Pine Top Aerial Music

By Rachel Bernsen

Anthony Braxton’s Pine Top Aerial Music (PTAM) is a multi-disciplinary system for dancers and musicians, using his vocal Syntactical Ghost Trance Music as “activation code” to trigger movements and formations. PTAM is designed to foster a compositional unity wherein different disciplines perform as one “unit of activity” throughout, translating Braxton’s language into the three-dimensional realm, creating a ritualized performative space through a kind of spatial notation.


Road maps and drawn images make up a large part of the PTAM score, used as a means to integrate his movement and sound strategies. Instrumentalists and dancers might orbit around each other, or create a shifting series of straight lines, or assemble into a formation reminiscent of a marching band. Attention to these elements shifts the compositional paradigm from simply a musical experience to a multi-layered visual one. It invites a deeply embodied experience of space and sound for both the performers and the audience.


Movement functions like another instrument in the ensemble (similar to how Kyoko Kitamura describes the voice’s role in other Braxton works). Both the dancers and the musicians share many of the same parameters, compositional elements and improvisational tools. However, Braxton makes a clear role differentiation between musician and dancer in PTAM: both are mapping the space, but in different ways and with different skills.


The interconnected elements within a performance of Pine Top Aerial Music include Syntactical Ghost Trance Music, Movement Strategies, and Cartographic Open Spaces.


The Syntactical GTM provides cues for transitions and “change state logics” throughout the performance - activating a moment of connectivity through unison movement; or targeting performers to assume or release a configuration, or to change position, direction, or tempo within that configuration; or moving the performers from set configurations to open spaces for improvisation.


The Movement Strategies include “group poses” that are unison in sound and movement; “formations” that create moving spatial pathways such as “line formations”, orbiting “solar formations”, or expanding and contracting “circle formations”; and a series of thirty-two static “body positions” - divided into sub-categories of “standing”, “kneeling”,”laying”, “on back”, “sitting (legs folded)” and “sitting (legs spread)” positions - that the dancers use to build movement phrases. (The poses and positions were all sketched out by Braxton in evocative hand-drawn cartoons.)


The Cartographic Open Spaces are mutable improvisational spaces: “landscape-improvisations” where performers loosely follow a set spatial pathway. Numbers mark different points along the path, each corresponding to and inviting activation of one of the twelve different language types. The road maps (small enough for performers to adhere to their wrists) resemble some of Braxton’s previous graphic scores (such as Falling River Music) but are unique to PTAM.


Conceptually, Braxton places Pine Top Aerial Music in “the house of seven”. This does not mean that the system consists solely of “short attacks” (the corresponding language music type). Rather, it serves as an organizing philosophical principle for examining its conceptual spaces, building upon the idea of quick movements, subtle gestures and micro-movements as opposed to one long form idea. The ensemble might collectively make use of all twelve language types. Each performer will take on one or two types in each section–predetermined by which numbers mark their chosen road map–creating individual definitions in movement and sound. These sonic and physical gestures happen within set configurations and open spaces, layering additional elements on top of what’s taking place at any given time.


Braxton has been developing his relationship with dance and movement throughout his career. He was deeply inspired by Joseph Jarman’s interdisciplinary experiments in the early 1960s; the early period of the AACM in Chicago. While in Paris in 1969-70, Braxton had a close collaboration with dancer/choreographer Sheila Raj, who had danced with revolutionary figures like Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham. Braxton worked directly with Cunningham in the mid-70s, presenting his original music along with Cunningham’s choreography. After taking a faculty position at Mills College in 1985, he pursued projects with that school’s strong dance faculty, with several major compositions from the mid-80s prominently featuring dancers, including Compositions No. 127, 128, and 132. (It is likely not a coincidence that around the time he first had the stability of a full-time time faculty position, he not only began more regularly incorporating dance into his compositional practice, but also began writing his Trillium opera cycle.)


Drawing upon this long history, Braxton began developing Pine Top Aerial Music in the late 2000s, as a direct outgrowth of his Ghost Trance Music. Since GTM was originally inspired by the American Indian Ghost Dance tradition (as outlined by Erica Dicker in this issue), it seems natural for Braxton’s own ritualistic exploration to ultimately include movement. PTAM also carries a strong influence from Braxton’s life-long love of marching bands (including his own experiences in school and in the army) - many of its trajectories and movement strategies come directly from this form.


PTAM is explicitly designed to be a “primary prototype” of what Braxton terms “mapping directive strategies” for the Sonic Genome - Braxton’s immersive, eight-hour installation performances with over sixty musicians. While the Genome’s performances have not yet included dancers, a troupe of at least twelve dancers is built into the design. For the last staging of the Sonic Genome at the Egyptian Museum in Torino, Italy in 2015, I served as movement director, teaching the musicians various movement formations and strategies from the PTAM system. The musicians performed the choreographies at different locations throughout the museum, and used other movement strategies as a means to transition from one space to another - up escalators, down stairs, and around corners. The musicians performed for the full eight hours with a palpable awareness of their own physical presence and of the space around them.


While it’s too much to discuss in depth in this article, it should also be noted that Braxton’s use of movement is built into the development of character for his Trillium opera cycle. Just as the 12 characters carry a relationship to Braxton’s 12 language types, connected to those philosophical principles through narrative and sonic definition, they are also given three-dimensional life through movement and choreography. As choreographer for the 2014 performance of Trillium J, I designed series of symbolic gestures unique for each character, inspired by their associated language type and in the spirit of Braxton’s movement language from Pine Top Aerial Music. Additionally, just as each of the 12 characters in the opera is represented by a singer and an improvising instrumentalist, ultimately that representation is intended to include a dancer. While budget constraints have prevented the full realization with 12 dancers thus far, for the 2014 performance we employed that strategy for two major characters in Act Four.


Pine Top Aerial Music is still in its early stages of development - to date there have only been two small ensemble performances, in October and December of 2011, along with a large ensemble workshop with student performers at the University of Alabama in 2015. These examples exist as a prototype for what is a much larger scaled project - we’ve only performed three parts of what will ultimately include twelve sections, and our small group will be expanded to a cast of 12 dancers and six instrumentalists.


As a dancer, being inside of Braxton’s system is a liberating experience - similar to the feelings expressed elsewhere in this issue by his musical collaborators. In Pine Top Aerial Music, Braxton creates such a clearly defined space, allowing for “integrated experiences” for the whole interdisciplinary ensemble without being too restricting - the artists retain individual agency, constantly engaged in choice making inside of a clearly defined structure. Across discipline, Braxton gives each performer the tools they need to confidently get lost in its architecture.



Performers in PTAM Premiere

Roulette October 5, 2011; Wesleyan University CFA December 1, 2011



Anthony Braxton (reeds)

Taylor Ho Bynum (brass)

Matt Bauder (reeds)

Anne Rhodes (voice)

Rachel Bernsen, Melanie Maar (movement)