Void Patrol’s Long-Distance Adventure

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Void Patrol is a collection of five tracks, all named after stars and all constructed remotely, layer by layer.

(Photo: Reuben Radding)

For almost all of 2020, it was unsafe for musicians to gather together in small rooms and throw ideas back and forth in collective creation, challenging their very existence. They responded in incredibly creative ways, some focusing on solo music (alto saxophonist Steve Lehman released an EP of music recorded in his car), while others embraced long-distance collaboration, exchanging files and assembling tracks in Pro Tools.

This has long been common practice in all sorts of music, particularly rock and pop, where sounds are slotted like Lego bricks and subject to micro-adjustments until perfect. Sonic verisimilitude and human interaction aren’t even part of the artistic conversation. But for jazz, it’s still fairly new territory. Which makes an album like Void Patrol a genuinely pathbreaking work of art.

Void Patrol (Infrequent Seams) is a collection of five tracks, all named after stars and all constructed remotely, layer by layer, by percussionist and composer Payton MacDonald, guitarist Elliott Sharp, saxophonist Colin Stetson and drummer Billy Martin. It has qualities derived from each player’s other work — repetitive melodies from MacDonald, “weird” guitar from Sharp, hypnotic yet subtly aggro sax from Stetson, megadoses of groove from Martin — but sounds nothing like any of them have done elsewhere. It is its own thing, newborn into the world.

The project was put together by MacDonald. A founding member of the avant-garde modern classical ensemble Alarm Will Sound, his primary instrument is marimba, though he’ll smack anything that promises to make an interesting noise. He’s been involved with projects ranging from acoustic interpretations of work by electronic composer Aphex Twin on Alarm Will Sound’s 2009 recording Acoustica To Sonic Divide, a film that documented a 2,500-mile mountain bike trip along the Continental Divide, during which he performed dozens of new pieces by various composers, including Sharp and Martin. In addition to composing and improvising as a percussionist, he has also studied the Indian vocal tradition known as Dhrupad for decades. MacDonald is prolific: Since October 2020, he’s been releasing roughly an album’s worth of music a week as part of his Explorations series. There are 64 volumes as of this writing.

Each of the other group members has their own unique pedigree. Sharp has been a key figure on the New York music scene since the 1970s, working in jazz, free improv, modern composition, electronic and avant-rock contexts, as well as territories for which no map or label exists. He’s not just a composer, but also an instrument builder and tinkerer, always at the margins yet, in many ways, crucial to the development of any number of musical ideas.

Stetson is a phenomenon unto himself as well, exploring the range and capability of reed instruments across solo albums, collaborations with fellow saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and violinist Sarah Neufeld, and guest and session work with a stunningly broad range of rock and pop acts. He’s also a prodigious film scorer, with his eerie and unsettling sounds suited well to horror films like Hereditary, Color Out Of Space and the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.

And Martin, though best known for his work in Medeski, Martin & Wood, has played and recorded in a broad range of contexts, including gigs with the Lounge Lizards and percussion duos with Grant Calvin Weston. Outside of MMW, he’s recorded with the likes of Iggy Pop, John Scofield, DJ Spooky and Dave Burrell, to name a few.

The genesis of Void Patrol was fairly straightforward, albeit in line with the general uncertainty of the artist’s life. MacDonald got a grant through William Paterson University, where he teaches, and, as he explains it, “I could do whatever I wanted with [the money], and I had been dreaming of this collection of talent for a long time. I just intuitively felt there would really be a beautiful synergy with the four of us. And I approached the guys and said, ‘Look, would you be willing to explore a long-distance collaboration? I have a little bit of support,’ and to my delight they were willing to do it.”

He initiated the music by laying down a foundation for six tracks, “very simple backing stuff, just to give some overall structure to the tonality and the shape of things,” Martin said. He then circulated the music among the other three via “this little factorial operation … to kind of rotate it around.” For example, Sharp might get one piece first, then pass it along to Martin, who would pass it to Stetson. Another piece might go to Martin to Stetson to Sharp. “And you work through so that everyone has the chance to add something but in a different order.”

The first piece, “Antares,” begins with a shimmering run across Sharp’s strings, with a second layer of guitar twanging following. MacDonald launches a repetitive marimba figure, and Martin comes in with a steadily ticking beat, his snare loose and rattling as though he’s playing it with house-painting brushes. His toms, meanwhile, are high-tuned and plastic-sounding, recalling the playing of Tony Oxley.

There is no lead instrument; everyone sits equal in the mix, and Sharp may actually be slightly quieter than the others. It takes more than three minutes (of an almost 11-minute piece) for Stetson to enter, and his horn is distorted as though playing down a telephone line. His phrases loop so tightly together as to sound like circular breathing exercises, but every few repetitions they seem to slide off track for an instant.

There are no solos; the changes in the piece come from the shuffling of elements, one sound or another dropping out and returning, as in dub or the music of Weather Report, which Joe Zawinul famously described as “no one solos, everyone solos.”

Although they had never worked together as a quartet before, each musician had connections going back years, even decades. Martin and Sharp have known each other since the early 1990s, when the drummer was playing with singer-songwriter Samm Bennett in his band Chunk. (Sharp had been in another one of Bennett’s groups, Semantics, years earlier.)

MacDonald’s connection to Martin dates to 2014, when Alarm Will Sound and Medeski, Martin & Wood collaborated on what became the 2018 album Omnisphere. He’s collaborated with Sharp in the past, too. They made an album together in 2011, in collaboration with an equally forward-thinking trumpeter, Peter Evans. (“I wanna hear it,” Martin says, during a four-way Zoom call.) They worked together again in 2019, with drummer Steven Crammer, playing several of MacDonald’s “Modules” compositions, which he describes as open scores that may be played by any size group, with any instrumentation.

MacDonald has known Stetson the longest, though. He says via email, “Colin and I met in 1993. We are exactly the same age, and we were in freshman theory class together at the University of Michigan. We played together in various ensembles for four years in school and were friends and hung out quite a bit. After school we stayed in touch, though we were living in different parts of the country and didn’t do any more playing. I was delighted to reunite with him for this project.”

MacDonald says that the compositional sketches he sent around were minimal and intended to be suggestive rather than laying down roadmaps or drawing borders. He started with drones — almost literally just frequencies to surround or build upon.

“I knew the other guys were interested in drones in certain ways, too, via conversations and just listening to their work,” he says, “and I’d been studying Hindustani music for many decades, and Elliott and I had had some good conversations about Dhrupad … but also I just kind of wanted to give a canvas that they could work on.”

Sharp says the group “really just went with our gut feelings … knowing that there would be an editor somewhere in the process, or someone to mix it to make sense out of all the contributions. I mean, if I had previous tracks sent to me, I would listen to them and try to decide what might best fit with the direction of the track, or if someone was covering a lot of low end, I would stay out of that frequency range, things like that, just to vary the spectrum of sound available to the mix.”

One of the fascinating qualities of all the music on Void Patrol is how rhythm-based it is. It doesn’t groove in the conventional sense, but the parts sync up like gears, keeping everything rolling with uncanny smoothness. One could call that logical, given that the music was kicked off by a percussionist, but MacDonald takes no responsibility.

“I did not go into this with trying to push a particular aesthetic direction,” he says. “I mean, I guess it happened because I laid down the first tracks. Certainly, just by nature of being the first one to make the sonic imprint, I’m already sort of setting up something. But I don’t recall that we ever had discussions on email or Zoom about, ‘Let’s try to do this, let’s try to do that.’ My feeling is, we were really doing what we would do onstage, which was just a lot of listening and creative composing, swirling together.”

Being left to their own devices, the participants were able to try some entirely new things. “I was using some instruments that I have never recorded with,” Sharp says. “I build a lot of instruments, and I know I played some viola and some synth on some things, which I don’t use very much.”

Martin can be heard playing bamboo leaves, using them as an alternate device in place of brushes.

“That was probably the first recordings of bamboo leaves on a record,” he says. “Other than that, everything else was drum set, percussion, some melodic talking drum.”

Sharp adds, “I tried to take a textural approach rather than thinking of myself as playing leads. I thought they would be woven into the material. I also think that a different mix would reveal a completely different set of characteristics. Everybody’s personality might come out in a completely different way.”

Martin agrees, saying, “I think it’s contrapuntal, we’re all counterpoints to each other, and I think the way Payton laid down the drones or the rhythm, we could go anywhere, really. It’s sort of weaving a tapestry in a way and creating sort of impressionistic pieces. I call it rhythmic harmony.”

Thus far, the group has only performed live once, at the Sultan Room in Brooklyn. The gig was recorded, and according to everyone it was both highly successful and completely different from the album. “We were off-road for 50 minutes straight,” says MacDonald.

“We’re all good listeners, which is really important,” says Sharp. “What you don’t play is probably as important as what you do play, and everybody gave each other a lot of space. Different instruments coming into the lead, sometimes everybody joining in on the same gesture, sometimes very contrapuntal. So it was a completely different group than what you heard on record.”

And hopefully one with a future. DB




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