In a compositional ouevre as immense as Anthony Braxton’s, there are countless areas of speciality it is possible to overlook. Most of his fans are aware of his solo music for saxophone and piano, his classic quartets, the Ghost Trance Music, even the operas and pieces for multiple orchestras. But even amongst the cognescenti, there remain surprises. Be it his choreographed movement language or interactive electronics, music for bagpipes or organs or coalshovels, geographic mapping systems or the massive 8-hour Sonic Genome Projects, the joy of following Anthony’s work is that the surprises never cease.
One of these underrecognized interests is Braxton’s writing for brass. From his earliest collaborations with Wadada Leo Smith, to his classic groups with Kenny Wheeler and George Lewis, to our continued work together, Braxton has regularly featured brass instrumentalists as a component of his working ensembles. However, as this recording demonstrates (along with the accompanying release, Composition 19 (For 100 Tubas)), Braxton has also crafted a compositional language specifically suited for the particularities of brass ensembles. When I began working with Dave Douglas at the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT), the idea of producing a concert featuring Braxton’s brass music took shape, and culminated in this 2007 performance in the historic (and suitably resonant) St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan.
Composition 103 (For Seven Trumpets) features notated music and choreography for seven costumed instrumentalists. Written in 1983, the piece languished unperformed for decades. Anthony had told me about the work, and I was eager to pursue it, but it remained an abstract concept until John McDonough volunteered to copy the parts from the score. John and I soon began informal readings of the piece in New York City with a variety of fellow trumpeters. The first fully staged realization, complete with elaborately designed costumes including Zorro masks, capes, and green tunics and hats embossed with shapes and symbols, was presented at Wesleyan University in 2005 as part of a celebration of Braxton’s 60th birthday. The FONT performance was the New York premiere, and only the second performance anywhere, of this major interdisciplinary work. The composition fully exploits the sonic potential of the trumpet: timbral shifts with multiple mutes; sharp articulations contrasting with breathy gestures; half-valved squeezes and virtuosic runs; and ringing unisons, harmonies, and clusters basking in the rich brass overtones. Even the choreographed movements are specific to the instrument, not just manipulating the directionality of the sound, but also referencing the Groucho-inspired stagger of Braxton’s old comrade Lester Bowie.
Composition 169 is one of the seminal pieces in Braxton’s catalog (as heard on the Leo Records releases Composition N. 169 + (186 + 206 + 214) and 4 Compositions (Ulrichsberg) 2005), yet until this concert had never been performed by the intended instrumentation. Originally written for brass quintet (seated on moving swivel chairs), 169 consists of passages of intense rhythmic complexity, contrasting with sections of lush, static harmonies. The unrelenting nature of the piece makes it extraordinarily difficult for the physical realities of brass playing, where a player must occasionally get the mouthpiece off his or her face to get the blood back to the lips. However, for me, this physicality contains the crux of the matter; like so much of Braxton’s music, it asks the impossible but does not demand perfection, instead, the excitement lies in what is revealed in the attempt. The slow disintegration of our abilities, combined with the hypnotic wash of the rhythms, creates a spectacle similar to a massive, melting glacier sinking into the sea. And Anthony was not wholly unfriendly to our embouchures. Not only did we open up the piece for interludes of group improvisation, which allowed individuals to lay out for quick breathers, but the static sections of the piece bring the players deep into the pedal registers at the bottom of their horns’ playable range, the classic technique for brass players to refresh their chops. (Though this time, we did not dare attempt the swivel chairs, so a challenge to the next generation of performers remains.)
While brass music remains a relative rarity in Braxton’s compositional output, these two pieces display some of the core qualities of his genius. A focused attention to the specificity of the instrumentation is combined with a creative imagination that is global and trans-idiomatic. The performers are simultaneously invited to showcase their technical virtuosity and improvisational instincts while challenged to reach beyond their assumed abilities and take the thrilling risk of possible failure. This music helped me explore new possibilities within an instrument I thought I knew intimately; whether one is deeply familiar with Braxton’s music or coming to it for the first time, I hope this recording will generate a similar sense of discovery for the listener. – Taylor Ho Bynum
|Recording Date||Sep 23, 2007|
|Location||St. Mark's Church, New York, NY|
Composition No. 103
Composition No. 169
Recorded September 23, 2007 at St. Mark’s Church, New York, NY