Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Anthony Braxton: Quartet (London) 1985

This remarkably original saxophonist's music has often been viewed as too difficult, obtuse, impenetrable, dense, cerebral and daunting and, to a great extent, it is not too hard to hear why.  Braxton's ideas about music, its place in the world (or, rather, universe), its possible structures and concepts and his way of explaining and expressing can be bewildering.  But, they can also be exhilarating, as the musicians on this London recording from Fall 1985, released on CD on Leo Records in 1990, demonstrate through their interplay and sensitivity in applying Braxton's ideas.

For this listener, however, a great deal of the excitement is in trying to understand and, at the same time, to feel what Braxton is trying to say in his amazing and widely varied body of work.  A few years ago, Graham Lock's Forces in Motion was avidly read, as Lock followed the quartet on its short English tour and had the opportunity to see the ensemble perform, discuss music with Braxton and his fellow musicians, and then attempt to explain some of the more esoteric notions of the evolving body of work of this true original.

As explained by Lock in the book and, in digest form in the liners, Braxton's music in the mid-1980s was grounded in what was called "pulse track structures."  Explained as an alternative to traditional vertical harmony, the idea was to have "a sequence of notated materials interspersed with brief, five to ten-second spaces for improvisation" by the rhythm section (here drummer Gerry Hemingway and bassist Mark Dresser), "while the remaining two players (in this case, Braxton on all manner of horns and the great Marilyn Crispell on piano) either improvise or execute other notated material.

In some cases, a Braxton piece has pulse tracks integrated into the work, while elsewhere, a song has independent pulse tracks added to it.  There are not only varying lengths in the pulse tracks, but there could be standard notation for musicians to play or abstract drawings, somewhat akin perhaps to the impressionistic song "titles" that identify most Braxton pieces, that can be reinterpreted.

Lock observed that there was a precursor called "sound attacks" dating to Composition 23G from 1975, "in which the bass and drums suddenly come together at widely-spaced, notated points."  From this, Braxton felt that "something was happening which could really be extended," and this led to the pulse track structure concept.

Another component was that earlier Braxton compositions could provide impetus for pulse tracks application, especially pre-existing duo pieces that could be worked into newer works as pulse tracks.  From this, there was the development of other concepts, the "collage form structure" and the "universe structure."  With these, the quartet could simultaneously perform two to four Braxton works, both in planned solos as well as at other points, such as the accompaniment to a soloist.  By introducing these varied structures into the quartet's repertoire, Braxton had another name: "multiple logic music."

He also had another interesting and cosmic analogy:  the pulse tracks operate as orbits around different planets as a "solar system music," while the universe built by the multiple logics of performing several pieces at once wind up being a "galaxy music," with the solar systems operating in one broad sound space.

There are other structures, as well, including "transitional collective improvisation," as the group moves from concept to concept; "extreme intervallic distances," or quiet spaces between intervals; "chromatic phase formings,"  having to do with accidental notes outside the pervading scale used in a piece; "a static time/space block structure," in which continuous music involves, in Braxton's words, "a constant rotation of events juxtaposed against each other, like a puzzle that can go together in any order," implying the reusing of musical material in whatever way makes logical sense; and "signature logics" for recurring notated elements that become signposts within the changing soundscape.  There's much more, but the idea is that Braxton has constructed fully-integrated and blindingly complex structures that have evolved over the course of his long career.

Lock also noted that Braxton's live work had lately been continuous and uninterrupted, with, however, identified pieces labeled as "primary territories," including two variations of Composition 40, which was a mainstay of the quartet album highlighted on this blog a couple of years ago.  These "primary territories," then were interwoven and interacting with snippets of other compositions that could come and go whenever needed.

What is truly amazing is how fully well-schooled Braxton's compatriots had to be in order to so quickly move through the "primary territories" and the bits and pieces of the other works and to choose when, where and how to use the varied material available to them.  Crispell, often viewed as a Cecil Taylor acolyte but who is far more than this, performs with great flexibility, agility and creativity.  Hemingway is listed as a percussionist, rather than a drummer, for very good reason, as his playing reflects a nuanced approach to a standard drum kit in terms of tone, color, and texture, as well as rhythm.  Dresser is simply remarkable--never looking to do anything but fully integrate with his fellow musicians, while providing a range of sound to accompany Braxton and Crispell and establish constantly shifting rhythms with Hemingway.

Braxton's preoccupation with reworking structure, developing new models for sound, and systematizing his complex ideas is rooted in his conception of music as a force enveloped in unrevealed mystical notions as well as philosophical and political ideas which he has expounded upon over the years.  As Lock noted, Braxton's publishing company is called Synthesis Music for a reason: the composer sincerely believes that his music is synthesized with his views of universal philosophical, political, and, evidently (as hidden) mystical beliefs.  As Braxton once stated, "what you hear and how you organize and unify, in terms of how you hear, is very important to how you are."

That last statement is, actually, quite clear, if not specific.  Lock wrote that the synthesis of music and philosophy (or religion) has been explored in many societies throughout the world.  Perhaps our post-Enlightenment world has blunted the linkage of music and spirit/soul/whatever?  Yet, Braxton's allegedly forbidding music has many of the same underpinnings of John Coltrane's late explorations that made direct allusions to space and mysticism, or Albert Ayler's ecstatic cries embodied in "music is the healing force of the universe," (which was an album title for the late altoist), or other similar identifications of music with mysticism.

Lock concludes his extremely helpful notes, however, by stating that, however a listener approaches the formal structures of Braxton's "difficult" music, "once the quartet hit[s] that first note you need only to listen to hear a music that challenges, inspires and is vibrantly alive in all the corners of its sonic cosmos."  To paraphrase the most helpful advice on listening to "difficult" music this blogger has encountered, courtesy of Donald Ayler, brother of the aforementioned Albert Ayler, "try to follow the sound, not the notes."  Even if Anthony Braxton has formulated a body of music that is dizzyingly complicated, listening to his work need not be confusing or difficult or forbidding.  With the masterful musicians working with the composer on this dual-disc live recording from thirty years ago, the approach to Braxton should not be so daunting.  Challenging, yes, but also highly rewarding in its order, beauty, variety and expressiveness.

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