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Melissa Smey on Anthony Braxton at 75

Melissa Smey

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create the program notes for the 20th year of Composer Portraits as well as a series of Q&As with Executive Director Melissa Smey. Here is the first installment, centering around our upcoming Portrait featuring the music of Anthony Braxton.   


Q. What planted the seeds for this Composer Portrait?

A. The JACK Quartet performed Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 173 on their first Soundscape America program at Miller Theatre in 2017-18. And it was incredible. They enjoyed the process of getting into that music, which is so very rigorous, and were excited to do more. The other ensemble on the program, the chamber group Either/Or directed by Richard Carrick, has been performing Braxton’s music for some time now. Trombonist Chris McIntyre, who had served on the board of Braxton’s Tri-Centric Foundation and been deeply involved with Braxton’s music, recently came on as a curator with Either/Or.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Q. Braxton will be celebrating his 75th birthday in June of 2020. How does this Composer Portrait fit into the official festivities for Braxton 75?

A. Ours will be a major highlight of a worldwide celebration. And it is very much in keeping with the goals of Braxton 75. The Tri-Centric Foundation is using the occasion to further disseminate Braxton’s music, expanding the existing pedagogical practice to enable more people to play his music. Because Braxton has often performed his own works, he faces many of the same challenges in cementing a legacy as others in his generation who are personally attached to their music, like Meredith Monk or Butch Morris. It's important that this community of collaborators has come up around him to make that happen. 

"What I admire most is that he has been uncompromising in realizing an artistic vision of a complete musical world.

Q. Some of the people who will come to the portrait concert at Miller won’t be familiar with Braxton or his music. What can you say about his significance as a composer?

A. Wow, that’s hard! He's an incredibly important figure. He’s published three volumes just explaining his own music. I feel like I’m still at the beginning of my own journey of understanding.

What I admire most is that he has been uncompromising in realizing an artistic vision of a complete musical world. His works are at once composed and improvised. He has created several different musical systems in which his compositions are based, and he’s one of a small number of artists whose work spans jazz, creative improvisation coming out of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, new music, and a handful of global music traditions.

Q. Of course, his music has been stuck with the label “free jazz” since early in his career.

It's so much more than that. What I want most is for listeners to understand is that Braxton’s work has such incredible range, and depth, and discipline. There's so much structure. No one should think that “free improvisation” means the music is just made up. Like you just do whatever you want. This is a crude analogy, but it's like if I said please go into my kitchen and make me a cocktail. Invent something. If you pour a bunch of stuff in a glass and shake it up, that's doesn’t make it a cocktail. You need to have a great deal of skill and understanding to create and perform this music.

Q. Many of the Composer Portraits are snapshots of the artist at a particular moment in time, but this one approaches a career overview. Can you talk about the repertoire?

A. Yes, we’re starting with Composition No. 1 (1968), which is one of his notated piano works, and we’re going through Composition No. 358 (2006), which is a late Ghost Trance piece, one of Braxton’s many musical systems. JACK will be performing the two string quartets. There’s a piece for chamber orchestra, a couple of duos, and a looping, phrase-generating piece that will include all of the musicians. We can’t possibly cover it all, but the program is designed to give listeners a sense of Braxton’s breadth and, hopefully, pique their interest to listen to more.

"Braxton’s musical systems open up a kind of improvisation in which the players can choose to pass through portals notated in the scores and into his other compositions.

What will make the evening even more interesting is how the pieces function in the overall program. We’ll start with three distinctive works, but the rest will be mixed together—as will the ensembles. Braxton’s musical systems open up a kind of improvisation in which the players can choose to pass through portals notated in the scores and into his other compositions. Naturally, we’re thinking about the presentation of the evening as a whole, the ebb and flow of the music, and what the audience’s experience will be like because they have so much to encounter.

Q. There is quite a lot to know about Braxton. How does it feel to be at the beginning of this journey of understanding, approaching a major figure whose music offers such vast possibilities?

A. It's exciting. It’s a good reminder to stay curious and roll up my sleeves. Braxton is an incredible composer whose work I greatly admire, and an important figure in American music. Having an opportunity to learn more about him and being able to share this with an audience is a privilege. I feel the same way to be working with these people at his foundation, who are so dedicated to the understanding of his music. That's incredible. Every composer should have that.

Photo of Melissa Smey by Kyle Dorosz for Miller Theatre.

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