Academic Discourse at Middletown: The Emergence of Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Musics
Liner notes by Bill Shoemaker
The emergence of the Ghost Trance Musics in 1995 was a signal event in the work of Anthony Braxton. In myriad ways, it represents both a logical extension of issues that have traditionally held sway in Braxton’s music, and a seemingly sudden departure from standard practice. Whether one focuses on the Ghost Trance Musics’ place within the known parameters of Braxton’s omniverse, or on the particulars of phrasing, attack, and timbre of specific GTM compositions, the Ghost Trance Musics convey complex messages about the evolution of Braxton’s work.
These first four GTM compositions are readily identifiable as Braxton’s primarily because they are performed by the instantly recognizable Braxton. A case can be made that compositions “181″ through “184″ are similar to “Composition 167″ and “168,” duo pieces Braxton has recorded with guitarist James Emery and accordionist Ted Reichman (on Articulations (Duo) 1992 [Diapason] and Duo (Leipzig) 1993 [Music & Arts], respectively) in regards to pitch systems and the use of simple rhythms. Yet, these characteristics are overshadowed by the differences between the two groups of compositions. The duo pieces are scored in two parts, they include note groupings of varying rhythmic values, and they are not performed with a set tempo. The wide interpretative latitude inherent in the duo pieces is consistent with Braxton’s long established methods.
The GTM compositions, however, are comprised of single, often simple, and evenly accented lines, rendered in an uniform tempo. A diatonic effect, effectively highlighted by the breathy timbres of Braxton and Reichman, stems from the pieces being written in Braxton’s “diamond clef,” which allows high registered instruments to play the notes as if written on the treble clef, and low registered instruments to play them as if they were on the bass clef. The extensive use of repeats is particularly significant: improvisation occurs within the repeats, in terms specifically defined and cued by Braxton. While the kernels of GTM are arguably rooted in Braxton’s previous work, the resulting music has a startling newness.
Generally, the larger ideas plainly stated in the name “Ghost Trance Musics” are consistent with the trajectory Braxton initiated with the Ritual and Ceremonial Musics of the early 1980s. Still, there is a crucial divergence. In a May 1996 interview for JazzTimes, Braxton defined GTM as “a process that is both composition and improvisation, a form of meditation that establishes ritual and symbolic connections (which) go beyond time parameters and become a state of being in the same way as the trance musics of ancient West Africa and Persia.” The key word in this description is “meditation,” which introduces into Braxton’s music a new dynamic between composer, performer, and listener.
Accordingly, GTM entails a fundamentally different methodology than Braxton’s boldly engineered system of Multi-Structural Logics, best known through his quartet music of the 1980s and early ’90s. That system enabled the integration of any and all of his compositions, regardless of their originally designated instrumentation, at any point in a performance of any Braxton composition. Quartet members Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser, and Gerry Hemingway repeatedly attest in interviews to the unwavering acute concentration this system required. It is significant, then, that the often rapid processing and split-second decision making required of musicians in the Multi-Structural Logics Musics is replaced by a trance-based, stream of consciousness methodology (albeit one controlled by cue) described by Braxton in Francesco Martinelliís booklet essay for Sextet (Istanbul 1996) (Braxton House BH-001).
As a result, GTM reconstitutes the relationship between performer and ritual. Previously, performers conveyed Braxton’s ideas about ritual through dramatic and narrative forms. Braxton first explored this approach in such works from the late ’70s and early ’80s as “Composition 95,” which called for the performers to be costumed (in the floor-length hooded cloaks of the then-emerging Zackko of Trillium figure) and make processional entrances and exits to and from the performance space. Such an enactment of ritual simply framed or contextualized the performance of a composition. While Braxton’s immersion in these forms resulted in a proliferation of extra-musical elements into his works — including the puppet theatre of “Composition 102,” the meshing of dialogues, projections, and sets (“constructed environments”) in “Composition 173″ and “174,” and the full arsenal of opera for the Trillium cycle — performers continued to portray characters or function as storytellers.
In GTM, the performers are no longer actors, storytellers, or technicians of the deus ex machina of Braxtonís Multi-Structural Logics. Instead, they are conjurers of the trance state, which envelopes themselves and their audience. In replacing the often complex, flexibly implemented, yet essentially predetermined choices of the Multi-Structural Logics with the stream of consciousness-triggered “extended time-space functions and intuitive experiences” of GTM, the musicians no longer represent Braxtonís postulations about ritual (Braxton quoted by Martinelli). They deliver ritual on its own terms. Subsequently, GTM introduces an unprecedented potential for indeterminacy into Braxtonís music.
The Ghost Trance Musics, then, represents a pronounced shift in Braxton’s work, one that is substantially attributable to Braxton’s academic life at Wesleyan University during the compressed timeframe — the summer of 1995 — in which the Ghost Trance Musics were formulated. Wesleyan is an institution with a central, decades-long role in the academic promulgation of what we used to call experimental music and what we now call world music. Given the university’s emphasis on non-Western music, it is not surprising that several years into Braxtonís tenure as a Professor of Music he would inject an overt ritualistic methodology into his work. Yet, the GTM is not simply the osmotic formalization of Braxtonís experiences at Wesleyan, such as collaborations with colleagues like Ghanian percussionist Abraham Adzinyah, an Adjunct Professor at Wesleyan (which is documented on the Leo disc, Duo (Wesleyan) 1994). It can be argued that the foundations of GTM are pointedly anti-academic.
“Since coming into academia, I came to understand very early that I would have to build an alternative system to help me, because in academia youíre constantly talking about your music and that is very dangerous,” Braxton told Graham Lock in a May 1993 interview, published as “A Highway To The Cosmics” in the Lock-edited Mixtery: A festschrift for Anthony Braxton (Stride; London; 1995). “You’re constantly talking about the science of the music in a two-dimensional way. So I started to move the ray of focus in my model into the poetic logics, as a way to not know what Iím doing. Because Iím not interested in a music thatís two-dimensional, that I can talk about as being the ‘it’ of the music. By that I’m only saying that I want the undefined component of my music to be on an equal par with the defined component.”
The GTM is, to date, Braxtonís most self-contained approach of reaching parity between defined and undefined components in his music. Why it was suddenly articulated two years after the Lock interview can be traced to two roughly contemporaneous factors: Braxton’s assumption of the Chair of Wesleyan’s Department of Music, and his busman’s holiday-like practice of taking summer graduate-level classes on the Middletown campus. The former intensified Braxton’s desire for alternative realities. Not only did becoming department chair greatly increase Braxton’s workload, but, additionally, the problem of Braxton ìconstantly talking about the science of the music in a two-dimensional wayî was replaced with constant talk about space allocations, course descriptions, budget items, concert schedules, etc. ad nausem. The managerial imperative to know and to quantify is a core impetus for Braxton to delve deeper into the poetic logics of not knowing.
However, it is the other, largely undocumented side of his academic life at Wesleyan that proved to be pivotal in the development of the GTM. The two classes Braxton took in the summer of ’95 — Death and After-Life in World Cultures and American Tribal Music — provided the idea base from which Braxton gleaned ideas and essences to create the GTM. While “Ghost Trance Musics” obviously resembles “Ghost Dance” — the name of the politically fueled, pantribal Native American transcendentalist ritual of 1890s, which played a fateful role in the history of the Lakota Sioux — African culture figures prominently in the GTM. No matter what aspect of Braxtonís work one examines, whether it be his pictographic composition titles (see John F.Szwed’s “The Local And The Express: Anthony Braxton’s Title-Drawings” in Mixtery) or the Tri-Axium Writings , in which Egypt is central to Braxton’s overarching mythos, an articulation of African culture is always present.
The GTM is no exception. While Martinelli’s discussion of Braxton’s later paper, “Africa, Triangle Land,” explicates the tri-partial properties of GTM, it is Braxtonís earlier paper, “African Ritual Funeral Music/Dogon Culture: Three Snapshots,” that provides insight into Braxton’s mindset during the conceptualization of GTM. At the outset of this ten-page document, Braxton makes a revealing proclamation: “A change in perceptual alignment is needed to understand the role of creative music in African ritual music because the composite hierarchic aesthetic that allows for ‘meaning’ in African culture does not recognize the principal divisions that underlie western assumptions of ‘aesthetic-integration’ and/or perceptual involvement or fulfillment.” Coming from an artist swamped by administrative chores, this statement, when read in the light of Braxton’s remarks to Lock, represents a blueprint for his own transcendence of the ‘it’ in his music.
Throughout the paper, Braxton’s observations about African ritual music dovetail with his explanations of the GTM. In discussing how the dynamic of aesthetics and style in African ritual music “allow for a completely original ‘event-state’ experience that has nothing to do with western concepts of presentation,” Braxton details those characteristics which “gives insight into a notion of form that goes outside of a specified time-field experience and instead gives hint of multi-dimensional experiences that allow for unique experiences and formal (ritual) experiences to co-exist.” These are comments that could be seamlessly edited into any Braxton interview about the GTM.
The pre-echoes of the GTM in this paper extend to structural and procedural issues, as well. One of the most conspicuous differences between the GTM and the bulk of Braxtonís previous musics is the non-utilization of silence (silence is, historically, one of Braxtonís most potent assets) in the construction of these compositions. There are no empty spaces on these canvases. In Braxton’s paper, the foreshadowed connection between the GTM and African ritual music is in “the use of a continuous sound field” which “gives insight into a notion of form that goes outside of a specified time-field experience and instead gives hint of multi-dimensional experiences that allow for unique experiences and formal (ritual) experiences to co-exist.” In both musics, a continuous sound field structure facilitates the trance experience.
Braxton’s paper also includes a discussion of “signal strategies,” “the use of internal phrases that serve as a point of ‘involvement’ that marks (or recognizes) some aspect of African extended form.” There is a strong similarity between the “operating features” of the specific signal strategies Braxton identifies in African ritual music and those he developed for the GTM: “a) signal cues b) sectioning devices c) calls (or dramatic vocalizations) d) markers (structural and/or gestural) and e) the use of introductory cadential material.” In the GTM, all of these signal strategies characteristics are employed, to varying degrees, to integrate improvisation into the performance, and to insure ensemble precision in negotiating the interpretable repeat markings in the score.
The structural and procedural overlaps between African ritual music and the GTM would only be of parenthetical interest were not it for their connection to Braxton’s overarching thesis about the function of ritual in the late 20th century. Here, again, it is tempting to emphasize a linkage between Braxtonís concept of Ghost Trance to the Ghost Dances of the 1870s and 1890s. Certainly, a case can be built around the circle, which is both fundamental to Native American ritual generally (and to the Ghost Dance in particular) as well as Braxton’s symbolic representation of his Tri-Centric system. As he reiterates in “‘Circle House’ NO-1,” a paper written for American Tribal Musics, the circle is the sign of Mutable Logics, “an approach to perceptual modeling that transcends the use of two dimensional static definitions as a way to achieve a summation recognition that takes into account the fact of ‘multiple routes’ (as in “there are many ways to find ‘God’”).”
Yet, there is an equally well-grounded African-American route to articulate Braxton’s intent to “understand the old ghost” (Braxton quoted by Martinelli). Braxton details the African leg of this route in “…Three Snapshots” when he discusses how “African ritual performance allows for a kind of actual ëtalkingí inside the music.” The dynamics of this “inner communication” is consistent with the expression of African cultural memory in early-century African-American music in New Orleans. In The Power Of Black Music (Oxford University Press; New York, Oxford; 1995), Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. cites Sidney Bechet’s personification of collective African memory in the figure of his slave grandfather, Omar. If a “musicianer” was good, according to Bechet, “it was Omarís song that they were singing … They all had an Omar…their Omar …it was the feeling of someone back there — hearing the song like it was coming up from somewhere … Itís the remembering song.” Simply put, the African experience provides the form, while the American experience provides the content for Braxton’s endeavor.
Historically, Braxton has discretely refined this African-American sensibility in various aspects of his work, particularly his solo alto saxophone music, also known as the Language Musics. While Braxton’s initial use of the voice in the Language Musics of the late ’60s was limited mainly to the execution of multiphonics, Braxton, by the late ’90s, was actually talking while he was performing. “More and more in the solo music,” Braxton told Lock in ’93, “I’m using … talking pieces … I’m starting to talk inside the music, to talk while I’m playing. I see this in the same way as talking in tongues.” Interestingly, the composition Braxton references in this regard is “170C,” sub-titled “Ojuwainís pep talk,” which is included in Wesleyan (12 Altosolos) 1992 (hat ART CD 6128). The Trillium character whose crucible on the archetypal midnight train was depicted in “Composition 113,” Ojuwain is “the believer” in “a battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation” (a parallel to the Ghost Dance movements’ political agenda of preserving traditional ways of living). Braxton’s use of this composition as a vehicle to “speak through” constitutes an important antecedent to the GTM.
Yet, even for colleagues like Reichman and percussionist Kevin Norton, who had regular if not daily contact with Braxton during the summer of ’95, the GTM seemingly came out of the blue on August 19th, when Braxton first placed compositions “181″ through “184″ before them at the session that produced this absorbing recording. Reichman and Norton were especially caught off guard. They had extensively rehearsed a large portion of Braxtonís quartet book, fully expecting Braxton’s to select several compositions as Primary Territories, and several others to be used as Secondary Territories, Pulse Track Structures, and material for improvisations. Instead, they were introduced to a body of work that, while seeming to be made from a whole new bolt of cloth, was patched together with ideas that the student-teacher-administrator-artist mulled over during the summer of 1995, ideas realized in an anti-academic music that, paradoxically, validates the idea of academic discourse.
|Recording Date||Aug 19, 1995|
|Location||Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT|
Ted Reichman: Accordion
Recording Engineer: Jon Rosenberg
All compositions by Anthony Braxton ©1995 Synthesis Music Publishing / BMI