Taylor Ho Bynum on Anthony Braxton
The other morning I took a walk in my neighborhood, as I do several times a week. At the end of a dead end street a few blocks from my home, I noticed, for the first time, a path leading into the woods. I took that path, and quickly found myself somewhere I’d never been before, and could not have imagined existing so close to familiar surroundings. Deep trees, abandoned stone foundations, wild blackberry bushes, rickety wooden bridges over muddy brooks. I felt like a protagonist in a children’s fantasy novel – finding a portal to the unexpected, full of secrets and surprise, discovery and adventure. It was a feeling I recognized from playing Anthony Braxton’s music.
I still remember my first meeting with Braxton – in his classroom as a freshman at Wesleyan University in 1993, intimidated by his imposing reputation, trying to keep up with new terminologies like “trans-idiomatic” and “language music.” Finally, he closed out by saying “People, remember – there is a new 10-CD set of Frank Sinatra music coming out, and the Dallas Cowboys are playing this weekend. It is a great time to be an American!” Inspired, confused, exhilarated, and intrigued, I staggered out of the building still reeling from the profundities of that introductory lecture, but I was hooked.
About a decade later, after cutting my teeth as a young musician in the Boston and New York scenes, I reconnected with Anthony and began regularly working in his various ensembles. Over the past "12+" years (an auspicious time period in Braxtonian parlance), I have had the opportunity to participate in the development of several unique music systems as a performer, and the privilege of serving as producer (and often co-conductor) of some of the more massive realizations of Braxton’s vision, like the Sonic Genomes and the Trillium operas. (As Anthony often says, “You have to think in terms of scale. Do work that is small, medium, large…and utterly ridiculous!”)
Photo by Peter Gannushkin
In his eloquent introduction, Nate Wooley points out that the majority of scholarship and critical study of Braxton’s music focuses on his earlier work, partly out of natural nostalgia and the passage of time, and perhaps partly because of its easier fit into the paradigms of “jazz studies” (though any informed observer would see that Braxton and his peers were exploding those definitions from the very beginning). One of the reasons I so admire Anthony is his refusal to rest on his laurels and coast on his previous achievements; he remains wholly committed to continued exploration, tirelessly pushing his musical, philosophical, and ritual systems forwards (as his regular collaborators, often decades his junior, struggle to keep up!).
However, this is not to say that Braxton abandons his past; rather, thanks to the structure provided by his “Tri-Centric Thought Unit Construct”, he incorporates the past, present and future into a seamless whole. Anthony makes clear his music is not a rejection of anything, be it jazz, classical, or even his own history. Instead, it exists in a constant state of evolution, building on previous examples, reacting to current situations, and predicting possibilities to come. Braxton’s approach to his own formidable legacy is well encapsulated by his Echo Echo Mirror House Music, where performers execute various sonic strategies through cartographic scores while simultaneously wielding iPods shuffling through his entire recorded discography. You want to hear some of the old classics? How about hearing them all at once, with some extra frosting on top!
Ghost Trance Music serves as another instructive example. When it first emerged in the mid-1990s, even some long-time aficionados were perplexed by its seeming simplicity, the endless march-like rhythms so at odds with the virtuosic fractured swing of the ‘70s quartet music, or the brilliantly collaged complexity of the Crispell/Dresser/Hemingway group. However, by its final fruition, as evidenced by the epic 12+1tet run documented on “9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006” (Firehouse 12 Records) or its function as the connective tissue of the Sonic Genome, Ghost Trance Music’s genius is made clear. Like many biological processes, seen in retrospect the evolution seems almost inevitable. In the ‘70s, Braxton began segueing his small ensemble music to create evening-length performances. In the ‘80s, he began playing with collage and juxtaposition, as multiple pieces would be performed at once. In the ‘90s with GTM, he created a “continuous state” music, the musical infrastructure performers could use to travel the entirety of the Tri-Centric model.
A quick explanation of the “Tri-Centric model” is probably in order. There are defined music systems, like Ghost Trance Music, Echo Echo Mirror House Music, or Diamond Curtain Wall Music (which features Braxton’s interactive electronics), that both encompass individual compositions (usually for unfixed instrumentation) and also provide a means for navigating the full model. Then there are specific compositions, like the 23 series for small ensemble, or Composition No. 82 for four orchestras, or Composition No. 103 for seven trumpets, or the 4-act opera Trillium J (Composition No. 380), among hundreds of examples. These works can be performed in their “origin state”, as originally scored and conceived, or they can be deconstructed into materials to be embedded into a larger system – freeing the compositions in regard to instrumentation and tempo and transposition, providing a near infinite body of material that is simultaneously known and unknown, fixed and mutable. Performing a full orchestral performance of Composition No. 96 is a beautiful thing, and sight-reading the violin part from 96 on tuba as tertiary material in the midst of a GTM performance is an equally beautiful thing.
Here lies one of the essential kernels of Braxton’s brilliance, and one of the essential components to engaging with his work as a performer or a listener. I know of no other contemporary composer who has created written music of such depth, diversity, and exceptional quality. Obviously I am deeply biased, but the sheer artistry and scale of something like the Trillium operas demonstrates a compelling argument for this opinion – with the innovative incorporation of individual and ensemble improvisation into a massive construct of composition and orchestration; the ritualistic exploration of narrative simultaneously darkly comic, profoundly philosophical, and utterly mysterious; and the full creative engagement of close to a hundred individual performers, directors, and designers within the context of one powerfully idiosyncratic vision. At the same time, I know of no other composer (or bandleader) who offers his performers such agency and freedom in making their own choices in investigating this sound world. Who else would write an opera of magnificent complexity and size, then not just allow, but enthusiastically embrace a single vocalist deconstructing those materials in the context of an electroacoustic trio improvisation?
The words “system”, “model”, and “construct” will likely appear throughout these pages, for good reason. For understanding Braxton’s work is not simply about appreciating the creative insight, technical rigor, and conceptual innovation demonstrated by individual compositions, but the underlying principles that allowed their construction. (And we’re not even getting into his terrifying skills as an instrumentalist and improviser – but trust me, whether you’re on stage next to him or in the audience in front, it is sometimes hard to remember to think of anything else!). The Language Music acts as the DNA, the building blocks of the system. Each single language represents not just the sound type on the surface level (i.e. #1 = “long sound” or #6 = “multiphonic”), but also the doors to deeper conceptual investigation (long sound to continuous state logic to Ghost Trance Music; multiphonic to sound mass logic to Echo Echo Mirror House Music), and even the foundations of the character archetypes that populate his operas (#1 = Shala, #6 = Joreo).
The model creates an intricately connected web – or maybe the better analogy is to the geodesic domes of one of Braxton’s inspirations and fellow world-builders, Buckminster Fuller. Each component supports and is supported by the others, sometimes in unexpected ways. For instance, Braxton’s Syntactical Ghost Trance Music (the vocal version of GTM) features non-narrative words, sounds, letters and numbers. After years of simply considering them abstract lyrics, I was stunned to discover they serve as activation codes within an entirely different system: Pine Top Aerial Music, Braxton’s interdisciplinary dance/music prototype that translates Language Music into movements and formations. Of course, PTAM is then embedded into the Sonic Genomes, the 8+ hour immersive performance installations that become the physical representations, almost theme-park playgrounds, of the entire Tri-Centric system. Is this all planned in advance, or realized in the moment? Or the kind of real-time serendipity that can only be generated by careful planning? Each piece and each system has multiple layers of meaning and information, providing multi-dimensional planes of support for sculptures of fantastical shapes. It goes back to one of Braxton’s most succinct descriptions of his music – “navigation through form” – yet we should never underestimate the extraordinary surprises made possible by those navigations, or the awesomely complex architectures that populate those forms.
The Tri-Centric Foundation recently held a small symposium on expanding the pedagogy of Braxton’s music, with dozens of artists who’ve been deeply engaged with the work over the past decade. When asked a specific question on performance practice, one participant said, “Ask three people who played it, and get three different answers. Then go figure out your own approach.” There is not a “right way” or a “wrong way” to dig into Braxton’s music – it is a template for individual and collective creativity, which is why it is so empowering not just for other musicians, but for creative thinkers in any discipline. It is about embracing a philosophy that prizes process over product and risk over reward, yet also demands commitment, focused study, and “doing one’s best.” It resists fixed definition and emphasizes the unknown, yet remains vibrationally consistent (and consistently contradictory). It is the product of one person’s lifetime of investigation, but built upon the examples of hundreds, maybe thousands, of heroes and heroines that preceded him, and freely offered as a tool for the next generation to mutate in their own unimaginable ways.
That said, it is encouraged to do this as part of a community, to ask questions and acquire knowledge (without expecting easy answers), to be a part of an ongoing conversation on global creativity that started before Braxton was here, and will continue after he’s gone. This issue of Sound American offers a wonderful entry point to that discussion, bringing the voices of some of the most thoughtful participants and collaborators of the recent years (along with a healthy dose of Anthony’s own words). Trying to remain true to Braxton’s philosophy, hopefully this can be a manual for use, rather than passive consumption; a call to action and exploration, instead of a piece of history or musicology. A map where familiar neighborhoods lead to undiscovered magic. As the maestro would say, “Kick it about, and have some fun!”
Taylor Ho Bynum has spent his career navigating the intersections between structure and improvisation – through musical composition, performance and interdisciplinary collaboration, and through production, organizing, teaching, writing and advocacy. Bynum’s expressionistic playing on cornet and his expansive vision as composer have garnered him critical attention on over twenty recordings as a bandleader and dozens more as a sideman. He currently leads his Sextet and 7-tette, most recently documented on the critically acclaimed 4-album set “Navigation” (Firehouse 12 Records, 2013), and the debut recording of his PlusTet, a 15-piece ensemble made up of his closest long-time collaborators, will be released in the fall of 2016.
His varied endeavors include his Acoustic Bicycle Tours (where he travels to concerts solely by bike across thousands of miles) and his stewardship of Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Foundation (which he serves as executive director, producing and performing on most of Braxton’s recent major projects). In addition to his own bands, his ongoing collaboration with Braxton, past work with other legendary figures such as Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor, and current collective projects with forward thinking peers like Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara, Bynum increasingly travels the globe to conduct community-based large ensembles in explorations of new creative orchestra music. He is also a published author and contributor to The New Yorker’s Culture Blog, has taught at universities, festivals, and workshops worldwide, and has served as a panelist and consultant for leading funders, arts organizations, and individual artists. His work has received support from Creative Capital, the Connecticut Office of the Arts, Chamber Music America, New Music USA, USArtists International, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.