Anthony Braxton: Constant Presence

Nate Wooley: Editor-In-Chief

Anthony Braxton has been a visual presence in my life since I was 14 years old.


As my friends cut out photos of Patrick Ewing and Duran Duran, I sat in my bedroom, carefully tracing the fuzzy folds of the saxophonist’s trademark cardigan sweater with scissors before taping his bespectacled gaze to the door of the cabinet in the basement next to where I practiced. At that point, I was merely latching on to the most common identifiers of the man: the sweater, the wire glasses, the enigmatic and intellectual look of the eyes through the hazy smoke of his pipe. To a kid with an ectomorphic personality type, this is your Lone Ranger; and, at that early age, it was sufficient for me to playact becoming that man.


Anthony Braxton has been an auditory presence in my life since I was 15 years old.


Five Pieces 1975 was inconceivable, impossible. Every inch of the vinyl contained a woody and warm confusion that I had no way to contextualize except to place it at the end of my rapidly expanding record collection under “Wait and Try Again.” And I did. I waited. I tried again. I waited again, and tried again, and each time the flicker of comprehension would grow so that the “Wait and Try Again” periods became shorter and more urgent until the now-wrinkling photo in the basement became a representation of a musical vision rather than a totem of fashion.


Anthony Braxton has been a metaphysical presence in my life since I was 18 years old.


Like others who had come to the same devotional point in their appreciation for Braxton’s work, I found Graham Lock’s Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton to be the bible of Braxtonia. A well-written book combining narrative, apocrypha, and musical insight, Lock opened a whole new world of thought to multiple generations of musicians. Forces in Motion continues to be the invaluable introduction to the work of Anthony Braxton, although it now is joined by books like Stuart Broomer’s Time and Anthony Braxton and Mike Heffley’s The Music of Anthony Braxton, among other probes of Braxton’s musical oeuvre and theory.


Anthony Braxton has been a critical presence in my life since I was 20 years old.


At a certain point the decision must be made whether to make the jump from fan to student, and the commitment is marked by a call being put in to Frog Peak Publishing for the Kinko’s bound copy of Braxton’s Triaxium Writings. Post-it Notes are purchased. Pencils are sharpened. And...failure. The weighty volumes are placed in a new, more mature, version of the “Wait and Try Again” pile next to Deleuze and Jung. And, I am still waiting, and I am still trying again. The density of the composer’s writings reveals itself slowly and in a way that offers no pride in grasping the meaning within meaning within meaning of each sentence but, instead, binds you to the other grizzled Triaxium veterans who realize that each concurrent reading will only get them deeper in the quagmire of Braxton’s work, smiling an enlightened smile as they descend into quicksand of metaphysics, politics, and musical theory.

All of my early experience is based on listening to and reading about Anthony Braxton’s music from a very specific period: the late-1960s through the mid-1980s. I am not unusual in this concentration on this early music, which consisted of three iconic quartets and powerfully influential recordings like Creative Music Orchestra Music 1976, For Alto, and Three Compositions of New Jazz. Many admirers tend to fixate on the music from this time with a kind of deepening nostalgia for work that, for lack of a better term, is more jazz-like. To do this, however, means overlooking the opportunity to explore and understand how vibrant the constellation of Braxton’s compositional system has become.


This issue of Sound American, our 16th, is an attempt to address the lack of a central discussion of the composer’s body of work beginning with his Ghost Trance Music and reaching toward his most recent Falling River and Echo Echo Mirror House forms. In collaboration with The Tri-Centric Foundation, a creative organization whose mission is to perform, teach, and promote the music of Anthony Braxton and those who work with him, Sound American is proud to present this primer on his contemporary work.


This issue is not intended to supplant but to extend the reach of books like Forces in Motion, and to provide an outlet for those musicians whose primary musical experience and, in many cases their academic research, has been concentrated on these works of Braxton. This is a manual of use, and is intended as a source, not only for academic consideration but for performance practice and - as is always the goal of Sound American - as a guide for the uninitiated.


Artifact from the Editor's childhood home (ca. 1992)

After moving to New York, I found myself involved with a group of musicians that had studied with Braxton at Wesleyan University. I viewed them as supremely privileged to be able to go straight to the primary source of my adoration, although I now realize that, in their best cases, they had gained those treasured positions, not through worshipping a hero, but by forging their own highly personal musical paths. It was through these friends that I was invited to perform in the first Sonic Genome, which took place over eight hours in the hockey arena on the Wesleyan campus in Middletown, Connecticut. I rode up in a car with saxophonists James Fei and Seth Misterka and felt as if I was somehow going to become a part of a deep initiatory group, a masonic society of language types and Ghost Trance Musics. I admit to being completely lost inside the structure of identities, groupings, formations group leaders, and friendly experiencers. I was swimming in sound as it bounced around the cavernous—and not entirely polite—acoustics of the arena, but, by the end, with swollen lips, ringing ears, and a complete loss of aesthetic footing, I got in a different car heading back to Manhattan and felt like I had found as much of a musical home as I ever would.


We all received something from Braxton with our fees for performing after the Sonic Genome. In a small envelope, written in cursive on a plain sheet of brown notepaper, was a note—the same note that everyone received, I’m sure. Written simply: “Thank you for your music, sir. —AB” I still have this note in a small frame in my house, the last vestige of my long period of hero worship that has remained through the sheer force of Braxton as a model of a life lived in pursuit of artistic expansion.


In the years that followed, I began, thanks to Taylor Ho Bynum, to be asked to play more music and in smaller settings. I performed in Braxton’s phenomenal piece for seven trumpets and a brass quintet consisting of roughly 50 minutes of rhythmic unison without rest, divided in half by a brief moment of the entire group playing well below the bass clef staff. These were the first works of the composer's later period that I experienced in a meaningful way, and they were the first deep experiences of Anthony Braxton as a composer as opposed to the Anthony Braxton as performer and icon I had grown up with.


The pieces were more overtly performative than anything I had done up to that point, especially the trumpet septet with its capes and masks and movement designed to pay homage to the sport of bullfighting, as well as the proto-pop trumpeter Rafael Mendez, in particularly Anthony Braxton fashion. And, to this day, it is the stagecraft that people remember from those performances: the visual aspects—slightly comedic—and the unusual visual representation. But, the actual music in both pieces struck me as perfectly constructed, with a special attention to registration, narrative, and emotional impact. These moments began to tear down the simplified image of the man in the cardigan and gave rise to a rightfully towering figure in modern American composition.


Due to the intent of this issue, laid out above, Sound American will not present general biography, discography, or apocrypha about Anthony Braxton. Books like Forces in Motion and Time and Anthony Braxton do a beautiful job with this already. And, as there are numerous articles dedicated already to his early period work, SA16 will concentrate on being an explanatory guide to the philosophy, context, history, and practice of Anthony Braxton’s later works only. We begin with an overview of Braxton’s compositional system and history by cornetist, composer, Braxton collaborator, and New Yorker contributor Taylor Ho Bynum, before veering off into an explanation and history of Language Music, one of the consistently central systems in Braxton’s oeuvre, consisting of 12 language types that are used to construct improvisations that are openly creative while remaining generally structured.


We follow this with Erica Dicker’s writing on. and performances of, Ghost Trance Music, which has become the meat and potatoes of many of the live performances from the mid-1990s to the present. This constant stream of eighth notes, interrupted from time to time with manic flurries of atonal pitches, has become the defining sonic identifier underlying Braxton’s contemporary work.


Probably the most well-known recent work is Braxton’s large opera cycle, which is grouped under the Trillium classification, explicated for Sound American by bassoonist Katherine Young. The operas utilize multiple compositional systems including GTM and Language Music, but have also increasingly encompassed movement, text, and video. In that realm, SA also explores the physical in the form of Pine Top Aerial Music in conversation with choreographer Rachel Bernsen (coming in September) and its specific connection to movement and dance, and a conversation with the two vocalists who are the deepest within Braxton’s musical system—Kyoko Kitamura and Anne Rhodes—about Syntactical GTM, which concentrates on the voice and text. And, moving from the innately human to the profoundly technological, Carl Testa talks about the most recent example of a futuristic composer reaching into the future, Echo Echo Mirror House, which channels Braxton’s system (and his past work) through a collaged lens of modern technology.


In each explication, Sound American has been lucky enough to engage some of the foremost experts on Anthony Braxton’s music: the people that play it. In this “time cycle” as Braxton likes to say, there is a rare confluence of musical creativity and academic rigor, which allows us to sidestep the purely theoretical to place practice and philosophy side-by-side. It is a rare treat to be able to read the thoughts of such Braxton stalwarts as Taylor Ho Bynum, James Fei, Kyoko Kitamura, Anne Rhodes, Erica Dicker, Carl Testa, Rachel Bernsen, and Katherine Young, all of whom have an intimate knowledge of Braxton the thinker and Braxton the doer.


And, finally, one of those moments that remind me of the magic that can come from doing this sort of work: Sound American is pleased to present a previously unpublished interview from the early 1990s between Anthony Braxton and Graham Lock. As stated, Lock was and, for many, still is the gateway to appreciating and understanding Braxton’s highly individual work. It is an honor to be able to present a conversation between two giants—one musical, one literary—at an important period of aesthetic flux as Braxton began formulating Ghost Trance Music.


I was recently back in the old basement in my childhood home, and the extremely faded photo of Braxton is still affixed where it always has been, next to childhood heroes whose hold on me has proven far more tenuous. I fixed on a mental image of that photo when, at the end of a very packed 10+1tet performance at the Big Ears Festival in Tennessee, I glanced to my right and saw an only slightly aged version next to me, holding an alto he had recently made sound transcendentally alien and smiling He was on the verge of tears (as was I), at the blurry sea of applause rising out of the seats in the concert hall in appreciation of the preceding hour of pure Braxton. I felt proud of an American audience to recognize a profoundly American artist in their lifetime, and I felt proud to have shared a large part of my life with Anthony Braxton. - Nate Wooley - Editor of Sound American

This issue absolutely would not be possible without the patience, perserverance, good humor, and keen eyes of all of our participants, but especially Taylor Ho Bynum, Kyoko Kitamura, Carl Testa, and James Fei from the Tri-Centric Foundation. A deep thanks also goes to Nick Lloyd and Greg DiCrosta from Firehouse 12 Records for their brilliant work in recording our examples for the Ghost Trance Music and Language Music articles. A profound debt of gratitude goes to Mr. Graham Lock for agreeing to take part and bring such a phenomenal piece of unread Braxtonia to the issue and, as always to our copy editor Kaitlyn Zafonte, my boss Lisa Kahlden, and to all of your readers that keep me going through thick and thin with comments and good vibes. It is truly a great time period. - Nate Wooley