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Composer Portraits: Anthony Braxton

This season Miller Theatre celebrates the 20th Anniversary of Composer Portraits. Writer Lara Pellegrinelli has been commissioned to create a snapshot of each composer in words through an exploration of their experiences of community, viewed through the prism of new music.

“Music is not just that which happens on stage. Music is part of the vibrations that happen between people.”  —Anthony Braxton


Anthony Braxton
Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Birthdays provide a welcome excuse to gather in celebration of our musical heroes. The iconoclastic composer, multi-instrumentalist, and educator Anthony Braxton, who will turn 75 years old on June 4, 2020, has given us an abundance of reasons why we should commemorate his arrival in this time-space, as he likely would phrase it.

Braxton’s musical universe did not commence with a single big bang. His mission to become a lifelong student of music was launched in Chicago during the civil rights movement, where, as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), he played what the collective spoke of as creative music and the press labeled “free jazz.” He eagerly anticipated his first solo concert in 1966, imagining it would be an hour of pure invention. “Free, free, free, at last,” he intoned, when he spoke about that memorable occasion during his acceptance of a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2014. But unfettered, stream-of-consciousness improvisation did not ultimately prove liberating. “After five minutes, freedom was not working. The last thing I’m interested in is existential freedom,” he recalled with a wry smile.

Braxton changed course, approaching music as a scientific and spiritual discipline; he believes in its transformational power to better himself and the world around him. He’s a voracious explorer whose collisions with all kinds of music—the lithe, cool saxophone of Paul Desmond, the plangent crooning of Johnny Mathis, the tumult of marching bands, and the 12-tone calculus of Arnold Schoenberg, to name just a few—have expanded his musical reality, and continue to do so. Therefore, he resolved early on to create sound logics and structures that could accommodate his all-embracing aesthetics and keen interest in synthesis. He desired, for example, to reconcile the turbulent spirit of John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor’s extended improvisations with the highly theoretical, polyvalent musical structures descended from European serialism as represented by the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. And he did.

In order to transcend the kind of idiomatic musical vocabulary that is linked closely with specific genres, Braxton developed several compositional systems, including Language Music, Ghost Trance Music, Falling River Music, Diamond Curtain Music, and Echo Echo Mirror House Music; each new one assimilated elements of those that preceded it. Braxton’s extensions of conventional musical notation in graphic scores that utilize new symbology have enabled him to integrate composition and improvisation, disrupting the hierarchical status of composers and empowering performers in the creative process. On stage, this manifests itself as music with ritual dimensions, offering freedom of choice while demanding incredible discipline.

“The music attracts a certain kind of musician: those who are thinking outside the box. It’s people who want to get to know their own playing in a different way. His music is full of exciting and unpredictable challenges. You don’t know how things are going to happen and you learn more about the music and your collaborators through the process.” —Chris McIntyre

Braxton has rejected the label jazz, a category into which he feels he was cast based on his identity as an improvising, African-American musician and racialized assumptions about his compositions. Prominent jazz critics spurned him for much of his career. But as Braxton chronicler Graham Lock points out, it is “precisely his willingness to adapt and remake outside influences (such as European classical forms) that locates him firmly within African-American perception dynamics.”

"Anthony Braxton: Ghost Trance Music" by Seth Colter Walls (May 6, 2016)

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Braxton has composed over 400 works, with instrumentation ranging from solo saxophone to four complete orchestras. His ongoing Trillium opera complex will eventually consist of a dozen operas comprising a total of 36 autonomous, individual acts; six operas are currently complete. Braxton 75: The Music of Anthony Braxton, in which tonight’s concert is a featured event, is a project of the Tri-Centric Foundation, founded to support Braxton’s ongoing work and legacy. The initiative entails enabling live performances of Braxton’s music; making recordings available on his New Braxton House label (via Bandcamp); further disseminating his written compositions by preparing, digitizing, and newly publishing his scores; and expanding the pedagogical practices around his music so that more teachers and ensembles can engage with it.

“Anthony is a living composer and performer,” says Kyoko Kitamura, Tri-Centric’s executive director. “The fact that his compositions were often played or conducted by him meant that performances of his compositions were tied to his presence. Braxton 75 puts the focus on his compositions.”

“We’re providing the materials, we’re helping to decipher scores, and we’re sharing the history of the performance practice that lives in oral tradition,” James Fei, President of Tri-Centric’s Board, elaborates. “That not only includes how to play specific notations but how he is able to combine pieces in his musical systems so that, for example, a solo piano piece might be played inside of a piece with improvisation.”

For Braxton, a black man known for playing improvised music on the saxophone, finding institutions that would program his compositions and existing ensembles that would take on these challenging works has not been easy. Instead, he has relied on a community that has grown up around him and now boasts multiple generations.

For example, many of the esteemed performers with whom Braxton has worked in recent decades–including cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, guitarist Mary Halvorson, saxophonist Steve Lehman, and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey, all composers in their own right—came through the ensembles he taught for decades at Wesleyan University, where he is now a Professor Emeritus; fortunately, a new musical generation has caught up with the requirements of his compositions and possesses the flexibility to move between different kinds of music as if it is second nature. As an institution, Tri-Centric does not operate at a remove from Braxton. It is populated with composers and performers who have worked and performed with him. To give back to that community, Tri-Centric administers a commissioning series for emerging composers as well as research and development micro-grants that provide seed money for new projects.

The music itself promotes inclusivity. “It’s both specific enough and open enough that it invites anyone in,” explains trombonist Chris McIntyre, a former Tri-Centric board member. The way he describes Braxton’s philosophy resembles the jazz tradition with its emphasis on individuality: “He wants people to be who they are. It’s very different than most concert music, where you’re expected to make a sterling interpretation of exactly what you see on the page each and every time. That’s not what he wants. He wants you to play it the way that you can play it.”

“You can approach Braxton’s music from the baseline notation and that’s perfectly fine. But you can also go deeper into it. His musical systems allow for pieces to be executed in completely different ways, to give performers choices.” —James Fei

The music is collaborative and cooperative, a goal of performance. As Braxton told The New York Times: “It involves people suddenly coming together in communities. The art of the relationship. How to deal with each other.”

By the way, you have a distinguished place in Braxton’s conception of performance as well. The underlying purpose of his musical systems is to offer structure for event spaces where ‘friendly experiencers’—meaning you, the audience—can take part and join this community with open ears.

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This Composer Portrait highlights the shift brought about by Braxton 75: the moment when his music joins the repertoire from the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In recent years, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Musikfabrik, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and Wet Ink, have worked as performance partners with Tri-Centric. Either/Or and the JACK Quartet, the ensembles presenting tonight’s music, have joined them, in part through their prior appearances at Miller Theatre. Either/Or performed Braxton’s Compositions No. 70, 101, and 168 at a Pop-Up concert in January, and JACK performed Composition No. 173 on their first Soundscape America program in 2017-18, planting the seeds for this event. Although neither group has a direct connection to Braxton, Fei and McIntyre will be performing as part of Either/Or.

“I didn’t know how to approach the scores,” says John Pickford Richards, JACK’s violist and executive director. “But after just a couple of hours working with [former Tri-Centric executive director] Taylor Ho Bynum, I felt completely welcomed into the fold. We immediately fell in love, and that has everything to do with the way Tri-Centric shared the practice with us. There’s a deep respect for the music. The performance vibe on stage is spontaneous and fun, with full commitment from the performers.”

“The process is really interesting, because it brings musicians together,” says Richard Carrick, Either/Or’s director, conductor, and pianist. “You have to come at it with an open mind and understanding of everyone involved, because we are responsible for each other onstage. That’s true when you’re playing conventional chamber music, but with Braxton’s music, many elements are not specifically notated, so we have to talk about, agree upon, and listen for them in the rehearsal process. It’s a strong vision for how music can be put together.”

The manner in which this Composer Portrait is being presented also charts new territory. When Braxton performs and presents his compositions, he does not think of the past work as separate from the present. As Fei says, “He’s absorbed and eaten up his earlier music.” A restless creator, Braxton has never stopped exploring, inventing, and evolving. Instead of directing the building wave of interest that other ensembles have in his music, he continues to focus his efforts on creating new works—as well he should. Tonight’s program is unusual in that it comes close to being a retrospective, offering examples of Braxton’s music from various compositional periods.

Starting with Composition No. 1 (1968) and ending with No. 358 (2006), this program takes one possible path through Braxton’s works. In effect, it tells the story of his life-long experiments exploring the interrelationship between premeditated and spontaneous creation, fixed and open structures.

Although Braxton welcomes all friendly experiencers to hear his music without preparation, there is no shortage of information on these compositions. Braxton himself penned three volumes of Tri-Axium writings to address his musical philosophy and aesthetics, as well as five volumes of notes on individual pieces, from which the quotations below are drawn.

The first portion of the program will feature three distinct pieces: Composition No. 1, No. 17, and No. 46.

Composition No. 1 (1968)

“We decided to put Composition No. 1 on the program to show Braxton’s breadth as a composer,” explains Carrick, who will also be the pianist performing this solo work. It dates from Braxton’s student days at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Until then, he had created music for ensembles of improvisers. Composition No. 1 is his first fully notated piece.

Braxton explains that he wrote it “as I heard it in my head” without preconceiving of its structure, saying, “I wanted what could be called a notated improvised music – or a notated improvisation.” Yet even in this early work, he is stretching the bounds of conventional notation. Visual symbols like asterisks, thick black lines, and arrows—most numerous at the end of the work, in a place analogous to a cadenza—are left for the performer to interpret intuitively as a stimulus for improvisation. That is why, Braxton says, “… a given performance of Composition No. 1 is an affirmation of myself as a composer as well as the interpreter—as a creative person in his or her own right.”

Composition No. 17 (1971)

The first in a series of three pieces scored for strings, Composition No. 17 consists of four sets of written parts. Any part can be played by any instrument. Each part has three sections in contrasting tempos that can be played in any order for any length of time. Although the open structure of No. 17 bears similarities to the aleatoric music of John Cage, who introduced randomness as a compositional element to eliminate personal taste from his writing, Braxton’s motivation proves radically different.

“Composition No. 17 is designed to encourage greater input from its performing musicians,” writes Braxton, “so that more than one level of intent and insight can be transmitted during its execution. The reality of this new involvement is in accordance with my belief in transformational creativity and transformational participation.”

The performers’ input extends to musical specifics. Phrase groups can be played in any order and as many times as desired. Often, the notation consists of notes positioned relative to a single line rather than a full staff, requiring the performers to interpret pitches. Graphic notation allows for the interpolation of extended string techniques, creating opportunities to incorporate contemporary string pedagogy. Cuing a series of phrases that appears in the left-hand margins so that they can be executed in unison is left at the discretion of the first violinist.

In approaching the piece, John Pickford Richards says that the JACK Quartet will “come up with a rough game plan, an order of possibilities. The fun in playing this piece is seeing how far can we stretch the rules and push each other into uncharted territory.”

Composition No. 46 (1975)

Composition No. 46, scored for a ten-piece ensemble, reflects Braxton’s love for the early twentieth-century chamber works of serial composers Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. At the same time, Braxton is sure to differentiate himself from their abstract, mathematical approaches and pointillist sound worlds. “This is not a cold universe worked out in Never Never Land,” he writes of No. 46. “This is a cold music worked out at home (smile).”

Like No. 1, No. 46 had no preconceived form. The structure has four different components based on texture: light texture, dense complex active texture, and isolated sound points. Fully notated but sounding improvised, the composition explores ideas of continuity and movement. Braxton describes it as world of “suspended sound shapes that is hung into given time sequences in the sound space of the music as a means to establish a moment (and viewpoint).”

Again, Braxton stretches conventional notation, but here it is most significant in the realm of time. Instead of using conventional meter, the score indicates 192 “sound moments” cued by the conductor. “That’s very exciting,” Carrick says. “When you eliminate the bar lines, you effectively get rid of the middle man between the conductor and the musicians. I give a downbeat and point to three people, and they have to be with me. It’s not just about counting. It creates a different performance dynamic.”

In contrast with the pieces presented independently on the first portion of the program, the second portion will function as an open set. All of the performers will take the stage together. Braxton’s compositions – including No. 17 (heard earlier), No. 18, No. 40(O), No. 101, No. 168, and No. 358 – will not appear in a pre-determined sequence (or, at least, not pre-determined at the time of this writing). They may overlap, be woven in and out of each other, or be played simultaneously, one layered atop another. Some pieces will serve as gateways to others, decisions that may be made by performers on the spot. Not everything will be played in its entirety.

As Braxton writes in his catalogue of works (1988): “All compositions in my musical system connect together… All compositions in my musical system can be executed at the same time/moment. That is, this material in its entirety can be performed together as one state of being—at the same time (in whole or in part – in any combination). This option is the aesthetic/conceptual/vibrational fulfillment of my music.”

Composition No. 18 (1971)

Composition No. 18 extends the framework of the previous string quartet, Composition No. 17. It, too, has four sets of parts with three sections each in contrasting tempos, allowing the performers to determine who plays which part, in what sequence, and for how long. But none of it is conventionally notated. Instead, No. 18 was designed to utilize “sliding sound techniques,” which permeate the piece. A single horizontal line substitutes for a full staff and the pitch notation consists of various curves drawn above, below, and through it. Some gently slope, while others are box-like; they may derive from the graphic notation representing the dozen sound types that comprise Braxton’s Language Music.

“Truly, we will be sliding our fingers all over the place,” says Richards. “The effect here is textural, and the challenge is to spontaneously create a cohesive sound world. We play a great deal of music with glissando, but we don’t want this to be beholden to other styles of composition. It puts a great deal of responsibility in the hands of the performers.”

Composition No. 40(O)

Part of his Kelvin series, Braxton refers to Composition No. 40(O) as a “phrase generating platform for extended improvisation.” The score is merely three lines long. It can be played by any number or type of instruments. There is no clef, meaning that performers can determine their own reference point for rendering the notated pitches on the staff. The pulse is consistent and, with each repetition of the form, individual players have the option of changing something: pitch, instrument, register, or mute.

“It’s a loop,” says Carrick. “You can get on or off of the loop. Some people might start the piece and others might join. Once it grows, it will start to change. Everyone starts to individualize the piece and, eventually, it comes apart. The piece has a great capacity for pulling everyone in the band together.”

The result is at once minimalistic, allowing the listener to focus on small, incremental shifts, and something like a theme and variations or jazz improvisation with a melody at its core. “The ‘exactment’ that motivated this work,” Braxton writes, “involves the wonder of irregularly designed lines that repeat in the sound space – that can be played exactly as written or shifted to reemphasize what was perceived in the moment as more ‘necessary.’ This is a forum that can be molded, remolded and individually molded (inside of a composite ensemble).”

Composition No. 101 (1981)

“To enter the universe of Composition No. 101,” writes Braxton, “is to work in a field of tall long trees (of glass) – that establishes a prism of angled sheets (that gives us fresh insight into the world of music). This is a complex music of changing and overlapping construction moments (and focuses).”

Composition No. 101, to be performed here by Carrick and trombonist Chris McIntyre, was written for one wind or brass multi-instrumentalist plus piano. With the goal of creating a composite sound through dialogue, the work sits at a midpoint between composition and improvisation. As Braxton states, “Notated moments are entered and transformed as a way of life in this sound world—to showcase the crystal edges of its sound space sensibility.” For example, a phrase might begin on the solid footing of conventional staff notation, and then be replaced by a symbol resembling a tiny house, an example of Language Music notation that indicates that the performer should use multiphonics, but not the specifics of them, or it might open into a squiggly bubble, an example of visual tracing notation; the performer can only choose notes that could be mapped on to a staff that would fit inside the shape. In this manner, the score weaves in and out of conventional notation, threading these notated improvisational spaces throughout.

“We never drift for very long,” explains Carrick. “We’re always coming back to each other and checking in with each other. We’re in and out of alignment within a split second. You really have to internalize the details of the score and rehearse to get it just right.”

Composition No. 168 (1992)

A duo with unspecified instrumentation, Composition No. 168 will be played twice, by two independent pairs: flute and clarinet, and bass clarinet and bassoon. The piece retains some of the vocabulary of Language Music. Issued on CD by Braxton as a duo with accordionist Ted Reichman (Music & Arts, 1993),  it also employs what Braxton refers to as Multi-Structural Logics: formal pathways between his musical systems that prefigure his well-known Ghost Trance period by three years. No. 168 offers the means by which a musician can spontaneously integrate any of Braxton’s previous compositions into the performance, irrespective of its original instrumentation. It parallels the collage technique used in his celebrated quartet of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, in which old and new works could be layered and each of the four musicians could actually be playing a different piece at any given time.

No. 168 opens with the two lines played in counterpoint. As Carrick explains, “Symbols are portals that provide entry and exit points. A circle attached by a line to a notehead indicates ‘abstract realization,’ a musical space that allows for the freedom to improvise. A triangle indicates ‘intuitive realization,’ or a ritual space represented by secondary materials that are found in an appendix to the composition. And a square indicates ‘concrete realization’ with ‘tertiary’ material, other compositions by Braxton that the performer can visit. Braxton’s music is already full of intricacies. This allows for even more activity within certain points. It is an intimate and intense experience between two players.”

Composition No. 358 (2006)

Composition No. 358 belongs to Braxton’s late Ghost Trance Music; he wrote approximately 150 Ghost Trance pieces between 1995 and 2006. Although this musical system still employs elements of Language Music and the Multi-Structural Logics described in No. 168, its foundation is quite different. Inspired most specifically by Native American Ghost Dances—19th-century, pan-tribal rituals enacted to connect with ancestral spirits—Ghost Trance Music employs repetition as a gateway to ritual space that alters our perceptions of time. Each piece has a primary melody, a continuous, pulsing single line. Braxton describes it as “a melody that never ends.”

“Ghost trance is based on the idea that there is note regularity,” he says. “From that you generate, you go into these portals to other worlds and come back out of that. There are many different places you can go to.” Writing for Sound American, International Contemporary Ensemble member Erica Dicker describes it as a “musical super-highway—a META-ROAD—designed to put the player in the driver’s seat, drawing his or her intentions into the navigation of the performance, determining the structure of the performance itself.”

As for that primary melody, Chris McIntyre says, “We’ll all be playing that line. We’ll land on it together and play it down until you get to some of the symbolic info that can take you out of the thread, or you decide to stay with the thread.”

No. 358 is part of a sub-species of Ghost Trance Music called Accelerator Class, which uses grace notes, ornaments, and irregular rhythms to obscure and destabilize the primary melody. The notation is color-coded, with passages whose notes appear in reds, pinks, yellows, greens, and blues. Additional options are created by “freeze frames,” where musicians can play the conventional notation in time, or drop out and improvise the graphic notation.

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As Fei explains, “It’s very important to Anthony that the way we played these pieces in his ensemble does not become gospel. He is very insistent that people find their own way. Even if he ultimately doesn’t like the music, he appreciates that people are putting effort into understanding it and personalizing it. It’s an outcome that he’s happy with.”

The music may, at times, look and feel chaotic, but it is not. As Braxton’s model for society, his compositions speak to his faith in the individual as a member of a collective. He has always appreciated his opportunities to work with others as a means to better understand community as we move forward into the next time cycle. You are now officially part of that community. The music tonight can travel many paths, so look up from your program. You may catch it in motion.


Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She teaches at The New School and Bard’s Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library.

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