The Early Evolution of Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Musics and Trillium Operas
The Fantasy and Mystery Interviews. By Graham Lock
In the 1990s Anthony Braxton’s music was undergoing major changes, with the arrival of the Ghost Trance Musics and the further development of the Trillium operas. I tried to keep up with these change by interviewing Anthony when he came to perform in London in 1993, 1994 and 1996. In 1995 I flew to New York to attend what I think was the first Tri-Centric Festival, in the Knitting Factory, and a few days later I interviewed Anthony at his home in Middletown, CT.
What follows are two excerpts from those interview transcripts, most of which have never been published: the first comes from the 1995 meeting in Middletown; the second took place in a London hotel room in 1996, on the afternoon before Anthony and vocalist Lauren Newton performed the world premiere of his Composition 192, for two musicians and constructed environment. There were no Trillium or Ghost Trance recordings available at the time and, as will soon become apparent, I was struggling to understand the concepts, processes and terminology attendant on this musical transformation.
In subsequent years, those things have been documented in much greater detail. Still, I hope the excerpts below may serve as a useful and intriguing portal into the worlds of Ghost Trance and Trillium for people who are unfamiliar with these aspects of the Braxton oeuvre. And, of course, it’s always fascinating to read Anthony’s thoughts on his work, especially in a period of musical transition such as the mid-1990s, when his ideas were in flux and perhaps, at times, taking shape even as we spoke.
I’d like to thank Nate Wooley for inviting me to contribute to this issue, and Anthony Braxton for his music, for the time and patience he gave to my questions, and for his permission to reproduce the illustrations below.
- GL, August 2016
1. Mapping the Spatial Domains—Pitches like Streams of Consciousness—Of Sword Fights and Schematics—Fun with the Friendly Experiencer
Middletown, CT. December 1st, 1995.
Anthony Braxton. In this time period, maybe the last ten to 15 years, I have moved away from abstract modelling concepts that reflect my early influences, especially the post-Schoenberg and post-Coleman musics. I have become more excited about narrative structures. Narrative structures as a way to better understand intention; as a way to evolve a context of song-musics; as a way of recasting music that would be consistent with the statements I made before, when I talked of moving ‘from the abstract to the concrete’.
Concrete, in this instance, being states of fantasy, of story telling, that will allow for intention to be realised. Different characters can act out, through stories and particular identity-space plots, different kinds of creative strategies. I would like to expand my materials and my system into the concrete domain, into the three-dimensional domain, and because of that I have, in the last three or four years, begun to think of spatial dimension as a context that can be mapped.
There are several aspects to it. Mapping in the sense of compositions that can help me begin to map the parameters of local space environments, to community space environments, to nation-state or city-state environments, to continental mappings, to planet mappings, and then to galactic mappings. So, for instance, Composition 174 is the beginning of mappings of gradient logics, the mapping of a mountain.
Diagram Title for Composition 174.
My hope is to build a three-dimensional, Tri-Centric music world experience that will be manifested on several different levels. I’d like to have a kind of park community, like Disneyland, for the family, for the individual experiencer, who might be a musician or a secretary who wants to get away from work for a few days and have some fun in a three-dimensional domain, where there will be different kinds of experiences. She might want to go with her girlfriends and visit Garthstone Castle, in Composition 175, or go to one of the other lands.
I’m seeking to evolve my model into the three-dimensional fantasy state as it relates to personality, intention and psychology. Psychology, in this sense, goes back to the concept of the 12 architectonic units that can also be looked at as 12 personalities that will give me the possibility to look at motivation, intention . . .
Diagram Title for Composition 175.
Graham Lock. Can you say a little more about what you mean by intention here?
AB. The wonderful thing about doing the story-telling musics is, for me, where, for instance, in the Trillium operas, which are the dialogues, I can have the characters talking about the philosophical arguments inside of some real-time, fantasy plot situation. So intention in Trillium R, in the fourth scene there’s sword-fighting, and while they’re sword-fighting, they’re talking.
By the way, have you seen Trillium A? You know it’s on video?
GL. No, I didn’t know.
AB. Oh man . . . I don’t believe it! We could have been watching it . . .
GL. Never mind. Let’s carry on now and see if there’s time later.
AB. Okay. So, intention, in terms of having a plot and having characters interact in the plot, that would be one aspect of intention. For the Trillium operas, they are also engaging in dialogues based on the schematics from the Tri-axium Writings. But in Composition 174, which is a different category of poetic logics, the characters are engaged in real-time plot instances and are also giving out mapping cues; what they’re really doing is mapping local spaces.
So I’m seeking in my work in this area to map local spaces, for instance the living room or the different rooms of the castle. I’m seeking to map territories, in the sense of mountain regions or the tri-state region. My plan is . . . for instance, 171 is performed with three giant maps, with the tracers, the pointers, and my hope is to build the complete map. At this point I have three of the states—Ashmenton Land, Joreo Land and Shala Land—and the idea will be to build a map for the 12 states. Then I’ll have like a giant fantasy world of the 12 different states and it will exist in three dimensions—as a sphere, as a linear land area context that can be used to build a state park or county fair or highway system or a mountain ski region. What it will do, it will give me practical exploratory objectives, because I’m an old man, I can’t think about abstract things any more. If I need a plumber, I want a plumber!
Above: Diagram Title for Composition 171.
Clockwise from Right: Maps of Ashmenton Land, Shala Land and Joreo Land. From the score of Composition 171.
GL. Yet you’re still composing just music, aren’t you? I mean, I’m curious . . . it seems as if you’re saying that music on its own won’t be enough any more.
AB. I wouldn’t say it like that, so much as . . . I’m seeking to evolve my work. I’m totally interested in music in every way, but it seems to me that in the third millennium, the discipline of music, like everything else, will call for a fresh balance: a balance that will take into account the emergence of new technologies, for instance. In the ’90s, we’re seeing a generation of young people who are playing video games, who have 360 TV channels, who are using email and the internet. These new inventions are bringing with them a new mentality, some of which will be complex, and some of which will also be complex, but different.
Part of what I feel the new millennium will be about is the opportunity to have three-dimensional experiences and voyages, and I’d like to evolve my music in a way that’s consistent with those breakthroughs. Because I do not feel the three-dimensional aspects of the experience will get in the way of the music. There will be times, I imagine, when a person listening to my music might not want to go into the three-dimensional space and might just want to play a record. Great! I’m totally interested in that. Nor am I saying that I plan to give up music in any way, because I’m not. I’m only saying that the next time cycle will call for exploratory three-dimensional kinds of experiences that will keep creativity fresh. Because I’m not interested in just stopping at some point and saying, yep, this is it. I’m interested in music as part of evolving through life and surprise and attraction
GL. In recent years your diagram titles have become increasingly like pictures of landscapes. It’s as if, with the idea of music as a domain, you’re trying to bring the titles to life, to place the audience and musicians in those landscapes. Is that the case?
AB. Yes sir. And starting with the Ghost Trance Musics, you’re gonna see photographs inside of the titles—from the abstract to the concrete! I’m trying to evolve the graphic components of my work as well as the literary: I see it as all part of the same thing.
Diagram-title for Composition 187 , showing the inclusion of photographs in the Ghost Trance titles.
GL. You’ve always had the diagram-titles, right from the start, so I guess I was wrong before to talk about just playing music. You’ve never just played the music. You’ve always had a particular way of presenting it, of putting it in a wider context.
AB. This is what I’ve learned from my role models, that I have to build my own universe, and build it in a way that would reflect what I’ve learned from them, and what’s kept me interested in their music. There’s been a certain level of thought and personality and originality that each of my heroes brought to their work. I could never be happy with some guy who tries to play like John Coltrane; it was unique when Coltrane did it.
What happens is, you do something and then five thousand stylists take it, make a law out of it, publish books about how it works and then the next generation is taught that information as if it’s, like, the golden rule! Like it’s something you can’t change. There we have it, the market place triumphs again. Somehow we are a little further away from the original message, which was creativity, creative community, the beauty of the past, the beauty of the moment and the beauty of having hope for the future.
GL. In the past, you’ve spoken about seeing your music as colours and shapes. Has that changed at all, or do you still ‘see’ sound in the same way?
AB. I have much more to learn about it, but, yes . . . No matter what the composition, I tend to envision the kind of scheme and processes that can also be talked of in a way that’s consistent with a visual palette of some kind. But just as a painting is different from a movie, and a movie is different from a hologram, I find myself looking at imprint structures that are three-dimensional. Some of it can be realised in strictly musical domains, but now I’m more interested in three-dimensional components. Yet it’s consistent with the early alignments, the aesthetic alignments, in terms of visual forms, imprint forms and synthesis correspondence identities. That’s what we’re really talking about.
GL. Do the sounds come first? I mean, do you have the idea of the sounds and then try to visualise it, or does it just happen anyway?
AB. It depends on what we’re talking about. For instance, I have now come to the point in Trillium E where, after one year, the libretto is finished. I’ve also finished the rhythmic logic. Starting in about two weeks, I plan to sit down and consider a pitch logic strategy, and begin the process of composing this work. So for Trillium E, to answer your question, pitch logic information would be the last component as I actually go to compose it.
For the new Ghost Trance Musics, I’m thinking in terms of streams of consciousness pitches. That is, after ten years in academia, I’m looking in my music for ways to get around a two-dimensional, mental-plane experience, and the Ghost Trance Musics, for me, are a breakthrough. They will give me the possibility to build a body of work that will separate me from the early musics. As I get ready to become a part of the third millennium, I want a new mind-set, and inside of that, I want to have a new balance between the processes I’m dealing with, even with my own psychology. The Ghost Trance Musics will be a context that will involve streams of consciousness pitch logics that will also demonstrate some aspect of the 12 constructs of my music in relation to pitch logics: that is, streams of consciousness in the first house, in the second house, third house fourth house . . . Brrr! Let me turn on the heating, it’s cold in here!
GL. Thank you!
AB. (Resumes.) The concept of streams of consciousness for these musics will help me with the transformation or transition I am seeking. I should also say the Ghost Trance Musics are connected to the research I’m doing into Native American musics, and into all world music, and I’m looking for ways to integrate that into my work. I am not seeking with the Ghost Trance Musics to produce a music like the Native American, just as in my orchestra music I wasn’t looking to have a post-serial music that would be like Webern’s or Schoenberg’s, but to take what I’d learned from them and use it in a way that can be relevant to my work. The Ghost Trance Musics will give me a possibility to get away from the processes I have worked in up to this point, and to have a stream of consciousness music that also demonstrates a fresh sense of stable logic constructions, because it’s written out too.
GL. Can you say a little more about what you mean by stream of consciousness in this context?
AB. The Ghost Trance Musics have no rests. It’s not even about harmony; it has nothing to do with the traditional musics and the musics I did before. I try to get into a state of meditation and just compose a stream of pitches, go with it, and as it goes, I let it do what it does. Then, inside of that stream of consciousness, I start to target my own variables. I let it become what it is, and at the same time I apply a tri-metric logic that will give each Ghost Trance composition a different geometric scheme. This is my trance music.
GL. Where does the name come from?
AB. I just kind of thought of it. I was reading about Ghost Dance Music, the American Indians have a Ghost Dance Music, and I’m looking, in the Ghost Trance Musics, to have a trance state that will also be connected with the ghosts of the past and the ghosts of the present, as I move towards meditative strategies and seek to align myself with . . . how can I say it? . . . with what I am sensing about time and space, and what I am learning about spirituality and belief.
The Ghost Trance Musics are the current experience for me and I feel as if I’ve just started on a fresh path. They will provide the primary structural context for my work for probably the next seven to ten years, in the same way that pulse track structures gave me the possibility in the ’80s to have a unique operating floor that I could use to evolve my work. They will also give me a context where I can bring in my earlier compositions too, just as the pulse track structures gave me the opportunity to have a different music that would include dependable events, structural events, plus mutable, improvisational events, and the use of compositional marked events and spaces. The Ghost Trance Musics will allow me to continue with tri-centric models that demonstrate stable, mutable and synthesis strategies, and yet will also be different.
GL. Does this mean that people playing the Ghost Trance Musics can also start playing other of your compositions inside of the Ghost Trance?
AB. Yes. For the first set last Friday, I think two of the saxophonists played 113, someone else played 96 and I had 87 inside of that.
GL. How does that work? How do you know when to play what?
AB. The same system of switching has been carried forward in my processes. From the tri-metric musics, which are the musics that contain notation, movement and the language music processes as part of a switching multi-dimension notation. This allows for switches in a way that is totally unique, where the instrumentalists can switch into body movement, can switch into language musics, can switch into other compositions. So it contains the erector set modular aspects of my processes. I have forwarded these processes into the Ghost Trance Musics, which is its own architectonic context, yet at the same time it’s open, through the tri-metric switching processes . . . processes is not the right word here, maybe symbols, symbology.
GL. Some people at the concert thought they could detect the influence of Steve Reich and Philip Glass in the repetitive elements of the music. Is there any minimalist influence, or were you not thinking of that?
AB. I’m not thinking of those guys. I’ve known those guys for 30 years, they’re old friends of mine and I have total respect for their music, but the Ghost Trance Musics have nothing to do with Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Not to mention I evolved my own repetitive logics in Chicago totally independent of those guys: the Kelvin, Kaufman and Colbolt musics were evolved even before I met those guys. In fact, I became interested in repetition as a generating concept through the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen—that piano piece (hums) . . . What is that? Klavierstucke VIII or IX? That influenced me. So it’s not that I’m not open to admit my influences from European-Americans or Europeans, but the Ghost Trance Musics have nothing to do with the work of Steve Reich and Philip Glass; although repetition—by its nature—I mean, I can see how some people might feel it’s connected. But they should listen a little more closely and it will become clear that it’s very different.
GL. Can I ask about your notion of creating a fantasy world? In the compositions you’ve already completed, when you’re creating a place, do you base it on anywhere in particular? On a specific location?
AB. I try to approach this as part of the musical decisions, or the basic decision of trying to create. I look for something that seems to yield the kind of creative possibilities that would be consistent with what I’m interested in. So, from that point, there’s a search and a challenge to find an idea. And, of course, I’m 50 years old now, I don’t want to bump into any of the earlier pieces, so I’m looking for a different premise I can build on.
I’ve got almost 400 compositions that have ideas—good ideas or bad ideas; I mean, people have their opinions—but I’ve done my best with my work. It seems to me that the next cycle, rather than look out for an abstract premise, I’ll build a fantasy state and people will interact, then I can begin to compose music based on what they’re doing. If people are sword-fighting, like in Trillium R, or if the plague is coming, like in the third scene, then suddenly I have a context for dialogue. I can look for a situation and build a music to match that situation.
GL. What I mean is . . . the idea of having 12 states, interconnecting and on the same continent, that’s perhaps a little reminiscent of the USA, for example. Was that the kind of model you had in mind?
AB. Not really. Because I want my work to be connected with universality, a universal axis. Of course, America is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic country, but I’m interested in the world, and the city-state form scheme musics, in its spherical form, is a planet, is an idea that will give me the opportunity to erect a fantasy context that will mirror back what I’ve been experiencing in the physical universe. It will also allow me to have the greatest amount of potential experiences as I seek to have each of the 12 characters in my system interact with one another, based in their own lands or in their visits to other houses.
GL. How about time period? Will you set the stories in the past, present, future or all three?
AB. At this point, my understanding of time is time as all time. Time as past, present or future, or time as connecting time or target time. And with all three parameters working at once, depending on what’s needed. I’d like to have a music where you can go back in time, or where two people can be in the space and be there at different times at the same time; where one person is in for an hour and another person is in for an hour but was actually in for three days. I believe that the future might hold some surprises for us as far as the consideration we call time.
GL. One thing that seems evident from reading the librettos is that the characters, like Shala and Ashmenton and Joreo, don’t appear to represent a consistent point of view all the way through. They’re consistent through one scene, then in the next scene all the attributes of a character can change.
AB. In other words, people are more complex than one perspective. I am looking at the characters as a point of definition, to have a viewpoint or even an expression in the way that we speak of the phenomenon of talking in tongues, for instance. So in the language musics, talking in tongues is expressed through the use of different language ingredients; for the Trillium operas, talking in tongues would involve the psychology of a character, and then the thought that comes in the moment of creativity. That distinction is important to me, because I’m not interested in creating a music based only on my mind, but rather on two thirds of myself, mind and emotion, and one third in terms of known/unknown. Or, at least, known, unknown, sensed and intuited, if I can put it like that.
So, in talking of the psychology of the characters . . . I’m not approaching it as a two-dimensional challenge, but rather as a domain of psychology—and then the creativity reacts to the situation. I’m still studying the psychology of the 12 identities, and what it will be possible to express, regarding motion and instrumental position, singer position, situation position. As to Trillium and the use of dialogues, I take the schematics and try to have a fantasy situation, and then respond from each character based on the nature of the schematic. You might say, are you sure you’ve got the right attitude for that character? In fact, I’m responding only to myself as I look at the schematic in the Tri-axium Writings and explain the argument to myself.
GL. I’m still not clear about this . . . If you’re employing different perspectives, why use the same names? I mean, if the Shala in one opera is not the same as the Shala in another opera?
AB. Because she is the same! But she’s in a different experience and will react in a different way. I’m looking at the characters as a psychology, but not as a fixed psychology. It’s like Graham Lock in Australia in 1600, Graham Lock in Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, Graham Lock on top of a mountain or in a ship looking for Moby Dick. That kind of idea, as opposed to a linear view where, say, what Shala experiences in Trillium A, she can talk about in Trillium E. I’m not thinking of it like that. I look at the Tri-axium schematic and then work from the 12 identities. At this point, as I try to evolve the identities, I work from a male character, a female character . . . for example, the character of Bubba John Jack will give me a different kind of input from, say, Alva, who has a different vibrational presence, or Ntazackie. I’ve tried in Sundance to have a character where I can lean toward Native American experiences; Ojuwain will give me the opportunity for affinities in the Middle East. This kind of thing—general properties, and then have a fantasy experience, based on the Tri-axium schematics; do an interpretation and throw the dice. How does Shala in Trillium A relate to Shala in Trillium R? Well, she’s the same character, that’s all.
GL. But what’s the same about her?
AB. What’s the same is that she’s the same character! I’ve evolved her dialogue based on that character and her psychology. But I don’t let the psychology determine the libretto, or the libretto determine the psychology. When I go to do the story, I try also as a composer to be a part of it.
GL. In Trillium R, for instance, I can see that the Shala in the first scene and the Shala in the fourth scene could be the same character in different situations. But the Shala in the third scene seems totally unlike either of them.
AB. Well, each scene in Trillium is its own scene. I mean, each of the scenes in my operas are different plays, as opposed to it being one long continuous story. It’s different from Wagner.
GL. Oh, so each scene is independent?
AB. That’s what I mean when I talk about 36 units that will comprise 12 three-act operas.
GL. Don’t some have four acts?
AB. Trillium R has four units, Trillium A is one unit, Trillium M is one unit, Trillium E will be four units.
GL. Trillium M has four scenes, but you’re saying it’s only one unit?
AB. Yes, it’s one unit.
GL. And the characters are the same all the way through the unit?
AB. Yes. Well . . . how can I put it? When I say unit, I should really be saying act. That might be better. And each act is an autonomous story. It’s an autonomous unit.
GL. You say Trillium E will be four units. Does this mean . . . Oh, I think you said before, didn't you? . . . that you've already written the libretto, before you've composed the music?
AB. Yes. Each act in Trillium R is maybe two hours long. It’s pretty long. I’m gonna lock the doors and have people with guns at the back. The audience will try to get out, but the guards will throw tear gas at them! (Laughs.) Actually, Trillium R is so long, I’d be open to letting people go in and out, they don’t have to stay there.
GL. You say Trillium E will be four units. Does this mean you’ve already written the libretto, before you’ve composed the music?
AB. For all of the operas, I write the libretto first, so I know what the story’s going to be about. Then I go back and write the rhythms of the libretto: what they are singing, how it’s going to sound in terms of time. Then I go back again and I start to write the pitches, or think about the pitches, and I also think about what strategy the harmonic logic will be cast in. So far, Trillium E has the story and the libretto is rhythmatised.
GL. Some of your earlier compositions, like 151 or 165, were instrumental, but they also have a written story. In those instances, which came first, the story or the music?
AB. I wrote the music first for those. Or the story and the music came around the same time. But in the case of pieces with vocalists, with vocal material in the score, I tend to do the story first.
GL. Are you still intending to compose purely instrumental pieces? If so, will they have stories with them?
AB. I have from the beginning taken the position that I never plan to give up anything that I’ve learned.
[First tape ends.]
GL. Let me clarify—you’ve spoken about creating fantasy stories, a fantasy world, but you’re not making up this material out of thin air. You have dialogues that represent certain philosophical positions and you try to work them through?
AB. That’s what the Trillium operas are. The stories in the Trillium operas were conceived through the philosophical system schematics. For the tri-metric musics, the reason I designed what I now call the city-state form scheme is that I was looking for another construct context where I could write musics that aid me in mapping spaces. So for the tri-metric musics, like 175, I just make up the story.
GL. (with a mouth full of cake) Mmm, mmm.
AB. You just want me to talk so you can eat the cake! (Laughs.) Hmm, this is good cake!
GL. Sorry. So 175, say, is a made-up, one-off story—in this case, a spoof of horror movies, perhaps—whereas the operas are linked by having a philosophical basis in the schematics. Presumably they tend to deal with more serious issues, like Trillium M seems especially concerned with the issue of race in the USA. Or am I misreading it?
Diagram-title for Composition 126: Trillium M.
AB. I’m not so interested in race in the United States. Trillium M . . . is that attraction or value systems? I think it’s value systems. Trillium M, Joreo’s Vision of Forward Motion, works from four schematics and the schematics are to do with value systems. That’s what they’re discussing.
GL. There’s a schematic for each scene?
AB. They should be included in the librettos. That’s really what is happening. I take the schematic and make a story out of it. I’m not interested so much in making a story about race relations as in creating a context where I work out a philosophical realisation of a Tri-axium schematic. It does kind of sound like race relations in Trillium M, but, in fact, I’m not even interested in race. I’m interested in fulfilling the possibilities of the philosophical system.
GL. How does that work in practice?
AB. Like in the Tri-axium Writings, the schematic gives you the terms of the relationship I’m looking at. For the Trillium operas, I come back to the schematic and make a story out of it. In every case, I’ve tried to have the characters respond by looking at the Tri-axium schematic. That’s why I talk of it as a dialogue, because the characters are discussing . . . It’s really a dialogue with myself, of course; I’ve composed it and I’ve composed the characters, but I’m using these characters, and the personalities of these characters, to read into the schematics and then . . . be creative.
GL. Given the schematic illustrates very abstract relationships, is making a story from it like an example of moving from the abstract to the concrete?
AB. Yes, but I don’t mean to say it’s the only story that could come out of it. It’s an affirmation, in the same sense as the music, in the sense of materials that you make something out of. With the librettos, I looked at the schematics and said, OK, value systems, as they relate to social reality: let’s have a story, starting with this character. What are the terms? Affinity dynamics. OK, let’s suppose you have a person walking down the street who says, ‘I don’t have any money’. So, value systems—where would that go? Boom, boom, boom! Then I just make up a story, based on the coordinates of whatever it is I’m dealing with.
GL. Presumably you’re also drawing on what you know of the world around you?
AB. Yes, of course. But I could come back and make another story with the same materials. I have used the schematics because I have always tried to ground my music in stable logic, mutable logic and synthesis logic variables. For the tri-metric musics, I don’t go to the schematics at all, I make up a fantasy story that’s based on city-state form environmental matters. That is, rather than look for an idea based on . . . oh, I should have a fugue here, or Robin Hood, or whatever, I’m building a fantasy world where I can think . . . well, if that piece took place on a farm, what if I have this next piece take place near the ocean. The environments will give me different things to bounce off, and continue this idea of city-state experiences.
I guess what’s important to me to communicate to you is that the Trillium operas are not conceived in the Wagnerian sense or in the Italian opera sense. When I think of the Ring cycle, you have stories that connect and it’s incredible. But I wanted to build a fantasy operatic music state that would be consistent with the modular, multi-dimensional nature of my work. My hope is it will also be possible in the future, as far as the aesthetic fulfillment of my system, for the friendly experiencer to come into the space and interact with the characters.
Diagram-title for Composition 173
GL. Sorry, what kind of experiencer?
AB. The friendly experiencer. I’d like to hope that anybody can come into the music and have some fun. A carpenter could be on vacation with his family and maybe there could be some kind of task, so he could build chairs or something while the music’s happening. That kind of thing. Where a person can have fun if he or she feels like they want to be part of a fantasy experience. For instance, in Composition 173, for four actors and instruments, the friendly experiencer—single or group tours!—can come in and they’ll be talking and working with the actors. At least, for 173, they can come into the scene and look over the actors’ shoulders while they’re talking, or the actors will point out where the sounds are happening.
There are all kinds of interactive possibilities. It’s a different concept of theatre than Wagner’s, although his was restructural and innovative at the time. I bow in his direction, but the operas I’m doing are different from his. I’m just taking experiences and settings, I’m not looking for anything linear. I’m feeling my way through this as I seek to build the kind of stories I’m attracted to: stories that are about love, about hate, about all kinds of things. So that whatever a story is, the next one will be different.
In Trillium R, scene one is in a stock market meeting and it never really goes out of that domain. In scene two, there’s a husband and wife talking about their marriage, their life and their kid, who’s just gone out into the world. It’s very static, there’s not much action in it. It’s kind of beautiful, a love story. I’m looking to build a theatre that has many different components, in the same way as in the quartet music I don’t want to play all tempo pieces or have one logic that suffices for the whole music, but rather have various aspects inside of it. I want the operas to be the same way.
Later, I’d like to have a performance where it’s, like, Trillium I, Trillium M and Trillium F as part of the evening. All different experiences, yet connected by the 12 characters.
GL. Why have you done the operas in the order A, M, R, E rather than A, B, C, etc?
AB. Oh, I just tried to spread it out. I’m looking for 36 terms, so I’m going to spread it out.
GL. What will you do when you reach Trillium Z? How will you title the next ten?
AB. I’ll go double. Trillium ZZ! (Laughs.)
2. Hidden Truths—Circle, Rectangle and Triangle—Thank Goodness for the Villains—How to Spot a Mystic
London, June 20th, 1996.
AB. I feel fortunate that I have a job. At the same time, academia . . . well, academia is more than a job. There are aspects of it I really like, such as the scholarship; yet, at the same time, I want to protect myself from the scholarship, including my own scholarship into my own music. I’m not interested in a music that I can talk about, that I know every component of, that I can explain in such a way that my students understand everything that’s going to happen. As far as I’m concerned, If I get that close to it, I need to be doing something else.
GL. So when in the past you’ve spoken of hidden truths, what you’re saying is that you want those truths to remain hidden?
AB. Yes. Yes, thank you.
GL. Well, I think there’s a quote from you in the 1970s where you say there’s no such thing as communication, and even if there were, you’d refuse to communicate anyway.
AB. Hmm, that sounds like me.
GL. Well, I might as well go home now. (Laughs.) When I first heard the phrase ‘hidden truths’, I thought you were saying we should push on to find those truths. Now I realise you’re saying that we should be aware there’s always an unknown dimension or element and we should respect it, even though we don’t understand it.
AB. Yes, I agree with you. But I haven’t begun on hidden truths yet.
GL. For now, can we just stick to hidden truths as they relate to your work? What can you tell me?
AB. Well, the Ghost Trance Musics I started last year are a new formal prototype that is different from the pulse track musics and the musics of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The Ghost Trance Musics are: 1) a stream of consciousness music that is pan-temporal; 2) conceived in the house of Shala, that is, in the house of one, and the number one in my system is a long sound or a continuous state; 3) a trance music, and consistent with my interest in transformational experiences. My hope is to continue to study and learn about the African genesis musics and the thrust continuum of the trans-African musics as well as the thrust continuum of the trans-European and Arabic musics and the great Asian musics. To continue learning about music and all Earth musics. Trance music and the phenomenon of trance experiences are related to that.
Let me go back to the first category—the emergence of Ghost Trance Musics as a stream of consciousness context of experience. For me, stream of consciousness in the Ghost Trance Musics involves a way of using notation and improvisation that is totally separate from the old arguments of the past. I’m no longer interested in ‘Is it free jazz or is it Memorex?’ I’m no longer interested in ‘Is it European and does it have a system to it?’ That is not to say that I have no respect for system. I’m very interested, as I’ve said before, in the work of Anton Webern, and increasingly I’m seeing serialism and programming and setting coordinates into a mathematical configuration, and realising that . . . well, it’s related to Webern, and it’s also related to Pythagoras, so here we are in Egypt again. No disrespect to Mr Webern.
The Ghost Trance Musics are also related to the class I took on the music of the Native Americans. Through that class, I’ve been able to start my studies in this area; and, of course, there’s enough to study for 46 billion lifetimes! By stream of consciousness, I’m also saying that the Ghost Trance Musics have taken from the great work of the Baroque masters and the earlier Dutch masters, who would invent the new restructural notations that allowed us to break into the sub-metrical division ratios, notations that gave us the possibility to notate anything, and I thank them for that. For the Ghost Trance Music, stream of consciousness processes, i.e. the notated music, this is a series of pitches that goes on and on—it doesn’t have anything to do with time. My hope is to compose at least 30 or 40 compositional stable logic models and, for me, this represents a fresh point of compositional integration and a fresh point of pan-temporal organisation.
At the same time, the material is not presented to read in the Baroque sense. That is, the success of a given performance is not about playing every note perfectly. Within the music, there are tri-centric markings that show the inter-relationship between the music and the body, which are the point of correspondence into something that is other.
GL. Are these like the markings you have in the text for Composition 173?
AB. Yes, it’s the same system. Composition 171, for solo piano, would be the first of the narrative structures to use the new tri-centric correspondence markings.
GL. What do they indicate—the triangle, the circle and the rectangle?
AB. It depends. The origin state particulars of the tri-centric markings would indicate: at the circle, a switch into improvisation; at the rectangle, a switch into some composition or interlocking with a stable logic component, playing part of this; at the triangle, a switch into body movement. After the origin state, there’s also the group state or expanded state: here the rectangle would indicate switch into another composition, the triangle could be switch into body logics or into some sub-identity function—for example, it could be a menu of correspondence switching—and the circle would indicate switch into language music constructs.
GL. What exactly do you mean by switching? If you switch at one of the symbols, when do you come back to the notation you switched away from?
AB. It depends. For instance, in the future, I would like music strands that have different musics in them at all times. One would be stable logic musics, one would be the language musics, one would be the synchronist components, which could be, oh, whatever mixtures of whatever will go into whatever. Synchronist components could be a menu: you’re given a menu, which maybe involves an experience for five days in . . . I’ll say Braxtonland for now, but ultimately I will name the physical universe space something I can believe in. If for now I call it Braxtonland, it would be analogous to Disneyland, in the sense of the 12 different regions. So then a menu might be, OK, a five-day experience in, say, five cities in five of the regions.
GL. (Looking at the score of Composition 192.) What are the Rs and the big square brackets for?
Examples of the use of circle, rectangle and triangle tri-centric correspondence markings, from the score of Composition 171
Examples of the use of circle, rectangle and triangle tri-centric correspondence markings, from the the libretto of Composition 173.
AB. Well, the Rs . . . this is a vocal composition, and it’s the first of the new marker structures. So vocal material, in Composition 192, gives you marker numbers. Marker codes might be a better way to say it. A marker code is the use of letters and numbers as the material that the singer will sing. In the new Ghost Trance prototypes, there will be an origin stable logic, a material base, which is what the marker codes are, and there will be solo, duo and trio materials that can be used as part of a composite experience space that will further the nuclear interactive components that were established in the pulse track musics.
GL. Sorry, what kind of components?
AB. The first component would be mutable logic postulations. What am I saying? I’m saying, open improvisation. The second component would be stable logic postulations; that is, playing a totally notated piece in the space. Then there would be synchronist logic experiences, which would be the use of pulse track constructs all taking place in the space at once.
GL. Do any of these factors also occur in the Trillium operas, or are they completely separate?
AB. They’re separate. The Trillium operas are the first projection of the Tri-axium Writings into the dialogues. But, as in every aspect of my system, which is origin experiences, extended experiences and genetic experiences, any part of any composition can be taken out and used in any of the three domains.
GL. What’s the difference between origin and genetic?
AB. A genetic experience would be akin to taking two pages of Composition 107, for instance, and putting them into Composition 102, or any other composition. Taking a part from it and using it in a solo or something, as opposed to it being a secondary adaptation, which would be me designating some composition to go into another composition. The genetic experiences come from the individual, from he or she selecting which small part of a given composition will be used.
GL. Hmmm. There are a lot of things I’d like to clarify.
AB. You realise we’re only just getting into it. (Laughs.)
GL. You’ve said Ghost Trance Musics are a new path for you. How do they relate to, say, your series of ritual and ceremonial works? Can you have a Ghost Trance piece that would also be a ritual and ceremonial piece? Or are the two separate?
AB. The Ghost Trance Musics are a completely new series. And yet all of my work goes into all of my work. What I want is to be a door that will allow any piece to be origin, extended and genetic. So, for the Ghost Trance Musics, yes, you could put, say, Composition 23C inside of it.
The Ghost Trance Musics are consistent with everything I’ve ever done. At the same time, I would talk of Ghost Trance Musics as a way to move towards the supernatural, towards processes that transcend mental plane decision-making, and that is what is relevant for me in this period of my life.
[Knock at door. Tape breaks off.]
GL. I’d like to get as much information as possible about these new musics.
AB. I’m sorry, Lock, a man my age can’t just give out information.
GL. As I’m discovering! When we spoke last year, you said you envisaged the fantasy world you’ve created in three different forms: as a sphere and as a linear landscape. You didn’t say what the third form is.
AB. Ah . . . the interconnections. And mystery. What I want is to make a model . . . one model would be a sphere that would be used to express reality and mystery, and inside of that mutable logics and improvisation. The rectangle is a way to talk of concrete experiences, composition, the phenomenon of identity. The triangle would be magic and the land of dreams, symbolic dreams and mystery. It becomes medieval in the sense that it goes back again to mutable experiences, improvisation that suddenly happens in a context of identity (which is composition); that has symbolic value that extends past the actual components of the experience; that connects to symbolic, intuitional, vibrational and mystical hidden qualities. Hidden qualities, including the use of genetic materials, the use of individual intentions, because we’re really talking about—on this level—individual experiences with individual qualities. That becomes another context of hidden truths.
GL. The compositions with the maps of Joreo Land and Ashmenton Land, these refer to the landscape form?
AB. That would be in the house of the rectangle.
[Phone rings. Tape breaks off.]
GL. Can we talk more about the Trillium operas and their relationship to the landscape form? Presumably each of the 12 characters will have their own land, but do you have a name for the whole world yet?
AB. That’s what I’m moving towards. I’m trying to find a name that will symbolise global identity, that’s what we’re really talking about. I need a name that will accomplish and include global identity and global transformation, global radiance and luminescence. If you come up with a good one, let me know, because I’m struggling! (Laughs.) I’m looking for a name that also expresses connection with all of the 12 territories and solidarity with all of the unifying factors, and which constitutes a global identity in the end, as opposed to a communal identity or a regional or local identity. I haven’t found it yet; I’m still looking for that name.
GL. You’ve referred to some fantasy locations as city-states. Was that idea inspired by Plato, by ancient Greece?
AB. Not consciously, but as I’ve sought to develop it, I’m certainly going back and re-reading Plato. I’m taking a class on the history of science, where we looked at some of the early writings. Especially the source book of Plato’s . . . what’s the name?
GL. The Republic?
AB. That’s one of the books, but there’s another that’s even more relevant. I’ll find the name and phone it too you. For me, again, this all goes back to the subject of hidden truths. Hidden truths that relate to global identity.
GL. When we spoke last year, I didn’t understand your concept of character in the operas; for instance, how Shala, say, could be doing good things in one scene and bad things in the next. I know you said you weren’t trying to create characters that remained consistent through all the operas, but I was wondering—if Shala is representing the quality that’s equivalent to long sounds, which I think is loyalty, presumably that will stay the same.
AB. I guess that will be the case, but I don’t know anymore. I mean, when I compose the Trillium operas, I’m constantly changing the psychological perspectives and looking for material. Your question, if I understand you, is, am I applying a universal psychology from each identity to the situation when I’m composing it.
GL. Something like that.
AB. Maybe I was in the beginning, but now it’s getting to the point where I’m bypassing all of that. I just go to write and I’m not sure if I’m evolving one psychology. In fact, I would say I’m not.
GL. Is it more like, if the long sound is associated with loyalty, that stays the same, but you then show how in some situations loyalty may be a good thing, while in others it may be a bad thing?
AB. No, that’s too two-dimensional. I’m building a context of experiences and materials and identities that will go into the house of Shala; building qualities that will go into this nation-state. But when other people come into it, their reactions and experiences and interactions with those experiences or compositions or strategies will ultimately determine who Shala is.
GL. What I don’t understand is, can any character be anything in any scene?
AB. Anybody can be anything.
GL. Then what makes them different from each other?
AB. Well, Shala is a woman . . .
GL. But there are six women.
AB. Six women and six men. And Shala will have a set of experiences and compositions that will come to define who she is. If I start off defining Shala, with a psychology or a set of aesthetic qualities, I might in effect be limiting this person. What I’m trying to do, now that I’ve gotten to the point where there is Shala Land, is invent situations, put them into that house, and this will, in the end, become who she is. Just as you’re born, you have experiences and at some point you and your experiences become one, in the sense that you become the result of your experiences.
I’m building my system based on . . . I’ve got a group of musics, I find different prototypes, different associations that hint of evolution and extension, and then I try to build them; and as I build I try to understand what I’m doing and find out what it means. Plus there’s mystery in my own processes, because I don’t know what’s gonna happen next, or what the possibilities will be. At this point, for me, Shala Land, Ashmenton Land, Joreo Land, the 12 identities I’ve been working with, well, I started from just looking at long sounds, staccato lines, intervallic formings et cetera, and manipulating that inside of the language musics.
Now we’re talking about Shala Land—where is it ultimately going? I don’t know, but the way I’m approaching it is that I’m adding things to it. So the person of Shala—who is she ultimately? I don’t know, because if a new piece comes along that seems like it would be good for Shala . . . I know this much about Shala: she’s a high soprano, as opposed to Bubba John Jack, who’s a bass player, and kind of a big guy.
GL. Presumably all the characters have these kind of attributes? What were you starting from with each of the characters?
AB. I’m starting from what I want as a composer, in terms of singers and pitch ranges and colours. I’m also starting from character identity. In that context, I wanted to have 12 characters that represented a global sensibility: Ojuwain could be from Iran or maybe Africa; Bubba John Jack has a kind of American sensibility; Ntazackie has an African quality; Kim, a Korean or Asian quality; Shala has a European, a Hellenic quality, and David has a kind of English or trans-European sensibility. Joreo is maybe Hispanic, South American or possibly Iranian or Turkish. Alva—I lifted that name directly so I would have a link to my man Mr Berg. After all, I am a romantic!
GL. Alva is from Alban?
AB. Yes. I did that because a man of my age has to be connected to the tradition. I’m too old to try anything without Mr Berg.
GL. What about Ashmenton?
AB. Ashmenton could be African, could be a lot of things. Maybe Icelandic. These are names that hint at a global sensibility.
GL. And Zackko?
AB. Zaccko! I look for the sound and the vibration. Zaccko . . . wow, that could be Persian, Mexican, Indian. Zackko is a bad name! (Laughs.)
Above: Diagram-title for Composition 162: Trillium R.
Right: The schematics used for Trillium R. (The abbreviations, and the terms they represent, are explained in the Tri-axium Writings.)
GL. Is Trillium R about attraction? Like Trillium A is about transformation and Trillium M is about value systems?
GL. And attraction is related to affinity dynamics?
AB. Yes. Attraction is a quality of affinity dynamics. Affinity dynamics in that context, as it relates to attraction . . . see, we’re doing a schematic now. (Draws.) Attraction as it relates to affinity dynamics: 1) as it relates to vibrational dynamics—you meet a person, you fall in love with that person, or you don’t like anything about that person, so one quality there would definitely be personality. What is personality? The line goes down (draws)—personality being how a person moves, how a person speaks, how a person smells, a person’s philosophical values. Going back up the tree (draws)—attraction as it relates to affinity dynamics in terms of intention would involve: 1) motivation, which in this context would have to do with the nature of the dialogue, the interaction, between characters. What’s motivating them? What will motivate the solo instrumentalist, who is reacting to the solo singer?
To go back to your question, in the Tri-axium Writings I established four different schematics on attraction; three that have attraction as the main subject and one that has attraction as an internal quality.
GL. That’s like attraction as the other? I think you’ve told me before that in the schematic topics you’ve already selected for the operas, such as value systems, for instance, you’ve used three where that topic is the subject of the schematic and one where it was inside the schematic.
AB. Yes, I tried always to have one where it’s the other. The other, for me, is a quality that is not the primary subject.
GL. When you choose the schematics, is there a large number to choose from or are there only three or four on a specific primary subject?
AB. It depends. Some of the defined qualities, which are in the glossary of the Tri-axium Writings, will have five or six schematics, and others have maybe two or three. I don’t think I was able to develop three-plus-one on everything. I remember being very conscious of trying to have an other, but whether I was able to develop three schematics on every quality, I’m not sure. I don’t think I did.
GL. Still, there must be dozens, scores, of schematics in the Tri-axium Writings, so what made you choose the particular schematics you’ve used for the operas?
AB. Well, what I would like to do is write an opera from each schematic. (Laughs.) But when you get to my age, you have to start choosing. (Laughs.) Time is the question. So, at this point, I’m just trying to choose a cross-section.
GL. Are the schematics in the operas a simplified version of the ones in the Tri-axium Writings?
AB. No. I’ve just taken a schematic from the book and written a story from it.
GL. Okay. I thought they’d perhaps been kind of streamlined because they only have three or four items on them, whereas in the Tri-axium Writings there are some schematics with lines going all over the place.
AB. Well, I tend to start with very easy things, Graham. (Laughs.) When you get to my age, you don’t take on more than you can accomplish. For the real complex schematics, we’re talking about operas maybe 20 or 30 years from now. I can’t be messing with the complex schematics at my age. At this point, I need more exercise. I’m having a hard enough time with the easy schematics.
GL. Okay, but even so I think there are hidden sub-themes going on as well.
AB. Oh, there are hidden truths in every corner of my work. In fact, one third of my work is hidden.
GL. I shouldn’t have said hidden. I mean, there are sub-themes that seem evident, it’s just that you haven’t specifically stated them. I mean, for example, a theme like disrespect for other people and other cultures, which could be to do with value systems, but seems to recur in some of the other operas too.
AB. When I was a young guy, I used to watch a lot of soap operas and I remember thinking, boy, thank goodness for the villains. I wouldn’t want anything to do with the shows that didn’t have some good villains to keep them going. So I’ve tried with the Trillium operas to have some nice villains, because I’m not interested in everybody agreeing. So some of the events, the experiences, are kind of complex. I try, as a composer, to build interesting moments.
I had a colleague refuse to help me get a performance of Trillium R because he didn’t like the libretto; he thought it was too preachy. But the Trillium operas are dialogues and I’ve tried to come up with different kinds of dialogue. Especially as the older I get, I see there’s nothing more fascinating than the phenomenon of good versus evil on a symbolic plane. The concept of good versus evil versus mysterious forces as a composite phenomenon elicits the most curiosity. For me, at least.
I’m waiting for the 3rd of July, for Independence Day. You know about Independence Day, don’t you?
GL. Isn’t that the 4th of July?
AB. The 3rd of July in New York City. This new movie is coming.
GL. Oh, it’s a movie?
AB. It’s a movie about aliens invading the Earth. With super-special effects. I’m really excited for those of us who’ve been waiting for real science fiction for ten, maybe 20, years.
[First tape ends.]
[Second tape begins.]
GL. Can we talk a little about the titles of the operas? Like Trillium R is Shala Fears for the Poor.
AB. She fears the rich forces on the planet taking over and destroying the common people, normal people, poor people. But in the fourth scene, she fears for the poor because she knows what she’s capable of doing to them. (Laughs.) She wants to get into the inside group, and that group get together at night and they go out and kill people, destroy whole communities in the name of their beliefs. When Shala finally gets into the group and understands her mother and father are going to be in the target area, she joins anyway because she wants to be part of the group.
In the second scene, the mother fears for her son going out into the world; she fears he will be among the poor.
GL. But she’s not Shala.
AB. No. But again, it’s the other.
GL. Oh, I see.
AB. Stick with me, Lock.
GL. What’s happened to Trillium BK?
AB. It’s waiting to be composed. It’s on a long list of projects that are fading into the distance as yours truly sinks into the mud. I’m trying to keep up with my schedule in light of academia and the wonder of old age. But BK is coming! It’s with the piece for five orchestras back in the workshop, with all kinds of springs missing. Sooner or later, I’ll catch up.
GL. Is the title still Because of Non-Belief, Ojuwain Is No Longer with Us?
AB. (Laughs.) Oh yes.
GL. I was looking through some old interviews with you and came across one from 1976, where you said you were working on an opera that would be about reconstruction.
AB. In 1976?
GL. Yeah. What was that? Did it become one of the Trillium operas?
AB. I don’t know. I’d have to see the interview to understand what I was talking about. It might have coalesced into Trillium A, but I’m not sure. Trillium A was my first opera.
GL. Can you remember whether you were referring to the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War or whether you were perhaps talking about restructuralist ideas about form?
AB. I’m not sure. I might have been referring to a restructuralist approach to opera, which is what I’m trying to do now. But Reconstruction, the period after slavery, I’m very interested in that too. It’s probably another idea that hasn’t been acted on.
I blame this problem on old age and sickness: an old man seeing his powers creeping away from him, drinking wine . . . You know Sibelius, in his later years, didn’t compose at all? He was always intending to go back to it, but when a man hits 50 he has to have a drink. (Laughs.) I can understand that. And I understand Schoenberg and his need to complain about money. That was my first connection with Schoenberg, by the way, when I realised here was a guy who complained about money more than I did. (Laughs.) I knew then he was a mystic, I knew it!
GL. So it’s only the mystics who complain about money?
AB. Look, I tell you, that’s becoming one of the hidden truths.
About the Author
Graham Lock’s books include Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-Reality of Creative Music (Quartet, 1988), Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington and Anthony Braxton (Duke UP, 1999) and, as editor, Mixtery: A Festschrift for Anthony Braxton (Stride, 1995). He has written liner-notes for Braxton recordings on the Hat, Leo and Mode labels. His 2008 essay, ‘“What I Call a Sound”: Anthony Braxton’s Synaesthetic Ideal and Notations for Improvisers’, was published by Critical Studies in Improvisation and can be read on the journal’s website at http://www.criticalimprov.com/article/view/462/992
Composition 126. Trillium—Dialogues M: Joreo’s Vision of Forward Motion. For Four Vocalists, Creative Orchestra and Constructed Environment. Leo Records CD LR 453/454, 2006. [Recording also includes Composition 175.]
Composition 162. Trillium R: Shala Fears for the Poor. For 9 Singers, 10 Instrumentalists and Orchestra. Braxton House BH-008, 1999.
Composition 173. For 4 Actors, 14 Instrumentalists, Constructed Environment and Video Projections. Black Saint 120166-2, 1996.
Composition 174. For Ten Percussionists, Slide Projections, Constructed Environment and Tape. Leo Records CD LR 217, 1994.
Composition 175. For Two Vocalists, Creative Orchestra and Constructed Environment. Leo Records CD LR 453/454, 2006. [Recording also includes Composition 126.]
Composition 192. For Two Musicians and Constructed Environment. Leo Records CD LR 251, 1998.
Ensemble (New York) 1995. Braxton House BH-0007, 1997. [Comprises Composition 187.]
NB. The last two entries above are examples of the early Ghost Trance Musics. Many other GTM recordings can be found on numerous labels, including Braxton House, CIMP, Delmark, Firehouse 12, Important, Leo, Rastascan, Parallactic and Victo.