Composition No.340 performed by Anthony Braxton Sextet with Anthony Braxton, Taylor Ho Bynum, Jessica Pavone, Jay Rozen, Carl Testa, Aaron Siegel.
Accelerated Ghost Trance – Philadelphia 2005
It’s not everyday you get 400 people to pack into a theater and listen to a low-energy web of non-repeating sound that makes Boulez or Carter sound like easy-listening music. It’s also not everyday that Anthony Braxton brings his music to Philadelphia. Not even every decade. On November 4th, 2005 Braxton and five of his dedicated interpreters gave the first American exposition (as an isolated form) of the latest development in his grand compositional scheme.
After intensively developing an expansive compositional framework called Ghost Trance Music for over a decade in three distinct phases, Braxton has conceded its inadequacy for accomodating his full range of aesthetic desiderata and written a new chapter designated as the Accelerated version. Pushing the envelope of complexity and foregoing the foothold in regular pulse structures of the earlier versions, Accelerated Ghost Trance Music places unusual demands on the musicians. As such, it’s ideally suited to a dedicated crack ensemble of musicians well versed in Ghost Trance Music who might be hankering to play at the edge of performative possibility long established as a hallmark of the Braxtonian aesthetic. As Braxton half-seriously quipped after the gig in the wake of Jay Rozen’s boggling virtuosity on tuba, with a musician like Rozen to keep busy he had to take the concept one step further.
This specific group of musicians (modulo Carl Testa newly replacing doublebassist Chris Dahlgren) have been conducting public researches into Accelerated Ghost Trance Music since their European tour in April 2005, veterans of an acclaimed performance at the Victo fest in May and subsequent European appearances this summer. As part of the 60th birthday celebrations for Braxton, in September in Connecticut the sextet was expanded to 12 musicians that used both Accelerated and earlier forms of Ghost Trance Music in the same performance, something of a landmark in terms of ensemble size and methodology. So it’s worth noting that the Philly performance was an example of a new compositional framework still in an experimental stage of usage, accounting for the sense of thrilling discovery for both performers and experiencers .
The evolution of Ghost Trance Music through its four phases (or, more accurately, three plus one phases, as Braxton told me he considers it an instance of a more general “3+1 logic” in his systems) strikes me as a gradual erasure of the formative “trance” concept to lay bare the underlying methodology for interpolating materials into a large-scale form in its bewildering aesthetic generality. While temporal extension and continuity alone can account for elements of trance experience, I think that rhythmic regularity is the primary trigger. With its exclusive use of unmetered 8th notes in the primary layer of melodic structure, Ghost Trance Music Species One offered rhythmic regularity in the most explicit form possible, whereas Ghost Trance Music Species Two and Three introduced successively greater degrees of rhythmic subdivision in the form of episodic abruptions, as I believe Braxton refers to them. Now with Accelerated Ghost Trance Music, the 8th notes have disappeared entirely, and with them a hypnotic quality. Referred to as a template, the primary structural material for any Ghost Trance Music composition is an extremely long sequence of non-vertical sound events notated with Braxton’s diamond clef to be neutral with respect to clef and transposition. As such, each instrumentalist in the ensemble is referring to the exact same notational object and unison playing is a common feature of the music. In Ghost Trance Music Species One and Two the sound events were ordinary discrete notes, so the template was essentially a marathon melody, while in Ghost Trance Music Species Three slots for undetermined textures were incorporated into the sequence, a practice continued in Accelerated Ghost Trance Music. An additional development is the use of color coding in the score, but as I understand it this structural dimension is only beginning to be explored and didn’t factor into the performance I experienced.
Aside from these significant changes in the templates, the essential spirit of Ghost Trance Music remains unaltered. While containing its own modular system to enable spontaneous deviations from the template, it also interfaces with Braxton’s pre-existing master scheme for organizing material into modules that can plug into all his work. In a sense, Ghost Trance Music could be taken as an overarching system that encompasses Braxton’s entire career in a format accessible to any of the musicians that might pass through his ever-shifting pool of willing interpreters. It’s this inclusiveness that struck me during the performance. I could hear little episodes of so many different aesthetic directions Braxton has pursued over the years, whether it was different sound parameters taken as loci of variation, different methods of group interaction, different idiomatic references, or simply different degrees of improvisation. In a manner typical of many varieties of improvised music and definitive of non-idiomatic free improvisation, individual instrumental personalities were allowed to function as source material to some extent, offering that familiar and potentially appealing experience of music as a theater of performer psychology. In a manner typical of many varieties of notationalism, the musicians were also reproducing predetermined material of a character unlikely to appear in improvised music, offering an expression of Braxton’s private imagination. While this sort of complex interplay between improvisation and notationalism is not especially rare and has seen comparably ambitious and successful realizations in works by folks like Simon Fell and Scott Fields (the performance roughly reminded me of Fields’ epic and wonderful 96 Gestures but the music was vastly more subtle), I’d like to suggest there is something yet more inclusive about Braxton’s music in the way it embraces a full human experience. While he pursues esoteric aspects of sound organization alongside the best experimentalists, Braxton embraces very traditional music experiences and leaves a space for them in most of his work.
The use of parallel independent subgroupings was well represented by a memorable passage in which Taylor Ho Bynum issued an extended freebop narrative over a barnstorming pulse movement by Chris Dahlgen’s burning doublebass and Aaron Siegel’s percussion, which temporarily assumed the flavor of a conventional drumkit even though his setup was totally unlike a drumkit. It’s worth noting that this was one of very few passages in which jazz occurred. For a large part of this trio segment the other musicians didn’t play, but then Jay Rozen (tuba) and Jessica Pavone (viola) exchanged some hand signals and cryptic glances in order to launch into a tightly connected duo passage without any interactive relationship to the trio passage, which continued unperturbed. It was sublime to hear each subgroup retain its internal logic and resist merging logics with each other. My take on the rough structure of a case like this is pretty straightforward. First, I assume that individual-level relationships (relationships between single musicians) tend to have perceptual primacy over group-level relationships (relationships between groups of musicians) when both are in an overlapping range of informational density. Second, it’s not that the subgroups have no relationship to each other, but rather that all individual-level relationships are encapsulated in the two modules so that group-level relationships between the modules aren’t masked by individual-level relationships. In other words, it opens a higher order relational space by subtracting a lower order relational space. It strikes me as yet another nice way to avoid those good old pitch relationships that have worn out their welcome in human culture.
Taylor Ho Bynum, a ten-year guinea pig of Braxton’s musical laboratory, was the dominant soloist this evening, with an especially uninhibited take on Ghost Trance Music’s flexible parameters. I lost track of how many times he whipped out a different instrument and played it with polished vim, but I believe his main tools were cornet, trumpet, trombone, conch, finger cymbals, kickable objects, and flugelhorn. He took a flugelhorn solo that completely blew my mind, easily one of the five best solos of the evening alongside a few Braxton alto excursions and Rozen’s insane tuba workout to be recounted in an upcoming paragraph. Bynum also has an animated and invigorating stage presence, an asset he deploys to special effect in the free jazz contexts that have earned him a healthy reputation in the avant-garde jazz world. I have to admit I’ve had a favorable bias ever since first hearing him alongside Eric Rosenthal and Jack Wright on Bhob Rainey’s pre-lowercase classic Universal Noir some five years ago. Bynum’s readiness to step outside the brass family casts him as a classic example of Derek Bailey’s conceptualization of a type of improvisor who regards their instrument as a means to an end and not an end in itself, certainly a minority in the post-jazz demographic.
The most poignant moment in the concert came in what I’m assuming to be a reading of a texture space from the template (or perhaps a module of one of Braxton’s language types, a common interface with Ghost Trance Music). Bynum suddenly began capriciously kicking the mutes and other objects on the floor near him. Bynum plays soccer. Bynum keeps playing soccer. Bynum’s soccer takes him many feet away from his allotted spot on stage. Bynum’s bouts of soccer attain spectacle-hood. Jay Rozen nonchalantly crinkles a tin foil pie plate in textural sympathy. Sir Braxton intently peers at the score, listening. Sir Braxton keeps intently peering at the score, listening. Sir Braxton smiles so hard and long his whole body is moving, still peering at the score. Sir Braxton is rocking from side to side and shaking his head with pleasure, still peering at the score. Sir Braxton exudes more joy than a kid stepping into a candy shop or a conductor reaching the climax of his favorite symphony in its best reading, still peering at the score. Jessica Pavone is standing closest to Braxton a few feet away, holding her viola in the “off” position, head down, concentrating, listening, expressionless. Sir Braxton is radiating enough joy to burn the back row of the theater. Jessica Pavone looks up at Sir Braxton and smiles with the understated warmth of a person just reminded of why they love this complex man in a cardigan.
What can top that? How about a contrabass saxophone? Can’t say I’d ever seen one of those before. This was a special occasion and our main man in the cardigan didn’t just stop at bass saxophone, which was itself a rare treat requiring a special wheeled stand; he treated Philly to the big one. Braxton wheeled the behemoth over in front of his music stand on a precious few occasions and put some astounding elephantine roars into the mix. An especially sublime passage blended the contrabass sax with Bynum’s conch, Rozen’s quiet shakers, and Pavone’s slicing viola harmonics.
Probably the best way to understand why there was a musical justification for these exotic sounds is by considering the crucial role that an expanded timbral palette plays in Braxton’s music. In fact, I was entirely surprised by the extensive use of extended techniques during the concert. While of course he is a pioneer of extended techniques in his role as a reed instrumentalist, Braxton’s conception of notated ensemble music is as exploratory as Iancu Dumitrescu or Helmut Lachenmann in this way. In fact, the theoretical apparatus he developed in tandem with his reed research lends itself to applications independent of instrumental identity, like his language types and Cobalt System Structures.
I was really pleased to hear some substantial overlap in the music with recent experimental free improvisation of a sort Braxton has never gone on record performing that I’m aware of, both in the use of certain sound vocabularies and extremely low dynamic levels. Aaron Siegel’s percussion was critical in this regard. One of the highlights of the evening for me was a sustained passage of faint scraping across the surface of his giant floor tom. This “concert drum” afforded some deeply resonant tones, especially when Siegel dowelled on it; I’d never heard anyone dowel on such a large drum before, so it was a bit of a revelation. Siegel’s virtuosity and timbral diversity was put to good use throughout. He ripped through tricky abruptions on vibraphone and alternated rolls on his small drums with such finesse they became textures.
Easily the most extraordinary example of extended techniques in the concert, as well as of one of the most musically compelling moments, came from Jay Rozen’s tuba. At some point I began hearing a miraculously beautiful line that I could only imagine coming from a tenor or baritone sax, but which was yet unlike anything I’d ever heard. I was puzzled because it clearly wasn’t coming from Braxton’s corner and while Rozen was the only explanation I was at a loss to understand the relationship between what my ears and eyes were processing. Rozen was playing his tuba with a tin foil pie plate in the bell, which simply couldn’t account for the sound I was hearing. What I found out afterwards from Rozen was that he was actually producing four distinct layers of sound at the time: an ordinary tuba tone, a sound derived from a small object (a whistle?) he had wedged inside the mouthpiece, a vocalization amplified by the tuba, and the buzzing from the tin foil. Go figure. Turns out he was as surprised as I was by this confluence of techniques; it was a real-time improvisational discovery for him and he nursed it for a good long stretch to serve several musical functions. Another astounding passage from Rozen (there was quite a few!) came when he used a saxophone mouthpiece on his tuba, which creates a gloriously complex and aggressive sound that must be heard to be believed.
Braxton is a really famous guy. Part of that has to do with his singular body of theoretical and conceptual material wrapped around his music, but the simple fact is that people wouldn’t've taken him seriously in the first place if he wasn’t one of the most brilliant jazz and post-jazz saxophonists in history who quickly created a body of work based around his reed work, especially alto sax, that’s both accessible and mind-blowing to the typical avant-jazz fan. I have no doubt that there are people who go to a Braxton gig because they’ve heard records like For Alto, New York Fall 1974, his jazz tribute projects, the Hemingway/Crispell/Dresser quartet records, etc, and wind up totally mystified by the sort of radically unconventional non-jazz experimental ensemble music he’s developing with Ghost Trance Music. And as much as I enjoy the manifold challenges this music presents me and even manage to overcome enough of them to tremendously enjoy the music itself, I still have as much hankering as the next person to experience Braxton, Alto Sax God, so I couldn’t help notice the nature of my listening experience completely shift into a more immediate and visceral sort of pleasure on the handful of occasions when Braxton put the trusty little horn to his lips and filled the air with invisible liquid gold. In fact, the only passage in the concert I’d call truly transcendental for me was Braxton’s sole unaccompanied alto sax solo towards the end. It was an extended bout of raw physical engagement with the instrument that set his whole body into poetic gyrations and it was a flashback for me of the only other time I’d seen this man perform in the flesh, his monumental two sets of solo alto sax at The New York Ethical Culture Society on May 24, 2002, one of the milestones in my modest journey through a human life. All of Braxton’s alto solos killed me during the Philly gig though, and they covered quite a range of aesthetics from harsh bluster to winsome melody, surely giving everyone in the audience at least one Braxton alto sax moment to take home in their basket of precious memories. At the same time, Carl Testa was quietly rubbing the body of his doublebass and it was a heavenly episode of the quiet and dramatic improv I tend to favor these days.
I think the concept of scale is essential to Ghost Trance Music. Braxton’s pieces routinely last upwards of two hours. His scheme is partly modelled after the epic ritual music of various traditional cultures. Ghost Trance Music similarly demands a willingness to enter a non-ordinary state of mind. Taken as a whole, I think Braxton has created a complete music, a music that synthesizes a full range of aesthetics across the gamut of deep traditionalism and deep experimentalism instead of being restricted to isolated aesthetic concerns. This is such a rare achievement that the only other artist I can think of who’s created a complete music in the same sense is John Zorn. As vague as these remarks may be, it’s my concrete feeling that Ghost Trance Music is an aesthetic ecosystem more than just a compositional framework.
~Michael Anton Parker
edited from the original 19 November 2005 post at bagatellen.com