Published Mar 26, 2009The Canadian improvised music scene is among the most vibrant in the world and is praised and envied by musicians visiting from New York, Chicago, Paris and Amsterdam, places you might think have it all over their Canadian "poor relative." But the reality is this: while our creative music community is strong, individual artists still have do something pretty darned extraordinary to get noticed, here at home or on the worldwide stage. And that is exactly what Toronto-based saxophonist/composer/improviser Kyle Brenders did when he recorded and released Toronto Duets with one of the most influential jazz/improv musicians of the last four decades, Anthony Braxton. Duets is the kind of project that will get fellow musicians, festival directors and journalists to sit up and take notice of this major league homegrown talent.
Recording with Anthony Braxton is a real coup. How did your CD with him come about?
While I was studying with him, he was always saying, "At the end of this two years, we'll do a recording." And a couple of ideas came up. At one time we we're going to do something with two saxophones and two pianos. And then we were going to do a quartet piece. But then, it was, "Well, I'm leaving the States." So he said, "Let's do a duet recording when I'm in Toronto," where he came to play with the AIM Orchestra (Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto) at the Guelph Jazz Festival.
You studied with Braxton. What were some of the highlights?
I studied with him at Wesleyan University, doing a Masters in experimental music. I went there to study with him, but there were two other guys, Alvin Lucier and Ron Kuivila, too. The highlight about Braxton is his positivity about music and about life. He was always encouraging and always trying to get you to develop more.
He taught an ensemble class called Materials and Principles of Improvisation that was playing his music, learning his system, and working through compositions in a large ensemble setting. There was something amazing about it. The music was incredibly difficult, some of the most difficult music I've ever played in my life, that I've ever seen in my life. And through repetition and through his vibe, there was the positivity that if you make a mistake, just keep going. Don't sit back and think, "Oh, shit, I made a mistake." Just keep going, keep going, keep going. And we'd be able to play these huge 45-minute orchestra pieces, completely densely notated, and they were amazing. I'd never experienced that [before].
In the process of doing that, something happens. I don't know, people talk about magical experiences or some kind of spiritual thing, and maybe that's what it is. I'm not sure. But there's definitely some kind of vibration that happens when playing with him and with a group of people who are working on it similarly. That was one of the major things that changed me, being around him, experiencing that, understanding that, and trying to tap into that when I'm making my own music.
Another thing, as a composer, he would encourage me to write more, delving deeper into what I was doing. So I'd bring in a piece that was ten pages long, and he'd say, "What if it was 50 pages long? Where would that go?" How would the long form fit, because he's all about the long form and structuring things in large scale. So that's definitely something I picked up from him.
How did you get involved in improvised music?
Playing saxophone and jazz is what got me interested in and actively involved in music. One of my high school teachers, Richard Frank, who was also a saxophone player, would kind of jam at the end of the day, the end of class, and just play on a blues or something like that. From there, I went to Humber College, having the intent of studying jazz; I don't know what I was thinking. But my idea of what creative music is does not really fit at Humber College. They have a practical program there, and, yeah, there are creative people there. The majority of my time was spent practicing technique, which was great. I'm a better technical player because of it. And if I had stayed there I'd be a better technical player than I am now, but I wouldn't have had the creative experiences I've had.
But from there I went to Wilfred Laurier University where they were starting an ensemble for improvised music - freely improvised - and that was something I had never really thought about. I played in that ensemble and also worked with Peter Hatch, a composition professor there, who got me into composing. At that time I felt a strong connection between composition and improvisation, a synthesis of the two, and a lot of my pieces were trying to do that. And Peter would try to force me more toward composition, which was great; because I wouldn't be the musician I am if I didn't have that experience. I've leaned more towards improvisation, but now I think I've found a good balance.
Recently, you've been involved with playing soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy's music, the Rent. What intrigues you about his music?
I think with Lacy's music, it's something so deeply rooted in tradition, the jazz tradition. When I was imagining what the creative artist was, as a jazz musician, that's kind of what it is. You know, it's somebody that's creating music, and it's vibrant, and it's active, and it's new, and it's changing. But it's also very standard. I feel like when we're playing his music, we're playing the new "standard" (i.e., standard repertoire of "classic" pieces of a particular genre). They're the standard pieces they should be playing in Humber College or something like that [laughs]. And, look, I've met a few guys from Humber since I've been out of Humber who are into Steve Lacy. And more people recognize his name than, say, (clarinetist/saxist) Ab Baars or (pianist) Misha Mengelberg (of the Amsterdam-based Instant Composers Pool Orchestra).
For me Lacy's music is challenging intellectually and in a real-time way, where I can think about it as much as I want in the practice room, working on it, woodshedding it, and then I get into the performance, and then it's, "Oh, where can I really go with this?" Because there's an interaction and a mutability between the players that doesn't exist in a standard jazz setting.
And those melodies, it's a completely different phrasing than a lot of players, than a lot of saxophonists, and that's what I'm really attracted to. Although, I'm trying not to be derivative.
Are you composing much lately?
Yeah, I'm trying to, while I'm on strike [York University was still on strike when this interview was done]. I'm in the PhD program there and got two months of it done and went on strike. I was on the path of being an ethnomusicologist and now it's, "Well, OK, I can do my own work." I've got a lot of free time, but I'm also on the picket line.
You're a TA (teaching assistant) up there, as well?
Yeah. The music I'm writing now, well, I just did a recording with (bassist) Rob Clutton and (drummer) Brandon Valdivia. It's trio things that are definitely jazz influenced. We're reading on the lead sheets a majority of the time. A couple of the pieces are more long-form things with little instructions for collective improvisation. That's the kind of things I've been writing. And I've been working on things for a larger ensemble, a seven-piece group - saxophone, trumpet, cello, electric guitars, bass and percussion. That piece is an hour-long piece using modular notation. It's a Braxton-influenced thing where if I was writing a piece, well, what does it need to be 80 pages long? Well, it's piece where you play certain sections. But that's been done for a while.
The thing that I've been working on right now is surprising me, in a way. I don't know... I'm studying with Bob Witmer at York. The first two months in his program, the Commercial Music of the Americas, but it's basically a class on country music. I've never really studying country music before and I got really interested in it. There's the country music of Kitty Wells. I really enjoy her work and I tried transcribing some of her pieces for class. And I thought, "I could make a really weird arrangement of this." And that's what I've been doing now: making these arrangements of Kitty Wells' versions of these country songs for a larger ensemble. I've been doing these long pieces and wanted to do something shorter, between six and 12 minutes. Something that involved some improvisation, some blowing, but also a lot of different kinds of notational techniques, different ways of working with the material. I've never really done stuff where I've taken someone's material and arranged it before. It's an interesting project.
What sorts of things inspire you?
You don't have to answer that.
No, I want to answer, if only for myself.
Most inspiring is having musicians to work on a project I have in my mind and developing material for those people, and that's inspiring. But sometimes I just get stuck, like, where do I go beyond this?
Listening to music inspires me, too. And one thing Braxton taught me was that it's okay to steal from other people in a creative way. He's definitely used ideas from other players. And I'm just branching off, well, not branching off, but listening to everything I can right now. Recently, I've been inspired by listening to the 1981 Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould. It excited me. But it doesn't "affect" my music. Like I don't go out there and write a Goldberg variation, but it's making me want to make music.
Beyond that, reading. A lot of the books I'm reading these days are science fiction. It doesn't inspire me to make music, but it does inspire me to read more science fiction.