It’s easy to miss Constellation—I nearly did. The venue, tucked into a small row of brick buildings in Chicago’s North Side, has no flashy sign or major distinguishing marker on its unassuming front face. Its placement near an underpass brings to mind the phrase “hole in the wall.” But on an otherwise ordinary Sunday evening, the intimate venue, which has the layout of a chamber theatre, was given a potent dose of music, spanning a broad range of contemporary art music. Quite a lot of music filled the small space.
The audience of about 60 people was first treated to a set by percussionist Doug Perkins, who played a diverse set that saw him play instruments ranging from tubular bells to vibraphone to, most memorably, a cello, which he played like a drum for the cello duo stuttered chant, where he was joined by Nick Photinos. Perkins’s ability to hop between intense percussive bouts (opening number Psappha) and gorgeous melodic exploration (the vibraphone piece Lu) is astounding, and he gave the audience a smorgasbord of musical exploration leading up to the headliner set.
Though diverse in composition, these opening pieces did exactly what an opening set should do: set the stage. The final piece Perkins played, accompanied by pianist Lisa Kaplan, was John Luther Adams’ Red Arc/Blue Veil. The piece is a complex and at times dizzying exploration of sound and space, which involves the piano and the mallet percussion slowly ascending and then descending over waves of processed sound. Kaplan in particular was fascinating to watch as the piece progressed; her arpeggio-like pattern of ascending up and then descending down the keyboard was so natural that it was easy to miss that the piano notes were getting higher in the register. The notes blended beautifully together.
Perkins was wise to choose this piece as the final one before Battle Trance took to the stage. Red Arc/Blue Veil is a kind of piece that feels less like what people would call a “composition” or a “song” but instead the creation of what fans of ambient music call a “musical soundscape”. The same goes for Palace of Wind, the stunning album-length composition by Battle Trance, a tenor saxophone quartet helmed by Travis Laplante, who is joined by Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner, and Patrick Breiner.
In the grand scheme of instrument ensembles, rarely is it the case that the ensemble is comprised entirely of the same instrument. But Battle Trance proves that while having a diverse ensemble may have benefits in terms of the unique tonalities differing instruments can provide, there’s plenty of sonic range within a single instrument. By the end of the evening, the quartet floored the audience with the seemingly endless range of tone and volume it wrung out of its instruments.
The 42 minute piece spans a wide array of sonic textures. Motifs come and go. Volume spikes following stretches of tranquility. Long sustained notes give way to rapid figures. Sonorous figures give way to bursts of dissonance. The key challenge of this piece (amongst what are more challenges than you can count on two hands) is that all of these dynamic shifts have to occur for sustained periods of time, which requires these four saxophonists to utilize that dastardly tactic of circular breathing. The challenge this presents to Battle Trance were obvious at the piece’s Constellation performance, though each musician displayed the effects of the challenge differently. Laplante clearly stood out as the leader of the group, though he didn’t move anywhere near as much as Nelson, whose face took a scarlet red shade as he flailed about during the piece’s intense passages. Breiner tended to move back and forth at a consistent tempo, though he too showed strain during the aforementioned bouts of intensity. Most striking of all from a performance angle was Viner, who remained stationery for nearly the entirety of the piece. His fortitude as a player was already made obvious by the music he was playing, but his ability to remain still was mystifying.
Palace of Wind is both hard to describe and experience. The album’s press materials describe it as “existing in the cracks between contemporary classical music, avant-garde jazz, black metal, ambient, and world music”—in other words, the piece is everything and nothing, musically speaking. Even sitting in in my comfortable chair in Constellation, I felt pushed and pulled by the music. Yet if one is willing to let herself be immersed in the encompassing nature of the piece, she will be rewarded with some of contemporary art music’s most challenging music. Palace of Wind, written by Laplante, is an achievement not just for the saxophone, but for avant-garde composition as a whole.
When Battle Trance finished the piece, each musician removed the mouthpiece of the saxophone from his lips individually, slowly letting the instrument rest hanging around their necks. The audience waited for what felt like minutes before applauding; whether they were expecting the music to continue or they were letting the music sink in. Either way, the music had a powerful effect on everyone in the room, even the musicians who had spent (and will continue to spend) several concerts playing it. The power of the music was palpable in silence shortly thereafter; it lingered with me still on my walk home.
Psappha (Iannis Xenakis)
Lu (Hugo Morales Muruia)
stuttered chant (David Lang) - with Nick Photinos, cello
Red Arc/ Blue Veil (John Luther Adams) - with Lisa Kaplan, piano
Palace of Wind
Stream Palace of Wind below: