Anthony Braxton settled into the Iridium tonight for the first evening of a four-night run, and even after a day of general malfunction at the office, I made a point of catching this ever-challenging artist's second set. I've followed Braxton's career and collected his recordings, sometimes fairly obsessively, for just about two decades now (and feel a just bit creepy now that I look at the figure I just typed). For a lot of that time, I've felt like I was always just a few steps behind, straining to comprehend one creative phase even as he had moved on to the next.
For example, I actually had the great privilege of witnessing in concert Braxton's sublime quartet with Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway at the old Knitting Factory, one of the late stops on its final tour in 1993. And, having only heard his recordings of the late '60s and the fertile Arista stetch of the '70s, I was utterly flummoxed by the sheer density of information that poured forth from that stage. It took years of further research -- and especially the experiences of reading Graham Lock's quite brilliant Forces in Motion and listening to the epochal Willisau (1991) Quartet box set -- to truly relate what had been going on that evening. I'd certainly sensed during that Knitting Factory show that I was hearing one of the greatest ensembles in the history of creative music -- one I have no reluctance in ranking with Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens, Charlie Parker's Dial and Savoy combos, Miles Davis's two great quintets, John Coltrane's quartet, the Bill Evans Trio with LaFaro and Motian, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But it was only years later that I actually understood just why that was.
Much to my surprise, then, Braxton's 12(+1)tet tonight posed no such problem for me, mainly because the creative paradigm it documents -- dubbed Accelerated Ghost Trance Music -- strikes me as both a summarization of recent concerns and a reconciliation of Braxton's past designs with the Ghost Trance Music compositions that have consumed him for the past decade. After the extreme technical complexity and polyphonic density of the '80s-'90s quartet, Braxton turned toward a minimalism-canted sort of ritualism in Ghost Trance Music (GTM), the earliest examples of which -- documented during the mid-'90s on the late, lamented Braxton House label -- often seemed to consist of little more than hourlong strings of stair-steppeding eighth notes played by full ensembles, whether sextet or chamber orchestra.
This music could be thrilling in its singleminded activity. But for longtime followers of Braxton's work, this seeming abandonment of complexity in favor of conjuration was perplexing, perhaps even disappointing. (I tried not to judge harshly, but admit that this was the point at which my curatorial completism dipped.)
When I caught Braxton's large ensemble at the Bowery Poetry Club in 2003, I noticed immediately that a new element had crept into the GTM model: Small groupings of players were renting the rat-a-tat momentum with forcible incursions of alternate rhythms and trajectories, touched off by meaningful glances or, more often, elaborate hand signals. This layering of melodic and rhythmic impetus resembled nothing so much as the intricate collages constructed in real time by the preceding quartet.
Three years later, Accelerated Ghost Trance confirms that Braxton found his original GTM structures too binding for his players, affording precious little space for their expressive capabilities. The music I'd heard in 2003 was a developmental stage in an evolution toward the freer music that presented itself tonight as Braxton's Composition No. 351. The eighth-note pulsation of earlier GTM pieces is still present, but more often than not, it's subliminal; it rises to the surface not infrequently, but no longer is it the primary element of the music.
Instead, Braxton marshalls his forces in a massive, always forward-moving trajectory through more invisible means. (The "ghost" in GTM is finally more than a metaphor.) It took less than ten minutes for smaller sub-groups to emerge from the band, renting the overall fabric of the composition with private conversations drawing upon other Braxton pieces -- some of them GTM pulsations, more of them not. The dizzying layering that occurred when several of these smaller units interjected simultaneous incursions exploded potentials closer to Ives and Berio than to any jazz antecedent, although contemporary creative-music composers such as Barry Guy, Simon Fell and Scott Fields have mined similar ground.
Two pages of notes scribbled in the dark, commenting upon this or that worthy highlight during the piece's roughly 70-minute duration (marked by a massive hour-glass positioned at center stage), seem fairly useless to me now. Isolated felicities -- the voluble contributions of brass savant Taylor Ho Bynum, often echoed by Reut Regev's trombone and "flugelbone" and Jay Rozen's euphonium and tuba; the gorgeous trio sonata confluences of Jessica Pavone's violin and viola, Nicole Mitchell's flutes and voice, and Sara Schoenbeck's bassoon and shenai; saxophonist Steve Lehman's steady virtuosity; Carl Testa's earthy bass and Aaron Siegel's pattering percussion -- made constant impressions. Saxophonists James Fei and Andrew Raffo Dewar and guitarist Mary Halvorson completed the ensemble, if perhaps less demonstratively. Dewar was new to me, but Fei and Halvorson have stood out in this or that previous Braxton project, so their relative deference tonight didn't especially trouble me.
Ultimately, Braxton's marshalling of these headstrong players, many of them his students at Wesleyan University, made a greater impression than his own playing during the set. He never claimed an extended solo of his own, mostly contenting himself instead to insert nattering sopranino saxophone and gassy contrabass clarinet into the overall clamor.
Still, to Braxton belongs the ultimate credit for a substantial and satisfying ensemble effort. Somewhere near the end of the set, I was struck by a thought: Braxton's Accelerated Ghost Trance Music is 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.
That it didn't work for some listeners -- most notably the noisy clatch of tourists seated directly behind me, whose loud, derisive commentary constantly punctuated my experience of the set -- is no failure on Braxton's part, but simply a reflection of its setting. A club on Broadway, just blocks north of busy Times Square, probably isn't the ideal headquarters from which to foment revolution, and certainly not among passersby most likely anticipating a mellow evening of post-theater swing to accompany their conversations. On the other hand, most of the generally youngish crowd seemed to get Braxton's message just fine.
For me, this was easily the most fulfilling live Braxton encounter I've had to date. I hope to catch at least one or two more sets before this run ends on Sunday night, not the least reason being that -- according to Halvorson, with whom I chatted briefly before this set began -- the Iridium run marks the conclusion of Braxton's GTM compositional activities. After this, she reported, he intends to move into electronics and video. While I can't bring myself to believe that a player of Braxton's acumen and personality would hang up his horns, I can certainly understand that a composer of his exacting needs and universalist aims might well opt for a laptop, a la Conlon Nancarrow's player piano and, on a lower rung of distinction, Frank Zappa's Synclavier. That possibility makes this particular run seem a bit more portentious -- but honestly, my reasons for wanting to hear more are purely sensual.
A few final notes: I overheard a tablemate say that the cameraman shooting the set from a position near the door was Jason Guthartz, whose Restructures website is a completely invaluable tool for Braxton studies. (Jason, if you're reading this, I'm sorry I couldn't stop and say hi tonight.) And while I traced the peripheries of Braxton's Ghost Trance Music here, you can read a much deeper analysis of its aims and evolution in an exhaustive review of a November 2005 Braxton concert posted by Michael Anton Parker on Bagatellen, a fantastic new-music and free-improv oriented site that I don't stop by as often as I might -- for the simple reason that every time I stop by, I completely lose track of time.
Anthony Braxton - Four Compositions (GTM) 2000 (Delmark)
Anthony Braxton - Six Compositions (GTM) 2001 (Rastascan)
Anthony Braxton - Quintet (London) 2004: Live at the Royal Festival Hall (Leo)
Anthony Braxton - Composition No. 102 - Wesleyan Creative Orchestra / Anthony Braxton (Braxton House)
Anthony Braxton - Knitting Factory, November 13, 1993 (CD-R from Internet vine)