Eric Platz - life after life
Like maps, all music has a scale. Not just a set of pitches but a spatial corollary. The amount of time one gives a note, or puts between two of them, correlates directly with the scope of the landscape imagined by the listener. A drone becomes a vista, the edges of the sound like the measureless horizon. More frenetic arrangements evoke something closer to the pace at which we experience our lives, a musical expression of our inability to hold on to any one moment before it is subsumed by the next, gone as quickly as an unsustained note.
On his adventurous and cinematic debut, Life After Life (Allos Documents 012), drummer and composer Eric Platz moves seamlessly between these imagined scales, juxtaposing them against one another like some cartographic impossibility. This movement becomes a sort of narrative device, the start of a chapter, or its end, and the tension and drama in the shifting perspective begins to tell a story of its own.
This juxtaposition—of scale as well as of musical style—often happens within a single composition and is used to remarkable effect both in “Blood Meridian,” inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, and “Redwood Vesper,” where, as if by some alchemy, the creaking drone of a cello becomes the supple and wandering melody of a clarinet, Platz’s brushes equally light and curious on the drums.
Platz composed the music on Life After Life for its three principal players: Chicago-based clarinetist James Falzone (KLANG, Allos Musica, The Renga Ensemble); cellist Leanne Zacharias (Music for Spaces, Correction Line Ensemble); and himself. A veteran improviser, Platz is a drummer and percussionist of incredible nuance, a skill he honed over several decades as a sideman, touring with acts in and outside the jazz world.
If the music on Life After Life is a descendant of the Third Stream and contemporary improvisation, it is also a natural culmination of Platz’s prismatic interests, refracted through his affinities for jazz, classical, folk, and world musics.
He began playing drums at age 10, shortly after his family moved to Wilmington, Delaware. Despite his age, he began studying with a percussionist from the Philadelphia Orchestra, who turned him on to Tony Williams. The first jazz record Platz fell in love with was Miles Davis’s The Complete Concert 1964: My Funny Valentine + Four and More. “I remember listening to the drumming, and it was so musical,” Platz says. “It was this continuous narrative. That’s what I wanted to do.”
In college, Platz majored in materials science but continued playing drums, and after graduation, he spent a year and a half in Brazil, learning from the drummers he met at clubs in Rio de Janeiro. It was there that he decided to pursue music full-time. In 1996, he moved to Boston to study under acclaimed drummer Alan Dawson, but just days after Platz arrived in the city, Dawson died of leukemia. Platz stayed in Boston anyway, working as a freelance drummer and studying with Bob Gullotti. In 1998, he enrolled in the graduate program at the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC), graduating with a master’s degree in jazz performance.
Over the next nine years, Platz became a drummer in high demand, backing singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez and jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano and teaching at places like the University of Massachusetts and Providence College. He studied with Bob Moses and Danilo Perez and played with legends like Lucinda Williams and Bill Frisell. He co-led the free jazz trios FourMinusOne and Fat Little Bastard and played with the New York Andalus Ensemble and Asefa, which focused on the musical traditions of North Africa and southern Spain.
Then in 2009, Platz made a move that upended his musical career. Pianist Michael Cain, whom Platz considers a friend and mentor, told him of an opening at Brandon University’s School of Music in Canada, where Cain was teaching. Platz applied and got the job.
Unlike Boston, there wasn’t really a jazz scene in Brandon outside the university. The nearest clubs were two hours away in Winnipeg. “In Boston, I was playing so much and with so many different people—I felt like, creatively, I had the outlets covered,” Platz says. In Brandon, he wasn’t sure how to plug in. “Jazz sort of by definition requires a community, and being a jazz drummer had been such a defining factor for me. A lot of my ego was wrapped up in it. In some ways, it was a bit of a crisis for me. And I think it still is. I’m still working through it.”
One evening, Platz was on the phone with Cain discussing the details of an upcoming performance series. The drummer had lived in Brandon for about two years, and he recalls saying something to the effect of trying to find his niche in Brandon. Cain just said, “Yeah, what does it even mean to be a jazz drummer in Brandon?”
“That really stuck with me,” Platz says. For a while, he’d felt self-conscious about not writing more music, and “that conversation with Michael kind of crystallized it. Like, okay, it’s time to get my shit together and do it. I can either sit here and wallow in the fact that I don’t have as many people to play with, or I can make some things happen.”
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Despite the absence of a jazz scene, Brandon did eventually offer up a rich roster of collaborators, including Cain and Zacharias, but also saxophonist Greg Gatien and recording engineer Don Benedictson, who recorded Life After Life at his studio in nearby Roseisle (and who plays bass on the record). The compositions on Life After Life began swirling around in Platz’s head in 2013, when he invited Falzone to Brandon for a performance of the clarinetist’s music and asked Zacharias to join. Falzone and Platz had known each other since grad school at NEC, and even after Falzone moved to Chicago, the musicians stayed in touch and occasionally collaborated.
During the performance that night in Brandon, Platz was struck by the interplay of the instruments and each individual’s unique style. “I knew James and Leanne would gel as people, but hearing them play music together was amazing,” he says. “They're both so adventurous, and they express themselves honestly and with so much intensity. You’re not in doubt about what they’re trying to say. So from that moment on, I was thinking about finding ways to make more music with the two of them.”
That each musician came from a slightly different background made for a rich experience in the studio, Falzone says. “I stretch it a little more into the free jazz realm, and Leanne pulls it a little bit more to the classical realm. So you have this splitting, this pulling of the two extremes. And then Eric, through the compositions and through his playing, is grounding it through the middle.”
Zacharias, who grew up in Manitoba but has spent much of her career in the United States, says she was impressed with the recording’s depth. “I was amazed at what they had achieved, in terms of the timbres and the variety of sounds and colors and shapes that they were able to bring out,” she says. “It’s the type of nuance I usually think only happens in performance. I don’t usually hold my breath and wait for a recording to go very deep in that way, so I was amazed at what they had been able to bring out of all our different instruments.”
His career as a sideman has made Platz fluent in a number of musical languages. Platz draws on everything from the minimalism favored by contemporary film composers like Jonny Greenwood to Moroccan traditional music, which Platz has studied extensively over the past 10 years alongside composer and ethnomusicologist Samuel Thomas. “There’s something that really hits me on a fundamental level with a lot of North African music, in the same way that I remember listening to Rush when I was a little kid,” he says.
The influence is most noticeable on “Marrakesh High Line,” a multifaceted and deeply textured composition that features karkabous and an array of North African percussion. Over time, Platz has gained a deep appreciation for the ways in which elements of traditional music become a cipher, which, if solved, connects listeners to the music’s origins. The Gnaoua people, for instance, are a historically Muslim minority group in Morocco who descended from West African tribes; their music features elements of typical Arabic performance practice but in combination with West African rhythm, a mix of musical styles that can be heard as a living history.
Despite years of serious study, Platz doesn’t consider himself an expert on Moroccan music. The title “Marrakesh High Line”—a reference to the famed elevated park in New York—is an admission of the remove he feels from the music. Walking along the High Line, he says, a person is at once immersed within the city and floating somewhere outside of it. “That’s how I feel with North African music. [Sam] and I spend a lot of time together exploring this music, and he’s bringing a whole set of information to me from the ethnomusicological side, but honestly, I am at a remove. I’m not in Morocco. I’m not a Gnaoua. I’m not of that brotherhood.”
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Thematically, Life After Life is a study of juxtapositions, exploring themes of doubt, reincarnation, spirituality, and violence. In “Blood Meridian,” Platz considers the relationship between opposing elements: violence and serenity, horror and beauty, instinct and intellect. He conjures the sense of chaos and uncertainty felt by readers of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, which follows a group of scalp-hunters riding along the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-1800s and moves seamlessly between lurid depictions of graphic violence and poetic meditations on the landscapes of the West.
“Obviously it’s a really dark chapter of U.S. history, but what I take from the book, and this is a theme through a lot of his writing, is that violence is a part of the human condition,” he says. “It’s not an embrace of violence but a coming to terms with that element of human nature.” Echoing the novel, the composition has distinct chapters, its first five minutes a dissonant drone that evokes the lifelessness of McCarthy’s starched desert, foreshadowing the coming violence. Closing the track is an exacting solo by Platz, evoking war drums with toms and an almost tribal physicality. Behind him, the drone returns, and like McCarthy, he seems to be acknowledging the eternal life of violence.
Other tracks find the composer drawing from his own life’s experience. “Redwood Vesper” is inspired by a trip to the Tall Trees Grove in Redwood National Forest, which became for Platz a kind of pilgrimage. Because there is no vehicular access, visitors can only reach the grove on foot, and doing so requires special permission. When he got there, “there were these deep, deep bass tones resonating through the grove,” he says. “I’d never really experienced anything like it, sonically. I really wanted to have an instrument with me to explore the acoustics.”
The musician spent several hours there, marveling at the enormity of the trees, the way they seemed to exist far outside any human scale of time. “I wondered what kind of consciousness existed in that place,” he says. “It’s hard to put it in words, but there are those moments that have a spiritual component to them, or you ponder something that’s way beyond your comprehension—those will often lead to musical thoughts for me.”
The title track—three different versions of which appear on the record—is an exploration of alternate courses of destiny. Like “Blood Meridian,” it was inspired by a novel. In the book, written by Kate Atkinson, a character dies repeatedly only to be resurrected in what seems to be yet another possible existence. The story is told in discrete scenes, any lessons to be drawn from their sum obscured. “Life After Life” takes a similar approach, its long melody twining in and out of improvised sections, broken up and interrupted, out of place and time.
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The composer John Luther Adams once said that he heard in Edgard Varese’s music “deserts,” “oceans,” and “forbidding mountains of sound,” language that contains within it the suggestion of a certain scale. The music of Eric Platz requires a similar lexicon. On Life After Life, one hears similarly vast landscapes as well as moments that feel almost molecular, the instruments in constant motion, like electrons dancing around a melodic nucleus.
Adams also often told young composers to immerse themselves in the things they didn’t understand, and Platz has proven himself a composer willing to wade into the unknowable. He does not do so alone. If Life After Life finds Platz contemplating questions of enormous complexity, it also finds him with tremendous companions, who bring levity and life to music that might have crumpled under its own weight, and who transform what might have been a monologue into a conversation of astounding depth.
Timothy A Schuler