Battle Trance/Blue Cranes review: Maximal music

Saxophone quartet’s innovative music blends the visceral with the spiritual 

by PATRICK MCCULLEY

Every once in awhile, musicians are fortunate enough to have experiences that make us ask some serious questions about what we thought we had already answered. Like, for example, what sounds can be musical? What instrumentation is necessary for an ensemble to convey those sounds? Are clearly delineated structure and form necessary to communicate musical ideas? And, as always the looming existential question in the back of our minds: what is the point of music with these conditions?

Finally: Can spitting into one’s instrument be musical?

Battle Trance performed at Portland’s Mississippi Studios. Photo: Patrick McCulley.

These were the questions I came away with after tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance’s January 25 show at Portland’s Mississippi Studios. People use the term “genre defying” loosely these days when reviewing new music but Battle Trance is much closer to deserving that description than any ensemble I’ve recently come across. They could, of course, be thrown under the umbrella term “experimental” but that doesn’t seem to properly communicate the full import of what I witnessed.

Certainly they experiment. The saxophonists — Patrick Breiner, Matt Nelson, Jeremy Viner, and quartet founder Travis Laplante — seem to have taken a great deal of care to search out every single extended technique a saxophone is capable of and include it in their compositions. Over the course of their 45-minute performance, they played multiphonics that sounded like four giant dogs barking, descending harmonic slurs reminiscent of the sounds of fighter planes in old war movies, and soft, nasally, ethereal singing through their instruments. At times their saxophones would growl, honk, and squeak. In several thoroughly surprising instances, performers began to aggressively spit air through the mouthpieces of their instruments to create sound. You could actually see spit flying out of their mouths and across the stage!

Battle Trance’s extended techniques create a visceral atmosphere in their music.  The idea that the deeply physical can be translated into sound isn’t new, but the quartet capitalizes on the idea in new, thought-provoking ways. This, I suspect, is the foundation for the physio-spiritual band name and the concept behind the title of their new release Blade of Love.

Battle Trance defines its core musical direction as the “physical and spiritual intersection of the saxophone and the human body.” Both the title of their album and the name of the ensemble seem carefully chosen to reflect this idea. In both instances we have the concept of a physical and violent event/object tempered with the idea of a spiritual/emotional aspiration. Battle/blade with trance/love.

These juxtapositions appear in their music too. I often found myself laughing with surprise when chaotic and loud sections would instantaneously give way soft and organized melodies. This speaks to the high degree and amount of time with which they’ve prepared their performance. The performers often seemed psychically linked as they exchanged ideas and transitioned to new sections.

Their use of extended techniques is reminiscent of the work of saxophonists Colin Stetson or Roscoe Mitchell but lacks the rhythmic continuity or structure usually associated with their minimalist, post-minimalist, and improvising, pseudo-minimalist styles.

The only word that really came to mind to describe their music is maximalism. In contemporary visual art, maximalism is the use of bright and loud colors, and crowded spaces as an esthetic reaction to minimalism. However, maximalism is also deeply structural, with patterns and contrasts that reinforce and beautify it. Check out the paintings of Dan Sutherland, Gola Hundun, and David Richard.

Battle Trance demonstrates similar aesthetics in Laplante’s compositions. Each chaotic section has an answering passage of tranquility. Each harsh growl or bark is juxtaposed against snatches of beautiful melody. And framing their music, at beginning and end, are long, meditative moments of complete silence.

Battle Trance’s music has little in common with the older concept of maximalism associated with the classical music of Sergei Prokofiev and Charles Ives. I don’t imagine that most classical musicians and listeners would like this music. It is less melodic, less harmonic, less structured, and simply too extreme for someone whose scope is limited European art music from before the 19th century or even the early 20th century.

Similarly, if you like only music that is simple and obviously formulaic in any way, Battle Trance is going to be a hard sell for you. It’s really for listeners interested in music that is intensely emotional, raw, visceral, virtuosic, and experimental. Music that raises questions.

Battle Trance seems to be reaching down into the gut of the human soul to pull out some of the rougher emotions — then translates them into sound. As long as it’s done with the courage and conviction to convey meaning in the art you are creating, expressing new emotional territory like this sometimes requires new instrumentation, new forms, new techniques, and a penchant for experimentation — like spitting into one’s instrument.

Many people spend a lot of time experiencing what they’re already familiar with day after day, existential dread gnawing at the back of their minds. The solution sometimes is as simple as breaking the cycle and experiencing something new. Regardless of what category of listener you fit into, or even if you believe in those categories at all, Battle Trance is worth a listen if just to break out of your old habits.

Blue Cranes: Reed Wallsmith, Rebecca Sanborn, Joe Cunningham, Jon Shaw and Ji Tanzer at Mississippi Studios last year.

The night’s opener, local jazz quintet Blue Cranes, provided a welcome contrast to Battle Trance’s powerful ruckus. Reed Wallsmith on alto saxophone, Joe Cunningham on tenor saxophone, Rebecca Sanborn on keyboards, Jon Shaw on bass, and Ji Tanzer on drums, played a style of jazz that is heavy on melody, rhythm, and atmosphere, less concerned with the egos of soloists. Their compositions were, thanks to bell-sounding keyboard and glockenspiel, childlike. They performed like a community that knows how to be musical and have fun.

Blue Cranes opened their set with an atmospheric and euphoric improvisation. Many of the songs that followed were playful and melodic, with a driving and energetic rhythm section. Their set included new material where a minimalist vibe in the rhythm section and saxophone ostinatos gave way to simultaneous saxophone solos. It transitioned through a dreamy, improvised keyboard and bass exchange, a mournful sax melody, and built from there into an entirely new song, driving and intense.

Patrick McCulley is an Oregon born saxophonist, educator, and composer with an M.M. in saxophone performance. He is the saxophone instructor and director for the Portland Music Collective. His non-musical interests include tea, cats, rain, science fiction and international travel.

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