Liner notes by Francis Davis
“I think that open improvisation has become – not irrelevant, exactly, but it strikes me as being very close in spirit to the neo-classicists at Lincoln Center, in the sense that itís now well over thirty-years-old as a style,” Anthony Braxton remarked at one point during a freewheeling Sunday morning phone conversation. “Avant-garde incorporated. It’s like saying that nothing has happened in the last two-thousand years that we can continue to build on, so weíre going to move into a state of neo-paganism.”
I once remarked, in a profile of Braxton included in Bebop and Nothingness, that he and Wynton Marsalis have more in common than either of them might care to admit. Both have decried the primitivist chic that has attached itself to our appreciation of jazz and other forms of black music – what Braxton has aptly characterized as “the myth of the sweating brow.” Braxton, though, has taken the critique a step further, challenging many of the most basic assumptions that we bring not only to jazz, but to music in general.
The most sacred of these might be the “stock idea,” as Roland Barthes put it, that music that isnít representational or at least vaguely “about” something (“not expressive,” in Barthesí phrase) is by definition “cold and intellectual,” bloodless and cut off from life – abstraction amounting almost to a form of dysthymia by this line of reasoning. Braxton and I are from the same generation, one whose intellectuals and would-bes were conditioned practically from adolescence to distrust the European musical tradition as “hierarchical,” because of the greater creative freedom allowed (and, often, greater prestige accorded) composers and even conductors, as opposed to the members of the orchestra (the lumpen proleteriat in black tie and tails). If, by this logic, composition is assumed to be Aristotelian – emotionally as well as physically detached – then so is performance, by virtue of being strictly interpretive, or re-creative. One of the notions embedded in Braxtonís music, I think, is that jazz, as a form of music that implicitly regards improvisation as superior to composition, and that defines the primary role of the rhythm section as that of supporting a soloist, has simply replaced one hierarchical system with another. Like much of the most innovative and exciting music since the 1960s, regardless of label, Braxtonís seeks to reconcile improvisation and composition by rejecting the dogma surrounding each. More than that, however, Braxton has exposed as a false dichotomy the belief that composition is a purely intellectual exercise and improvisation a form of black magic.
Speaking of Paul Desmond and early musical heroes, Braxton told me that “the guys who turned my heart toward music were those musicians, living or dead, whose work was alive – whose work engaged my intellect at the same time that it kept my emotions involved.” Sometimes, as in the case of Braxton’s music, this can amount to the same thing. Part of what makes a piece such as Composition No.188 so emotionally appealing is its tumultuous play of ideas – with the emphasis on the word play. During our conversation, Braxton spoke at great length on what he calls Ghost Trance Musics, a new direction for him of which 188 is one of the first recorded examples. A better analysis than I could provide of the musical and philosophical ideas at work in Ghost Trance was given by Braxton and the writer Francesco Martinelli, in Martinelli’s liner notes for Sextet (Istanbul) 1996. Nevertheless, itís worth passing along a few of Braxtonís observations here. Ghost Trance reflects his study of Native American ceremonial musics, and his interest in “trance musics as a global phenomenon,” but from a secular viewpoint. In terms of their development, Braxton’s Ghost Trance pieces aren’t what he calls “baroque,” by which I assume he means that they eschew the conventional motivic strategies of most Western musics, including popular music and jazz. This, according to Braxton, is music predicated on the notion of “a sound that doesn’t begin and doesn’t end,” a series of line pulses and long tones coming together to yield “a melody that never stops”; in the case of 188, “four internal structures that can be repeated ad-infinitum at the discretion of the section leaders.” Ghost Trance pieces aren’t written for specific instrumentations, nor is their length predetermined: “They can start at one minute and go on for days or even years.”
Although everything I’ve quoted from Braxton so far risks making Ghost Trance sound like minimalism by another name, the difference is in the “exits” that Braxton has built into his scores – his explanation of which also explains the symbolism of the logo he has chosen for Braxton House, a rectangle inside a circle inside a triangle:
“[Ghost Trance] consists of a line that the musicians hold on to. And within that line are tri-metric markings that allow the possibility of moving in or out of that line in different states. So if we’re talking of circle exits, we’re talking about exits into mutable states [i.e. improvisation]. If we’re talking of rectangular exits, we’re talking of architectonic transferal constructs…switching to a different composition inside of the Ghost Trance composition. (In my system, a composition has origin identity and correspondence identity; that is, it can be put with any other composition in any order. It also has genetic identity; any part of it can be put with anything else). And if we talk of triangle exits or correspondence openings, than suddenly weíre factoring in body movement and stage placement and other aspects of performance and ritual”.
As conversations with Braxton tend to, ours soon drifted from a discussion of his music to the state of music in general (he expressed dismay that young composers are now completing their doctorates without ever having heard Stockhausen or Cage, and somewhere along the way, he revealed that his very earliest musical heroes were Bill Haley and Frankie Lymon), and from there to seemingly mundane matters of everyday existence (remembering a recent heart attack scare, he confided his need to eliminate some of the stress in his life, “though raising three children and teaching on the university level [at Wesleyan University] practically guarantees stress”). He offered opinions on a variety of subjects, noting in passing that the day is quickly approaching when “the black middle and upper classes are going to have to stop crying wolf, because they’ve become part of the business constructs of this society,” pointing to the vogue for “classic” jazz as one example.
He punctuated many of his remarks with that high-pitched laugh of his, and Composition No. 188 does its share of laughing, too, as it moves along with centipede-like determination. It does no disservice to Braxton as a theorist or as a non-representational composer to point out that his political and personal concerns bleed into his music, enlivening it and taking it out of a purely abstract realm. To be sure, Composition No. 188 derives a great deal of its vitality from the robust interpretation it receives from this ensemble. (Anyone hearing the Swiss trombonist Roland Dahinden for the first time is in for a real treat. Braxton praises him as “the first new trombonist I’ve heard who is technically and conceptually on a level with George Lewis.” Also deserving of special mention is the percussionist Kevin Norton, whose feel for color and texture at times recalls Bobby Hutcherson and Tony Williams’ work alongside Eric Dolphy on Out to Lunch.) But like all of Braxtonís best music, Composition No. 188 is a work that already had the breath of life in it the moment its author began committing it to scorepaper. Not the least of its virtues is its feeling of being a work in progress – a quality it shares with its composer, a self-described “professional student of music” with a double major in life.
Francis Davis is the author of In the Moment, Outcats, The History of the Blues, and Bebop and Nothingness. He is currently at work on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.
|Recording Date||Nov 24, 1995|
|Location||Tri-Centric (Thanksgiving 1995) Festival at the Knitting Factory, New York City|
Anthony Braxton: Alto Saxophone, E-Flat Sopranino Clarinet, Contrabass Clarinet, B-Flat Clarinet, Flute, E-Flat Sopranino Saxophone, F Saxophone
Recording Engineer: Jon Rosenberg
All compositions by Anthony Braxton