The untitled ECM double album debut of Norwegian saxophonist, composer and improviser Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg is an arrestingly original musical statement. Jazz players and classical players are drawn together in her ensemble, but the music shapes its own world, outside genre definitions. Mette Henriette is interlacing form and freedom in fresh ways here, as her intense and focused tenor saxophone sound moves inside compositions of sometimes disarming fragility. In this music, vulnerability can be as potent a force as full-tilt blowing, but there is a place for both. The recording’s expressive and emotional range is wide.
Disc One features trio music with Mette Henriette, pianist Johan Lindvall and cellist Katrine Schiøtt. Disc Two has Mette’s “sinfonietta” with thirteen players. The line-up of the larger group includes some names familiar to ECM listeners – trumpeter Eivind Lønning, drummer Per Oddvar Johansen, and the members of the Cikada Quartet – all pooling creative energies to serve Mette’s music.
An interview with Mette Henriette
You were born and raised in Trondheim?
Yes, Trondheim was quite forward-looking, creative and strong. I grew up in that energy.
When did you take up the saxophone?
When I was11 or 12. Before that, I’d played trumpet in the marching band, but when I started with the saxophone I knew that this was what I’m meant to do. I very quickly developed a strong connection with the instrument. Music was for me an experience that was so much more than notes on paper, than scores and theory and practice. I have to tell my stories, and early on I had a feeling of how I was going to do that. Music was an outlet but I knew I needed the craft to do it. Soon I would also enjoy disappearing into the theoretical aspects of music but at the beginning it was something more primitive, a response to an inner urge.
What were some of the earliest constellations you played in? What kinds of music were you playing at the outset?
In Trondheim at that time, we didn’t meet to jam on standards. It was all free improvised music and original compositions. I also listened to a lot of flamenco, and really enjoyed it. There was something in that music that I also heard in John Coltrane’s music...it was the same thing for me. People in the free jazz scene would say ‘Oh you sound like…’ – and they would name a jazz saxophonist – Albert Ayler, maybe, or Evan Parker. And at that time I had no idea who those people were. When I listened to them later it made sense to me, but my influences were coming from other places, and I’ve never had saxophonist role models.
You write unusual forms for your ensembles, sometimes as if the saxophone is entering a structure to illuminate it – easing its way inside to turn a light on.
I played improvised music for years and people thought that was what I did. But in the evenings at home I would compose music. I was imagining: if I was to set a framework that I could improvise within, what would it feel like? Or: how could I sculpt something that would move the free improvising in a different direction? I never studied composition, but it felt natural to try and realize the acoustic soundscapes that were in my head, and it was a long trial and error process, over a period of about eight years. I started when I was 13. Then about three years ago I decided: OK I need to get this music out there now, because it’s a big part of me. I decided I couldn’t do anything else before I completed this repertoire.
Does the album, then, indicate a break with your improvised past? Or do you see yourself continuing to participate in free improvisation projects?
I’m open to whatever the future wants to be, but it will include improvising. Improvising freely is my approach to life in general.
How did the ECM connection come about?
One of the things that I like to do sometimes is just walk out my door and see what happens. One Saturday night in Oslo I saw a poster for Dino Saluzzi at the Cosmopolite. I thought: I should hear this, especially because I’m also writing for bandoneon in my ensemble. When is the gig? Oh, it’s today. When does it start? In twenty minutes! OK! So it was a very quick walk to Cosmopolite. It was packed, but I found a place on the stairs, and by chance I was next to where Manfred Eicher was sitting. We spoke in the interval and I told him about my project. He had been recording at Rainbow, and listened to some of my music…
Which led, ultimately, to the ensemble and trio recordings…Are there fundamental conceptual differences in the way your compositions are shaped for trio or larger ensemble?
No, they happened simultaneously. Some pieces for the ensemble were reduced to trio versions or inspired the trio - or vice versa. To me it’s all about elongation or miniaturization. That’s how I see my whole working situation. I do a lot of different projects, also with other art forms and I feel like everything is part of the same process.
Trio members Johan Lindvall and Katrine Schiøtt are also part of the larger group…
The trio is a very nice band to be in because the focus is so pure. We have always had a sound. The very first thing we did together, it could have been a track on this album. All three of us have such strong characters in music, I guess. We meet and play and it becomes something. We improvised in the beginning, playing together every week. Then I composed some pieces for us and Johan brought in some and we figured out that we need to do this....
The entire Cikada Quartet is included in your ensemble…
I needed to find someone to ask questions about writing for strings. I met [composer] Maja Ratkje – she’s also from Trondheim. She taught me things. We didn’t meet regularly, but it was enough to push me in a direction. I’m very conscious of who I bring into a project. Different personalities bring such different things. It was important to me to pick the right string players for this music. The jazz players in the ensemble I could more easily choose, because I knew the scene. For the classical players I asked Maja, who knew my direction. She said, “I think you need to talk to Cikada.” So I did.
Listening to the saxophone on the album, you seem to be very interested in the texture of the sound as well as – or sometimes even more than – the line…
A line could have such different meanings depending on how it is played and what you put in it: the quality of the sound, the texture, the depth in it. Everything is interesting. I wanted to give it some integrity, and communicate something deeper than ‘this is a dominant chord’ when I play.
Early in the recording, in a chamber music setting, we hear you playing quietly, and the sound of breath and the crackle of moisture in the saxophone mouthpiece emphasize the tactile quality of the music. It made me think of abstract painting in which the brushstroke itself is foregrounded.
I do connect a lot of things with music - including paint. I think about a lot of other things than music when I work with music. I imagine scenes, or scents. It’s interesting to embody things like that in music. It’s more interesting than the obvious things, like focusing on scales.
Video footage from the recordings shows that you are quite animated in your direction of your ensembles, also in your encouragement of the other players.
Well, I don’t think that sheet music is the only way of instructing or communicating ideas to musicians. Sometimes it’s easier to describe something with the hands or the voice or to tell a story. Musicians also have voices and bodies to move, so why are we sitting there referring only to a piece of paper?
Is your Sámi family background significant for your musical identity?
Sámi culture is a part of me, and it’s an inspiration, musically and in other ways. Recently I’ve been collaborating with designer Emilie Stovik, who is also working from Sámi inspirations. And I was in touch with [traditional singer] Inga Juuso [1945-2014]. We were planning a project together, shortly before she died. She was so authentic and powerful…
Interview by Steve Lake