BurlingtonWomen may be from Venus, and men may indeed hail from Mars. But with apologies to John Gray, musicians — of a certain ilk, anyway — are from Saturn.
The ringed gas giant’s most notable export is certainly Sun Ra, who famously claimed natural Saturnian citizenship. The groundbreaking space-music composer and “cosmic philosopher” may have progeny — at least spiritually — in Vermont: the Saturn People’s Sound Collective.
The new orchestra — arkestra? — led by central-Vermont-based bandleader Brian Boyes, boasts, in addition to 20 local all-star musicians, a galaxy of influences ranging from the celestial works of Mr. Ra to the more Earthbound musings of post-punk pioneers Sonic Youth and minimalist mastermind Steve Reich. The band, which makes its debut appearance this Friday, December 7, at the Haybarn Theatre at Goddard College in Plainfield, exists on an astral plane where the dimensions of big-band music, postrock, improvisational jazz and world music intersect. Insert “big bang” joke here.
Boyes, 39, first burst into the local scene as a member of seminal acid-jazz subverts viperHouse. He left that band after roughly a decade to pursue his own musical ambitions under the guise of the Tala Sextet.
“ViperHouse’s music was very exciting, intellectually,” Boyes says in a recent phone interview. “Tala was a response to playing the club circuit for 10 years. I wanted to play creative, original music.”
But he says that experiment, for a variety of reasons, “hit a wall.” The group’s comparatively sparse instrumentation was a poor fit for bars and nightclubs, which often compelled a shift in sonic focus.
“It was a good time,” Boyes concedes. “But we’d wind up playing louder and groovier than I would have wanted.”
After a modest five-year run, Boyes moved on to other projects, including the eclectic cover outfit Money Jungle and, more recently, Movement of the People, a Fela Kuti tribute band.
Concurrently, Boyes has been teaching music at the Cabot School, a pre-K-through-12 public school. Out of necessity, he began arranging music for the school’s performance bands.
“Because it’s a small school, we don’t do the stock band arrangements,” he explains. “So I really began to hone my arranging chops.”
Two years ago, Boyes was selected to conduct a band at the Winooski Valley District Jazz Festival, an all-star ensemble for high school players in central Vermont. He included a few original compositions in the band’s repertoire.
“That’s when it hit me, that I wanted to do my music with a big band, with professionals,” he says.
He let the idea steep for two years, at the same immersing himself in the music of modern big-band composers, including Darcy James Argue and Maria Schneider. Then, this past June, he indulged what is so often the seed of great ideas: the declaration of reckless intent.
“Finally, I just said, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do this.’”
If science fiction is to be believed, aliens are physically imposing and curious creatures. Though no one has yet made first contact with Saturn People’s Sound Collective, visually the notion likely holds true here. Around a pulsing core of bassist Rob Morse, drummer Simeon Chapin and percussionist Gabe Halberg, tentacles of brass, string and reed instruments flail wildly. Trios of trombones (Dan Silverman, Lloyd Dugger, Matt Avery) and trumpets (Boyes, Dave Purcell, Alex Wolston) curl around slithering cellos (Indigo Ruth-Davis, Nelson Caldwell) and violin (Caleb Elder), punctuated by errant flute (Hilary Goldblatt) or guitar (Max Bronstein) — or perhaps the band’s lone vocalist, the otherworldly Miriam Bernardo.
Likewise, aliens probably speak a very foreign language. In this case, that etymology is derived from Boyes’ own musical experiences as a fan, performer and educator.
“The music we’re doing really reflects everything Brian has ever heard in his life,” says Morse, who has known Boyes since their shared viperHouse days some 20 years ago.
“I have a deep interest in world music, and the ethics of playing and teaching world music as sort of privileged, white Westerners,” says Boyes, explaining roots that also include jazz, rock and groove-oriented music. He adds that in the last year he began digging into minimalist music, particularly the works of Reich. SPSC’s repertoire includes a cover of that composer’s “Clapping Music,” a piece originally consisting solely of repeating hand-clap patterns staggered by eighth notes, reimagined to include harmonic elements.
Reich’s influence, particularly his experiments combining rhythmic phasing with melody on his famed suite “Daniel Variations,” is apparent in other aspects of Boyes’ compositions.
“[Reich] uses the phasing quality, but he changed a lot of his other approaches,” says Boyes. “There’s more melody. There is a lot of emotion in the music that is not necessarily always heard in his other music. That really spoke to me.”
Boyes says he’s often heard room for improvisation in Reich’s music and uses those phasing patterns and the textures they create as a foundation for SPSC’s melodic and improvisational flights in the context of a big band.
“One of my goals was to arrange as much as possible,” he says. “Even the improvised sections have specific directions, if not prescribed notations. It’s an exercise in stretching the compositional process as far as it can go.”
If that all sounds complicated, well, it is.
“It’s kind of hard to describe,” Boyes admits.
But his goal is not to outsmart his audience. Rather, Boyes says the point of SPSC is to create “challenging music that is not a challenge to listen to.”
“He’s got a real way with melody,” says Morse. “While we might change meters or feels, throughout that there is a strong melodic sense that is singable and you don’t need to be a musician to pick up on.”
Sun Ra was fond of describing music as his spaceship, the vehicle that would deliver him — and, presumably, us — from the shackles of our Earthly bondage. It’s a notion Boyes has considered in his own work.
“For Sun Ra, it was about using music to transcend the nonsense of what goes on here on Earth,” he says. “I’ve always liked that.”
The Saturn People’s Sound Collective play the Local Spotlight Series at the Goddard College Haybarn Theatre in Plainfield this Friday, December 7, 8 p.m. $15/20. AA.
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