Battle Trance (US)

Interview with Travis Laplante

In both jazz and modern classical music, the saxophone quartet is a relatively rare beast, and when such a configuration does exist, it usually features the extended family of this horn, from soprano to baritone, and sometimes even beyond, into sopranino and bass. New York’s Battle Trance ignore this fundamental ‘rule’, and favour a saxophone quartet made up entirely of tenors, taking this concept into uncharted territory. It all started with a vision...

“It was very mysterious, to say the least,” recalls Travis Laplante, the quartet’s leader and composer. “In 2012, I had this really strong feeling that I needed to start a band with Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner and Patrick Breiner, the three other gentlemen in Battle Trance. Before that, I didn’t have any idea that I was going to start a saxophone quartet, let alone an all-tenor quartet. It was a feeling that seemed to appear out of nothing, but it was very strong so I decided that I’d try to follow this feeling, to see what would happen. In life, we all have different feelings like that, coming up from time to time. I would dismiss those ideas as crazy, or just my imagination going to a place, and there’s no real substance behind it. I’m trying to get better at listening and being attentive and aware of these different notions that are seemingly mysterious. In this case, I thought to myself, okay, I’m going to get in touch with them and see what happens. I didn’t have any music written, I didn’t have a strong idea of what the group would sound like. It was very much open.”

Previously, Laplante had been sighted fairly regularly playing completely solo sets, notably at Brooklyn’s deeply missed Zebulon bar. He was also a member of Little Women, a collective quartet that also featured alto saxophonist Darius Jones. Since forming Battle Trance, the group has become his prime platform for expression. The Battle Trance debut recording, Palace Of Wind, was released in 2014, and was followed by Blade Of Love in 2016, both of these released by New Amsterdam Records.

Battle Trance may be Laplante’s main outlet, but he has also formed a duo with drummer Gerald Cleaver, called Subtle Degrees, and they’ve now recorded an album in southern Vermont. The pair first met when Laplante was a mere 18 years old, subsequently beginning to play as a trio with the bassist Michael Formanek.

Back on the day of his Battle Trance revelation, Laplante didn’t know the other tenormen particularly well, although he’d met them a few times, on the NYC scene. He wasn’t even sure which stylistic zones the four were currently inhabiting. Even in retrospect, Laplante is unable to rationalise his concept for an all-tenor quartet line-up.  “I can say something of what I discovered, as far as their uniqueness,” says Laplante. “There’s a certain ability, working with instruments of very similar timbre. There’s a natural advantage to being able to dissolve our individuality to the collective ensemble sound. A lot of the time, when we’re playing, we don’t really know the origin of each sound.”

This is an effect that’s similar to that heard in some minimalist music, where grouped patterns will create unexpected resonances, as a result of layering, criss-crossing overtones, where instruments will create ‘real’ or perceived additional sounds, as a result of their cumulative phased activities. “What I’ve focused on in the compositional side of Battle Trance is having different sounds come into existence through the sum of the parts, but having another entity of sound created, whether it’s through the overtone series, or multiphonics, or circular breathing, something else can emerge that’s greater than the sum of our original parts. I think that’s been really amazing, working in the quartet. There’s a sense of mystery due to the cohesive resonance.”

Parts of the Blade Of Love ‘suite’ are more approachable, in the commercial sense, than its predecessor, such as when the first section gets into a stacked, emotive cascade of soulful intertwinings, softening to near silence as it progresses. Then it accelerates into a rougher jostle of horn simultaneity, growing a fiercer agitation. A savage, repeated burst closes this section. A whistling subtlety introduces the second part, followed by a stuttering smatter of activity, and a lyrical promenading motion. A hovering multiphonic meditation ensues, leading into a creaky, sepia-hued slow-march. On occasion, the players will sing softly into their saxophones, creating further options for tonal overlays. It’s during the third movement that the tenors really work together closely, crafting a closely-adhered minimalist repetition. It soon becomes apparent that with each listen to this album, fresh facets are revealed, and new musical connections are made.

“It’s through composed, although I don’t score everything out beforehand,” says Laplante. “The pieces are transmitted orally, where I’ll meet with the ensemble and demonstrate the different parts, and we’ll all learn it along the way, all together. A lot of the time, the techniques we’re working with aren’t that easy to score. We’re working with a lot of unorthodox fingerings. Working orally seems to be the most potent way. That being said, there are sections in the pieces where there is freedom. You could consider it structured improvisation.”

Upon listening to Blade Of Love, musical traces might flicker by, hints of possible references to choral music, the minimalism of Terry Riley, ghosts of old bluesmen and a suggestion of drum’b’bass momentum. When quizzed, Laplante considers these frissons as being unintended, but he’s quite prepared to flow along with a listener’s subjective experience.

“It’s important for me to leave that element of spontaneity, because if everything was just completely structured, and with a very concrete idea of what was ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, it would be more difficult to keep the piece alive over time, whereas this way of working allows it to come alive in a new way each night, and at the same time, the essence of the composition remains intact.”

Can the acoustic nature of the performance space also have a marked influence on the Battle Trance sound? “Absolutely,” says Laplante. “That’s, in a way, the fifth member of the ensemble. We try, whenever possible, to play purely acoustically, and work with the resonance of the room. If we do have to be amplified for a larger space, we try to have that be as minimal as possible, so the real resonance of the space can still speak.”

What was the situation when you first started playing together? “For the most part, everything was quite effortless. I was, more often than not, amazed at how easily it translated into reality. I don’t think that any of us had needed to use these techniques for the durations that are required in the compositions, so there was a very intense, rigorous physical training that went into learning both of the pieces, just purely on a muscular level, to be able to sustain the strength to perform the compositions. In the beginning, we’d be working on it, and kind of look at each other, and say, wow, I don’t know if this is possible! Then, over time, and through rehearsals, things would feel easier and easier.”

The foursome spent a year honing their sound before recording and performing Palace Of Wind, and then six months girding their loins for Blade Of Love, the piece that they’ll be presenting in Moers. Since it was recorded, they’ve played the work in public on close to a hundred occasions, mostly on the two coasts of North America. At Moers, Blade Of Love will be well-evolved, but also promising to possess distinct one-off qualities, resulting from the fearsome Battle Trance intuition, which is now reaching an ever-finer degree of calibration.

Martin Longley