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Gerald Cleaver and Travis Laplante.

The Arts

From dream to reality

Subtle Degrees’ ‘A Dance That Empties’ gets a workout in Yellow Barn concert at Next Stage

Tickets are $15 for general admission and $5 for students and are available at the door, and at (with a service charge).

PUTNEY—A few years ago, musician Travis Laplante had a strange and unsettling dream.

“In my sleep, I heard a sound that seemed to come from a saxophone, but I couldn’t tell that it actually did, since I could not see the instrument,” Laplante says. “Whatever it was, it made a single sound. And here’s the unusual part: to me it seemed as if the entire universe was contained in this one sound.”

Since Laplante believes that in dreams we sometimes touch on a deeper level of truth than our waking reality, this dream induced a longing inside himself to open people’s ears and heart “to what is a true sound.”

“I believe that there is more potential than what I see around me, if I open my ears to reality,” Laplante says.

Dedicated to remembering music’s original purpose and to bringing it back into modern consciousness,” Laplante writes at the Yellow Barn website ( that “music is magic that has the ability to transform life back to its true state. This requires the musician to have given his/her life to mastering the art of cultivating sound.”

Laplante is particularly interested “in dissolving the separation between musical performers and listeners and transforming the physical space of the performance setting.”

Emotional experience

This quest led Laplante to create A Dance That Empties, a 50-minute composition written for Subtle Degrees, a new two-musician ensemble consisting of himself on tenor saxophone and Gerald Cleaver on drums.

On Saturday, Feb. 24, at 8 p.m., Subtle Degrees will perform that piece in concert at Next Stage Arts Project in Putney.

According to Yellow Barn, A Dance That Empties “pushes the players to the limit both technically and physically, while the raw, vulnerable instrumentation makes for an intimately emotional experience for both performers and listeners.”

Subtle Degrees’ uncategorizable sound evokes everything from contemporary classical music, avant garde jazz, minimalism, and technical metal, to sacred world music.

Cleaver, the duo’s percussionist, is one of the New York jazz scene’s leading drummer and composers, covering a wide range of stylistic ground. Having played with jazz masters Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, and Ray Bryant, he is a product of many traditions within creative music.

“Gerald is my favorite living improvising musician,” says Laplante. “I met Gerald when I was 18, right after I moved to New York City, and we have had a remarkable musical relationship for the last 17 years.”

Laplante, Subtle Degrees’ other member, is a saxophonist, composer, and qi gong practitioner splitting time between Brooklyn and Putney. He has served as guest faculty at the Royal Academy of Music (Aarhus, Denmark), Dartmouth College, and The New School.

As a qigong student of master Robert Peng, Laplante has undergone traditional intensive training. His focus in recent years, under the tutelage of Laura Stelmok, has been on Taoist alchemical medicine and the cultivation of the heart. Laplante is passionate about the intersection of music and medicine. He and his wife are the founders of Sword Hands, a qigong and acupuncture healing practice based in Brooklyn and Putney.

’A vital part of my life’

Laplante grew up in Woodstock, where at 11 he began studying saxophone. At 14, he took part in the jam session of the Vermont Jazz Center during its sessions in Putney.

“VJC has remained a vital part of my life,” he says.

After high school, Laplante moved to Manhattan, where he studied jazz at the New School. However, he never lost his roots in Vermont. For many years, he returned to his home state when Laplante ran the Yellow Barn’s concert hall in the summer at the Big Barn in Putney.

He has been friends for a long time with Artistic Director Seth Knopp and Executive Director Catherine Stephan of Yellow Barn, who are excited about presenting the Vermont premiere of A Dance That Empties.

Three years ago, LaPlante moved to Putney, and now he divides his time between New York and Vermont. “I want to spend as much time as I can in the wilderness of Vermont,” he says. “But with my career I still need to keep a presence in New York.”

Laplante has composed many solo saxophone works, including his large-scale composition Palace of Wind, an album-length piece that was written for the Brooklyn-based saxophone quartet Battle Trance.

Popmatters hailed Laplante’s compositions as “an achievement not just for the saxophone, but for avant garde composition as a whole” while The New York Times called Battle Trance’s debut album Palace of Wind “mesmerizing ... a floating tapestry of fascinating textures made up of tiny musical motifs, and a music that throbs with tension between stillness and agitation, density and light."

Laplante’s latest composition, A Dance That Empties, was commissioned to be performed at Roulette in Brooklyn, where it had its world premiere in 2017.

“I got the commission in November of 2016, for a performance the following March,” LaPlante says. “That meant that I had four months to complete the work, which for me is not much time. Although this made me feel overwhelmed and nervous, I went ahead with the project, deciding that I would use this deadline to light my fire. I cleared space and devoted myself totally to finishing the work.”

Written backwards

Oddly enough, Laplante believes that A Dance That Empties wrote itself backwards.

“I began with that sound from my dream, which would be the final moments of the piece,” he explains. “I wanted listeners and performers to approach that ultimate moment of A Dance That Empties in a deeper, primordial, and sacred way.

“But how to get them to this point? I used repeating rhythmic and melodic figures to work like a ceremonial dance to release those elements blocking the truth — in a sense to use music as an emptying of unnecessary distractions. The piece becomes a dance that empties.”

Laplante contends that A Dance That Empties is about 80 percent composed and 20 percent improvised.

“Although there is some improvisation in the work, this is distinctly not a jazz composition, like say the music of John Coltrane,” Laplante says. “Once you mention a saxophone, everyone thinks of jazz, and I was trained as a jazz musician.

But a work like this is different from, say, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, in that only a fraction of the structure of the work calls upon improvisation. All in all, I would say A Dance That Empties does not sound like a jazz piece. I have been influenced by a lot of music outside of jazz, such as classical, metal, punk, and pop. I appreciate the vastness of music, all which find expression in this piece.”

The 20 percent of structured improvisation is mostly the work of Cleaver’s drumming.

“I want to emphasize how important Gerald’s contribution is to this piece,” insists Laplante. “By and large, the sax’s part of A Dance That Empties is completely composed. However, when it came to the drumming, I did not write every drum beat, but relied on Gerald’s improvising as we played. His contribution turned out to be effortless and organic.”

The day before Subtle Degrees’ performance at Next Stage, a recording of A Dance That Empties will be released via New Amsterdam Records/NNA Tapes on Feb. 23.

Nonetheless, this recording shouldn’t be seen as the definitive version of the piece.

“Because of its improvisatory elements, A Dance That Empties to some degree will vary from performance to performance,” explains Laplante. “That means I am not looking for a perfect version of the piece to play night after night. Rather, Subtle Degrees is exploring spontaneity and the unknown.

“Perhaps a year from now the work will be significantly different from what A Dance That Empties is on the recording and the show at Yellow Barn, and that’s just fine with me.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #447 (Wednesday, February 21, 2018). This story appeared on page B1.

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