It’s fine to say that a musician has found his or her own language, but what does that really mean? First off, what is language, really?
In essence, it’s a symbolic communication method, one that can be transmitted by voice or in written form. So I suppose music, which is similarly conveyed by sounds that make air molecules wiggle, and which can also be represented on a page, can be characterized as a language. But it’s an esoteric one, well suited to certain purposes, but also limited both in what it says and in the many things that it cannot do. You will never use the language that Kyle Bruckmann speaks with his ensemble Wrack to order a pizza, or to explain how that tree in the backyard grew from a seed you could stick between your teeth into something 40 feet tall.
If language conveys meaning back and forth, then it is a collectively generated phenomenon that can never be individually owned. Attempts to control language inevitably come up against its tendency to be turned against the controllers via metaphor and double meaning, as well as its tendency to evolve in order to serve purposes of generational self-definition, societal differentiation, or accommodation of change. While none of these processes can be permanently possessed, people can always come up with ways of saying things that reflect their peculiar circumstances, ideas, and thinking processes. So making it your own really means personally influencing the process in a way that is temporarily recognizable as coming from you. This Bruckmann does quite well on …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire, a marvelous and idiosyncratic work that I can’t imagine coming from anyone else.
Kyle Bruckmann is an oboist, improviser, and composer who has been based in San Francisco since 2003. Prior to that, he lived in Chicago. Disclosure — during his residence in Illinois and his subsequent returns once he became a California dreamer, I not only saw him play many times, but chatted casually with him at some of those gigs, and got to know his music well enough that he hired me in 2012 to write liner notes for an earlier Wrack CD, Cracked Refraction. Bruckmann’s training is in classical music, but he was also drawn early on to the adventure of making music in the moment. Chicago is rich in many things, but improvising double reed players isn’t one of them, so he was often called to play in jazz and new music ensembles that required a double reed player who wasn’t chained to written notes. This is how he first played with most of the people who have passed through Wrack’s ranks.
Before and during his time in Chicago, Bruckmann also played in a proggy punk band called Lozenge. He originally assembled Wrack in 2002 with the expressed intent to deal with the point where jazz and classical traditions intersect, but the tunes he wrote were structurally similar to ones he’d squeezed out on a rudely amplified accordion with Lozenge. But where Lozenge invariably teetered towards blowouts, Wrack’s various incarnations have made space for considered solos, quieter counterpoint and more swinging grooves as well as some bracing dissonance. But if Wrack has historically been the setting where Bruckmann dealt with affinities he developed in Chicago, in the company of Chicagoans, things changed in 2012. That’s when he started working on projects that not only required a larger ensemble, which led at one point to Wrack sharing a stage with the ROVA Saxophone Quartet and Gino Robair but also inhabited a larger conceptual space.
The inspiration for the music on …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire is a body of non-existent songs. Thomas Pynchon liberally salts his novels with songs that characters sing and play, songs that may have lyrics but are left to the reader to imagine. Bruckmann not only imagined them as he read, he put them to paper and assembled a seven-piece version of Wrack that added Oakland-based trumpeter Darren Johnston and long-departed trombonist Jeb Bishop, a former Chicagoan now based in North Carolina, to the core of violist Jen Clare Paulson, drummer Tim Daisy, bassist Anton Hatwich, and bass clarinetist Jason Stein. And to find a platform big enough to hold everything he wanted to accomplish, Bruckmann reached back to a childhood influence — Charles Ives. It turns out that he grew up in Ives’s hometown, so he played that stuff in youth orchestras. Ives conceived of music that contained multiple events, like a three-ring circus, and mashed popular forms of his day up with stringently executed orchestral music.
The album’s “Overture” opens with ascending brass figures that bring to mind the focusing of lights on the ringmaster, then explodes with slithering bowed bass and rushing percussion that hurtles like hungry racing dogs intent upon catching that mechanical rabbit. Johnston steps in with some gargling 21st century rasps, then climbs atop a mad polka beat and fires off some athletic runs so bold and tuneful, they’d make John Philip Sousa jealous. Still to come — bebop, strip club beats, spiky orchestral counterpoint, Mingus-like meditation, New Orleans proto-jazz, AACM-style rustling, march passages… the band realizes a myriad of styles over the course of the album-length suite, and it would be much less fun for you to read the list than to hear them blow through them, and morph from one style to the next with the fluidity of a cinematic dissolve.
But if this music reaches back to the 21st century, it also draws sustenance from Bruckmann’s youth. Yeah, he played Ives, but he also played punk, and who has rocked a polka beat harder in recent decades than hardcore bands? You can hear elements of Midwestern eclecticism and satire straight out of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago playbook, but Bruckmann makes no effort to make it live up to their “great black music” motto; if anything, he’s coached Daisy to put a little extra starch in his swing. His language is an integrative one, and its individuality is measured by how he has mixed these elements according to his own recipe. Free music, structured chaos, and madcap rocking; sure you can point to Ives or Anthony Braxton or Willem Breuker for antecedents, but none of them has mixed it up quite like him, nor would they. This idiosyncratic balance, which reflects his own journey through music, is how Bruckmann makes this stuff his own.