Anthony Braxton’s Trillium Opera Complex

Katherine Young

As this issue should abundantly reinforce, Anthony Braxton thinks big. This is not an emergent aesthetic characteristic, but rather a constant across his long and rich career. So, it really should come as no surprise that the man who has written for multiple orchestras and 100 tubas would find his imagination captured by the medium of opera. And Braxton isn’t just interested in writing one opera; he has conceived of a network of operas that “[w]hen completed…will be offered to humanity as a context to experience ‘life multiples’ and affirmation. [Braxton] envision[s] a world of ‘circumstances’ where the human experience can be celebrated in all of its splendor.”i

Overview & Structure

“From an orchestra consisting of ten billion…to…12 bricks and a bucket”: Scale & Structural Layers

Since at least 1980, “Anthony ‘Monteverdi Boy’ Braxton”ii has been passionately working on the Trillium Opera Complex, an ambitious series of 12 operas comprising 36 autonomous one-act works. These acts are grouped in bundles of one to five and lettered. So far he has completed six for a total of 18 individual acts: Trillium A (1 act), Trillium M (1 act), Trillium R (4 acts), Trillium E (4 acts), Trillium J (4 acts), and Trillium X (4 acts). The five-act Trillium L is currently in the works and will be followed by two more three-act operas, two two-act operas, and a final opera requiring triple the performance forces as the others.


Braxton emphasizes in the notes that accompany the box set release of Trillium J: The Non-Unconfessionables that the operas may be performed “with the largest instrumentation that is possible, or the smallest instrumentation that’s available (or any instrumentation that strikes one’s fancy—from an orchestra consisting of ten billion musicians (or more) all the way to a reductionist performance that consists of only 12 ‘bricks and a bucket’ (smile).” He explains that “as a person who has no money I would as such program ‘having no money’ (as a proposition) into the system model qualities’ as an axiom for composite application.” iii


Despite this fiscally pragmatic axiomatic proposition, Braxton carefully composes for his desired orchestra. He acknowledges that “scale and intensity” matter and that his “original idea was to create an opera complex model that demonstrates Wagnerian dimensions.”iv Indeed, he has taken Wagner to task in terms of scale, writing music for impressive numbers: Trillium J, for instance, is composed for 12 singers, 12 solo instrumentalists, dancers, Centurion guards, choir, computer music, light/image projection crew, virtual technical crew, constructed fantasy environments, and orchestra. A 37-piece orchestra premiered the work at Roulette in April 2014, realizing a score that calls for flutes; oboes and English horn; Bb, Eb, alto, bass and contrabass clarinets; alto and soprano saxophones; bassoons; contrabassoon; percussion; and orchestral strings. Braxton composes each of the operas for such an ensemble, with each of the major ensemble sections (i.e. the singers, the instrumental soloists, and the orchestra) forming an interwoven but potentially independent layer.

“My version of the Dream Space…”: Orchestrational Layers

This layering principle informs Braxton’s compositional process, as well: In a lecture given in 2011, Braxton describes composing Trillium E. He begins by writing the libretto, composing first for the singers. Taking after Wagner—whose “later music dramas can be thought of as continuous recitative, with enhanced melody, harmony, and orchestration; or as continuous aria, without fixed forms and with the freedom and speech-rhythm of recitative”v—Braxton’s vocal writing features extended passages in a sort of continuous recitativo accompagnato. There certainly are not traditional delineations between aria and recitative, and the vocal music closely follows the rhythmic content of the text.


Braxton then writes for the solo instrumentalists, whose roles vary widely. Sometimes the instrumental soloists play fully notated counter melodies that bind the syllabic text-centric vocal writing to the thick orchestral textures. At other times, the solo instrumentalists are instructed to improvise, attending to the sounds and words of the vocal music. In such moments, perhaps the solo instrumentalists perform the “missing” arias, which Braxton has composed in a layered, rather than sequential, structure. Rather than being temporally separated from the singer’s recitative, such aria moments—moments when the solo instrumentalists are given the most expressive latitude (thus operating farther toward one end of the freedom-specificity spectrum that Braxton rigorously navigates throughout his oeuvre)—integrate and complexly intertwine with the


With these layers in place, Braxton then composes for the orchestra: “The understanding being that the combined action space of Trillium E, in terms of orchestrating sonic events, is a layering principle that I refer to as my version of the Dream Space—which is very different from Wagner’s Dream Space; certainly different from Stockhausen’s Dream Space or Mr. Ellington’s Dream Space in the sacred musics.”vii For the orchestra, Braxton crafts music that oscillates between dissonant sustained chords (think: Language Music 1 and 2, long sounds and accented long sounds), percussive articulations that initiated long sounds (think: Language Music 7, short attacks), and playful tunes (think: Language Music 4+5, staccato line formings plus intervallic formings).


Braxton’s layering approach persists as he moves into orchestrating for this large ensemble. As he explains in a 2010 lecture about Trillium E, he thinks in terms of “sectional logics,” first writing for the strings: “I look for violin emphasis; medium cello, viola emphasis with string bass. I’m always looking for a good rotation… And then I fill in the works.”viii In Trillium J, a similar orchestrational process seems to be at work. Within the first two minutes and 15 seconds of the opera we can quite easily trace Braxton’s “sectional logic”: First we hear solo English horn—who initiates the “Trillium J melody,” processing into the performance space as the Centurion. This instrumentation is not specified in the score, but this was the performance decision made for the Roulette premiere. That individualized sonority confidently shifts to a collective one—a full orchestral unison—as the rest of the ensemble joins in the undulating melody, repeating it several times.

A Transharmonic Continuum: Orchestration & Pitch Sets

Such instrumental areas of emphasis emerge and recede as the music’s harmony evolves in “the dream space of Trillium…[which] is a layered continuum of evolving pitch sets…”ix Braxton has described his harmonic conception for Trillium as transharmonic: “I’m trying to build a harmonic palette that’s—strangely enough—transharmonic. What am I saying? I’m saying Trillium E and the works from the Trillium E system are tonal-ish but not tonal.”x He points to more idiomatic moments that take on a tonal profile, such as “the college song for Dr. Wallingford” in the fourth act of Trillium E. In Trillium J there is a square dance number that interjects in the middle of Act One. I hear such transharmonic implications working on a smaller scale, as well.


Take the Trillium J melody. It begins on D and ends a perfect fifth higher on A. As it gets repeated, the leap from A down to D asserts prominence, but the line’s jagged contour highlights other pitches as well. Braxton utilizes all 12 chromatic pitches, repeating only D, Eb, and Gb. These emphasized pitches outline a stepwise ascent that spans a major third, which, in conjunction with the framing perfect fifth, subtly contour the melody’s chromaticism around a triadic sonority. Yet, after several repetitions, the line’s teleology breaks down as the ear loses track of the “beginning” and the “end,” and the melody’s chromatic peaks and valleys seem to trump any tonal implications of this outer fifth.


The score does not dictate the number of repetitions for the opening melody, but on the final repeat the first violins hold over the final A as the other strings step, skip, or leap into a dense pentachord, the opera’s first vertical sonority. The basses land on Bb, the cellos slip to Gb, the violas nudge themselves up to B-natural, and second violins shift to a G-natural. Like in the Trillium J melody, seconds and thirds collide to create a sonority both triadically and chromatically suggestive. Given the orchestration and registration, the first violin’s A can be heard as the (major or minor) ninth of superimposed first-inversion Gb and G major sonorities. Indeed, a few measures later with the first vocal entrance, the cellos and violas shift down to Db and D-natural respectively to instantiate the implied triads. The harp further underscores this entrance and this harmony by striking the G-natural, B-natural, A trichord to prepare the singer’s entrance on a G-natural. The strings sustain throughout the first two vocal phrases, before a playfully contrasting staccato line from the winds and xylophone interrupts and spins the music into a different dream space.

“Have some fun with the material…”: Layered, Fragmented & Collaged Performance Possibilities

Braxton’s layering conception further manifests itself in terms of performances options. Just as these operas are composed with large forces in mind but are possible on smaller scales, there are also many options for layering and fragmenting the operas in performance. Braxton states in the liner notes to Trillium E that “[t]he aesthetic/fulfillment potential of the Trillium opera complex is to have all 12 operas performed at the same time.”xi At another point, he describes this definitive performance, the ultimate layering, as involving the performance of not just all of Trillium, but all of his music at the same time, in a Big Bang–like event.xii


Even with this superlative performance in mind, Braxton imagines additional ways the music could be put to work for a given context. For instance, in a performance of a single opera the three layers of the ensemble—orchestra, singers, and solo instrumentalists—could be located in different locations, “i.e. different parts of a city, different parts of a continent and/or different parts of a planet/galaxy) and performed simultaneously as one holistic unit (presentation/representation).”xiii As discussed, these different layers of the ensemble are composed with a logic that allows them to function together and independently.


Furthermore, Braxton reminds us that:


[T]his structural feature is axiomatic throughout the whole of the composite music system… The work could be performed in fragments, like ‘in a puzzle.’ This could be a ‘collage’ performance, where different isolated scenes from any Trillium opera are put together to create one real-time performance experience… Have some fun with the material—that’s what I’m trying to say.xiv

“Nothing is as it appears.”: An In-between Poetic Space

In an effort to convey the “origin psychology as it related to composing Trillium,” he reminds the singers and production staff of Trillium J, not mincing words, that in the operas, “Nothing is as it is appears.”xv Braxton also asserts in different contexts the “‘in-between’ fantasy poetic space of the Trillium opera-complex.”xvi


I have discussed the in-betweenness of Trillium’s transharmonic pitch organization: In this realm, nothing is as it appears, because triadic and chromatic, tonal and atonal sonorities are layered and embedded within one another as to de-hierarchize any single harmonic conception.


Nothing is as it appears in terms of orchestration and structure, since synchronous decisions that compositionally connect the orchestra to the singers, and thus might seem essential to the music’s structure, can be stripped apart, with each layer asserting its independence.


As I will discuss in regards to characterization in these operas, nothing is as it seems, because every character contains many—there are overarching characters that persist across all of the operas, as well as distinct characters germane to a particular scene.

Nothing is as it seems in Trillium, because the opera’s “apparent universe,” the narrative of a given scene, is only the first layer. Below this lie multidimensional philosophical and metaphysical layers awaiting exploration by the performers and the friendly experiencers in the “secondary invisible universe; and…the esoteric universe.”xvii


And nothing is as it seems because Trillium is simultaneously operatic entertainment and a ritualistic fantasy realm designed for self-realization that prioritizes the affirmation of community.


Trillium contains these and other layers. Yet, Braxton consistently asserts that all of the strata cohere within the libretto, which functions on three primary planes. First, there is the “apparent story” manifested in the narrative scenario of each act. Secondly, philosophical arguments drawn from Braxton’s Tri-Axium Writings guide each act. And thirdly, underpinning each scenario and the entire 36-act project, exists a “mystical or spiritual fundamental.”xviii


I will discuss each of these layers. Let’s begin at the surface and dig our way down.

I. Trillium’s Apparent Story

Trillium is not set in any one time…”: Spiraling, Transhistorical Narrative Time

Each act within the Trillium opera complex is an independent unit, with its own setting, characters, and story. Explaining how narrative time works across the acts, Braxton states,


In the Trillium fantasy system every act is written inside of a given iconic time frame that provides the backdrop for a given fantasy experience, but is not limited to that time frame. For instance, in Act I [of Trillium J], whose principle fantasy landscape takes place right after the Civil War, one of the singers…refers to President Eisenhower—who is really from a different time period—but that’s OK….Trillium is actually not set in any one time era but rather a given story is a starting point for human poetics and vibrational adventure.xix


Indeed, the fantasy worlds of Trillium J jump wildly between times and locations. Act One takes place in a slippery “antebellum” era with several scenes taking place in a town reminiscent of one somewhere in the American West just when the intercontinental railroad is being completed. Another scene is clearly set more in the Deep South as former plantation owners make plans for “the next time cycle.”


From there, the second act moves to a more contemporary moment: “In a depressed Midwestern town, the residents mount a pageant in an effort to build community.” Most of the action in the act, however, takes place within the fictional world of the play-within-the-opera. Time within this pageant also jumps around, as a community attempts to form and reform amidst McCarthyist accusations of corruption that threaten its coherence.


In the third act, “[a]cquaintances of the recently deceased D. Zornheim assemble for his will readings at Huntingford Manor to see who gets the coins.” In the Roulette premiere staging, this act—which includes vampires, a stormy night, and murders by gunshot—reminded me of a cross between Dracula (as played by Bela Lugosi) and the 1985 movie Clue starring Tim Curry.


Finally, Act Four has two lengthy scenes: In the first, “gangsters confront one of their own who has crossed the line.” Scene Two is a courtroom drama, in which a widow gets ‘grilled’ by the prosecutor surrounding her husband’s suspicious death.”xx


Braxton’s use of diverse scenarios (he has attempted “to establish the broadest set of circumstances and focuses in Trillium—from ordinary to transcendent experiences”xxi) and suggestive, yet intentionally unstable time frames create a sense of place and temporality that, like his transharmonic conception of pitch, could be understood as transtemporal or transhistorical. This temporal and historical flexibility of the surface layer “apparent story” seems to suggest that humanity, again and again, faces the same challenges. In a recent lecture, he spoke about historical time as a spiral: Humanity moves around the spiral, returning to scenarios that, although the details change, seem beautifully and frighteningly familiar.xxii


Braxton reinforces a sense of familiarity by selecting scenarios that riff on TV and movies: in Trillium E and Trillium J alone we find stories that might remind us of Dracula, Star Trek, Gone with the Wind, or Indiana Jones, not to mention references to courtroom dramas, gangster films, genie stories, Westerns, and our own high school musical. Braxton in fact intends the operas to be entertaining for any family that might walk in off the street. The “apparent story” does not just serve the subterranean philosophical and spiritual layers, it needs to function on its own.


In addition, by using these familiar scenarios, Braxton follows in the operatic tradition, including Wagner’s use of Norse mythology in The Ring Cycle and Monteverdi’s use of the myth of Orpheus. Braxton draws on 20th-century American popular cultural myths, stories common to his time and place. Like the ancient myths, which prove to be persistent yet flexible narrative vehicles for conveying recurring human conflicts, Braxton tells his stories with an eye toward universality. While the surface of the action points to American popular culture, the issues at stake in the scenes are more fundamental: survival in the face of economic and technological developments, individualism vs. community advancement, greed, trust, and encounters with the unknown. Braxton seems to understand that myths retain significance centuries later because their stories continue to meaningfully reflect existential and material aspects of the constantly spiraling human condition.

“Be who you are…”: Characterization, Masks & Self-Realization

Braxton relates the theatrical narrative of Trillium to the project of grappling with our “composite reality” and humanity’s historical spiral saying, “The discipline of theater can clarify the living experience so that we can better understand ourselves and our potential.”xxiii In fact, a project of individual self-discovery undergirds the entire Trillium project and is intended to be possible for all involved. This project plays out for the singers in relation to the very particular way Braxton conceives of characterization in Trillium: “[E]ach of you are singing from a particular character…But in fact what makes this nucleus unique or special to me is that actually I don’t want you to embody the character. I want you to be who you are because who you are is the reason we wanted to have you come and be with us.”xxiv


Thus, although the singer/actors work with a particular character with a specific name in a particular scene, fundamentally they are to remain themselves. Some might say this is no different from traditional acting, as no actor ever literally becomes the character they’re assuming for the duration of the performance. Braxton is making a distinction, however: In his theatrical conception the characters and scenarios of the opera are not so much acted or portrayed as they are used to have an experience, to explore “the real time psychology on the plane of the individual.”xxv Braxton often discusses the Trillium opera complex as a “kind of post-Walt Disney idea.”xxvi Braxton attempts to create, via the fantasy arena of Trillium, a fantasy space through which individuals can explore, “kick it about,” try out different experiences, or be a different version of themselves. Braxton’s unique understanding of characterization in his operas makes this apparent. Talking to the performers involved in the Trillium J premiere, he explains: “The character is like a mask that is symbolic, but it is really you. And so all of the experiences in the fantasy space and the next level of instruction from the psychological space is really information going to you the person.”xxvii


The singers, however, do remain responsible for conveying the action of the scene, but even this is not so straightforward. While each scene is unique with unique characters, there are actually 12 principle figures (written consistently from opera to opera for the same vocal range) that reappear with different names, in different roles, and with different motivations related to the different scenarios in all 18 of the completed operas: soprano characters Helena, Sundance, Shala, and Ntzockie; mezzo soprano parts Alva and Kim; tenor roles David, Ojuqwain, and Joreo; baritone characters Bubba John Jack and Ashmenton; and bass Zakko.xxviii


Supporting an understanding of these overarching characters as idiosyncratically archetypes part of his own mythological system, Braxton has stated that “[t]he characters of the Trillium system could be thought of as ‘everyman’ or “everywoman” (in the British sense of the word). This is not an ethnic-centric offering, but rather a universal offering. Trillium is not an attempt to create ethnic-centric opera, rather Trillium is an attempt to create a universal opera system that all humanity can relate to.”xxix


As the pitch content is transharmonic and the settings are transhistorical, these characters are intended to speak across ethnic and cultural boundaries. This legibility seems to me to depend fundamentally on the cast performing the opera, since the performers are meant to convey their own personality while wearing the masks of the archetypal and scene-specific characters. The productions so far have involved largely American casts, but in Braxton’s ultimate realization of all 36 operas, “to be performed at the end of a 12-day festival for world dynamics,” an international cast and crew could bring new dimensions to the operas.


From act to act each of these overarching characters take on different scene-specific characters with scene-specific agendas: “In one scene a given character might have a role of a positive character (of whatever persuasion) and in the next scene that same character may portray something completely different.”xxx Layering all of this, for instance, Kyoko Kitamura, who has put on the mask of Ntzockie in both the Trillium E recording and the Trillium J recording and performance, puts on, as secondary masks, the following scene-specific characters in Trillium E: the Third Child (daughter), the Second Scientist Assistant, the Second Farmer, the Second Clone Woman, and the Third Crew Member. In Trillium J Kitamura, as Ntockie, layers on the masks of the Town Councilperson, Princess Whorlzea (the panda), and Doctor Fletcher (a friend of Zornheim).


Because, however, Trillium “has very little do with the number two. Rather…three into three into three,”xxxi the singers’ jobs are not only about self-discovery and communicating the action of the scenes through these multifaceted characters. Additionally, the singers are responsible for conveying the philosophical text that forms the conceptual framework for each act.


II. The Philosophical Associations

“Trillium is not a platform for conventional story telling in the classic sense of Italian and German opera.”:  Schematics into Situation Particulars

The Trillium operas represent Braxton’s most direct musical translation of the philosophical writings he published in 1985 as the three-volume Tri-Axium Writings. In fact, each act is a transposition of a schematic found within the Tri-Axium Writings; the schematics themselves are transpositions of the philosophical arguments made in the text. Braxton sees this process of abstracting and transposing the arguments to allow for multiple potential perspectives that readers/listeners/performers might bring to the table: “The Tri-Axium Writings, which is the expression of the philosophical system, establishes origin arguments, secondary arguments, and tri-ational arguments. And those arguments are then distilled into a schematic. And each friendly experiencer can come to and look at the schematic and retranslate that schematic based on their life experiences.”xxxii


In keeping with this process of translation, the characters in Trillium do not literally quote the Tri-Axium Writings, rather they convey an understanding of what a given schematic and its attendant “axiom tenets”xxxiii mean for the fantasy situation at hand: “Trillium is not a platform for conventional story telling in the classic sense of Italian and German opera. Rather, the work is constructed as a series of dialogues based on logics…in which the characters act out a series of skits of situation particulars. Each skit serves as a vehicle to elaborate on the variables of given philosophic associations.”xxxiv


The libretto moves fluidly from text relating to the action to philosophical exegesis and back again. As an example, in Trillium J Act Two, Scene Three, two of the animals, David/Luna and Ashmenton/Vadoo stroll through a garden. The dialogue shifts between a discussion about events specific to the fantasy world of the act and elaborations of the idea of Affinity Dynamics, the principle philosophical concept (“starting point”xxxv) for that act:


DAVID/LUNA: This a great sunny kind of day Vadoo.


ASHMENTON/VADOO: Right toe, old boy!


DAVID/LUNA: The concept of Affinity Dynamics is sensitive to the path of a given encounter—the challenge of composite        reality requires nothing less. Look at the plants over there! This is all about ‘idiomatic certainty.’


ASHMENTON/VADOO: Right toe, chap!


DAVID/LUNA: A day of this caliber could have nutritional value—even for resident land sharers!


ASHMENTON/VADOO: This is the kind of day that makes it hard to go back to the old ways of experimentation. More and more of my interests are being directed towards the city.


DAVID/LUNA: I’ll take the country every time Vadoo. Just between you and me, the concept of Affinity Dynamics extends to color the whole of a given ‘radiant balance’ and focus mandates—let’s not go for the obvious. I had my doubts about Steve   Elmore long before the examinations took place. Never has so much meant to little.


ASHMENTON/VADOO: The concept of Affinity Dynamics in this context seeks to affirm the lane of a given transfer—not whether the exchange actually happened or not. Affinity Insight in this context becomes a form of monitoring input spectra data. We aren’t vegetarians by any means. (He laughs.)


The Tri-Axium glossary defines Affinity Dynamics as “(1) vibrational diversity or the spectrum of possibilities related to a given vibrational position; (2) the related vibrational spectrum of a given vibrational position; (3) the scope of a person’s life options, as related to vibrational attraction and what this phenomenon means with respect to that person’s vibrational makeup.”xxxvi


In this passage, which occurs midway through the act, Luna and Vadoo discuss their “life options” (will they stay in the garden or move to the city?) in the midst of the “examinations” (i.e. the accusations that have systematically kicked out member after member from their community). The examinations intend to limit, or narrowly define individuals based on singular actions or characteristics (accusations of corruption or criminal activity). As Luna and Vadoo are discussing, however, they are “not vegetarians,” who limit their consumption, nor are they represented by primary colors—rather they embrace the “whole of a given ‘radiant balance’” that describes the “vibrational diversity or the spectrum of possibilities related to [their] given vibrational position.” It’s possible they are considering whether this community, in which Affinity Dynamics are being suppressed in the face of paranoia, is one they want to continue to be a part of. Or maybe they are debating whether their conscience will allow them to stand by and watch as these examinations persist and others’ Affinity Dynamics are overlooked. Or perhaps Luna and Vadoo are wondering if they need to get out of this garden before the finger points at them. Or they could be weighing their options: Maybe they will wind up on top after the examinations end.


Yet, these are just a few readings of what meaning this scene might contain for a given performer or friendly experiencer. Even with the glossary definition and the fantasy context, signification remains unfixed, in motion, and multiple in this passage, and will vary from performance to performance. What does Affinity Dynamics mean for Vadoo and Luna? What does it mean for Ashmenton and David? What does it mean for the singers wearing the masks of these roles in a given performance? What does it mean for the friendly experiencer? And, again, when the performer and audience can dig into the philosophical associations interwoven and undergirding Trillium’s apparent stories, concepts should resonate widely. This scene concerns issues that would likely resonate with anyone who’s felt profiled, misunderstood, singled out, stereotyped—or had the self-awareness to reflect on their own social paranoia and projections onto others.

III. The Mystical or Spiritual Fundamentals & Trillium’s Ritual Potential

“The third partial…” : When Sound Logics & Thought Logics Intersect

We have considered the overarching structure, the musical organization, the apparent stories and the philosophical associations Braxton composes into the Trillium Opera Complex in relation to layering strategies; his transharmonic conception; pop cultural mythological references; a transtemporal sense of narrative time; and a multifaceted conception of characterization that asks performers to convey scene-specific action layered upon archetypal characters, while remaining themselves and utilizing the experience of the Trillium fantasy space for their own self-realization. How do these processes intersect and network to create the ritual and spiritual music that Braxton intends Trillium to be?


He certainly makes explicit that this is Trillium’s role within his extended system and life’s work: “Trillium…represents the third partial of my life’s work—that being music (sound logic) systems, thought (philosophical) systems, and ritual and ceremonial (belief) systems.”xxxvii Based on this formulation, it seems that for starters, Trillium’s ritual/spiritual potential lies in how the music interacts with philosophical system. How does Braxton infuse the instrumental music, for instance, with the same opportunity for exploration that the singers have within the characters and situation particulars? Does the music create its own version of a fantasy scenario, so that, for instance, its listeners and performers might discover meanings and relevance for the concept of Affinity Dynamics with the musical layer?


Looking at the scene from Act Two discussed above, the interaction between the singers, the solo instrumentalists, and the orchestra provide some insight. (Remember, this is the third of four scenes in this act, so the audience is familiar by now with the act’s principle conflicts.) The orchestral music underscoring Luna’s opening, seemingly benign statement about the weather is a thick, stacked octachord from the winds and strings. The dissonant second interval is emphasized by orchestration and instrumentation: For example, the bassoons retain their minor second interval even as the chord shifts to the next vertical sonority five beats later. Similarly, the basses and cellos, who play a more rhythmically active role with in the texture, move in parallel minor seconds. The orchestral texture throughout the first few lines of dialogue remains gnarly, in contrast to other more still or less dense portions of the opera. Here, the orchestra presents a broad “spectrum of possibilities,” with winds and strings participating in the sustained textures, and every measure featuring rhythmic and intervallic motion, as the low strings and harp zigzag across the sonic terrain.


The musical texture becomes even more complex when Luna utters the opera’s “secret password,” “Just between you and me,” which initiates a back-and-forth between the characters on the concept of Affinity Dynamics. This is when solo instrumentalist 9 joins in, improvising in response to the music and text. This interconnected yet independent voice adds further counterpoint to the music. Nine measures later, when Ashmenton/Vadoo responds, instrumental soloist 11 enters, adding to the music’s ever-expanding sonic spectrum.


The density reaches an apex at the conclusion of Vadoo and Luna’s dialogue with a multiple voice section that brings in five additional vocalists (the other animals from the garden) along with eight of the 12 instrumental soloists. The vocalists’ notated parts move with extreme independence, as text constantly and differently overlaps, while the solo instrumentalists improvise within, against, around, and through the musical/textual composite sound world.

“This is really a spiritual music…”: The Individual within the Group

In my experience and understanding of Trillium, the spiritual potential lies in this very thick interstitial space, as one precariously navigates the needs and assertions of the individual in relation to those of a group or existing structure. This is the experience of crafting a solo improvisation within a dense structure, in which some aspects are stable (fully composed) and other aspects are not. This creates and relies upon sonic space of multiplicity: “Events in this sound world attempt to act out a given central concept from many different points of view. There is no single story line in Trillium because there is no point of focus being generated. Instead the audience is given a multi-level event state that fulfills vertical and horizontal strategies (objectives).” xxxviii


Considering once again the singers’ multivalent roles also offers perspective into what Braxton means when he describes Trillium as “the corner-stone of my spiritual musics.”xxxix Braxton directly links the singer’s personal explorations within the fantasy space to the music’s spiritual potential: “[I]n the real time action space, my hope is that whenever possible you will be able to, inside of your postulation, come from yourself, because this is really a spiritual music. But I don’t mean spiritual in the classical sense of spiritual, I mean spiritual in the sense...[that] we are always looking for self-realization.”xl Reinforcing this, Braxton also compares his conception for Trillium with the I-Ching: “When you go to the I-Ching it gives you a proposition or story and each person takes that information in based on their own experiences…”xli The spiritual, for Braxton, is a highly personal experience.


While Wagner’s dramatic and musical sense of scale impressed Braxton, it was the late Romantic composer’s “metaphysics” that asserted the most profound influence as Braxton was launching his operatic project:xliiTrillium is a post-Wagnerian opera that rather than celebrate Christianity or monotheism, instead what we have here is a multi-hierarchical thought unit that is relevant to the modern era…”xliii This multi-hierarchical structure is necessary to allow for the myriad of distinct, individual experiences Braxton intends the operas to facilitate.


Braxton aims for the friendly experiencer, as well as the performer, to find autonomous decision-making opportunities within the Trillium opera complex. Many of ways he imagines this happening depends on yet-to-be-refined technology and vast financial resources, but he describes these possibilities in detail in the Composer’s Notes that accompany the libretto in the Liner Notes to Trillium J. He offers “drone surveillance options,” “video replay options,” and proposes that the solo instrumentalists and singers “wear hats with television cameras” in order to capture “these special viewpoints” and “re-pipe [them] back to the ‘real time performance space.’…This way the uniqueness of every event can be captured and re-integrated into the holistic reality of the music.”xliv


Furthermore, the friendly experiencer should be able to move through the music freely, deciding what they would like to hear and see. If each of the three primary layers are on separate audio-visual channels, then an audience member could create their own mix and edits, navigating the materials as they would a session in a recording studio, selecting the tracks and perspectives they want to engage with at any given time. Rather than sitting still in a concert hall, the audience member could move virtually or physically, listening and watching from as many different vantage points as desired. Braxton intends Trillium to:


[A]llow the friendly experiencer to travel ‘inside the music’ space and experience a given ‘actual event’ from many different spatial perspectives. From small ensemble to large ensemble…my hope is for the friendly experiencer to have an increased perception space for the most positive ‘actual experience.’ The concept of multiple perspectives in this context also takes into account the spatial positioning of the performance sound system and the total use of the environment space. I want sound and imagery coming from every direction—including the floor….


Throughout the body of work he has built over his career, Braxton has consistently sought to balance the potential for individual autonomy and decision-making with compositional specificity and ensemble demands. Trillium follows suit, but here—with the incorporation of the philosophically potent libretto—Braxton asserts the spiritual potential of such independent action, for the performers and the audience.

“A negotiated fantasy space”: A Group of Individuals

The themes and music of Braxton’s operas reinforce that this self-realization and independence always manifests itself within the space of a group. Many of the operas’ very distinct fantasy “backdrops” present different scenarios in which the characters must negotiate their own desire with the needs of their community. Greed and individualism often threaten a group—whether it is a family unit, an emergent frontier town, an insular mafia organization, or a group of strangers who must survive one night amidst strangers in a creepy, creaky mansion of a deceased friend.


Braxton describes Trillium as a “‘negotiated fantasy world’ that pivots between the vocalist/solo instrumentalists and the conductor (or the conductor and the orchestra) in a vibrational dance that radiates the ‘magic performance space’ on the tri-plane.” As I’ve discussed such negotiations take place within the apparent stories, as well as within the music.xlv


Perhaps it is useful to distinguish the ritual from the spiritual in Trillium in this way: Ritual emerges through the shared individual (spiritual) performances or experiences of Trillium, through the personally seized “opportunities for positive experiences”xlvi that emerge from within the particular group that forms around a given performance. The ritual becomes a sort of collective extension of the negotiations occurring between individuals and between individuals and groups within the Trillium music-fantasy space.


Ritual as collective action also emerges in the logistics and realities of mounting a Trillium performance. The two Trillium projects I have been a part of have been decidedly shared undertakings. From my experience performing in the orchestra for Trillium E and J, I can attest to the collaborative spirit that infuses these productions. A community of performers coheres around the monumental task of performing or recording one of these lengthy, complex, and technically demanding works, and Braxton’s energy and passion inspire commitment and openness from the performers: “The most important thing for me is to have fun, make a mistake, kick it about, find a surprise. We’re never going to make any music from our music, and since we’re never going to make any money, we might as well do our best.”xlvii


It’s important to note that not just any large production, however, will fulfill Braxton’s concept for ritual music within his system. If Trillium, as a ritual music “is conceived as a forum to experience past, present, and future particulars…[as] an attempt to better appreciate universal ‘balance’ and vibrational oppositions as well as the beauty and unbeauty of existence and sound wonder,” Braxton sees the medium of opera as absolutely significant to its mission: “I have come to view the world of opera as especially suited for this challenge….”xlviii The fantasy space that Trillium creates via the medium of opera—the use of “constructed environments,” “narrative logics,” and references to “metareality concepts”—is critical to its spiritual and ritual goals.


Braxton’s Trillium Operatic Complex is the passion project of this stage of his career. A little over halfway through the ambitious compositional undertaking, he works diligently toward his goal. The project is musical, theatrical, philosophical, spiritual, and ritual. Trillium, in its sounds, narratives, and performance realities, affirms and challenges our notions about what it means to forge and maintain community while making room for the infinite experiences of the individuals involved.  As Braxton explains, “This is an attempt to better appreciate universal ‘balance’ and vibrational oppositions as well as the beauty and unbeauty of existence and sound wonder.”

Since the release of this article, Katherine Young has completed her dissertation which stems, in part, from her work on this article for Sound American. You can read her work in its entirety at her website.

About the Author

The curious timbres, expressive noises, and kinetic structures of Katherine Young’s electro-acoustic music explore the dramatic physicality of sound, shifting interpersonal dynamics, and associations with the familiar and the strange. Ensemble Dal Niente, Wet Ink, Talea, String Orchestra of Brooklyn, Spektral Quartet, Fonema Consort, Weston Olencki, Nico Couck, and others have performed her music. She’s excited about recent and coming-soon projects with Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt, the CSO’s MusicNOW, Third Coast Percussion, and Distractfold Ensemble’s Linda Jankowska.


As an improviser, Katherine “bassoon colossus” (The Wire) Young amplifies her instrument and employs a flexible electronics set-up. Collaboration is central to her practice, and she has documented such work on numerous recordings, including her quartet Pretty Monsters self-titled debut, a duo recording with Anthony Braxton, and the multi-movement work Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight (Parlour Tapes+) created with violinist J. Austin Wulliman. She also performs regularly with violist / scholar Amy Cimini in the duo Architeuthis Walks on Land. Katherine’s dissertation documents and analyzes Anthony Braxton’s Trillium J: The Non-Unconfessionables.


Braxton, Anthony. “Anthony Braxton explaining the Trillium opera complex during rehearsal 01.31.2014.” 2014. TriCentric Foundation. 26 July 2016 <>.

- - -. “Anthony Braxton on Trillium J (April 10, 2014 at Roulette, Brooklyn).” 2014. TriCentricFoundation. 26 July 2016 <>.


- - - . “Anthony Braxton - Trillium E workshop.” 2011. Robert O’Haire. 26 July 2016 <>.

- - -. Tri-Axium Writings, Volumes 1-3. Lebanon, NH: Frog Peak Music, 1985.


- - -.  Liner notes. Trillium E. By Anthony Braxton. New Braxton House, 2011.


- - -.  Liner notes. Trillium J. By Anthony Braxton. New Braxton House, 2015.


- - -.  Liner notes. Trillium R. By Anthony Braxton. Braxton House, 1999.


Temperley, Nicholas. “Recitative.” The Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, 24 June 2016 <



i. Trillium E liner notes

ii. As he called himself in a conversation we had on 07/18/16.

iii. Trillium J liner notes

iv. Trillium J liner notes

v. Temperley, 2016.

vi. In the Roulette production of Trillium J, the solo instrumentalists are also given explicit instructions in relation to the dancers, particularly in Act 2.





xi. Trillium E liner notes

xii. Conversation, 18 July 2016

xiii. Trillium E liner notes

xiv. Trillium E liner notes


xvi. Trillium E liner notes


xviii. Trillium E liner notes

xix. Trillium J liner notes

xx. Trillium J liner notes

xxi. Trillium E liner notes

xxii. Private lecture, 17 July 2016

xxiii. Trillium E liner notes





xxviii. In yet another layering, Braxton correlates these 12 overarching characters to aspects of his larger system. In the house of the triangle, each character relates to one of the sonic geometric sound types, which then also relate to a compositional “logic”: Shala corresponds to (1), long sounds or continuous space logics. Ashmenton correlates to (2), accented long sounds or polarity logics. Helena relates to (3) trills or ornamentation logics, etc.

xxix. Personal email, 26 July 2016

xxx. Trillium E liner notes



xxxiii. Braxton, 1985, Volume 1, xiii

xxxiv. Trillium E liner notes

xxxv. Braxton, Volume 1, xiv

xxxvi. Braxton,Volume 1, 496.

xxxvii. Trillium E liner notes

xxxviii. Trillium E liner notes

xxxix. Trillium E liner notes



xlii. Conversation, 18 July 2016


xliv. Trillium J liner notes

xlv. Trillium J liner notes

xlvi. Trillium J liner notes


xlviii. Trillium E liner notes