Frank Gratkowski “Artikulationen”

frank gratkowski (alto & soprano saxophones)

2ndFloorEdition (CD 001)

1. diva (dedicated to agnes)
2. prae ratem
3. bächleinworte (for milena)
4. xanthippe
5. circulus
6. the mock turtle’s dream
7. crow
8. micaco

all compositions by Frank Gratkowski (Gema)
recorded live Nov. 17th 1990 and Jan. 20th at “Loft” and “Stadtgarten” in Cologne, Germany

liner notes

Silence and sound. Combining sounds to create structures fraught with meaning that titillate the senses. Composing sound from speech symbols, creating musical ideas, making the immaterial material. “Articulations” – the soloist Frank Gratkwoski’s album is a program into which he put a helluva lot of work without, however, infringing in any way on the light, playful quality of his music. By persistently employing the performing potential of his saxophone to the fullest, he challenges the very processes with which sounds and timbres are formed, he expands or restricts the given, delves into that which is still waiting to be unearthed. The ambitious striving to individualize sound and delineate sound figures within space. A procedure of an evanescent nature, nonetheless a venture undertaken with the resolve to lend viable structure to the moment. His practical experience in the art of improvising has shaped and developed the processes of his playing. In the course of the performance, the material is presented in a concentrated form. Solo music – an expression of the musician who is both inventor and creator of the sounds: Frank Gratkowski.

When I heard him play, I was impressed by the congruence between his musical ideas and his instrumental technique. Considering the many innovations introduced by saxophonists over the last 25 years, it is becoming increasingly difficult to develop individual techniques in playing. Frank Gratkowski succeds in this endeavor by purposefully working with specific sounds, sequential series of tones and combinations, but also by being extremely selective with – on occasion even ruthlessly reducing – the material he uses. Consequently, intrinsically different pieces come into being that, despite their marked difference in nature, remain linked to each other, a development which unfolds in the course of the whole performance and/or listening experience. Frank Gratkowski is adept at using melodic lines both sparingly and concisely. On the other hand, he concentrates heavily on sounds, thereby developing quasi minimalistic complexities. Depending on the intention of a particular moment, these two components can be woven together or appear seperately. The means to this end are placed in a vividly distinctive context, and the musical ideas presented in a lucid manner. Thus it is evident that, despite its ambiguity, “Articulations” is an apt title.

A meeting with Frank Gratkowski at the Stadtgarten in Cologne one summer evening. The restaurant was bursting at the seams with milling crowds. Nonetheless we managed to locate each other, though we had never met before. I was already familiar with his music, but as we talked, my impression on the individuality of his sound was deepened, indeed reinforced. We lost no time in getting to the crux of the matter, that which is so difficult to put into words – the intention. The incredible challenge facing a saxophonist, that of moving forward unwaveringly, the climax being the solo work. The confrontation with the instrument itself in order to be able to shed new light on something. The key pre-requisite necessary to achieve this end being technique. Keeping in mind, though, that brilliantly executed technique should not be implemented as a kind of “earwash”, to deceive or delude the listeners. It was obvious that Frank Gratkowski is obsessed with what he does. The attempt to reduce the material to the core, or better yet, concentrate on what is being said musically. In this regard, Thelonious Monk set the standards; Steve Lacy on the soprano saxophone furthered this tradition. Frank Gratkowski says three saxophonists in particular interest him: Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, and Anthony Braxton. Years ago, when he still lived in Hamburg, he used to be fascinated by the manner in which Charlie Mariano played. That fascination incited him to come all the way to Cologne to meet Mariano. But with time, and the practice and experience gained along the way, Frank Gratkowski felt compelled to thrust on in another direction, to explore the aesthetics of an even purer sound. He went to Paris to learn more from Steve Lacy. Solo work in private. And then it so happened that he and a guitarist were supposed to give a duet performance at a concert, but his fellow duettist had to cancel out. Frank Gratkowski took the plunge and played solo (on soprano saxophone!) at a concert where Steve Lacy had also made an appearance as a performer. A conscious effort to reach his Self ensued, while remaining in constant pursuit of the Other. Frank Gratkowski talks about how he grappled with Stockhausen’s and Scelsi’s scores. His curiosity is similar to that of other fellow musicians he works with, who too are improvisors with a keen ear for “Neue Musik”: Georg Gräwe, Klaus König, Radu Malfatti…

In our conversation, we also touched on some technical/artificial topics, on circular breathing, harmonics and multiphonics, as well as on combined key and breathing soounds, on percussory and vocal elements. Frank Gratkowski and the associations made by his counterparts, i.e. those listening – from the mimicry of language and artificial transformation all the way to similarities with electronic tones, screechingly shrill sounds or rustling noises in the dark, animal utterances and choral chants. Or perhaps even completely devoid of any secondary meaning: figures in a room articulated, or expressed, by vibrations invoked by intakes of breath. An abstracted endeavor charged with the force of individual aspiration.

Frank Gratkowski, born in Hamburg in 1963, started playing the saxophone at 16, completed the “Modellversuch Popularmusik” – “Popular Music: A Pilot Project” at the Hamburg Conservatory (Hamburger Musikhochschule), and then moved to Cologne in 1985 to study with Heiner Wiberny at the Cologne Conservatory of Music, graduating in 1990. In 1988, he joined the Workshop Ensemble led by Muhal Richard Abrams. In the same year, he started working with Klaus König (Septet and Orchestra), with the Franck Band, as well as with the trio Ecker/Kaufmann/Gratkowski. In 1989, Frank Gratkowski performed as a member of the Gunter Hampel Big Band as well as a soloist in the Studio Band (WDR-Nachtmusik). In 1990, he formed the duo with guitarist Thomas Ernst. Then Frank Gratkowski joined Georg Gräwes Grubenklangorchester and began giving solo performances. In 1991, Frank Gratkowski, Georg Gräwe and Achim Krämer got together to form a trio; Frank Gratkowski appeared as a guest soloist in the WDR Big Band, and was a prize winner (solo programme) in the contest “Musik Kreativ”.
Myriad voices waft in from the Stadtgarten patio as night starts to fall, a mise-en-scène suffused with noises gleaned from a multitude of tête-à-tête conversations, some trivial, others pregnant with significance. Where proximity and articulation transform the general into the particular. Frank Gratkowski immersed in a conversation, then later – from a distance – playing solo on soprano or alto saxophone: figures that depict a musical aspiration, and testify to a work in progress deeply rooted in the individualization of sound and the preservation of spontaneity in playing and structure.

Bert Noglik
Translation: Gabriele Guenther