The Music of Anthony Braxton: A Living System
Liner notes by Bill Shoemaker
Anthony Braxton’s life work is creation of a constantly evolving, living music. Braxton’s idea of evolution is not limited to a trajectory of ideas expressed in successive compositions over a period of years, but extends to the mutability of a composition within an evolving body of work. This mutability is engendered through Braxton’s music system. While Braxton has developed an extensive terminology to discuss the particulars of his system, it is rooted in four easily stated principles:
I. Braxton’s compositions are connectable. Any or all of his compositions can be performed at the same time. Performers may insert parts or the entirety of one composition into another, or commingle parts from different compositions. II. Each instrumental part of his compositions is autonomous. Not only can any part be performed by any instrument, but any part can also be extracted to be performed as a solo piece. III. All tempos are relative. Every composition can be performed at any tempo, and each composition contains open spaces whose durations are to be determined by the performers. IV. All volume dynamics are relative. Dynamics markings in Braxton’s scores are open to interpretation; where there are none, performers are encouraged to devise their own strategies.
Subsequently, Braxton has a body of work that he likens to an erector set, an enormous set of component parts with which he can construct an ever-expanding variety of structures. This gives Braxton the requisite flexibility to pursue his overarching goals of deepening his understanding of structure and vocabulary, developing musical analogs to social interactions, and creating a ritual and ceremonial platform that clarifies his spiritual beliefs.
The Ghost Trance Musics
Composition No. 222 and Composition No. 223 are part of Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Musics. The emergence of the Ghost Trance Musics in 1995 was a signal event in Braxton’s work. In myriad ways, it represents both a logical extension of issues that have traditionally held sway in Braxton’s music, and bold new statements about the relationships between composition and improvisation, the individual musician and the ensemble, and the idea of trance being a conduit between reality and spirituality. The primary materials of these compositions comprise single, often simple, and evenly accented lines, rendered in uniform tempo. These materials often have a diatonic effect, which stems from the pieces being written in Braxton’s “Diamond Clef.” The Diamond Clef allows high registered instruments to play the notes as if written in 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 on cue within the repeats, in specifically defined terms. 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 Jazz Times magazine, Braxton defined the new work 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 among composer, performer, and listener. As a result, the Ghost Trance Musics reconstitute 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 1970s and early 1980s as Composition No. 95, which called for the performers to be costumed 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 work – including the puppet theater of Composition No. 102; the meshing of dialogues, projections, and sets (constructed environments) in Composition No. 173 [→ Anthony Braxton & Joe Fonda: 10 Compositions (Duet) 1995]; and the full arsenal of opera for the Trillium cycle-performers continued to portray characters or function as storytellers. In Ghost Trance Musics, the performers are no longer actors, storytellers or technicians. Instead, they are conjurers of the trance state, which envelops themselves and their audience. In replacing the often complex, flexibly implemented, yet essentially predetermined choices of Braxton’s earlier music with the stream-of-consciousness-triggered “extended time-space functions and intuitive experiences” of Ghost Trance Musics the musicians no longer represent Braxton’s postulations about ritual. They deliver ritual on its own terms. Subsequently, the Ghost Trance Musics introduces an unprecedented potential into Braxton’s music.
Composition No. 46
Composed in late 1975, Composition No. 46 is a significant milestone in Braxton’s efforts to make thoroughly notated works structurally dynamic, thereby allowing each performance of the work to be unique. In this regard, it is noteworthy that Braxton composed without any formal superstructure or procedural formulae. The structure for the eighty-page score for flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, bass trombone, and tuba emerged during the compositional process. Braxton acknowledges Webern’s influence in the use of isolated sounds as a basic structural component of Composition No. 46. It is the gravity of these fragments that creates the tension between and the propulsion of the composition’s passages of light texture and dense, rapidly moving phrase groupings. However, Braxton shaped these materials to avoid resemblance to stereotypical post-serial pointalism, allowing, in some cases, limited improvisational techniques to be applied to them. The material of the composition is activated through 192 cues, each of which instigates specific operations within a time parameter. Even though each cue entails the explication of notated materials, Braxton, in many instances, provides the performers with open interpretative latitude through a number of means, such as brackets of open note phrases; while these phrases are precise as to pitch, each note of the phrase may be assigned any time value or accented in any way, and the entire phrase can be rendered with any dynamic shape. This creates what Braxton calls “a structural network of single and multiple events.” Whereas single events are generally perceptible as straightforward readings of the notated material-the occasional use of unconventional notation may give a different impression-it is the multiple events that break down a predictable, linear development of the composition. The multiple events also facilitate Braxton’s efforts to give each instrumentalist leading and supporting roles through solos and sub-groupings such as duos and trios. Nurtured by such diverse sources as Gabrieli, Ives, and big-band battles, multiple events increasingly became a central focus of Braxton’s music into the 1990s. In Composition No. 46, Braxton used the simultaneous exposition of various materials to promote the mutability of the composition from performance to performance. This approach evolved into a core feature of his quartet music in the 1980s and early 1990s-”pulse track structures”-an incorporation of parts from one composition into the performance of another. This literally allows more than one composition to be heard at once. Composition No. 46 also reflects Braxton’s contemporary interest in the spatial relationships between musicians and audience. The score instructs the musicians to sit facing different directions so that the work will be heard differently in various parts of the performance space. He fully extended this method with 1978′s Composition No. 82 written for four orchestras, which employed complex diagrams for “Zone Designations” an “Trajectoral Sound Activity.” The aim of such spatial considerations is to have a performance perceived so differently by various audience members, that, in essence, several performances are heard simultaneously. Composition No. 46 is dedicated to composer and multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill. Braxton conducted the premiere on March 1, 1975, at Zellerbach Auditorium, at the University of California at Berkeley.
Composition No. 70
Composition No. 70 was originally scored for a conventional jazz quintet configuration. It was premiered at Braxton’s 1976 Newport Jazz Festival performance with trombonist George Lewis, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, bass player Dave Holland, and drummer Barry Altschul. Braxton used the politically charged occasion to present an extended work that consolidated strategies pursued in his recent quartet music, demonstrated the diversity of innovations in creative music during the 1960s and 1970s, and empowered the performers to shape the performance. In this regard, it is noteworthy that this composition is cataloged immediately after the seventeen pieces that comprise Composition No. 69. In each of these works-many of which have been issued on disc-an individual conceptual zone is explored: “Repetition phrase pattern”; “Ballad with arco bass repeating figure”; and “Fast pulse structure with triplet support pattern.” In Composition No. 70, Braxton sought to integrate a wide spectrum of such zones into a chain link structure of sixteen sections, each containing fixed materials and open procedures for interpretation and improvisation. Through this structure, Braxton used a wide variety of methods to shift the listeners’ and the performers’ perspective of the composition as it unfolds in performance. In Section A, Braxton prepares an engaging lure. A two-note motif, buttressed in the original score by piano trills and cymbal washes, lengthens into slow unison statements that ultimately attain a flowing quality, creating an atmosphere to be enhanced or shredded in the ensuing collective improvisation. In Section H, however, Braxton uses blunt phrase groupings to purposefully increase an emotional distance between the listener and the work. One of the “non-personal conceptual strategies” employed in the composition, this device is also designed to elicit counter-intuitive responses by the performers in the subsequent improvisation. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of Composition No. 70 is the “repositioning” of materials introduced early in the work into later sections of the score. This happens as early as Section E, where the trills and other materials from Section A reappear; the last notated passage of the piece is repositioned from Section D. Braxton’s supposition was that these repositioned materials would not be simply reprised, but recontextualized through the experience of the intervening sections. Whereas much of Composition No. 70 recapitulated earlier investigations, repositioning foreshadows the advent of pulse track structures in the quartet music of the 1980s and early 1990s. Composition No. 70 is dedicated to composer, multi-instrumentalist, educator, and visual artist Bill Dixon.
Composition No. 222
Braxton’s Ghost Trance Musics compositions are scored in his Diamond Clef, which gives the instrumentalist the option of playing the material in either the bass or treble clef, or to switch between them throughout the performance; consistent with his long-held practice of allowing any part of a composition to be played by any instrument, Braxton shaped the primary unison lines of previous Ghost Trance Musics compositions so that they could be played by any instrument. Composed in 1998, Composition No. 222 is the first Ghost Trance Musics work composed for a specific instrumentation – a duet for violin and piano – and the first whose compositional materials are drawn directly from the respective capabilities and characteristics of the instrumentation. Within the thirty-four-page score, both the violinist and the pianist repeatedly utilize techniques and execute materials that draw upon their respective instruments’ unique assets and qualities. These instances are scored in both standard notation and in graphic notation; symbols such as arrows can signify a wide variety of sound events, ranging from sustained piano chords to arco violin constructions. Braxton also took the opportunity of composing a duet to introduce a “polarity context” into the Ghost Trance Musics practice of navigating three sets of materials: the primary unison lines; a secondary set of materials, mixing standard and graphic notation systems; and tertiary materials selected from Braxton’s entire body of work by the performers. This polarity context is facilitated by portal points Braxton places throughout the score. At these points, each performer may transit between sets of materials. Additionally, each performer has the ability to map out a route through the composition before the performance, and to alter the route during the performance. For the first time in a Ghost Trance Musics composition, Braxton periodically changes the tempo of the primary unison lines. The original idea for these unison lines was to provide a mantra-like focal point that the musicians could also use as a backdrop for switches into secondary and tertiary territories. Through the use of scored cues, the pulse of the primary unison lines change from 8th note values to 16th note values. Composition No. 222 is dedicated to the composer’s daughter, Keayr Braxton.
Composition No. 223
For Braxton, composition means the creation of operating systems for creative musicianship as much as the generation of materials. Throughout the past thirty years, Braxton has followed, to use his term, a “restructuralist” pattern of creating new operational functions in a body of compositions, and then meshed them with his established methods in a subsequent series of works. In Composition No. 223, several layers of decision-making processes operate simultaneously within a multiple ensemble configurations; subsequently, this is a pivotal Ghost Trance Musics that incorporates methodologies found in works ranging from his quartet music of the 1980s and early 1990s to his multiple orchestra works of the late 1970s. In this 1998 composition, Braxton introduces a Tri-Quadrant methodology to the performance of a Ghost Trance Musics composition. This entails the presence of two or more conductors, each with his own sub-ensemble – or quadrant – of at least three musicians. In this performance, conductors Jackson Moore, James Fei and J. D. Parran will conduct the “, the quadrant strategies,” the navigation of the primary, secondary, and tertiary materials for their respective sub-ensembles. Braxton will conduct “composite domain transfer strategies”, events in which the entire ensemble participates. At various times during a performance of Composition No. 223, quadrants play together in unison, or follow individual paths through various domains including “stable logic structures” (compositions), “mutable logic structures” (the reconstruction or interpretation of various compositional elements), and “language music strategies” (Braxton’s extensive improvisational vocabulary). Each quadrant is supplied with primary unison pulse materials, four sets of secondary materials, and a concordance of cue signals. Each conductor decides what tertiary materials will be used from Braxton’s 450 pieces; additionally, each performer chooses two or three sets of tertiary materials for their individual use. Given the interchangability of the parts of Braxton’s compositions, a flute player can incorporate a percussion part from one composition, and a bass part from another, into the performance of Composition No. 223. Usually, Braxton is unaware of the choices of tertiary materials until the performance. Braxton considers Ghost Trance Musics compositions to be “trans-temporal,” capable of being performed for hours, days, or even longer. This performance is targeted at one hour. Composition No. 223 is dedicated to multi-instrumentalist, composer, and theorist Jackson Moore.
|Recording Date||May 1, 1998|
|Location||Library of Congress (Coolidge Auditorium), Washington, D.C.|
Composition No. 222 commissioned by the McKim Fund in the Library of Congress
Composition No. 223 is dedicated to multi-instrumentalist, composer, and theorist Jackson Moore
Recording Engineers: John Tyler and Greg Hartman, Big Mo Recording; John Howell and Mike Turpin, Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division
Editing: Jon Rosenberg
Mastered by Todd Gerard at Gerard Sound Lab, NYC
Art & Design: Peter Hill
Produced by Anthony Braxton and Velibor Pedevski
All compositions by Anthony Braxton, 1999 Synthesis Music Publishing / BMI