The avant-garde saxophonist and composer plays September 18 at Arts + Literature Laboratory in the new duo Subtle Degrees. (Photo: Laplante, right, with Subtle Degrees bandmate Gerald Cleaver.)
Over the course of this decade, Brooklyn-based composer and saxophonist Travis Laplante has emerged as a significant player in avant-jazz and post-minimalist music, both as a solo artist (on albums like of 2011’s Heart Protector) and as part of larger ensembles like Battle Trance. The latter is a quartet of tenor saxophonists, which features former Madisonian/Surrounded By Reality co-founder Patrick Breiner. Most recently, Laplante has been performing in a new project called Subtle Degrees, with renowned drummer Gerald Cleaver. In late February 2018, the duo released its debut record, A Dance That Empties, on New Amsterdam Records. (Full disclosure: Battle Trance headlined a Tone Madison-presented show at the Gates of Heaven in October 2016.)
Ahead of Subtle Degrees’ September 18 show at Arts + Literature Laboratory, Laplante spoke with Tone Madison contributor Grant Phipps at WORT studios about his compositions’ unusual influence from fantasy novelists, utilizing silence in his pieces to bring live audiences into a collective focus, the spiritual connection with Cleaver in embracing the unexpected in the intense and immersive performances of the long-form A Dance That Empties, and cherishing music that unites elements of composition and improvisation.
Tone Madison: You have origins in supporting the experimental rock band Extra Life in the late oughts (on keys, sax, EWI), but in recent years you’ve shifted more towards exclusively playing your own similarly devotional avant-jazz pieces—whether solo, as part of a quartet (Battle Trance, Little Women), and now with a duo (Subtle Degrees). What prompted that shift, and do you see yourself branching out further into other styles, either as a bandleader or auxiliary player?
Travis Laplante: I just feel like, in a sense, for me, there’s never really been a shift. I visualize it more as a constant unfolding, of life and going deeper into the unknown. We’re all on our own journeys and things just unfold in different ways. A lot of what has happened with my music and its trajectory hasn’t really been anything that I’ve thought about. It’s just all unfolded very organically.
To be a little more specific about your question, yes, I did play sax, EWI, and keyboards in Extra Life, which seems like a very long time ago now. I joined that band because, at the time, I had a lot of respect for Charlie Looker’s music and was friends with the guys in the band. I learned a lot playing [with them], and it was very rewarding, both personally and musically. However, it just came to a point where I was touring with Little Women a lot. Little Women was a band that I had a lot of creative input in, and Extra Life was a band that was really Charlie’s vision. It just really came down to making priorities in terms of time and space and me needing to focus more on projects that I was creatively more involved in. So, there wasn’t anything more than that in terms of a conscious shift in me moving away from Extra Life; it was actually very practical. I’m still very close with all those guys, and they’re very dear to me.
[Lately] I have been focusing more on composing my own music and going deeper into improvisation and continuing to do that with Subtle Degrees. And I also have some new things in the works in the future. I’m working with an amazing new music ensemble called Yarn/Wire, which consists of two percussionists and two pianists. And we’re working on a piece that I’m writing. And I’ve begun writing my first piece for string quartet and tenor saxophone [The JACK Quartet], and I’m writing another piece for Battle Trance, and recording a solo record this winter. A lot of things are happening…and I’m trying to catch up and become more adept at composing for strings, for instance, and piano, and percussion. So, it’s also an amazing experience of learning and growth for me along the way.
Tone Madison: Who are, or have been, recurring artistic inspirations for you, either within or outside music? You mentioned Charlie Looker (of Extra Life, Zs, Psalm Zero, etc.) previously.
Travis Laplante: Yeah, [Charlie] was someone during that time in my mid-20s. There were so many people in Brooklyn just making great music and happened to be friends and colleagues of mine, and it was just a really vibrant time for DIY music of all different kinds. I feel like that scene has definitely influenced me.
As a younger person, John Coltrane completely changed my life, and I’ve taken a tremendous amount of inspiration from him both as a musician and as a person. And in more recent times, I’ve become incredibly inspired by the work of Beethoven, especially towards the end of his life. Compositionally, I think his late string quartets are some of the most beautiful music that’s ever been made.
Right now I’m really into reading novels and taking inspiration from the way authors compose stories and [the way] narratives operate in books and character development and the way plots unfold. I just am right now super inspired by the composition of authors. In particular, I finally read the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials trilogy: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, which is just so magical and beautiful. I’m also really into Guy Gavriel Kay, an amazing Canadian author who writes sort of in the cross between historical fiction and with an element of magic and fantasy. Everything he’s written I just love.
Tone Madison: So, you’d say you’re most inspired by magical realism and historical fantasy?
Travis Laplante: At the moment, I’ve just been loving the books. Also, compositionally, the way characters develop and completely flip perspectives. Someone who you think is a certain way turns out to be a different way, and also characters’ relationships drastically changing within books. Really taking a lot of inspiration from that in terms of musical thematic material and motifs… looking at the way [authors] structure their stories. I think it totally translates to the ideas and inspiration for my musical composition.
Tone Madison: Yeah, I think that is true. Now that I’m thinking back to the last two things I’ve heard from you—they’ve been in a three-act structure. Blade Of Love with Battle Trance, and this piece, A Dance That Empties, is also in three parts. Is that intentional or just coincidence?
Travis Laplante: Well, no, actually. The Battle Trance record before that, Palace Of Wind, was also in three movements. I’ve been interested in working with longer-form compositions for a lot of reasons. For myself, as a performer, and for listeners as well, it’s easier to just give oneself over to a piece and really become immersed in it and really staying in it for an extended amount of time rather than there being shorter pieces with a pause in the middle and opportunities for people to check their phones or get another drink. All of that is totally fine with me, but I just love actually not having that break and just going on a collective journey over a longer period of time. I feel like with our modern attention spans, it’s more difficult to do that when there are breaks and opportunities for external distractions. Myself, as a performer, included.
So, those three pieces are all album-length compositions. They’re about 45 minutes divided up into three movements… honestly, mostly for radio play, and also because, in this time of people wanting to release “singles,” putting out just one-track records seems a little bit alienating, perhaps.
Tone Madison: True. That kind of reminds me of your New Amsterdam labelmates, Tigue. They also released a three-track album this year, Strange Paradise, and I think they did a single edit of the piece “Triangle,” which was maybe a third of the length of the actual piece, for radio purposes.
Travis Laplante: Yeah, trying to work with the modern reality of the way people are listening to music and trying to be as accommodating and make the music as accessible as possible while, at the same time, not sacrificing artistic integrity.
Tone Madison: Your compositions have an engaging ebb and flow, using rests and silence, which help create unusual dynamic sonic landscapes, especially on A Dance That Empties. Can you talk about composing with silence in mind, and how you try to set yourself apart from other tenor saxophone through extended techniques
Travis Laplante: I feel like we as a culture are more starved for silence, or really quiet, than ever, and I know myself, I feel like silence is, for me, obviously as important as the music. I just long for silence, both internally, in the heart, and also in my mind. That’s when I actually feel the most alive, is when I feel empty and I don’t have my mind chattering about and I can have a very simple experience of being present as a human. I really like to start pieces with silence and end with silence, mostly for that immersive reason, being able to bring the audience and myself into a place where we can focus more collectively. I just feel like silence is really the most beautiful sound. I hope to use it more in some senses in the future. I think it’s something that’s taken me a long time to use, because it can feel so exposing and so vulnerable. I feel like I’m just starting to have more and more of a relationship with silence and I really don’t know how it’s gonna translate musically into the future, but it feels like something that’s very important to me.
Tone Madison: Has John Cage had any influence on your thoughts on silence
Travis Laplante: To be honest, I wouldn’t say directly or consciously, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for John Cage. He was an artist who really was incredible at changing people’s perspectives on what music is and what sound is and what silence is. He definitely, I think, was incredible at making people think differently about their reality. In terms of the part of the question about other people playing music like this, or using extended techniques, I honestly don’t think about it too often. I’m not that concerned about being quote-unquote “original” or separating myself from other people, because I feel like if I start sculpting the music around needing to feel special, I feel like that’s coming from a place of ego and I also feel like in music now we’re all trained to want to be so unique and different—like just making beautiful music isn’t enough, or something. I don’t know. I guess I just don’t think about it that much, honestly.
Tone Madison: That’s fair. I mean, being self-conscious can interfere with aspects of composition to the point where you’re maybe overthinking the process.
Travis Laplante: Totally. We have all these different stigmas and ideas in our heads based on our past or our own artist egos. For instance, I recently worked with an amazing choreographer and dancer, and it would be really funny working on a piece together, where she would suggest, “Oh, well why don’t you make these kinds of sounds or do this kind of thing?” And I would say, “Oh, well, I don’t know—what if that sounds too much like this?” And she wouldn’t have that perspective at all. And I would say, “What if you try moving in this particular way?” And she would say, “Oh, I can’t do that because that’s too much like this artist or this dancer.” It’s just funny how much baggage we all carry around, and I feel like it really closes us off from possibilities, because we’re so afraid of being derivative and not being new and not being special. I feel like it ends up putting up walls. I do feel strongly about that. If people were actually focused more on going deeper into their own hearts and themselves, and less concerned about what it sounded like in comparison to other people, I think there’d be more bravery in the music.
Tone Madison: A Dance That Empties is rather unique in your discography, in that you’re creating a dialogue with one person, percussionist Gerald Cleaver. How did you meet, and how did you develop your sound together as a unit? What did you discover in the process that was maybe unforeseen or revelatory?
Travis Laplante: I have known Gerald for 15 years, and we met when I was 18 or something like that, and we played together and it was evident upon our first meeting that I felt a really deep musical and I would say spiritual connection with Gerald. He’s really one of my favorite living drummers or improvisers on any instrument. I feel very fortunate to be able to play with him so often. I feel like playing with him is so incredible for me because he’s someone whose playing is so focused, yet at the same time he is so free and truly spontaneous and in the moment. He really pushes me into unknown territory every time we play A Dance That Empties, even though it is a composition that’s predominantly through-composed. There is space in there for the unknown and for improvisation. I just feel like he constantly surprises me, where I am always on the edge of my seat playing with him, and I am never comfortable, in a really good way. He is someone who can really go into the unexpected in a really intense way any time. It has, for me, exposed a lot of my own control issues and wanting to know how the piece is really going to unfold. It’s been really great, because it’s really helped to dismantle my`sense of control ver the music, and forces me to surrender to the greater collective of our duo.
Tone Madison: Can you remember a specific time in recent memory where he’s really caught you off-guard?
Travis Laplante: [Laughs] I would just say, honestly, every night. Yeah. And that’s the thing. It’s beautiful. You just go there. Even though we’re working inside a composition that’s very precise, very focused, there is still this element of never knowing really how exactly everything is gonna unfold. There’s just a sense of aliveness and urgency always there.
Tone Madison: I was going to ask what differences people at the Madison show might notice between the recording of A Dance That Empties and your live performance of the piece. But I guess you don’t really know that yet!
Travis Laplante: Right, I don’t really know that yet. There are a couple things I can say, though. One is that obviously the room itself plays a major role in what we’re doing, because we are playing acoustic music and it’s going to be resonating in a very particular way each night. I would say the room of course plays a large role and some resonances or sections that we’re playing, we may end up spending more time in those environments if they feel particularly alive. But more specifically in terms of the composition, there are embedded musical cues in it. Again, certain sections can go on longer on some nights if they’re feeling particularly inspired, and on the flip side of it, if something is feeling, “Oh, maybe it’s not quite as potent tonight given the room,” or for whatever reason we’re just feeling like we want to move on from something a little bit quicker, we can do that.
So durations fluctuate a little bit, but it’s really getting to that place where it’s always A Dance That Empties, and you’ll never think that it’s anything other than that. That focus is always maintained, and there is a lot of very precise writing. And at the same time, it is different every single night, and that’s what I love about playing this kind of music. It really gets to that place where improvisation and composition meet. It excites me more than anything, because then there’s not this set idea of what is quote-unquote the best version of the piece or what’s totally right and totally wrong, and then at the same time there is this essence of the piece that is there every single night. That’s what I hope for in Madison.
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