BRAXTON CIRCA NOW: Iridium Nights and Ghost Trances

The Man


Anthony Braxton
9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006
Firehouse 12 : 2007

AB, alto, soprano, and sopranino saxophones, clarinet, and Eb contralto clarinet; Taylor Ho Bynum, cornet, flugelhorn, trumpbone, piccolo and bass trumpets, mutes, and shell; Andrew Raffo Dewar, soprano and c-melody saxophones, clarinet; James Fei, alto and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet; Mary Halvorson, electric guitar; Steve Lehman, alto and sopranino saxophones; Nicole Mitchell, flute, alto and bass flutes, piccolo, voice; Jessica Pavone, viola, violin; Reut Regev, trombone, flugelbone, mutes, cymbals; Jay Rozen, tuba, euphonium, mutes, toys; Sara Schoenbeck, bassoon, suona; Aaron Siegel, percussion, vibraphone; Carl Testa, bass, bass clarinet.


The Braxto-love doesn’t stop flowing around here! For those who missed out on our Braxton Mosaic contest, we’ve giving away another extremely primo Anthony Braxton box set. We couldn’t be more pleased to be offering a free copy of the amazing 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 box set, courtesy of Taylor Ho Bynum and the good folks at Firehouse 12 Records.

Dig it, ya’ll: This is a monster NINE CD, plus one DVD, box set. It can retail for $130.00 (worth every nickel, too). These tunes represent the culmination of Anthony Braxton’s decade-long “Ghost Trance Music” project, featuring blazing performances from his crack 12(+1)tet during an extended stay at NYC’s Iridium. Some samples of this amazing music are posted above for your delectation.

Time Out New York called this set “epochal” and Braxton himself deemed it “the point of definition in my work thus far.” Folks are still absorbing this amazing music, but when the dust settles we expect it to rank as one of the major benchmarks in Braxton’s discography. For more details, please scroll down and check out Taylor Ho Bynum’s insightful essay, and the links that follow.

TO ENTER THE CONTEST: Mail us your answer to the question below at destination[dot]out [at] gmail[dot]com. (Do NOT answer in the comments section of this post.) If you guess one of the two countries correct, we’ll count your answer. All correct entries will be put in a hat and the winner drawn at random. Contest deadline: Midnight, Tuesday, October 28th.

ALSO: If you entered our Mosaic contest with a correct answer, you’re automatically in the running for this set! Please email us only if you want to opt out of this second drawing, and don’t want to be entered again.

CONTEST QUESTION: In what two countries did Anthony Braxton perform for the first time in 2008?

Good luck!


Last Saturday night I was in Philadelphia, performing Anthony Braxton’s Composition 103 and Composition 169. The first piece features seven costumed trumpeters (complete with tasseled green shirts, flowing black capes, and fez-like hats all festooned with various symbols, and, of course, Zorro masks) digging into 40 minutes of mute changes, timbral variations, pyramiding hockets, and lush harmonies. The theatricality of 103 creates a powerfully ritualized atmosphere that heightens the music’s intricate structures. The second piece, 169, is the ultimate chops and brain workout, dense passages of unrelenting rhythmic complexity hammered out in brassy unison, occasionally tempered by rich suspensions or didgeridoo-like pedal tones. Both pieces are striking in their orchestration, recognizing and exploiting the unique qualities of brass, while pushing and challenging the players to reach beyond what is considered possible on the instruments. The music sounds like nothing else by any other composer, and sounds like nothing else in Braxton’s oeuvre, yet at the same time is unmistakably and identifiably “Braxton” music.

As I’ve written before, this is one of Braxton’s many magics. I can think of no other composer who so comfortably works in such a diversity of contexts, yet who has such a powerfully stamped musical identity. This is well illustrated in the new Mosaic box set: from streamlined two horn/bass/drum quartets, to dueling pianos, to big bands, to solo saxophone, to four orchestras. In my own blessed experience, in the past ten years I’ve been able to participate in a ridiculously varied series of projects with him, including conducting one hundred tubas, improvising in trios with interactive electronics, interacting with “tri-centric” creative orchestras, and “kicking it about” with his remarkable 12+1tet.

So what are some of the core
elements that make up this omnivorous musical personality? I am reluctant to offer any definitive answers, “trying to fit the whole ocean in one bottle” (to paraphrase Ishmael Reed’s quote about monotheism), and part of it is the old cop out of “I know it when I hear it” (to paraphrase the Supreme Court’s obscenity ruling). But enough with the wishy-washy, let me take a swing at describing what calls out “Braxton music” to me, with the clear caveat that this is one person’s opinion, and I urge you to develop your own. That is the whole point of being a “friendly experiencer!”

Braxton has long made clear that the building blocks of his musical language are based on his solo saxophone music, and yes, in his instrumental virtuosity you can hear his artistic DNA. Because it’s a different kind of virtuosity. It’s not the clean, fleet runs of so many post-Parker players, but (perhaps much truer to Parker’s own journey) it’s technique being pushed to its absolute limits in service to the balanced goals of conceptual investigation and emotional resonance. When you listen to one of Braxton’s solo recordings, or listen to one of his improvisations within an ensemble, or listen to one of his orchestral compositions, this balance is always paramount, an extraordinary combination of the head and the heart. Usually, the specific idea he is dealing with in each instance is palpable: it might be exploring the possibilities of a multi-phonic growl or a particular articulation, or the tropes of big band or march music, or the resonance of seven trumpets simultaneously freeing their horns from mutes. The music always has a point. Yet this intellectual engagement is matched by a fervent belief in the strength of the performer’s humanity; a commitment to the magical artistic vulnerability of pushing oneself beyond the known.

The depth of the conceptual principles makes possible a lifetime of study into Braxton’s music (a pursuit I and many others are happily engaged in), but the music also has an almost folk music quality that I find wonderfully accessible: people making sound because that’s what they do, and that’s what you can do too. The listener is invited into the process, there is no hierarchy of performer and audience, or of expert and neophyte. As I wrote in the liner notes to the massive 9 CD plus DVD box set 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006: “Years of research or a PhD in music are by no means necessary to enjoy this work. Any listener with open ears will be entranced by the moments of beauty and layers of activity within. I would urge everyone, even the most knowledgeable Braxton devotee, to occasionally try and experience this music with a kind of “beginner’s mind.” While all the concepts and theories and descriptions are a part of it, another part is ineffable and indescribable, too magical to be captured by words.”

I love the opening essay by the Destination: Out scribes about the “pure pleasure” of listening to Braxton’s music. That sense of exuberant happiness at being alive and making music is something that radiates off of Braxton’s person and his work. When I walk off stage with him after a concert, there is zero sense of a jaded professional musician going about his business; rather there is the thrill, the camaraderie, and the sense of discovery that only comes with the most satisfying artistic odysseys. It’s a particular inspiration to me that even after Braxton’s 40-year career, this feeling remains so vibrant, the journey still feel so fresh.

A marvelous example of this kind of journey is documented on the Iridium box set mentioned above. As Braxton himself has noted, these performances were the culmination of ten years compositional work on his Ghost Trance Music. Over that decade, GTM underwent major evolutions, from the focused, meditative consistency of the early compositions to the multi-layered complexity of the late pieces. However, the primary conceptual principle behind the system remained clear: the creation of an almost infinite chant that could serve as a bridge to connect the various musical worlds Braxton has created, while offering passages to yet unexplored territories.

And while this system was painstakingly developed, in the application of this system Braxton offered the extraordinary trust that is the other hallmark of his music. Whether the participants had worked with him for years or were coming to it for the first or second time, Braxton allowed the musicians to freely investigate the music’s possibilities, and in turn, investigate themselves and their own potential. Quoting from the liner notes once more: “As one of the musicians in the ensemble, I can testify to the sheer fun of playing this music. It certainly presents a challenge: the compositions test the limits of your technique and endurance, the system demands focus, creativity and responsibility. But the total experience is joyful, one of infinite possibility and surprise. The listener is offered the same challenge, and the same reward.”

Anthony would be the first to point out that, as wonderful as the past may be (as evidenced by the treasures of the Mosaic set), the present has got something going for it as well. And what we should all be most excited about, of course, is the future!

& ^ % @ $

At the risk of making a looooong post even longer, we would like to suggest some more destinations for the intrepid listener/friendly experiencer looking for additional context for to dig this music:

Category Anthony Braxton, contests