Taylor Ho Bynum

*Photo by Peter Gannushkin

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I had a crazy week, with a huge amount of work to get done before leaving town for two and a half weeks for some gigs in England and Belgium. And I had the realization, on Monday, that my Thursday night flight actually left on Wednesday, so I had 24 hours less to get everything done than I thought. (Which is an unfortunately feeling, but not as horrible, I imagine, as finding out Thursday that your flight left yesterday.)

The main project I was working on was compiling and editing the liner notes for the forthcoming 9 CD Anthony Braxton box set from his 4-night stand last March with his (12+1)tet at the Iridium. Along with my esteemed co-editor, Jonathan Piper (Chicago attorney by day, Braxton scholar first class by night), we had to pull together essays from 13 different contributors (including 3 entries from Steve Smith’s great Night After Night blog, who was so kind as to give this new blog on the block a shout out the other day). So being steeped in Braxtonia this week, I thought it would be a good time to offer my thoughts and experiences on working with the man I consider one of the most important musical figures of the past fifty years.

It is somewhat intimidating to try and write something about Braxton: he has so extensively documented his own thoughts in his Tri-Axium Writings and his Composition Notes, and has several entire books dedicated to the discussion of his music. (As a friend of mine once said, “When I go in for a job interview, I’ve got to bring my resume, and my discography, and my references, and all that. Braxton can just bring the pile of books written about him.”) I can in no way speak definitively on his music; he has such an overwhelming body of work, and while I am lucky enough to be a collaborator in some of his projects and a student of his work, I could never claim expertise. It takes a lifetime to just begin scratching the surface. However, hopefully my perspective might interest some who are dedicated to the music.

This post is a general reflection on some of the specific projects from the past few years. (A little bit of this is excerpted in Stuart Broomer’s wonderful liner notes for the new Ulrichsberg 4 CD set on Leo.) While editing the liner notes for the forthcoming Iridium box set mentioned above, I resisted the urge to write an extended essay myself, with so much to do on the production end of things. So I’m using this blog to put down the thoughts that have been bubbling around in my head. I did write a brief introduction to the box set liner notes, but you can read that when you get the complete set. (And yes, this is a shameless attempt to whet people’s appetite for what will be the first release on the Firehouse 12 Records label that I’m working on. The release of the Iridium project is scheduled for April 2007; the “official” first press release on the project should be coming out soon. Shameless plug finished, thank you.)

It is obvious to even the casual fan that Anthony Braxton’s name has been popping up on the radar with greater frequency recently, as the critical appreciation for his previous work increases and he is presently more active performing, with various ensembles and in various contexts, then he has been in a decade. However, what many might not have noticed is that Braxton is in one of the most profound and productive periods of his entire career.

Just in the past few years, the range of his projects is breathtaking. He has developed his Ghost Trance Music, premiering his “Accelerator Class” GTM in performances with his Quintet, Sextet and Twelvetet, culminating in the four-day stand at the Iridium in March ’06 mentioned above with his (12+1)tet, and, after over 150 pieces, completed the entire GTM compositional cycle (though he plans to continue to perform the material). He premiered his Diamond Curtain Wall Trio, which incorporates his original interactive electronics using the supercollider programming language. He premiered one major and one massive piece for brass ensemble: Composition 103, for seven costumed, choreographed trumpeters, and Composition 19, for 100 marching tubas. He performed with creative orchestras in Austria, Italy, and his home base at Wesleyan University, ranging from straight readings of rarely performed through-composed materials, to “Tri-Centric” interpretations of major works with multiple conductors and multiple layers of activity. This is in addition to the occasional standards tour or solo concert, and the occasional special event, like the trio with William Parker and Andrew Cyrille last summer, or the duo reunion with Roscoe Mitchell that is actually taking place tonight (November 4) in Rome. And the as-yet-unreleased recording projects, such as the amazing pianist Genevieve Foccroulle’s interpretation of his complete solo piano music, or the “Genome Project” in 2003, in which over fifty musicians performed for eight continuous hours moving about a Wesleyan University hockey stadium. And while he hasn’t tackled a performance of one of his operas recently, you can be sure he’s been busy composing them!

One of the things that really stuns me is the pure breadth of Anthony’s vision, and how deep and strong the infinite facets of his work are. Getting to be involved with many of these projects makes me realize this almost contradictory idea: while all this music is unique, and totally suited to it’s own context, at the same time, all of the music is so clearly and consistently “Braxton” music! I can think of no other composer with so wide a range of musical expression, but no other composer with such a strong personal imprint on all his work. Similarly, as a player and improviser, there is no other music I play that I feel so completely free to express and explore my own musical identity and ideas and creativity, yet again, no other music that I play is so clearly imprinted with the composer’s identity. For me, that’s one of Braxton’s greatest magics.

As a composer, I can’t even go into all the musical ideas and inspirations I’ve gained from this work with him. It would be difficult to extract the specifics, as it’s almost part of the DNA of my musical thinking, and it would get rather technical, in terms of the structural definitions of the music. (And, while I do believe that my work has its own identity and doesn’t really sound at all like Braxton, I’d be embarrassed to admit the things I stole!) As an instrumentalist, Braxton’s combination of virtuosity, intensity, soulfulness, and invention remains unparalleled, and pushes me to places I could never have imagined on my instrument.

But there are two, almost extra-musical, aspects of Braxton’s work that I want to spotlight: his insistence to keep challenging himself and his audience, and his refusal to accept any boundaries on his work. It would be easy for Braxton to rest on his laurels, and revisit past successes; in fact, this would probably be more commercially viable in the present culture of museum jazz, retrospectives, and tributes. But he continues to experiment. His Ghost Trance Music was a decade long evolutionary odyssey that developed in ways no one could have predicted, and resulted in a unique musical system that combines composition and improvisation in a totally fresh way. (Which you’ll be able to hear on the forthcoming (12+1)tet box set!) And I was amazed to see Braxton, at age sixty and without that much computer aptitude, embark on the struggle to learn supercollider, one of the most notoriously knotty and complex programming languages, but more amazed to play in the resulting musical space and have it be perhaps the subtlest, most expressive, and most interactive electronic environment I’ve ever encountered. (This project, his Diamond Curtain Wall Trio, has some gigs coming up in the next month, Nov. 16 in Genk, Belgium and Dec. 1 in Rotterdam, definitely worth hearing if you can.) (The Rotterdam has been cancelled, it may be rescheduled in February ‘07.)

Yet it is Braxton’s dedication and insistence on pursuing his vision, regardless of the imposed realities of the music business, that provides me the most consistent inspiration. This relates to my first post on this blog, on Don Quixote and Sun Ra’s insistence in attempting the impossible, because the impossible is what we need. There are plenty of times I get discouraged by the obstacles on the creative music path, and I don’t feel like writing, or practicing, or fighting for my music. The city’s too big, or the world is too tough; nobody cares, or it will never happen. But then I think of AB, writing his piece for four orchestras, or 100 tubas, or an opera in 36 acts, regardless of whether the music will be performed tomorrow, in twenty years, or in the next millennium. Dealing with the music because that is the thing he can do, the contribution he can make. Because he has to. And I get back to work.

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