Today’s Sounds: Fo[u]r Alto does Frank Gratkowski

Four alto saxes unite in a new rendition of the compositions of Frank Gratkowski, emitting ghost notes and breath tones reflecting the German school of minimalism. Plus a new track by Norwegian synthpop act Casiokids and a new, characteristically eccentric video by Bjork.


Fo[u]r Alto, 4 Compositions by Frank Gratkowski (Leo)

The triple pun in the band’s name refers to the four songs for four alto saxophones found on this recording. It also hints at an update of Anthony Braxton’s 1969 For Alto LP, the first full-length solo sax work.  Although the reeds are quadrupled from one to four, the comparison to Braxton’s seminal platter is fitting, considering that the four saxophones consistently blend into a single sound, and the pieces here are as far removed from the standard sax quartet repertoire as Braxton’s was for solo instrumentalists.

In other words, this is not your standard jazz quartet honk fest, nor it is particularly close to the World Saxophone Quartet or even Rova. For one thing, rather than the usual range of axes from baritone to alto or soprano, there are four altos. Instead of one or more saxes riffing lines while others solo, we often have all members trying to stand out as little as possible, forging one texture. And while saxes are known to squeal out of the usual 12 tones on occasion, here microtonality dominates.

Frank Gratkowski received classical training in Hamburg but also studied with Steve Lacy. His range has included everything from the BikBentBraam big band to smaller free jazz ensembles, from solo works with live electronics to Zeitkratzer, a band who have convincingly reproduced electronic works from Xenakis and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music using only acoustic instruments. His compositions here reflect this diverse background.

The overall result is paradoxically both austere and engaging. The standout track is the 31-minute “Sound 1,” a drone piece reminiscent of closely mic’ed and highly amplified reverberations of Montreal’s metro tunnels at night (for anyone lucky enough to have heard that). The four altos draw together, casting out-of-phase ghost notes to evoke a hauntingly rich vibe.

The brief “Likewise” is aptly titled, built from unison lines somewhat resembling jazz. It is of course impossible to play in perfect unison, and the inevitable variations produce interfering sound waves that command attention to both macro- and micro-scopic levels, the horns gradually separating into distinct lines for the finale.

“Molto Fluttuante” is Italian for “very floating,” its concluding section appropriately consisting of breath tones. “TamTam 4a” mixes notes of varying lengths to spin a dizzying web of sounds from similar but out-of-phase material, like a canon.

This is not intended to be toe-tapping nor mind-snapping music. But it will be rated highly by novelty seekers, especially those who appreciate the subtleties inherent in the German school of minimalism.


Casiokids, “Skip i Natten”

It’s the new tune by Norwegian electro-pop act Casiokids. Translation: “Skip the Night.” The single is available on 12-inch on the Oslo label Splendour.



Björk, “Mutual Core”

Yet another eyeful care of Ms. Guðmundsdóttir, for a song from her 2011 record Biophilia, directed by Andrew Thomas Huang. Her remix album Bastards is out Nov. 19 on One Little Indian.

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