland's Home Stretch, Splitter Orchestra and before in Tristan Honsinger's Hopscotch). Gratkowski’s Entrainment played its first performance at the Free Jazz Festival Saarbrücken in April 2022, where this album was recorded, and later performed only a few times in Berlin.

The expressive music of Entrainment is freely improvised and corresponds with experimental and psychedelic rock and spiritual jazz, but sounds fresh and unpredictable with no stylistic restrictions. It is raw, urgent and high-octane and meant to push Gratkowski into ecstatic terrains and beyond. Uchihashi’s guitar solos take the quartet into cosmic and hazy atmospheres and the tough, propulsive rhythm section of Sundland and Heather keeps all on their toes. Entrainment enjoys the feeling of release that follows the crossing of a certain energetic threshold and knows how to channel the mighty waves of energy into cathartic climaxes.

Frank Gratkowski & Elisabeth Harnik - Bullungga (Klanggalerie, 2021) 

Bullungga is the second album from Gratkowski with Austrian pianist Elisabeth Harnik, following Burrum-bah (SoundOut Recordings, 2020), and like the first album, it was recorded live in 2020 at Klangspuren Schwaz during the Austrian Festival For New Music and at the German Moers Festival. The title of the album refers to the Aboriginal taxonomy of Australian animals, and bullungga is Eastern Quoll or Eastern Native Cat (Dasyurus viverrinus), as Gratkowski and Harnik first played together in Canberra, Australia, during the SoundOut festival in February 2020.

The music is freely improvised and captures these gifted improvisers at their best. Harnik employs preparations and extended techniques while pushing the piano into otherworldly terrains. Gratkowski alternates between alto sax to soprano sax, clarinet and bass flute. Their dynamics are immediate, deep and poetic, as Gratkowski and Harnik are highly imaginative and bold sonic explorers-painters, masters of their instruments. Gratkowski and Harnik are always searching for new and unpredictable sonic territories, with mischievous playfulness, captivating energy and touching lyricism, great sense of form and structure and deep listening. A perfect showcase of free improvisation.