Cutting Through the Distractions: An interview with Battle Trance composer Travis LaPlante

By Jeff Jackson 

Battle Trance is a genre-defying saxophone quartet that crosses boundaries between avant-garde jazz, classical music, ambient, and world music. Pop Matters dubbed their debut recording Palace of Wind "an achievement not just for the saxophone, but for avant-garde composition as a whole." 

Their follow-up album Blade of Love was recently released and has been garnering major press attention. NPR picked it for their “Songs We Love” feature, calling it “visceral and inventive. This is a fierce piece, and one that demands attention.” 

Pitchfork also gave the album a rave review, noting that “the initial, mellow rounds of chanted tones are probably the closest that any saxophone group has come to the sound of early devotional music.” They praised how the group delivered “three adventurously dense movements, yet they maintain a focused sense of restraint and melody throughout.”  

New Frequencies at McColl Center presents Battle Trance on Monday, September 12, 2016 from 8 to 10 PM. In anticipation of the show here at McColl Center for Art + Innovation, I interviewed Battle Trance composer Travis LaPlante about their new album via email. 

What initially inspired you to write for four tenor saxophones?

Travis LaPlante: I was working a day job in 2012, and one afternoon I had a clear feeling that I needed to start a band with Patrick Breiner, Matt Nelson, and Jeremy Viner. I hadn't thought about starting an all tenor ensemble before. What made this experience especially unusual was that I wasn't very familiar with the musical interests of the other three guys, so I was stepping into a great unknown. I don't know where the feeling came from. To this day, it's a mystery. I tracked down everybody's email addresses and asked if they would be open to this new project. No one hesitated, and that was that. The first time we met up it was evident that there was something very special between us.

Are there particular musical or personal inspirations behind the writing of your new album Blade of Love?

There is a lot of music that has moved me over the years and undoubtedly has influenced the way my music sounds. In general, though, I tend to credit my recent inspiration mostly to the non-musical.

A more specific inspiration behind Blade of Love is a longing for a blade that will cut through all of the disillusions, distractions, and narcissism in myself, leaving only that which is in service to Love. A place where I won't forget what a precious gift it is to be given a human life.

What brought me to this image of a blade that cuts through distortion is the amount of agony I am in on a daily basis, some of it conscious, much of it unconscious. How much love and beauty is around me all the time and how little I can feel compared to what I know I was designed to be capable of. How unresponsive I have become. How I waste so much time worrying about things that don't matter at all. How many times I miss an opportunity for real human connection because I am afraid.

Blade of Love is a prayer for this dullness to transform into something truly alive.

Blade of Love has a remarkable mix of keening beauty and knotty textures. How much was composed and how much was created through improvisation? What is the band’s process for honing this material?

Blade of Love is through-composed. Basically I bring in a section of the piece and show everybody their parts through musical demonstration without using written music. The ensemble commits everything to memory, and it is not until after the piece is finished that the piece is transcribed on paper, mostly for archival purposes. It is my experience that transmitting music orally is more effective and allows for the ensemble to connect more deeply, since our faces are never buried in written music. This process does, however, require a rigorous rehearsal schedule and much discipline.

Battle Trance is very fortunate to be in a position where all four members are willing to really train inside a piece of music for a long period of time. It is also a very fortunate position to be in as a composer, because sections can be modified as we go, and I can hear ideas before they are fully developed to get a feel for whether they will ultimately work or not. We really try to live together inside the piece. We rehearsed Blade of Love for over a year before we attempted to perform it in front of people.

Both your first release and the new one feature three-part compositions that run across the entire album. What’s drawn you to that format?  

I think I am attracted to longer form pieces because it's easier for me to get lost inside of the sound and enter a mystery, especially in a live context. I have great respect for working with shorter pieces but feel like the music I write for Battle Trance is akin to getting on a ship that's making a long journey. Once everyone is onboard, it is ideal if no one jumps overboard, because we are on the ocean. A concert of shorter pieces often means breaks in the middle of the set of music, and there is clapping, chatter, phone checking, etc. This can potentially break the
collective focus in a way that doesn't work well with music that is designed to be immersive, like the music of Battle Trance.

Also, I like the idea of people putting on a recording and knowing that it's meant to be listened to from beginning to end. Yes, it asks more of the listener. And yes, it will mean that less people will listen, perhaps because they don't want to make a 45-minute commitment because they are too busy or too afraid they will miss something if they unplug for a period of time. However, for those who do take a chance and give themselves to the experience, I do believe that they will be given something real in return.

Dividing the piece into three parts is mostly for radio purposes, but honestly, both of Battle Trance's releases are ideally listened to in their entirety.

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New Frequencies at McColl Center presents Battle Trance on Monday, September 12, 2016 from 8 to 10 PM. Advance tickets now available.

Jeff Jackson is a novelist, playwright, and curator of the New Frequencies at McColl Center series.