the other night
exhilarating, adj. making you feel happy, excited, and full of energy. E.g., the music of Anthony Braxton.
Ken Vandermark, arrangments, bass clarinet; Nick Mazzarella, alto saxophone; Mars Williams, alto saxophone; Dave Rempis, baritone saxophone; Josh Berman, cornet; Jeb Bishop, trombone; Jason Adasiewicz, vibraphone; Nate McBride, bass; Tim Daisy, drums; live, Chicago (Elastic, 2830 N. Milwaukee), 6/21/12
Composition No. 6 C (A. Braxton)
Composition No. 69 J (A. Braxton)
Anthony Braxton sat perched on a piano bench one recent afternoon, hands folded in his lap, wearing an intent but unreadable expression. Angled away from the piano in a no-frills rehearsal space in Brooklyn, he faced the dozen or so vocalists that currently make up his Syntactical Ghost Trance Music Choir. The singers, arranged in a semicircle, were tackling Mr. Braxton’s “Composition No. 256,” staring hard at their sheet music while trying to keep track of their conductor. It was starting to seem as if the piece, a slippery, scalar proposition, were getting the best of them.
“O.K.,” said Taylor Ho Bynum, the conductor, waving the singers to a halt. Mr. Bynum, a cornetist, composer, bandleader and former student of Mr. Braxton’s at Wesleyan University, took a moment to describe the cues and signals that would further convolute the interpretation of the piece. “When in doubt, we follow Braxton,” he said.
“Which is to say, you know it’s going to be wrong!” Mr. Braxton fired back, laughing.
Mr. Bynum nodded, deadpan. “We’d follow Braxton off a cliff.”
Mr. Braxton, 66, has been a force in the American avant-garde since the 1960s, when he emerged in his native Chicago as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Within the first decade of his arrival, he was being toasted in some circles as “the new messiah, the new Charlie Parker-John Coltrane-Ornette Coleman,” as Whitney Balliett put it in The New Yorker.
As a composer, conceptualist and saxophonist, Mr. Braxton exemplified the steep intellectualization of one wing of jazz’s avant-garde; his compositions often included notation in the form of pictographs and algebraic formulas, and he wrote pieces not only for jazz ensembles but also for classical orchestras (in one memorable instance, for four of them at once). One piece from 1971, “Composition 19 (For 100 Tubas),” finally had its premiere five years ago as a rumbling overture to that year’s Bang on a Can Marathon in Lower Manhattan.
“I wanted to have an experience like my role models,” Mr. Braxton said after the rehearsal, at a nearby pub. “Karlheinz Stockhausen, Charlie Mingus, Iannis Xenakis, Sun Ra, Hildegard von Bingen. The people who were thinking large scale and small scale. I might not have been able to get the money to do what I would have liked to do. But you can still compose it and have the hope that maybe in the future it can be realized.”
Mr. Braxton has often suggested that his sprawling output — and the equally irreducible theoretical discourse surrounding it — should be understood as a single body of work. To that end, his music has become a bit more accessible recently, thanks to a spate of archival releases. But that hasn’t made things easier for Mr. Braxton.
“This is a somewhat frustrating time cycle for me, in the sense that I rarely work anymore,” he said. “My work has been marginalized as far as the jazz-business complex is concerned, or the contemporary-music complex.” Were it not for his tenured post at Wesleyan, where he has taught for more than 20 years, “maybe I would be driving a taxicab or something,” he said.
“I had never thought that I would be involved in narrative structures,” Mr. Braxton said [of his new opera Trillium J]. “As a young guy, I was more interested in abstract modeling. But as I got older, I began to see that there was no reason to limit myself to any intellectual or conceptual postulate, when in fact I’m a professional student of music.”
—Nate Chinen, “Celebrating a Master of the Avant-Garde,” New York Times, 10/4/11