Plenty of musicians claim a wide-ranging set of artistic influences. But few can conceive of a stylistic retinue as dizzyingly diverse as the one that inspires saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton. When he accepted the NEA’s bestowal of “Jazz Master” status, back in 2014, he gave a speech in which he cited the saxophonist Paul Desmond (best known for his work with Dave Brubeck), as well as the University of Michigan marching band and John Philip Sousa. Later in the same talk, Braxton described “taking classes on the great music of the Native Americans – their ghost dance music, for instance.”
Nor is this atypical assortment of references a recent thing. The jazz and classical visionary dedicated portions of For Alto, his 1969 solo saxophone recording, to musicians as distinct as the Zen-influenced classical music philosopher John Cage and the free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor. A subsequent solo album, 1972’s Saxophone Improvisations Series F, shouted out the early minimalist innovations of Philip Glass. In 1993, Braxton released a CD that tipped its hat to another prolific conceptualist of contemporary classical music, Karlheinz Stockhausen.
It can take a few hundred albums to really do honor to such a wealth of aesthetic inputs. As Braxton noted at the NEA awards ceremony, his initial challenge “was to erect a language that could serve my needs, that could help me express what I was hearing.” And Braxton has answered the call to sound-adventure not merely with a discography worthy of a workaholic – but also by creating a variety of “systems” that can steer his musical efforts, each time he walks into a recording session or concert hall.
As he has expanded his repertoire of ideas, Braxton has indulged every new concept to greater and greater degrees. While a small-band LP of his from the 1970s might include a brief hit of his “language music” and then a sample of his “repetition structures” before turning to an example of his collage-based approach, Braxton’s latter day strategy tends to favor multi-album box sets within which any new system – such as the Ghost Trance Music, or the Diamond Curtain Wall Music – can be explored for multiple hours.
In 2016, three such sets provide discrete views of Braxton’s recent creative work. The multimedia box set Trillium J shows off his operatic music (on CD and in a staged live performance preserved on a Blu Ray disc). And 3 Compositions 2011 (EEMHM) gives us the first studio realization of his multimedia “Echo Echo Mirror House Music” concept – which requires contemporary Braxton collaborators to improvise while sampling past Braxton recordings, as part of a vertiginous soundscape environment. Braxton’s unique approach to the realm of the “jazz standard” is reflected by the seven CD box Quintet (Tristano) 2014.
As he has expanded his repertoire of ideas, Braxton has indulged every new concept to greater and greater degrees.
There are signs that Braxton’s unique range of musical inquiry – once ridiculed in the halls of mainstream jazz and flat out ignored in classical music academe – is finding its proper audience. At this year’s Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, I found myself standing in a line of several hundred people, all waiting to get into a concert by a Braxton trio that melded his latest improvisational system – dubbed “ZIM MUSIC" – with bits of his operatic music. (The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, who was in the same maw, described this as an “unexpected furor” of attention for Braxton’s music).
Most people I spoke to seemed pleasantly surprised to be part of such a vibrant queue. But one other attitude dominated the discussions I heard in and around Knoxville. Specifically, this was the frequent admission by interested listeners that, in truth, they hadn’t really heard very many Braxton releases. Prospective fans sounded intimidated by the scale of his recorded legacy. It struck me that it might be valuable to break down the Braxton oeuvre not by decade or by recording partners – as is so often done with other major players in the jazz world – but by the underlying musical structures.
What follows is a guide to some of his most prominent organizing principles, with suggested listening examples. Striving for true comprehensiveness would require a book-length piece – and besides, by the time you’ve plowed through this guide, Braxton will probably have come up with a new idea or three. Though because his musical projects are designed to be “modular” (he’s also compared them to the components of an Erector Set) a grounding in some core concepts stands any listener in good stead, no matter how many more systems the improviser and composer devises over time.
In the invaluable book Forces in Motion, Braxton told author Graham Lock that the “language music” system forms “the basis of my work.” Instead of being notation-based, Braxton’s “language music” symbols (which run to over 100 in number) deal with other aspects of sound production. A straight, unbroken line indicates any improvised “long sound,” while a series of interrupted lines suggests “staccato line formings,” and a gentle sine wave stands for “legato formings.”
The full readout of suggested possibilities can read like a to-do list for Braxton’s own solo-saxophone performances – and that’s partly why he originally devised them. But the “language music” images also work as a key Braxton and his bandmates can reference when conducting or playing in a group improvisation. And example of Braxton conducting such an improvisation is embedded below, in a track that comes from the album Creative Orchestra (Koln) 1978.
When encountering the spaciest possible group-improvisational version of Braxton’s language music, the listener can either pick out and keep track of all the individual components – like one individual player’s use of “short attacks” or another’s play with wide intervals – or just let the whole experience wash over the ears.
The language music can also be brought to bear on an ensemble’s performance of Braxton’s other compositions, as with this 21st century performance of "Composition No. 307." The performance includes vocal music from Braxton’s operas as well as Ghost Trance Music notation.
Here, meditative group chords and other, pricklier collections of sound regularly interrupt the “primary” composition being played. At other points, the language music options on Braxton’s menu can seem to be superimposed over the more rigorously controlled ensemble music. Toward the end of this extended cut, you can hear Braxton taking a break from conducting, and contributing his own smoothly legato “language music” improvisation on soprano saxophone, which creates a contrast with the clattering short and angular attacks of the other improvisers in the orchestra.
Language music is perhaps best thought of as a rich trove of idea prompts. The way other musicians in the group react to its presence – either by opposing another instrumentalist’s language music choice, or by going along – is what keeps every performance this system distinct.
Early on in his career, Braxton came up with three systems that dealt with the question of repetition in different ways – naming them “Kelvin,” “Cobalt” and “Kaufman.” (All were based on names of friends). In a solo context, the Kelvin series amounts to what Braxton calls a “phrase generating structure,” whereby an individual melodic cell can undergo slight but consistent changes over the course of an improvisation. Though the rhythms and melodies of a piece like "Composition 26F" don’t suggest much of a debt to Philip Glass, some of the same “additive and subtractive” ideas can be traced to his first minimalist works – and so Braxton dedicated "104° Kelvin M-12" to the composer.
In a group context, the Kelvin pieces can be premised on rhythmic groupings that stay constant, while the pitches remain up to the performer. A gentle reading of the Kelvin-style piece, "Composition 6F," can be heard on the album This Time.
A righteously burning performance of the same piece can be heard on the ECM album titled Paris Concert, by the group Circle – which included Braxton, as well as Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. (Due to Braxton’s method of titling at the time, the piece on that album is labeled “73° Kelvin (Variation -3).” And the title is completely disregarded on This Time – a ritual point of frustration for Braxton, in his early years of dealing with inattentive record labels.)
The Cobalt class of repetitive music pieces was described by Lock as “a static use of repetition where, for example, an orchestra may keep repeating one chord but with a tiny variation each time.” Braxton also told the author that he thought of listening to the Cobalt pieces as similar to “watching fireflies” but that he didn’t have any recordings of the music available yet.
We’re luckier, a few decades on – as Braxton’s “Tricentric Foundation” has managed to mount and perform some of these early orchestral scores. Here’s a bit of "Composition 24," which is available in full on the download-only release Two Compositions (Orchestra) 2005.
The sadly out of print big band album Creative Orchestra Music 1976 presented an adapted version of the Kaufman music. But even the variety of these early approaches to repetition did not exhaust Braxton’s ideas about such structures. By the time of "Composition 34," he was already working on formalizing other approaches – specifically, by creating twelve different variations on a six-note pattern that can be used by each instrumentalist. The result is a blend of the fixed and the open-form strategies in other repetitive works.
SYNCHRONOUS AND COLLAGE MUSIC
In the 1970s, Braxton began to develop what he called “coordinate music,” which was another way of saying that his groups would move from one composition to the next without a break, until the set was over.
In the ’80s, and the period of what’s sometimes called Braxton’s “classic quartet” (featuring pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerry Hemingway), the coordinate music gave way to an overall collage aesthetic. By this point, different members of the group could slip in and out of a tune in the coordinate sequence and start to play any other Braxton composition they wanted. Crispell might play one of Braxton’s classical piano pieces, while Braxton soloed and the rhythm section worked on a much more contemporary piece of his writing.
Here’s where a little bit of familiarity with some of Braxton’s earlier themes comes in handy (it can at least help orient a listener). The group’s ability to keep the wildly morphing music sound “together” is its own delight, and celebrated for that reason in the Braxton discography.
At the same time, Braxton’s newest, discrete compositions were also taking on a collage-like cast. “Pulse track” pieces like "Composition No. 116" contained separate layers for different instrumentalists, during which either strict-notation-following or improvisation were appropriate. Braxton was after a “clash” of the instruments, and of the different manners of playing, when heard synchronously.
And an “accordion sound space” piece like "Composition No. 115" has a synchronous edge, as well. While the rhythm players are obliged to keep slowing and speeding the tempo, after the opening statement of the theme, Braxton’s soloing doesn’t need to follow the same ebb and flow, creating another sense of sound-collage.
RITUAL AND CEREMONIAL MUSIC
Braxton began incorporating costumes and choreography, circa "Composition No. 95." The purpose was to begin lending more of an “environmental” feel to certain works. Which meant it was only a matter of time before he was tempted by the creative possibilities of opera. Once he lighted upon the idea for writing a massive twelve-opera cycle (titled Trillium), Braxton began dreaming of a possible “twelve day festival for world unification.” (At each night of the festival, one of the Trillium operas would be played.)
This probably sounded fanciful to some fans of Braxton’s more jazz-affiliated music, when the composer first started talking about his goals, back in the 1980s. But thus far, Braxton has completed, conducted and recorded three of his operas: Trillium R, Trillium E and Trillium J. The latter comes in a multimedia box set that offers both a pristine studio recording of the four-act work, as well as a Blu Ray video of a live performance, which really does succeed in immersing you within Braxton’s environment of atonal orchestral music and satirically surreal dramatic writing. A few excerpts of the live performance are available to see below.
GHOST TRANCE MUSIC
The liner notes for the box set 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 give the backstory behind this musical system, inspired by Braxton’s research into Native American ritual. “The Ghost Dance music, when it was put together, that came about in a time after the American Indian had been decimated, 98 percent of their culture destroyed... Various tribes came together and compiled whatever information they had left. And the Ghost Dance music was described as a curtain – one side is reality for us, and the other side is the ancestors. And the Ghost Dance music would provide a forum to connect with the ancestors. That had a tremendous impact on me.”
For these compositions, Braxton settled on system of staccato-voiced “melody that doesn’t end.” And again, he allowed musicians to transpose parts, or else move in and out of different compositions within the system. Bandmates could use elements of the “language music” – say, the option to trill every note in a particular section – or could variously create collages, alongside other players, by creating routes to other Ghost Trance scores. As Braxton built up this particular catalog in his repertoire, he also incorporated some some tempo-varying ideas that recall his “accordion space music.” Here, they’re called the “accelerator class” Ghost Trance Music works – and they’re some of the most exciting pieces from the series. Be sure to listen for Braxton’s sopranino busting loose from the pack at the eight minute mark of the clip below.
FALLING RIVER MUSIC
This is another image-based portion of Braxton’s catalog. In these pieces, the map-like scores are almost completely covered up by the composer’s painting. Creating music from this system would be a tougher proposition if Braxton weren’t being playing it alongside some of most inspired 21st century collaborators – like violinist Renee Baker and tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock.
DIAMOND CURTAIN WALL MUSIC
Here, the Falling River Music scores are used in an interactive electro-acoustic context. Musicians have to improvise their way through the score, while also dealing with interactive noises designed by Braxton, using SuperCollider software. The massive box set, 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012 is a fascinating look at Braxton’s improvisational work with some key contemporary partners: the vocalist Kyoko Kitamura, bassoonist Katherine Young and violist/violinist Erica Dicker.
ECHO ECHO MIRROR HOUSE
If you thought Braxton was skilled at grafting his systems together before, you’ll only be further impressed by this construct. Here, not only is every past system fair game, so is every prior Braxton-led recording. Each musician in the ensemble also carries an iPod loaded with the saxophonist’s vast discography, allowing for a musique concrete approach to sonic assemblage. In the space of a few minutes, you can hear old Kelvin-style repetitive structures for past quartet groups, vocal and symphonic music from the Trillium operas, and new improvisations, too. It’s both a fulfillment and an extension of some of Braxton’s most ambitious statements on the topics of composition and improvisation.
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