Vol. 42 Issue 3 Reviews

Gunhild Seim, Marilyn Crispell, and David Rothenberg: Grenseland

Compact disc, 2018, DH9607, available from Drollehålå Records, Norway; www.musikkoperatorene.no.

Reviewed by Seth Rozanoff
Glascow, Scotland, UK

CD CoverGrenseland is a collaborative recording with David Rothenberg, Marilyn Crispell, and Gunhild Seim. The context is essentially a jazz trio that seamlessly integrates electronics. Each track in Grenseland can be heard as demonstrating a range of improvised and compositional strategies, whereby the performers shape the music through stratified dialogues between one another. These dialogues largely stem from the group’s management of the live, electronic and conventional instrumental sound sources. The result is a distinctive electroacoustic sound complex.

The trio’s use of digital tools extends to orchestration, compositional decisions, and the structuring of the accompaniment and soloing. For this recording, Rothenberg performs on B-flat and bass clarinets, while Seim performs on trumpet; both perform with a range of electronic embellishments as well. Crispell performs on piano, and at times, as a vocalist and percussionist.

The group’s orchestration allows for a greater range of musical choices and an enhanced sonic palette. Regarding their use of electronics, Seim tends to apply effects to the trumpet such as granulation, delay, reverb, and filtering in sequence. Rothenberg prefers not to apply effects with the clarinet, performing, instead, with ‘nature-based electronics’. Rothenberg’s understated approach to performance is one in which he transforms and prepares his sounds in a manner wherein the processing isn’t too obvious to the listener. Seim uses electronics similarly. The performers are never in conflict with each other. This strategy contrasts with, for example, certain types of experimental pop music, where reverb, noise, and distortion are used in large doses. By comparison, Grenseland introduces the listener to a more refined approach to using digital sound.

In Calls, the first track, one hears a call and response texture between Rothenberg’s clarinet and Seim’s trumpet. Their counterpoint mirrors and blends with the electronic soundscape heard in the background. Rothenberg’s background music is prerecorded, having been derived from recordings of insects found in wooded, natural environments. As Rothenberg and Seim develop their dialogue further, Crispell enters the texture adding sparse, subtle colors, performing with drumsticks. Her contributions to this track provide expressive continuity by linking together the timbres from both the electronics and conventional instrument parts.

In track two, Tundra, Crispell’s performance is built upon her use of hand percussion including shakers and cup bells, as well as her deft playing on the inside of the piano. As the track progresses Crispell also adds vocal improvisations, which fit comfortably against the sustained, drone-like sounds in the electronics. The electronics used mimics Crispell’s contributions, and encourages interplay between Seim’s trumpet playing and Rothenberg’s pre-recorded birdsong. Compared to the first track, in Tundra, the electronic backdrop is less prevalent. This track demonstrates the essence of the group’s understated approach to soloing, whereby individual performers explore subtle, emergent, sonic contrasts.

Fog Song, track 3, opens with a melodic fragment heard in the bass clarinet, juxtaposed with sparse prepared piano sounds. Here, Seim’s trumpet is highly processed with reverb and delay. After this introduction, Rothenberg switches to performing with electronics. Overall, the texture could be described as an electronic fog. We hear a contrast between a dense mass of sound pitted against delicate quasi-melodic, vocal and trumpet, fragments. Rothenberg sounds like he is experimenting with loops formed from a range of contrasting repetitive rhythmic patterns and pulses.

In the fourth track, Flame, Crispell begins with short phrases on the piano. Seim complements her with slightly processed melodic material, while Rothenberg accompanies his band mates with rhythmic and carefully placed electronics.

Track 5, Onyx, opens with a lighthearted, capricious, electronic sound stream, which emerges as a support for Seim’s trumpet playing. Rothenberg combines short rhythmic phrases with low-register tones. Crispell matches Rothenberg but seems to counter Seim with a sparse chordal accompaniment. Rothenberg oscillates between his ‘soundscape’ and noise-based sounds that suggests a change in sonic direction. Ultimately, his contribution guides the listener back to the accompanimental figure heard initially. Around the halfway mark, the group responds to each other’s ‘lines’, suggesting a loose or freeform counterpoint. Rothenberg continues to add subtle electronic textures, which encourages further group interplay. The musical development heard in the second half of this track can be viewed as a type of fantasy variation.

The next track, eponymously entitled Grenseland, contains a melodically driven approach to the formal structure. Rothenberg’s electronics mirror a walking bass pattern. Later, he mixes this with naturalistic and abstracted sounds. Seim’s initial trumpet entrance forms a close counterpoint to the bass-like electronics. She applies minimal processing throughout this track. Crispell’s performance is especially distinctive in this track, due to her percussive playing inside of the piano. She is also patient when incorporating the use of the keyboard in her performance. At around the four-minute mark, an intimate musical dialogue between Crispell and Seim emerges, against Rothenberg’s idiosyncratic accompaniment.

Mentioned earlier, an interesting feature of Grenseland, can be found in the group’s ability to explore various approaches to the notion of accompaniment. They accomplish this in equal measure rather than dropping into the background in order to highlight a soloist. This approach presents separate sonic layers in a clearly defined egalitarian context. This may have been an outgrowth of a previous musical encounter with each other at Biennial Némo (2017) in Paris. They created a collective work whose core features relied on combining Olivier Messiaen’s birdsong recordings and transcriptions.

In Lines and Angles, track 7, Crispell leads the group and encourages musical contrast. The title characterizes the group’s musical behavior, where a range of compact musical shapes are heard clashing against one another. In the final track, Diamond Snow, Seim’s processed trumpet seems to emerge from Crispell’s delicate and thin piano texture. Crispell performs on the strings inside of the piano. The duo formed between Crispell and Seim, sustain a tranquil and ambient quality, which serves as a short conclusion or coda.

Throughout this album, the musicians perform in a manner that offers each other the potential to freely shape each other’s sound materials. Spontaneous actions and decisions during performance and the sound materials they respond to, provide the direction needed to sustain a process of musical dialogue. This is present in abundance on this album.