release date: 10.03.2023 on B. Inspelningar lebel
In 2018 Elsa Bergman encountered graphic scores in some of the many projects on the potent Stockholm creative music community she’s involved in. As the year evolved she interpreted such works as a member of Per-Åke Holmlander’s Carliot—It’s Never Too Late Orchestra, in performance with the Anthony Braxton Tri-Centric Orchestra, and at a special concert with Mats Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra Actions for Free Jazz in Krakow, Poland—where they tackled graphic scores by Krzysztof Penderecki and Bogusław Schaeffer. Indeed, over time many artists devoted to free improvisation turn to graphic notation as they seek ways to structure the activity, whether lending a compositional form or applying parameters that disrupt or energize.
There’s been little orthodoxy on the use of graphic material in improvised music, whether it’s Cornelius Cardew’s epic Treatise—which contained no instructions on how it was to be interpreted or used—or the hybrid scores of Braxton. Why should there be? Improvisation is all about adaptability, and why should a tool’s application toward that end be sacrosanct? In Bergman’s varied experiences during 2018 she realized the potential versatility of graphic scores.
“The idea for Playon Crayon definitely came from an urge to find new directions for my music, while still maintaining the feel of freedom and improvisation,” says Bergman. “The ideas for many of the scores came from free improvisations that I did in other groups, improvised music that I listened to, or from places I wished that improvisations I did had gone into. I have come to realize that I always visualize music, especially when improvising.” There is a palpable delight the viewer can sense in looking over the scores she created for the project, which arose soon after she gave birth to her daughter. Indeed, there is a child-like simplicity to them that belies their clear utility.
Bergman’s ability as an improviser has been manifest in many of the group’s she’s been involved in, including Anna Högberg’s Attack! and an exploratory trio with pianist Lisa Ullén (both Högberg and Ullén have also worked with graphic scores) and drummer Anna Lund, but Playon Crayon does seem to liberate her natural proclivity for playing with time in fluid ways. She assembled the group with shared languages in mind, enlisting the endlessly exploratory Norwegian percussionist Matilda Rolfsson, whom Bergman befriended while studying in Trondheim between 2009-2012. Portuguese trumpeter Susanna Santos Silva is not only a linchpin of the Stockholm improvised music scene, but she also worked with Bergman in all three of the large ensembles projects that worked with graphic scores in 2018. Looking for another string player, Bergman enlisted the wonderful American expat violinist Katt Hernandez, a season improviser with experience on both sides of the Atlantic. Finally, Bergman had listened to distinctive playing of guitarist David Stackenäs since she was in high school, and she finally had the chance to work with him in this quintet.
The project was originally slated for 2020, but as with almost everything in the creative universe, it was postponed repeatedly by pandemic restrictions. In hindsight, Bergman appreciated the delays since it allowed her to work around the requirements of being a new mother. The group finally convened in Stockholm in August of 2021, recording in the studio with Göran Stegborn during the day and taping the performance later the same evening at Fylkingen. Luckily, Bergman has chosen to share her graphic scores with listeners here, a move that always seemed like an obvious choice in regard to improvised music. In my experience, however, listeners rarely get the opportunity to draw connections with the choices made by musicians in response to a graphic score. I felt lucky being able to spend hours considering the way the musicians interpreted the scores, puzzling through how certain shapes generate specific lines of sound.
Each musician was assigned a specific color-coded part—red for Silva, yellow for Stackenäs, green for Hernandez, purple for Rolfsson, and blue for the bassist—but apart from briefly explaining her ideas and providing some lose directions, the musicians were asked to bring their own imaginations to the performances. For Bergman, choosing the appropriate musicians was more important than creating a rulebook. She envisioned a circular journey illustrated by the overlapping, patterned spheres of “Kaleidoscope”—the only images in the book that aren’t hand-drawn—two versions of which bookend the album.
I’ve enjoyed tracing out particular parts, such as Rolfsson’s wild improvisation on “Heartbeats,” where she interprets the score’s Rorschach-like blots with the malleability and range of a kinetic sound sculpture against a grid of largely multi-length staccato tones from the ensemble, or analyzing the relationships with the geometric forms and shapes of attack that each soloist imparts across “Maths.” But in the end the music stands on its own abundant strengths, with no need to connect the score to the playing. A sharp listener can deduce the relationships and perhaps create a graphic score of their own to map out the sounds.
Elsewhere Bergman deploys some hybrid notation, especially on the stunning “Rosemarie,” an homage to a friend with a melody so beautiful it can’t help but feel like a tender, loving gesture. The notated staves sit in a circle at the center of a score, reflecting the spherical concept, but before the ensemble even digs into that chamber-like theme Stackenäs begins a riveting solo, a stunning tumble of naturally evolving phrases that ricochet between noise and abstracted notions of flamenco and soukous. He eventually joins the rest of the ensemble in tracing out the theme, at which point Silva takes the baton with her own dazzling solo.
Bergman says she’s been considering more hybrid excursions like the one on “Rosemarie,” envisioning more of a free jazz context than the chamber ensemble one she achieves here. But either way she’s already reaped some serious rewards with the project thus far, using her rustic illustrations to forge fresh pathways for this excellent group. If the music on Playon Crayon came out of a first-time gathering, just imagine what can happen when they players gain a deeper understanding of one another.
credit: Nike Bergman
Elsa Bergman – Playon Crayon
LP / CD / DL – 10th March 2023
Label: B. Inspelningar
Cat no: B1004 (CD) / B1005 (LP)
release date: 10th March 2023
formats: CD / DL / LP
7.Inspired by Steve Adams
Susana Santos Silva – trumpet
David Stackenäs – guitar
Katt Hernandez – violin
Elsa Bergman – double bass
Matilda Rolfsson – drums
All compositions by Elsa Bergman, performed and arranged by the ensemble.
Recorded at Fylkingen August 22nd 2021. Recorded by Göran Stegborn.