Writing about jazz music for a living has its frustrations and low moments, but one of the pleasures is the opportunity to intersect with such singular individuals as Anthony Braxton, who turned 66 yesterday. During the ’90s I did several long-form interview shows with Braxton on WKCR, and subsequently conducted a lengthy interview for the program notes for Duo Palindrome (2002) [Intakt], an encounter with Andrew Cyrille .
There are many places to investigate Braxton’s life and oeuvre — it’s a life study for some. I did my bit in 2007, when DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write a long piece on Mr. Braxton framed around the release of his nine-CD-plus-one-DVD box set 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 [Firehouse 12]. Initially I felt it was still a little too close to the run date to feel sanguine about posting the piece, but I think the time has come to insert my final draft of that article into this post, along with the second of two interviews that I conducted with Braxton during the reporting, in his office at Wesleyan University.
Anthony Braxton Article (final draft):
It’s unlikely that Anthony Braxton, even in his wildest flights of fancy, ever conjured the scene that unfolded at Downtown Music Gallery on the final Wednesday of March.
It had been a very long day. Hewing to the fierce work ethic that fuels his activity, Braxton, pushing 62, had risen at 4:30 that morning in Middletown, Connecticut, where he is Professor of Music at Wesleyan University. From 7:30 to 11:30 he worked on an in-progress opera, Trillium J, then taught an early afternoon class, then packed his instruments for the 2½-hour drive to New York and a four-night engagement at Iridium that would begin the following evening. Now it was cocktail hour, and Braxton, a black windbreaker covering his trademark black cardigan and blue button-down shirt, sat at a folding table in the long, narrow Bowery storefront. He sipped white wine and made small talk with a stream of admirers as co-proprietor Manny Maris presented one pre-sold copy after another—150 all told—of 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 [Firehouse 12] for his autograph and personal salutation for fans from several continents.
Far from Braxton’s most accessible project, 9 Compositions is a summational statement of Ghost Trance Musics, the most recent iteration of his system. It comprises nine CDs, each containing a continuous, hour-long set performed by Braxton’s “12+1tet” over four nights at the Manhattan club in March 2006, and a single DVD showing both the final set, Composition 358, and a documentary that juxtaposes performance excerpts and Braxton’s avuncular analysis. Inured to selling minuscule numbers of his more than 230 albums over forty years, Braxton appeared alternately bemused and shocked at the volume of interest.
Later, Braxton and Taylor Ho Bynum—a trumpeter who studied with Braxton at Wesleyan during the ‘90s and is now is a frequent collaborator and de facto straw boss of some of Braxton’s ensembles—settled in across the street at a pan-Asian restaurant on the premises of the old Tin Palace. Braxton ignored the waiter, and recounted how the Ghost Trance concept evolved from the “coordinate musics” he had presented with an intrepid, combustible quartet—Marilyn Crispell, piano; Mark Dresser, bass; Gerry Hemingway, drums—that played from 1985 until 1994, when Braxton, two years into his tenure at Wesleyan, won a MacArthur “Genius” grant, decided to invest the proceeds towards producing an opera, and disbanded.
By then, Braxton said of his corpus, every composition was “an orchestra piece and a chamber piece and a solo piece; more than that, every composition can be connected together. Imagine a giant erector set where every component can be refashioned based on the dictates of the moment.”
As Braxton refined his system, he realized increasingly that “the concept of dynamic intellectualism, in the end, was not the highest degree of my hopes in my own work.” Taking advantage of Wesleyan’s world-class ethnomusicology department, he researched a global assortment of ritual trance musics, “events that start but do not end”—Native American First Nations musics, Gregorian chant, Indonesian gamelan and shadow dance, African and Sufi forms. “As I came to recognize the spiritual implications of this information, I found myself looking for something greater than the individual mechanical components of the system.”
Using the quartet’s “collaging” strategies as a jumping-off point, Braxton consolidated his discoveries into a “fresh formal space.” Within this construct, 12 is the optimal number—extrapolating from 12 core “language types” (textures, or “sonic units,” drawn from a codified array of extended techniques), his model contains 12 “generative processes,” 12 “axiomatic principles for form-building,” 12 “area spaces” in which to “map” those schemes, 12 characters representing “ritual and ceremonial states” of the system. Ghost Trance Musics, for example, explored the House of Shala, his first language type, devoted to “the reaffirmation of the long sound”—a metaphor, by Braxtonian metaphysics, for continuous state universe theory. The Ghost Trance Music is “a utility prototype,” a kind of conveyor belt by which his ensembles can spontaneously coalesce compositions from different levels of his corpus at any time—“it lays down the railroad tracks on which I can transport to different points in a spatial configuration.”
With a “nuclear ensemble” of 12 musicians at Iridium 2006, Braxton could subdivide into ad-hoc units of three—the number at which, for Braxton, an orchestral quorum starts—to work simultaneously with at least four compositions from different “species” in every performance. On the other hand, the sextet assembled to perform the forthcoming week would “function with origin species materials—that is, we play, say, Composition 265 and bring in tertiary or additional materials from that plane, or floor.”
“If I may use the analogy,” Braxton continued, “the sextet is one solar system, with implants; the Iridium music is three solar systems being governed by one solar system.”
It was pointed out to Braxton that he had not yet bothered to eat. As he picked distractedly at his food, Bynum pitched in.“Anthony’s music contains an incredible openness for the performer to express their individuality, to discover their own ideas and contribute them to the process,” he said. “All 12 languages have a clear sense of definition, in each composition you can clearly see what idea he’s working with, yet there’s always that X-factor, that sense of mystery. I’ve seen other musics in which I can express myself—that’s not hard. I’ve seen other musics that completely represent a composer’s identity—that’s hard, but I’ve seen it done. But to balance the definition and the mystery to me is magical.”
The following evening, a forest of instruments filled the Iridium bandstand. Braxton’s contrabass, bass, baritone, alto, soprano, and sopranino saxophones stood stage left, sharing space with a trumpet and flugelhorn (Bynum), a tuba and euphonium (Jay Rozen), a drumset and electronics (Aaron Siegel), a violin and viola (Jessica Pavone), a bass and bass clarinet (Carl Testa), guitars (Mary Halvorsen), and flutes (guest artist Nicole Mitchell). Several strategically positioned blackboards lay about, and a large hourglass stood center stage. A crew of videographers checked light levels, and engineer Jon Rosenberg set up shop in the stage right soundbooth.
Braxton flipped the hourglass to commence the first of the week’s eight sets. In breathe-as-one unison, the ensemble played the main composition, a long melody based on a steady stream of eighth notes stated in repetitive cycles 40 to 50 beats long, propelled by a rather plodding march-like or machine-like pulse. Embedded within this architectural frame were portals, from which the ensemble could opt either to keep going or veer off. Braxton presented four brief secondary compositions, in graphic notation, which anyone could cue at any time for development by a sub-group. The members also were asked to interpolate “tertiary material” of their choosing from Braxton’s corpus of over 400 pieces. Often, Rozen said, Braxton would “end the evening” with language musics, say, long tones (#1), trills (#3), or multiphonics (#6); other times, he’d “cue the last page of the main composition, and we play it to the end.”
Hemingway attended the rather reserved first set on Friday night. “It sounds like a totally logical evolution from the quartet, except then it was generally in pairing and sometimes solo,” he said. “We could draw from about 200 pieces; we’d make decisions, either prior to the set or on the fly, to insert some passage out of some piece. This had a slightly more elaborate design, with potential for 3 or 4 different things to go on at once. Braxton’s music is nothing if not dense in its structure, sometimes to a fault; there’s too much going on, or orchestrationally it gets lost in the sauce. But the set I heard was very well-balanced, and you could discern all the parts.”
Before one of the sets, Rosenberg remarked that Braxton had rejected his suggestion of a blended sound in the 9 Compositions mix, instead insisting that all voices be transparent and separated. This “multiple-hierarchic” attitude, which Braxton internalized during his formative years in ‘60s Chicago as a member of Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, when he embraced the notion of multi-instrumentalism, permeates Braxton’s thinking.
“The amount of freedom Braxton gives is unlike any composer I know,” Dresser said. “It’s like he’s created this ship, and once you get in, whatever direction the people want to take it is there. It’s almost shamanistic. That collective quality is unlike any music I’ve ever played. Whether the music was powerful or sensitive or textural or rhythmic, however you did it, as long as it was with total conviction, he loved it all!”
“What seems important to me is the sublimation of individual ego to a much greater extent than in some of the earlier musics,” said George Lewis of the Ghost Trance pieces. Lewis played trombone in Braxton’s bravura quartet with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul for most of 1976, and participated in other Braxton projects here and there until 1983. “Everyone is allowed their space, but for 90% of the time they are engaged in the effort to create a unified, collective group sound. Everyone takes a certain responsibility for the collective articulation of form, but at the same time, there’s this sense that everyone has agreed on the basics. People are less concerned with expressing their own individuality in radical ways, but instead with trying to work together both to interpret and create the composition at the same time. It’s a curious hybrid, intellectually and psychologically, in terms of the musical identity of the performers.”
Not least so for Braxton, who noted that his leader responsibilities entail “starting the music, bringing in different unities at different time spaces, and ending the performance.” Still, he emphasized, “This is a multi-hierarchical thought unit that allows for controls to come from different points in the space. The components of the music’s actualization process can be shared. Any choice can be made right. Any portion of the materials can be used. That is a system designate. So the challenge is not so much ‘Can something be used?’ but trying to find a way to use it.”
For Ghost Trance performances, Braxton has worked primarily with students and colleagues from Wesleyan—Bynum, Testa, Siegel, Ted Reichman, James Fei, Brandon Evans, Roland Dahinden—who understand both the idiomatic particulars and philosophical bedrock of his music through intense rehearsals over the long haul, and possess the requisite technique to execute its complex intervallic and rhythmic demands.
“I’m playing with musicians who can play anything put in front of them on the highest possible level,” Braxton had said at dinner, responding to Bynum’s remark about degree of difficulty. “So I’ve tried not to disrespect them by bringing baby music, but give them something to dig into. I think they’re stronger than my generation in every way—technically, conceptually…”
“I would see it differently, I have to say,” Bynum interrupted.
“Just their mobility,” Braxton continued. “People read better. They know their instruments better. They might not all be original on the same level as the guys I came up with. But they are better musicians pound-for-pound.”
“You guys had to fight to make the argument that your music CAN be transidiomatic, to establish the fact that you could pull from Coltrane or Schoenberg, pull from Sun Ra or Stockhausen,” Bynum countered. “I can dial up the computer and get this incredible diversity of music in seconds, whereas you guys would have to fight to find a record. I think something in that fight gives your generation a strength that ours doesn’t always have.”
“Your generation is now at that point where the fight begins,” Braxton said. “The question becomes: Can you go the distance?”
“I have been able to have a real life, with real ups and real downs, and I am not angry at anyone,” Braxton said two weeks later in his book-crammed office at Wesleyan, which is almost the size of a small Manhattan studio.
He sat between a large piano piled with music—Hanon, Bach, Eddie Harris’ Intervallistic Concept Book on top—and a large desk holding a souped-up new Mac and a stack of CDs—Stockhausen’s Samstag aus Licht and his piano pieces, Coltrane’s Half Note radio broadcasts, the Jimmy Giuffre 3, the Max Roach Trio with Hassan Ibn Ali and Roach’s Paris duo with Dizzy Gillespie, Braxton’s own 1985 quartet.
As Braxton spoke, it was apparent that both the generative and metaphorical components of the Ghost Trance Music system, which he has described on various occasions as a means of recapturing memory, were a palpable response to his life experiences.
Braxton’s parents each migrated to Chicago around the cusp of World War Two. Out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, his mother, whose own mother “looks like a full Creek Indian,” would bring her two sisters and a brother to Chicago; his birth father, who worked for Ford, moved north from Greenville, Mississippi, and his stepfather, from Yazoo City, loaded cars at the Burlington & Quincy rail yards and worked his way up to foreman. Growing up on the ‘50s South Side, Braxton avoided gang culture and street life; with a clique of two friends, he built models, discovered Werner Von Braun, and the V-2 Rocket, spotted LPs with intriguing covers at a record shop on 58th and Calumet that lured him not only to progressive jazz, but also Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg.
“As a young guy, I recall thinking, ‘I know there has to be more to life than what I am experiencing on the South Side of Chicago,’” Braxton said. “I learned that many things were happening all over the planet, and life is an incredible gift that goes by very quickly, so if there’s something you want to do, you need to do it. We were always told that there were no challenges we could not undertake. At some point, as Muhal Richard Abrams’ composition so beautifully puts it, your thoughts are your future.”
Braxton met Abrams in November 1966, when he joined the AACM, after a two-and-a-half year stint in the elite Fifth Army Band. “I wanted to play or die,” Braxton said. “Before I enlisted, I heard Roscoe Mitchell play a solo on Bye Bye Blackbird at a session, and I decided that I had to get away and go through everything I thought I had known. The Fifth Army Band was awesome. We played all the marches, which for me was heaven, plus classical literature from Prokofiev to Bach to Stravinsky. I was playing with musicians who were a hundred times better than me, and I learned from them. I studied with one of Roscoe’s teachers, Joe Stevenson, who told me, ‘You know, Anthony, the last time I had a guy this crazy, his name was Roscoe Mitchell. He reminded me of you!’”
Like Art Ensemble of Chicago members Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, Braxton emerged from military service self-sufficient and disciplined, determined to resist jazz conformity at all costs, imbued with an esprit de corps that sustained the multiple-hierarchic attitude—”I am not going to confuse my work with the fact that somebody might have a different way than me…and it’s not about one way anyway!”—that defined the AACM’s activities.
“From the beginning, the base axiom of the AACM was respect for similarities and differences,” Braxton said. “These men and women believed that the music might go in any direction, and that anybody had the right to go in whatever direction they wanted. The AACM was way past idiomatic concerns, and that in itself was restructural. More and more, I think of the AACM in the same way that W.E.B. DuBois talked of the Talented Tenth. The AACM was a community of people who decided to stake out a position that said, ‘We can look as far as we can see ahead and as far as we can see backwards.’ I came to understand that no single ethnic group owns creative music.”
During the ‘60s, Braxton “got special flak from the African-American nationalist community and from the African-American middle class constructionalists,” as well as hardcore jazz elders who took umbrage at his idiosyncratic approach to “in the tradition,” a phrase Braxton coined to denote the jazz canon.
“The idea of the African-American human being is rejected by the nationalists and the antebellumists,” snapped Braxton. “By ‘antebellumist’ I mean a psychology that says you had better stay in your place, which, with respect to our conversation, means blues and swing. It’s especially sad to see forces in the African-American community cutting off possibilities as opposed to adding possibilities. Especially the New Orleans guys have worked to bring about a perspective and synergy that not only does not respect or include our work, but in many cases have defined things in a way that questions whether we’re actually African-Americans.”
The African-American community was not the only source of slings and arrows—to wit, a 1979 piece by Russian Punk-Outcat pianist Vyacheslav Ganelin entitled “Who’s Afraid of Anthony Braxton.” “Anything goes when it comes to Braxton,” Braxton said. He referred to a 1985 episode of The Cosby Show in which a character named “Anthony Braxton” sells marijuana to young Theo, played by Malcolm Jamal Warner. “This was my favorite television show, with an African-American family of intelligent people. Imagine my children seeing that!
“The Neoclassic musicians in the ‘80s decided that the music is really about a style. That decision has had profound implications. With respect to changing information systems in this time period, suddenly the African-American community is not always sure of its connection to modernity and beyond. This retreat into an isolationist, ethnic-centric circle, in which one component has minstrelsy and the other component is the Good Negro, is again solving today’s problems with yesterday’s materials. By reducing the components of the music to a style, they have misdefined the music.”
At Wesleyan, Braxton teaches the history of African-American music, the oeuvres of Lennie Tristano, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, composition seminars on Stockhausen, Xenakis and Sun Ra. He first documented his approach to American Songbook material in 1970-71 with Circle, the collective with Chick Corea, Holland and Altschul—like Corea, he joined Scientology during an ill-fated Los Angeles sojourn; unlike Corea, he left after four months—that gave his name currency in the international jazz community. Over the ensuing 20 years, he recorded four quartet albums drawn from songbook and canonic jazz, plus Thelonious Monk (1987), Tristano (1989) and Charlie Parker (1993) recitals. However, since 1994, coinciding with the gestation of the Ghost Trance system, such projects comprise a more substantial slice of his discography; he neither arranges nor restructures the lines of Parker, Joe Henderson, Dave Brubeck, Andrew Hill, and a slew of others, but rather approaches them as raw material for improvising.
“I still find harmony exciting, although it doesn’t have much relevance to what I’m building in my system,” Braxton said. “I’ve always loved the repertoire, and now and then I need to go outside my model, to experience and learn compositions by other people, to stay sharp with the instrument. I can use that material and not be plagued by generic definitions about rhythmic logics or harmonic logics. As with my own music, I try to move it around, do different things, so that I can stay excited, and not simply try to play the composition in the same way that one of my heroes might have.”
No longer writing Ghost Trance compositions, Braxton now is building models to work through the implications of “staccato line logics,” his fourth linguistic “House,” or “sonic geometry.”
“Fourth House Emanations will involve interactive video, interactive electronics, and poetics,” said Braxton, who has studied SuperCollider programming language over the last 30 months. “I am trying to move towards holistic strategies that factor body movement, spatial location, poetic disposition, real time interactive experiences, virtual positioning, conversion experiences—a kind of expansion of the Disneyland experience.” One typology already in play is Braxton’s installatory Sonic Genome Project, in which musicians move within a physical space of any scale, allowing an audience member—“friendly experiencer” in Braxtonese—to hear a nuanced viola-accordion-bass trio in one quadrant, four squawling saxophones in another. Other subsets are Falling River music (“extraction from graphic visual scores, like playing from a painting”), Diamond Curtain Wall music (interactive electronics), and Echo Mirror House Musics (“all the material from every CD I’ve ever made will be put on iPods and used as electronic music with video”).
Even more phantasmagoric are the GPS-like “Lydia” musics, now in beta-testing. “For instance, I play a note, BUHMP, and on the screen you see this road, a highway is moving, you’re going forward,” he said. “Let’s say I play BUM-BUH-BUH-BUHMP. If it’s correct code, then the road goes to the right. If I say, VOO-OO-OOM-OO-VOOMP, it maybe goes up this road to a target at Sam’s House.”
Braxton is “in a panic” about the slow pace of his “opera complex cycle.” “The way things are setting up, I won’t finish until I’m in my eighties,” he said. “I want to retire. I’ll get a pension, and I can wake up and compose for as long as I can go, and maybe in my seventies I can catch up with my original projections.
“My experiences for the last forty years haven’t been money experiences. In fact, I usually pay to play. People say Braxton has a lot of CDs out. I have documented my work because for me, a CD is closure to a project, and I can go to the next one. I just try to avoid situations where I go into debt for eight years, like I did for Trillium R after the MacArthur. Although in the next five years, if I have to, I’ll be ready for the next 8-year plunge, because I plan to get at least two more operas performed before leaving this planet—if I have my health.”
Anthony Braxton (Wesleyan, April 9, 2007):
TP: In the office, there’s a stack of CDs—Stockhausen, Samstag aus Licht, your London concerts, Women In Jazz, Stockhausen’s piano pieces, Jimmy Giuffre 3, Coltrane, One Down, One Up (Half Note), Max and Dizzy in Paris and Max and Hassan—amongst other things. Plus a big pile of books. Eddie Harris’ Intervallistic Concept Book, Bill Dobbins, Hanon… Quite an office. And a magazine with Wynton on the cover.
BRAXTON: It’s Jazz Education. Just came in.
TP: A newish Mac computer. So here we are. We were just talking about jazz scholarship, and you were saying that this has all of a sudden become a very important period, and you were moving towards speaking of 9/11 as a restructural transformational moment.
BRAXTON: My point was that when I think about this time period and dynamic challenges that we find ourselves as a country facing, I find myself very much aware that the America of post 9/11 is a point of the past, and that on the other side of the dynamics of this war that we’re dealing with, which is starting to define everything…on the other side of the Iraqi war will be a different America. I feel that events and decisions and thoughts taking place in this time period are very important as we look at the thrust continuum of American culture, asking ourselves where are we in the pendulum of time. Are we going the way of Empire or are the complexities we’re dealing with in this time period something that we can adjust to? Understanding that our country seems to fall into these kind of conflicts every seven years.
I would also say this. Remember when President Eisenhower said, “Beware of the military-industrial complex.” It seems to me that in the 1960s, President Eisenhower’s insight would continue to deepen, although the parameters of that depth would change, of course. In fact, the military’s share of the GDP in this time period is less than in the 1950s. But even so, it would be in the 1960s when, as you know, social reality in America opened up in a dynamic way. That opening was not separate from the misadventures that took place with our political leaders, and the political decision to go into Vietnam, which made no sense—even now, when I think about it. Why was it necessary to have this conflict? So here we are again, and we’re faced with the dimensions of this escalating train wreck on one end. On the other end, we’re faced with dynamic breakthroughs in human technologies and vibrational potential. How to balance out these synergies in a way that would be conducive for a healthy, relevant world position once we’re on the other side of these challenges?
That for me, more and more, will become part of the new balances, and the concept of the new balances in this context would be the new balances as related to changing world order and geopolitical dynamics. Two, rebalancing the antebellum project, which grew from what I’ll call the Southern Strategy. Three, we need to find a way to hook our young people into something that’s positive, not from an ethnocentric perspective, but from a composite-centric perspective. The ethnic-centric perspectives have done well in the 20th century and in the transition to this time space. More and more, my hope is for our young people to have a viewpoint of reality that takes for granted the fact that there are many different lives and paths and experiences on this planet, and that this something we can celebrate as oppose to work to snuff out.
So then I’ll go on. When I think about this time period. I find myself very much aware that, on one end, we have two generations of young men and women who have given themselves to the world of music, who are totally dedicated, whose abilities are incredible. Yet, for the most part, this group is totally ignored, they’re under the underground, and the focus, instead, is on the rejoice time space of the Antebellumists who were so successful in the time space of the ‘80s in purging the activist synergies and sentiments as well as restructural music ideas that came about as responses to the 6th and 7th Restructural Cycle of the music. It seems to me that part of the ongoing complexity that I find myself experiencing when I turn on the television set is a perspective of ethnic reality in the African-American community that celebrates minstrelsy in many ways.
But let me be clearer. I never thought in my lifetime that I would live in a time space where the African-American community was not in the forefront of visionary thinking, visionary and restructural musics, and fresh concepts about organic and world unity. Never before have I seen a time period where the young people, for instance, feel resigned to take on iconic experiences in a way that did not take place in the 1950s. This kind of resignation to the idea of victimhood. This kind of resignation to not being able to evolve in a composite kind of way, but rather, having to work only on turf which has been deemed ethnically correct because of the misjudgments and mis-decisions of a handful of African-American middle-class and upper-middle-class and upper-class individuals who were put into power, in fact, and the last 20 years they have played out the propositions in a very consistent way.
That is to say, the time space we find ourselves at in this moment is a time space that has been given over to this African-American elite group to remold vibrational dynamics in accordance to a parameter-derived concept that says African-American affinity and vibrational dynamics starts at this point and ENDS at this point. Where every other sector of human beings understand that human vibrational spectra is infinite, we see the African-American leadership taking positions on every level that seek to narrow options rather than increase options. As such, when I think about, say, the last 30 years (but actually, the last 40 years), we see a narrowing of definition spectra as it applies to creative music. We see a narrowing of political dynamic synergies and hope of unification. Remember, it was the Egyptians who talked of the unity of opposites.
Talking of the last 30 years, we see an explosion has taken place on cable television and in popular music, where everyone is aware of the beauty of Beyonce’s bodalicious body, everyone is aware of the real intelligence and evolving decisions of some of the technocrats who were put in position in the ‘80s. I’m thinking of, say, this hip-hop group that now makes movies, people like Ice Cube. He’s making movies now. He’s directing movies. He’s evolving his position. And I totally respect that.
At the same time, coming up from Chicago, coming up from an environment from the time space of the ‘50s going to the ‘70s, my experience in the black community, in terms of intellectual dynamics, was that all bets were on the table. When I think of my experiences as a young guy, there were viewpoints in every direction, and at no point would a viewpoint be excluded based on the grounds that someone was not an authentic or inauthentic black.
TP: What is your class background? Do you come from a middle class family? Working class?
BRAXTON: I come from upper poor class.
TP: Factory worker? Blue collar…
BRAXTON: Ford Motor Company. I grew up with my mother and stepfather. My stepfather worked at the Ford Motor Company. My father worked at Burlington & Quincy Railroad, loading the cars, and later being the foreman and helping in this area of shipping and so on. I don’t come from privilege.
TP: That’s when there was a certain notion of upward mobility among working class people that maybe lessened since the ‘70s. Was a strong sense of possibility stressed in your family? Was education very much stressed?
BRAXTON: In the community where I grew up and the grammar school that I went to (Bessie Ross Grammar School—61st & Wabash), we were never told that we could not succeed. In fact, we were told that we could succeed as well as anybody, and that there were no challenges that we could not undertake, should we make the decision to undertake those challenges. I grew up in an environment and community where that axiom was number-one, that you could do what you wanted to do, or, if you didn’t do it, you can’t simply sit around and blame the establishment or blame The Man. At some point, as Muhal Richard Abrams’ composition so beautifully puts it, your thoughts are your future. We grew up in that kind of environment. So it wasn’t just my family. I grew up with my mother and my stepfather, who later I would take on as my father in terms of my heart, while at the same time keeping a relationship with my father. But that in itself was not so unique. The dynamics of men and women and relationships for poor people, for African-Americans coming through slavery has always been complex.
But in the end, what is surprising for me is to see generations which are like 3 and 4 generations removed from me who are coming up with less hope than what we had, who have been influenced by the media in a way where it’s almost like the young people are not able to weigh all of the options available in this time period. Of course, even with the problems that our country has, the idea that it’s impossible to evolve in America is an incorrect idea. In fact, in many ways, I see in many different directions constrictualist interpretations of possibilities in a time space where actually there are more possibilities than what one would think.
So my work of the last forty years is a response to my experiences, and my experiences have been universal experiences, composite experiences in spite of the rejection of the jazz business complex and the American contemporary music complex. At 61 years old, I have been able to have a real life, with real ups and real downs, and I am not angry at anyone. I am very happy to be alive, with the hope of pushing my project as far as I can, while I am still able to do so.
TP: You’ve said that in high school it became apparent to you that you wanted either to play music or die.
BRAXTON: Yes. I understood as a young guy that music was not simply a source of entertainment for me, but it was one of those components that held my whole interest in being alive, my whole interest in discovering. The whole phenomenon of curiosity. The whole dynamic of spirituality and wanting to be a better person. The mystic sentence for my system is “navigation through form,” and I’ve tried to build my model with that in mind.
TP: Were you into building models as a youngster? Were you a model trains guy? Were you into advanced mathematics, or did you have a proclivity for mathematics? Your metaphors sound like a kind of giant erector set, or you speak of continentally-stretching railroad tracks…
BRAXTON: This is one way I talk of my music.
TP: I’m wondering if that goes back to early interests.
BRAXTON: I was very deeply into model… My father was a railroad-man. I was very interested in the V-2 rocket scientist, von Braun, and I was attracted to this area. I grew up with Howard Freeman and Michael Carter. We were interested in science and the world, and we had our projects, to the extent that we didn’t even know that we were supposed to be unhappy and poor. What am I saying? I am saying that when I look at the nature of the pathology that I see in this time space, I feel that part of the pathology that’s taking place is a pathology that doesn’t recognize the possibilities, that’s looking backwards at the focus rather than looking through the focus into the future. This difference in perception paths is no light matter. I see the political decision to embrace Albert Murray’s writings, the Southern strategy, the New Activist Christian position, the resolidification of control in the jazz business complex and the popular music complex after 1970, as all part of this new constructed reality where we suddenly celebrate the adventures of Brittany Spears and Puff Daddy and J-Lo and this whole group that has been put in a position where…
TP: The minutiae of their lives becomes front-page news. My daughter…
BRAXTON: Your daughter is the recipient of the furthest reaches of the techniques of manipulation that for the last 50 or 60 years have evolved, and no one has evolved these new devices more than our country. I do not mean to say that the composite thrust of contemporary media in itself is negative. But I do mean to say that this is the most controlled time space that I have experienced in my life.
TP: Now, I am little surprised at your equating of Wynton Marsalis and Albert Murray with the dynamics you discern in popular culture and hip hop. In some ways, the way you think about the world seems not so dissimilar to them in the broader template—i.e., that there should be no limitations on potential, to draw from and unify multiple ethnic components… I understand everything you’re saying in relation to popular culture as it exists, and your disaffection with the developments of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. But in a certain way, I see Marsalis as almost an alternative AACM possibility, in this notion of self-determination and institution-building, and given his background in education and so on. You gave me a firm negative headshake.
BRAXTON: I would say this. The New Orleans gambit that would see this movement come into power, including people like Mr. Ken Burns, I see this movement as part of a political decision. One of the axioms for their being put in power was that they would help to control the possibilities for people who existed outside of their definition spectra. This is exactly what has happened. They have come into power and used their possibilities to snuff out the opposition in a way that is only equal to what happened in the 1920s, when the New Orleans musicians came and snuffed out the possibilities.
TP: How did New Orleans musicians in the ‘20s snuff out possibilities and not add to the mix? Duke Ellington added them to his mix…
BRAXTON: Let me explain what I am saying. First of all, when I am thinking about restructuralism, the 2nd degree of restructuralism as related to this continuum is the experiences that happened in Chicago. The things that happened in New Orleans, these guys were thinking about entertainment in a different kind of way. One thing for sure. When King Oliver came to Chicago, that’s when suddenly individual solo experiences and extended solo experiences began to happen in the music and became another component in the music. What am I saying? I am saying that the idea that the idea that New Orleans is the composite source of those forces that created this music is a myth.
TP: In the time space continuum there were certain dynamics in the culture of New Orleans that spawned spectra that weren’t there, by all accounts, in Chicago during the first 15 years of the century. Chicago was a town of cabarets and piano players, then there were silent theater orchestras. In New Orleans, you had the opera, the whole Mediterranean tradition commingling, you had Italian opera, French opera, marching band music, deep southern blues… Musicians had those composite experiences there in a way that I don’t think was available in Chicago until after World War One, if my reading of history is correct.
BRAXTON: I completely disagree with you. Not only do I disagree with you. I disagree with the historical examples that you set up. I disagree with those examples because, one, the idea that American creative music comes from one place…
TP: I didn’t say it started there. I said the cultural dynamics of New Orleans made it develop in a certain way.
BRAXTON: It developed all over. That’s my point. When I think of the subject of creative music, I am not thinking of a territorial subject. Nor am I saying that the music is totally indebted to Chicago. That would be another example of what is happening now. I am saying that when I think of the subject of creative music as that subject relates to me, I am not thinking of a territorial anything, but rather I’m thinking of continental experiences, I’m thinking of area space experiences, I am thinking of ethnic experiences, and multi-ethnic experiences. I am also thinking that no single ethnic group owns creative music. I am also thinking that the idea of the African-American human being is rejected by the nationalists and the antebellumists—and I like to be interested.
Rather than things opening up into the composite space in the time space of the 1970s, which, in my opinion, would have been the natural organic outgrowth of the possibilities that opened up in the ‘60s, we would instead see, in my opinion, a decade that was up for grabs in terms of possibilities. Things could have gone forward, things could have gone backwards. There were unities coming together between Americans of different racial groups and territorial spaces. There were impulses that could have moved forward or backwards or sideways during that time period. And what happened, in my opinion, was the second and third degree of the military-industrial complex secret society structure that takes money from the composite peoples, but the monies are defined in a way where it’s not possible for normal people to trace it. Those monies were and are being used to, one, reconstruct America, only reconstruct America for an antebellum purpose; two, reinstall political target projectiles, whether we’re talking of support for the black church, whether we’re talking about the construction of Lincoln Center; three, reemphasizing antebellum imagery. Suddenly, if you’re a comedian, it’s a great time. Meanwhile, by chopping off the head of restructuralism, the African-American community would place itself in an iconic circle.
That, in my opinion, is one way of looking at this time period and what has happened. Not the only way, but one way, where the devices of the last 80 years in so-called jazz were used to propel the music forward, those devices came together as part of the challenge of its time period, where now, in this time period, we see the devices used to keep out world music influences. We see those devices used in a way that perpetuates…I don’t want to say iconic synergies, because then I’m using the same word, “iconic,” two times…so I’ll say reversal synergies that celebrates present-time experiences, that celebrates or integrates those experiences with the traditional information and the traditional musics, but by having no restructural platform to integrate that information…
TP: But it’s interesting. Because the facts on the ground within these ongoing creative music wars are that world music influences are now part of the mainstream and the vernacular, and you have musicians from around the world who are fluent in all sorts of idioms.
BRAXTON: There are so many musicians I’m learning about, but there are so many I don’t know. But let me respond to this. You’re changing my point. First of all, I agree with what you’re saying. But that wasn’t my point. My point is that the political dynamics, the political structure in charge is determining the nature of that fusion. It’s not only the restructural musics that’s been sacrificed. I’m talking also of restructural thinking, and restructural perspectives. I am very hopeful that… George Lewis’ book, for instance, is coming out. That’s going to give a different perspective. You might like it or you might disagree with it. But it will give a different perspective that is not just one way happening, that the synergies and creativity has never been about one way.
TP: But it has to be nurtured. And it seems that you and George Lewis and Leo Smith have kept things going by establishing extremely firm roots in institutional settings like this, and bringing forth successive generations of musicians who will forever be at least familiar with your perspective, and able to make their points therefrom.
BRAXTON: Well, I’ve tried to learn from my peers. In the AACM, pedagogy was always important. Also, I think about Robert Ashley and David Behrman at Mills College, and Terry Riley. I learned a great deal from them in the ‘70s about how to work with educational institutions, how to work inside the university without letting the university destroy you. Later, when I had the opportunity because of the American visionary master David Rosenboom, to come into academia, and later, Alvin Lucier and Neely Bruce, it was for me an extension of experiences that I’ve always been involved with anyway, since I’ve always been involved with research-and-development and teaching. In fact, it’s never been just about playing the saxophone for me, or playing the instrument. That’s only been one-third of my interests in music. But there’s a tradition that’s behind me for that. This was not something I started. In Chicago, this was the way for us. It was never just about playing. It was about the whole experience.
TP: All I’m saying is that you’ve established a parallel institution, and perhaps in the only institutional space in America where it could be done, to bring forth your notions of how things should be…
BRAXTON: I’ve tried to take advantage of this opportunity and do my best.
TP: You’ve not only taken advantage, but you’ve created the opportunities. I don’t believe that your presence at Mills College or Wesleyan is simply a passive process. I think there’s some intent involved.
BRAXTON: You have a good point here, Ted. You know with the AACM that we’re talking about a monodimensional intelligence and we’re not talking about a perspective that, for instance, disrespects New Orleans. Back in the ‘60s, when there was disrespect for New Orleans, we did everything we could do to reeducate people. So how ironic that 20 and 30 years later, it’s the New Orleans guys who have worked to lessen our possibilities. Not just me. But it’s the New Orleans guys who have worked to bring about a perspective and synergy that not only does not respect or include our work, but in many cases have defined things in a way that questions whether we’re actually African-Americans. I think that’s outrageous.
TP: I want to shift ground, not because the subject is uninteresting, but there are many other things to talk about. But it is interesting to me that New Orleans over the last half-century contains Edward Blackwell, Alvin Batiste, Kidd Jordan, Clyde Kerr, other people you can think of, who are almost like a southern branch of the AACM in sensibility, and that the attitudes of the generation that came under them can almost be explained by Oedipal dynamics, that they saw the struggles of their elders and were pragmatic about what sort of music they could play to make a living and connect with the broader public, and that there also was a sense of wanting to connect with musical fathers/elders whose music wasn’t in the air when they were kids. For you, Johnny Griffin or Art Blakey or Ahmad Jamal were on the jukebox. For young musicians who came of age during the ’70s, this wasn’t the case.
BRAXTON: I don’t understand what you’re saying. I respect what you’re saying. Those guys grew up in New Orleans, in a community… They’re not stupid guys. In fact, they’re very intelligent guys. Say what you will about me, but I will never disrespect the opposition. They are brilliant guys. Which makes it only more of a mystery, the decisions of the last 20 years. We’re not talking about guys in their twenties any more who can back away from some of their young man statements. Every young man, every young woman in their teens and twenties will take positions that later, with time and maturity, they understand, “well, maybe that was a little bit too far.” I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about a position that continues today. For instance, [in 1985] Bill Cosby had a character selling Theo drugs. His name was Anthony Braxton. None of the jazz writers, nobody in the world… All the documentation is there. You can Google it. I thought it was outrageous.
But I understood. Even in the ‘60s, I was getting the special flak from the African-American nationalist community and from the African-American middle class constructionalists. So anything goes when it comes to Braxton, including having a character who sells dope to his kid on television. Imagine my children seeing that. Not only that. Imagine, this was my favorite television show, an African-American show that has an African-American family of intelligent people, only to…
TP: You’re demonized there. I wasn’t aware of it.
BRAXTON: It’s there and you can still Google it. Meanwhile, I have watched the politics of the last 20 years, and I just can’t believe it. Ideas that, “Oh, the music is going in the wrong area,” “He’s not a good saxophonist” or “these guys don’t have basic music training.” So what? It wasn’t the post-Ayler musicians who started the war in Vietnam. It wasn’t the post-Ayler musicians who changed the economy in the ‘60s. It wasn’t the post-Ayler musicians who created segregation. Let’s say all of the musicians who listened to Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler were totally crazy. So what? They weren’t trying to harm anybody. They were fighting for their music. These guys came to New York and made the musicians the problem!
That decision has had profound implications in the African-American community and in the composite world community. With respect to changing information systems in this time period, suddenly the African-American community is not always sure of its connection to modernity and beyond. This retreat into this isolationist, ethnic-centric circle, one component of which has minstrelsy, the other component is the Good Negro. It’s again solving today’s problems with yesterday’s materials. This was the mistake made in the 1960s and ‘70s with the Neoclassic musicians thinking the music is really about a style…
TP: The ‘80s actually.
BRAXTON: The ‘80s. Excuse me. By reducing the components of the music to a style, they have misdefined the music.
TP: What is your attitude towards these issues when you yourself are playing that body of work. You’ve recorded Charlie Parker tunes up through Charlie Parker and Joe Henderson—as lines. You don’t really arrange. You take them and approach them almost as raw material for improvising. It comprises a substantial slice of your discography over the last 15 years. Not that you didn’t do it before… There were projects—Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano for Hat, and the Monk project in the ‘80s. But more recently, you’ve expanded these investigations tremendously. Where does this activity fit into the total spectra of your activities?
BRAXTON: I would respond this way. My music system, the system I’ve been working on for the last 40 years, is not a rejection of anything. It’s an affirmation of the tradition. From there, why have I at different points in time gone back to look at materials from the repertoire? One, I’ve always loved the repertoire, and part of me has a need, every now and then, to go outside of my model and the music system that I’m building, and experience and learn compositions of musics by other people. This is a way for me to stay sharp and excited about the instrument. This is a way to continue to evolve myself. Plus, by declaring that I am not a jazz musician, now I can go back and use that material and continue to do what I was doing anyway, but not be plagued by generic definitions about rhythmic logics or harmonic logics.
TP: Are you applying tricentric strategies to those performances, or are they somewhat different?
BRAXTON: It just depends on what I’m talking about. There’s a lot of material. Some of it is approached in a more open way, some is approached in a stricter way. Sometimes we play the composition but throw away the chord changes. Sometimes we play the chord changes but we might change something else. I try to approach the traditional materials in the same way that I approach my own music. That is to say, move it around, do different things with it, so that I can stay excited by it, by using different approaches, by not simply trying to play the composition in the same way that one of my heroes might have tried it.
TP: I think a big portion of your four CDs on Leo are drawn from performances on a November 2003 tour of Belgium. If you played “Recorda Me” on four or five different nights, would you use a different strategy on each night? Would you use the First House once, the Third House next… My sense is that’s how you approach your solo saxophone music.
BRAXTON: I have tried, as a composer, to structure materials in a way that is most interesting to me. If the subject is the traditional materials, then I have tried to approach the materials in a so-called non-traditional kind of way, with imagination and creativity, and sometimes changing the shape of it. I’m not seeking to recreate Minton’s from the 1940s, but I could not do my work now had the musicians from that time period not done their work.
TP: You made a comment that in embarking on the Ghost Trance Musics, in a broader metaphysical sense, you were seeking to recapture spirits. I’m sure you said this in a more subtle, complex way. I wondered if there was any connection between those investigations and your also performing the tradition so visibly over the last 15 years. Also, you had that two-year moment with the piano quartet, playing this repertoire on the piano. Did you in any way reconfigure your relationship with the tradition? Has it taken on a different implication over the last 12-13 years. Has teaching had something to do with it?
BRAXTON: Good question. In fact, that’s exactly where I was going to go. The opportunity to come into academia would give me a chance to have closer contact with some of this material, since I am doing classes on it. I have classes on the music of Tristano. I have classes on the music of John Coltrane. I teach the history of African-American music. I do composition seminar classes here at Wesleyan on the music of Stockhausen and Xenakis, Sun Ra. So to have opportunities to do a class on Miles Davis or the great music of John Coltrane, it’s nice also to play some of that music while you’re doing the class. I still find harmony exciting, although it doesn’t have much relevance in my system in terms of what I’m building. No disrespect to harmony, but I would talk of that function in a different way as it relates to the tricentric musics. But meanwhile, traditional harmony and the American Song Form Book… Well, I grew up with that. I would like to hope in the future that we’ll do some music of John Cage, or something of Schoenberg or something… I came to see that I can no longer agree with the idea that improvisation on its own plane is more important than anything else. That is to say, I am interested in improvisation, notation, and systems in between, whether we’re talking of graph systems or whatever. These are just organizational methods.
TP: The common thread among musicians I’ve spoken with is that you have set up a music that uniquely bears your stamp, and yet your structures offer the musicians enormous levels of freedom within which to operate, and yet the music always remains you.
BRAXTON: Well, I’ve tried to learn from the tradition. This is what Jelly Roll Morton established. This is what Duke Ellington established. Mutable logics with the House of the Rectangle in the Circle, or with the House of the Rectangle on the outer circumference with the Circle inside.
TP: The House of the Rectangle are the fixed propositions, and the Circle comprises the mutable “Is” moment, the flow.
BRAXTON: Yes. And the triangle is the synergy connection. So what I have tried to do, and what the last forty years has meant for my work, I have tried to respond to the opportunities that I was born into in the time experience of the ‘60s. I was ready for it. I went through the ‘50s. I studied and struggled studying the music of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Schoenberg…
TP: You discovered Schoenberg in the ‘50s as a teenager.
BRAXTON: Yes, but I was really more into Alban Berg.
TP: Much more dramatic, narrative music.
BRAXTON: Yes. Although the piano music of Schoenberg in the end would be the most important breakthrough for me. But I just mention that to say that in the time space of the ‘60s, when the AACM came together, we were really at a fresh point… When I say “we,” I mean America. Creative music in the Western world was really at a point of expanding out to the whole world, where it was not simply just about the West any more. I mean, Ravi Shankar was starting to perform in America in that time period. Ali Akbar Khan. Suddenly it was not just a theory. It was something real.
TP: A lot of African musicians started to come here after the United Nations was formed, plus all the refugees from World War 2, and so on…
BRAXTON: So I am saying that my music, or the work that I would embark upon was a response to the opportunities that opened up and culminated in the time space of the ‘60s.
TP: How did you come to discover Schoenberg or Alban Berg? Was it in high school music appreciation, or what you were reading…
BRAXTON: High school, going to the library, listening to music.
TP: But how did you know what to look for?
BRAXTON: That’s a good question.
TP: This goes back to the beginning of our conversation, with your comments about the climate in Chicago in the ‘50s.
BRAXTON: I would discover Berg and Schoenberg in a similar way—the cover of the LP looked interesting. The modern art covers.
TP: So you went to a record store or saw the records in the library.
BRAXTON: I used to go to a record store on 58th Street. Henry Threadgill knows this. Anyone who lived in Chicago in the time space of the ‘50s and ‘60s knows about this record store. It was on 58th and Calumet. It went a little further out. They had everything, especially jazz, and would save records for me. Later, I started listening to Bartok… Just trying to see where things went, and following different lines, and discovering that there were different musics. As a young guy, I recall thinking “I know there has to be more to life than what I am experiencing on the South Side of Chicago,” and part of my awakening was learning that there were many things happening all over the planet, and life was an incredible gift that goes by very quickly, so if there’s something you want to do, you need to do it while you’re alive.
TP: Most teenagers don’t know that.
BRAXTON: I look at the dynamics of this time period, and I find myself thinking again that every generation is going through its own set of challenges, its own set of opportunities, but if you don’t see it, you’re at a disadvantage, because each generation comes to the starting gate and not everyone has done the background work or had the background experiences and opportunities to be able to compete. So it’s especially sad to see forces in the African-American community cutting off possibilities as opposed to adding possibilities.
TP: Were your parents native Chicagoans? Did they migrate from the South?
BRAXTON: My mother is from Tulsa, Oklahoma. She came up from Tulsa, later brought her sister and brother and her other sister to Chicago. My father is from Greenville, Mississippi, and my stepfather is from Yazoo City, Mississippi.
TP: Does your mother have Native American ancestry?
BRAXTON: My grandmother looks like a full Creek Indian. So like many African-Americans, some percentage of my genetic materials are connected to the Native American peoples.
TP: Ralph Ellison is from Oklahoma, Gordon Parks is from Kansas… There’s a certain independence of thought, or a certain egalitarian spirit operative in that part of the country that seemed to take effect. Did your mother have a very powerful personality?
BRAXTON: Yes. My mother is very strong. She’s still alive, and she’s had a great life. Our relationship is with love and complexity.
TP: I want to ask you a completely different question. This article is about your four nights at Iridium, a year after the performances that comprise the 9-CD box set and the DVD. On one of the nights, I was talking with Jon Rosenberg about recording you and mixing the CDs. I’m going to be paraphrase the conversation. I gathered that his idea initially was to mix the overall sound into a kind of blend, and you were very specific about wanting the sounds of each instrument to come through quite clearly.
BRAXTON: Yes. I wanted transparency.
TP: Can you speak to the philosophical backdrop to that? It seems to relate to notions of multi-hierarchicalism. Also, that date last year and this performance seems to be more important to you maybe than other activities. It seems to have brought you to a transition point.
BRAXTON: Thank you, Ted. The completion of the Ghost Trance Musics is the completion of the template components for the First House of my system—the House of Shala. When completed, there will be 12 houses. The Iridium performance last year is especially important to me because it demonstrates the nuclear components of the music. By nuclear in this context, I am saying that there are 12 musicians—actually 12+1 last year… The +1 is the person outside of the sections of threes. So the Iridium project, by demonstrating the nuclear components, would give me the chance to demonstrate the features of this system I am trying to build. Transparency is relevant because the system basically has redefined an area space, and in redefining the area space, the Ghost Trance Musics now will establish the internal connective lines inside the space.
What am I saying? I’m saying that if the formal scheme is a continental formal scheme, the Ghost Trance Musics is the highway system. If the formal scheme is the expanding universe, then the Ghost Trance Musics would be telemetry, coming from different parts of the space. If this office is the area space, then the Ghost Trance Musics would demonstrate the arteries, the 12 major artery lanes of the system. Why is that important? It’s important because after 30 years of mechanics, eleven years ago I started this next phase of modeling, and this next phase of modeling as not just an attempt to advance mechanics, but to penetrate into the area space of the synergies taking place. The Iridium performances were important because, one, I had the good fortune of having 12 great instrumentalists, improvisers and composers who also understood my music. Many of the musicians have really studied the system in a way where they have insight. Others, like Nicole Mitchell, would come to this project in a fresh kind of way. But Nicole Mitchell would take a plane ride from Chicago to New York to do rehearsals. She did that on her own initiative. For me, it was just another example of what serious musician-composers will do when they are seeking to excel or to gain insight into something. Nicole Mitchell is an example of the kind of master who I would hope that the younger generation would give a chance, would experience her work. Musician-composers, multiinstrumentalist-composers like Taylor Ho Bynum, like Steve Lehman, like Andrei Vida, I see these people as the hope of America, I see these people as pioneers of the Third Millennia, and the beginning of a new cycle of Third Millennial mastership.
So, going back to my system: I’ve tried to build my model with real intentionality for the last forty years. It’s not just a music system. It’s a system of experience. It’s a system of ideas, including a philosophical system. It’s a system of transposition: transposition into coordinate logics, into ritual and ceremonial experiences. I have been seeking and I am seeking to construct a model that demonstrates the new holistic musics, holistic musics that balance known, unknown and intuition. I believe that we are in a dynamically challenging period where many things are opening up, and this is taking place at the exact time same where politically and geopolitically our leaders have created this incredible mess that we’re dealing with. But even so, there is still a reason for being alive. There are still new frontiers to explore. There is every reason to remember that life is still magical, that everything is not known. Somehow, we need to reinvigorate and energize the culture, and part of that challenge is what creativity is all about. We need to find a way to get music in the grammar school and high school programs of America. Had I not had music in high school (Chicago Vocational High School), my life would be something completely different. I don’t know what my life would have been. But young people are growing up in the richest country on the planet, and they’re not being taught music, and we’re wondering what’s happening with our culture. Our culture is sinking, in many domains. In other domains, things are continuing to move, either forward or it’s going backwards. It’s not staying the same, though. This is why we’re coming to an important period of time, a period that maybe should see some kind of rectification of the imbalances of the last 30 years. Believe me, Ted, I’m not saying, “Give Braxton a chance, give Braxton a chance.” I’m 61 years old. I’ve had a life with good and bad times. But when I think about my students, the men and women who I’ve been able to work with in the last 30 years, they deserve a chance.
TP: They also have to create their opportunities just like you did.
BRAXTON: Not everybody’s crazy like Braxton. Not everybody’s like the AACM, from the lunatic fringe death group who HAD to do it.
TP: Are you seriously describing yourself and your brothers and sisters…
BRAXTON: Okay, I don’t mean it like that, Ted. I’m thinking I’m talking to someone who understands me. The AACM came together when it was clear that the jazz business complex was saying, “No, we’re not going to accept the music of Cecil Taylor, we’re not going to accept the music of John Coltrane; this is leading us in the wrong direction.” There were many musicians who felt the same way and felt that this music was the wrong direction. The men and women of the AACM came together because not only did we believe in that music, but we believed that the music might go in any direction and that anybody had the right to go in whatever direction they wanted to go in because part of being in a time of opportunity is to explore what those opportunities mean in real terms.
So no, I am not saying that the men and women of the AACM are lunatics. But I am saying that in many ways we were from the extreme group in the sense that we made a decision that said, one, even if we make no money, we’re staying with this music. Two, I am not going to confuse my work with the fact that somebody might have a different way with me—and it’s not about one way anyway! Three, that there was a need to stake out a position that said “We can look as far as we can see ahead and as far as we can see backwards.” Four, I came to understand that, as much as I love myself as an African-American, as much as I love trans-Africanisms, that I also love trans-Europeanisms, trans-Asia, trans-Hispania. It’s not about one ethnic group as opposed to composite reality and the universal human family. I could go on and on. But in the end, the group that accepted the challenge to push the music forward was a group that was committed in an extreme kind of way, where it wasn’t going to be about X amount of money sustaining us or X amount of support coming from the African-American or European-American jazz or classical community, because if we had thought that way, we would not be doing our work now.
TP: You and the guys in the Art Ensemble served in the Army, and came out self-sufficient, autarkic people. It was a very unique community, and it probably couldn’t have happened at any other time than the ‘60s because of the broader political dynamics at play.
But the musicians who I see carving out their space in this period, whether they studied with Braxton or Leo Smith or George Lewis, or went to the Cuban National Conservatory, or if they went to Berklee or New School or the university of the streets, wherever they went or whatever they did, are musicians who follow la similar notion of carving out space. The space they carve out may have a different connotation, though. A lot of this has to do with economics. Someone paying $40,000 or $30,000 per year tuition has to figure out a way to pay that back. They have advantages, but there’s a rub to having these benefits, too.
BRAXTON: Ted, we’re talking about many things. For instance, I agree with you—the AACM experience could only have happened in the time space of the ‘60s. But we find ourselves now in the Third Millennia, and our culture needs help. Now, not everyone, even in the time space of the ‘60s, was able to survive anyway. I’d like to have a situation and have a hope that we will start to take advantage of the positive power that we have and make use of some of these people. We need to go back to the transformational power of creative music. That has been sacrificed along with music as part of motivation and community. Yes, the young people who I work with are coming from a very different experience than what I came from in the ‘60s. Hooray! Because the experience I came from was dynamic and broad, but it was also very much of a struggle. Now we see American masters like Leroy Jenkins—he’s left us now. He was a great man, and struggled all his life to produce music and to evolve his music, and to present it in a way that was totally honest. These are the kind of individuals that I would hope for our children to learn about, and to know that there are people like George Lewis, like Muhal Richard Abrams, who has given so much and received such a strange reception by the American music complex. In any culture, in any time period, Muhal Richard Abrams would be considered a great visionary pioneer. Only in America does maybe, say, three-fourths of the musicians not even know about Muhal.
TP: Where I was going with this, though… We’re talking about, again, the opportunity for your musicians to move forward and to take the music different places. What I really want to get to, and you may not want to talk about it…
BRAXTON: I’ll talk about it.
TP: …is the real time experience of playing your music. Does it involve… Let me ask the question this way. Do you need at this point musicians who are trained in your system for your music to achieve its highest vibrational completion?
BRAXTON: To answer your question: Yes. More and more, when I think about the forward space, when I think about the hope of evolving my work, I need to work with people who have a deeper knowledge than simply how to execute material in a traditional sense or something like this. I need people who are interested enough in my work, who would take the time to learn the system and how the processes work, and in doing so, I can have the hope of evolving my work. This is why, in the past decade, I’ve come to talk of my work as part of an occult position. Occult position in the sense that: One, by default, not everyone is going to be interested in it. Two, the information is not always getting around, and when it does get around in the next fifty years, if that should happen, only a small group of people will probably be interested in the kind of things that my system is touching on. But even so, I’d like for that group to be able to find my work, because I’ve designed my work to explore particular kinds of propositions. In fact, my system has been designed with respect to propositional logics in a way that separates it…
TP: Could we discuss some of those propositional logics in more conventional musical terminology?
BRAXTON: Propositional logics in the sense of…
TP: The actual specifics. The harmonic specifics, the rhythmic specifics, what sorts of staccato phrasing…
BRAXTON: Ted Panken, we’re talking of over 400 compositions. Name a composition. I can talk to you about that composition, if I can remember it.
TP: Can you speak in a more general sense?
BRAXTON: Yes. For instance, language types, these are the 12 geometric states in my music. Those are also… [HANDS OUT PAPERS]
TP: You’re going to draw up a new model in the summer to codify the Ghost Trance Music and bring it into the totality of your work.
BRAXTON: Yes. The new model will be 12 houses, 12 blocks, and the 12 blocks will be consistent with the 12 components, starting with language music.
TP: Do you refer to this terminology in the ensemble class? Are your students expected to be fully conversant with the dynamics of each of the 12 houses and their various manifestations?
BRAXTON: No. That’s more of a composition major, for people who are interested in studying my particular work. But for classes on John Coltrane or the history of African-American music, I wouldn’t even bring any of this material. Now, for the ensemble class, I start with the music, and in the course of the semester I try to inform the musicians that there are other degrees of the material, and it’s something that can be explored or not explored. It just depends on what we’re talking about. For a young person who is interested in my ensemble class, there are materials and musics that we play, and there is a system of processes that can be shared. At some point, the student will make a decision whether they want to go any further with it. But even if the decision is “No, I won’t go any further with it,” there is enough to do in a semester to explore a modeling, the understanding being…
I said this before, but let me say this again, because I think this is important. In the ‘60s, one of the conversations in the air was the conversation that improvisation is somehow more relevant than composition. I came to see that these were political perspectives, not aesthetic perspectives. If I’m a young person whose vibration is fulfilled by playing Beethoven, why should I go to something other than Beethoven if Beethoven is what fulfills my dynamic? So I’ve tried with this system that I’m building to have a mutable logic of explorative dynamics that says mutable logics—real-time encounters, the phenomena of the improvisation, language music. Mutable logics, something comes up. That would be number one.
Number two: Stable logics. Actual thoughts. Ideas. Structural models. Compositions. Declarative concepts, as in the Tri-Axium Writings, the philosophy.
And finally, Triangle. Imaginary musics. Area space extraction strategies. Using a hockey stadium. Sun Ra in Central Park. I believe that the next generation of modeling will be modeling that will extend into virtual modeling on the computer, where more and more the idea of the audience and the musicians being separate is going to change, and the change is going to be a change that puts everybody in the space with interactive activities for the friendly experiencer, individual or groups, and that one of the challenges of this time period is to design these models. For me, who did not have any natural aversion to Europe, I tried to design my model to have improvisation, notation, connecting kinds of strategies. I feel that this is part of the challenge and, as such, one of the opportunities of this time period, and I feel that that’s going to be the significance of my model.
TP: For instance, last week at Iridium, are things like voicings in the ensemble important?
BRAXTON: That’s a good question. Let me talk to you about three degrees of structure dynamics. The first degree is origin identity. By origin identity, it means that I write a composition in the traditional way of the composition. If there are chords, the chords are there. A specific instrumentation. That’s origin identity.
Two: Secondary identity. Secondary identity is a string quartet, you take out the viola part and perform it with a hundred tubas.
The third identity is genetic identity. That’s one measure.
Okay, what does that have to do with your question? It has everything to do with your question. Let’s go back. Harmony. Functions of harmony. Well, there are origin harmonic logics that take place, if the instruments are played that it was written for. There are secondary harmonic connections that come about when different instruments play that material. More and more, I don’t talk of it as harmony as much as relationships, or chord to sound mass dynamic—depending on which way we’re looking at this material.
For the question of origin rhythmic species: Yes, I’ll write a composition in its traditional way, it will have traditional properties and traditional so-called rhythms, or specific rhythms. But in the tricentric action space, those rhythms might be put against another rhythm that was not initially there, and the end result being some kind of polyrhythm gravity that was not originally plotted, but came about because of combinational structures. This happens throughout the whole scheme of the music.
So going back to your questions about actual devices…
TP: Melody would be another one.
BRAXTON: Every Ghost Trance composition has a different geometric melody. In fact, in the original Ghost Trance Musics, I would ask you, when thinking about first species, to read the Circle House article in the Braxton website. There’s an article called “Circle House.” It will give the story of the circle musics from the Native American experiences…
TP: Is that one of the research papers?
BRAXTON: Yes. In its origin state, my work…you can talk of the various internal components of the architecture. All I am trying to establish is that with the new tricentric model, the architecture has three different states—origin, secondary, genetic.
TP: Longevity is in your family. Realistically, how many of your houses do you expect to fully explore, to have time to get through?
BRAXTON: The way things are setting up, I’m running into trouble. I’m in a panic about this, because the way things are going, I am not going to be able to finish the opera complex cycle until I am in my eighties. Because it takes five-six years to do an opera.
TP: Why for you does it take five-six years? Obviously, there’s a lot of work to do.
BRAXTON: There’s a lot of work, and plus, I have my academic work.
TP: Will you be doing that after you’re 65?
BRAXTON: I want to retire. I get a pension, and I can wake up and compose for as long as I can go, and maybe in my seventies I can catch up with my original projections.
TP: Do you get a fair amount of royalties from your compositions? Do other people play them?
BRAXTON: No, not really. My experiences for the last forty years hasn’t been a money experience. In fact, I usually pay to play. People talk about Braxton has a lot of CDs out. I have documented my work because for me, a CD is closure to a project. So in getting a project documented, I can go to the next project. It hasn’t been a money thing as much as I pay for this myself. I am doing this not because I am making money or that I hope to make money…
TP: Did you break even on the Iridium project last week?
BRAXTON: I haven’t broke even in so long, I don’t even know what that means. I just try to avoid situations where I go into debt for eight years, like I did for Trillium R. Although in the next five years, if I have to, I’ll be ready for the next 8-year plunge, because I plan to get at least two more operas performed before leaving this planet—if I have my health.
TP: Just so I’m clear, you’re no longer writing new Ghost Trance Music compositions, but you’re still performing it and placing things in new situations, and you’re moving into a new house now.
TP: If you can discuss the meaning of this house in more conventional terminology than your specific nomenclature. Or both.
BRAXTON: I’ll also try to have notes for you on all of this. First I would say, with the Ghost Trance Musics complete, after 12 years, the next step for me is to put the components of the material into its respective space, or nation-state space—with respect to the continental model. By “nation state,” I am saying this. There is a cartographic function. For instance, there are 12 melodies that don’t start and don’t end. I have tapped simply into those 12 melodies. Those melodies are location melodies where, if the concert was in this office, melody #3, let’s say, would come from this region.
TP: Did you derive the melodies from your practice? Did you hear one from Indonesia… Oh, it’s all in here.
BRAXTON: Starting with this, “long sound.” Then “long sound, secondary sound, in one.” “Three in one.” “Four in one.” “Five in one.”
TP: So the melodies emerge from working out the different permutations of these designs.
BRAXTON: Yes. But there’s a better way to say it. Each house is a sonic geometric state. When I say “each house”: Each number is a house. Each house has a way to it. Each house will demonstrate a zone of poetics. You don’t have the poetics model; this will be finished in the summer. So the 12 melodies are permutations of all 12 languages, and each language demonstrates a type of sonic geometric, if I can say it like that. Sonic geometry in the sense of shape.
TP: The way wave forms interact with each other, sound and silence and all that.
BRAXTON: Yes. So that’s what this is. Now, this came from the solo saxophone music. What I did was, I took these languages and transferred…any solo composition on the alto saxophone, I put it on the piano in a solid state. Then, next, I put it in the House of the Triangle. That is to say, for instance, “Composition 113” takes the solo musics and adds a poetic story to it.
So what am I talking about? I am talking about a model whose internal components are… I flesh out the internal components geometrically or architectonically, as far as what this is. In many ways, it could be looked at in the same way as Bach and Beethoven evolving their materials from improvisation into composition into theory. This would be the progression for Ellington, for Stockhausen, for Schoenberg, even though they talk of it in different ways. But in the way, there is a connection between materials coming in from the open space, put into the stable space, and then some aspect of it is used to make something else happen. That is the way I’ve tried to evolve my work.
TP: Did you tell me which house you’re moving into now?
BRAXTON: No, I don’t think I addressed that. Right now, there’s the Diamond Curtain Wall Musics, which is the interactive musics. There’s much more to do there. Much more. The Falling River Music, extraction from graph scores. There’s much more to do there. I will have a new set of prototypes of Falling River Music by September. This is my goal. I have recently formed Echo, Echo Mirror House Musics. The Echo, Echo Mirror House Musics will be compositions that will use iPods that will take all the material from every CD I’ve ever made, and put it on the ePod and use it as electronic music with video.
TP: Then real time events happening within that. A musique concrete but on some enormous scale.
BRAXTON: Yes. Finally, the Lydia musics are coming. So there’s everything to do… The Lydia musics will… For instance, I play a note. BUHMP. On the screen you see this road, a highway is moving, you’re going forward. And let’s say I play BUM-BUH-BUH-BUHMP. If it’s correct code, then the road goes to the right. If I say, VOO-OO-OOM-OO-VOOMP, it maybe goes up this road going here to this target at Sam’s House. So a menu could be, “Okay, we’re going to be available to play in the active space for five hours, five days, five years, or maybe just ten minutes, but I want to wind up at the library in Shalaland or Ashmentonland. Just like the GPS system would give you a map and show you how to get there, that’s going to be possible in my system.
TP: That would be ideal for friendly experiencers with high-powered computers.
BRAXTON: Yes. So this is the kind of system I’m trying to deal.
TP: Do you do computer programming. When you do the Lydia musics, will you be doing the programming?
BRAXTON: Yes. I’ve been doing it for the last almost three years. Maybe 2½ years. I’ve been studying with Matt Balder and Tom Crane, graduate students here. Thanks to them, I was able to start studying Supercollider, and I am going to stay with it because I am really interested in interactive electronics. I want to keep learning, that’s all I’m saying. This is what I’m talking about. All of this opened up in the ‘60s. I don’t know what the response to this time period is going to be. But if it’s like the ‘60s, it’s going to be an incredible response to the conflicts that we’re dealing with in this time period—and the fresh possibilities that we’re dealing with.
TP: So would it be accurate to say that it’s less that the music is a set of idiomatic propositions than a way to spur people to use a certain thought process to get from here to there with your broader philosophical model?
BRAXTON: As a composer, I am seeking to design a new model that will take into account the gains that opened up with the creative musics that we now call the New Orleans musics (wrongly), with the gains that opened up in the post-Webern musics, and the gains that opened up in the great musics of Sun Ra and Miles Davis. I’ve just simply tried to build a music that responds to the men and women whose work influenced my life and helped me to make the decision to embrace music as a life’s work.
TP: Were you satisfied with this year’s Iridium gig? What were your impressions of the week that you just completed? What was accomplished? What was gained?
BRAXTON: I was very satisfied and grateful at the tremendous work of my colleagues. Two weeks ago, when we played the Iridium, it was approached in a different way. It was the sextet nucleus, and we added different instrumentalists, depending on the set. In this second engagement at the Iridium, which probably will be my last engagement there, I wanted to explore second- and third species Ghost Trance Musics with one or two accelerator class structures. So we really played different music every set. Plus, Taylor and I brought the large instruments so that we could have the expanded timbre space, from very high to very low.
TP: You played a great deal. Much more than the year before.
BRAXTON: Well, with less musicians, we have a different transparent space, and there are more opportunities to extend a little more. With 12 musicians, 12+1 in the case of the ensemble, I did not feel that there was a need for super-extended solos. In fact, my interest more and more is not for extended solos, but rather to fit in the ensemble and to have a nice balance between intentionalities and improvisation.
TP: Given the level of autonomy you give the other musicians within your system, when you’re up there in real time, how much temptation is there to seize the moment and make it go in a direction that you want? How do you separate your identity as a participant in the mix and being the creator of the system, being part of the ensemble and being a leader?
BRAXTON: That’s a good question. When we go to play the music, as the leader of the ensembles, I have certain responsibilities concerning starting the music, bringing in different unities at different time spaces, and ending the performance. But outside of that, I am another friendly experiencer, and that’s part of the beauty of it. This is a multi-hierarchical thought unit that allows for controls to come from different points in the space. This for me is a breakthrough, that the leader doesn’t have to control every component of the actualization process of the music—that it can be shared.
TP: Are there structural commonalities within your music that allow you to draw on your entire body of work within one piece? What makes it possible to incorporate… Taylor and Carl Testa blogged that the second set Saturday night was their favorite of the week. Are there wrong choices, or can any choice be made to be right?
BRAXTON: Any choice can be made right. Any portion of the materials can be used. That is how the system works. That is a system designate. So the challenge is not so much “Can something be used?” but trying to find a way to use it. This is where the experience comes in and knowledge of the system comes in, and knowledge of how to make things work comes in. But in fact, a multi-hierarchic action space in this way establishes very unique encounter sonic experiences that are outside of the domain of a mono-hierarchical model.
TP: What did you do today before you saw me? How did you spend your morning? Was it a typical morning?
BRAXTON: It was a good morning. I was up at 4:30 this morning. I started composing Trillium J at around 7:30, and I was able to work until around 11:30, and then I stopped and tried to watch the phone. But it was a good morning, because I was working on Trillium J. My hope is that I can get a good push forward this summer.
TP: Are you writing the libretto yourself?
TP: What did you do between 4:30 and 7:30? Do you exercise? Is there a routine?
BRAXTON: I exercised today, and my hope is to do this every day, but sometimes I don’t, and I will use the weekend sometimes to have an excuse to not exercise. It’s not really good, but I need to do more exercise, not less exercise.
TP: How much time do you to get to read?
BRAXTON: This is part of academia. This is what we have to do. I’m always reading. My hair is white. I have to read even faster!