The Sonic Genome is one of the most thrillingly ambitious experiments by musical visionary, saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton: less a concert than the creation of an interactive musical environment, almost an avant-garde theme-park for performers and listeners alike. For eight continuous hours, fifty-plus performers use the compositions and improvisational languages developed by Braxton through his forty years of artistic investigation to create a living sound world. The Ghost Trance Music (link here) that has been Braxton’s primary compositional focus for the past decade serves as the connecting principle for the musical structure. Ensembles form and split apart like cells dividing and reforming into new organisms; likewise, the members of the audience (or “friendly experiencers”, as Braxton would call them) are invited to be active participants, choosing who and what to listen to as they move about the space.
Anthony Braxton’s music has been described by New York Times critic Steve Smith as “less a compositional strategy, and more a utopian model for an ideal democracy. There are rules to follow, laws to abide, and these are largely controlled by the ruler of the clan. But those laws are more guidelines than strictures; if followed properly, the result affords complete individual freedom within a well-defined societal structure that hums along quite musically.” The Sonic Genome is the ultimate expression of this ideal. The entire body of over fifty musicians can be deemed the “country”, which can be broken into 15-to-20 person “state” sized ensembles, then to three-to-five person “city” groups. But of course, each individual is welcome to travel about the larger country, making new artistic alliances and musical connections. The performers can pull from throughout Braxton’s rich oeuvre, from solo and duet music to operas and compositions for creative orchestra. Musicians can improvise in reaction to the sounds around them, choose to remain silent and simply listen, or walk outside to take a break from the action. But the activity in the space continues unabated.
Braxton enlists the bandmembers of his 12+1tet as his musical lieutenants in the endeavor, with each given the responsibility of leading sub ensembles of the larger group. The rest of the performers are drawn from the surrounding community, ranging from local professionals well-versed in creative music to open-minded college and high school students. Core members of the 12+1tet come into the host city early to conduct workshops to familiarize the local musicians with Braxton’s musical system, and the full 12+1tet under Braxton’s leadership will perform a concert a few nights before the Sonic Genome, to offer a portrait of the music in a more streamlined manifestation.
In addition to being a massive statement by a master artist, the Sonic Genome also serves as a powerful tool for creating bonds in the local community. No listener or performer emerges unmoved by the experience; participants describe the event as “life-changing,” resulting in new friendships, creative partnerships, and lasting artistic inspiration. Braxton conducted a Sonic Genome as a recording project in 2003 (which can be sampled here and which will be released as an interactive DVD in the near future), and the world premiere of the Genome as a public performance was held in Vancouver in January 2010, sponsored by the Cultural Olympiad and the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society.