Saturday, September 28, 2013

Anthony Braxton - Echo Echo Mirror House (Victo, 2013) ****

A Deep Listening Review - Part 1

By Colin Green

What preparations should one make to listen to the music of Anthony Braxton? Initially, Martin was reluctant to undertake this double-review, as he was concerned that he had sufficient musical knowledge. In Paolo’s recent review of Braxton’s Sax Quintet (New York) 1998, he thought that it might not be possible to review or rate a Braxton release in the usual way, or at least that this would give rise to “some intellectual questions”.

Many find Braxton’s music intimidating, and I suspect this is often due to writing by, or about him. Take the liner notes on this release, to which I turned before listening to the CD: part of an interview that appeared in Downbeat’s March 2012 edition, from which the following is an excerpt:
“The “Echo Echo Mirror House” music is a trans-temporal music state that connects past, present and future as one thought component. This idea is the product of the use of holistic generative template propositions that allow for 300 or 400 compositions to be written in that generative state.”
I might be apprehensive too, if I actually knew what this meant.

Braxton is a complex figure, whose music (and writing) can produce a commingled sense of great insight, and utter bafflement. He is a breathtakingly accomplished player, with a febrile musical imagination, but with a predilection for gnomic pronouncements that make him sound like the leader of some strange cult.

Of course, composers and musicians are often not their best, or most articulate advocates, and many of Braxton’s more metaphysical pretensions can probably be disregarded when listening to his music, in the same way that one does not need to subscribe to Sun Ra’s cosmology in order to appreciate his music.

There’s no doubt that Braxton’s music is difficult, and requires – and deserves – careful listening, but complex ideas can be explained in plain, jargon free language, to the extent required to gain an appreciation of what’s going on in the music. To his credit, Braxton has said that knowledge of the more technical aspects of his music is not required, and that it is not only for music composition majors; but passages such as the above (which are not uncommon) do not do his listeners – or “friendly experiencers” as he insists on calling them – any favours. I’m also pretty sure that unless already well versed in Braxton’s unique lexicon, most music composition majors would be equally puzzled.

So: since this is a Deep Listening Weekend – and I ought to practise what I preach – I thought I’d attempt to explain what I consider to be the salient features of this music, and how best to approach it, subject to the proviso that I’m no expert on Braxton’s music.

First of all, Echo Echo Mirror House is a continuation of musical concerns that have preoccupied Braxton for some time; what Stuart Broomer describes in his book Time and Anthony Braxton (Mercury Press, 2009) as “…vast networks of possible connections, unlikely and unpredictable associations and confluences arising at every turn.”

My view is that this is in part derived from the modernist aesthetic in contemporary classical music – of which the orchestral music of Charles Ives is the earliest example – which embraces multiple discourses: music in which varied and contrasting musical ideas take shape simultaneously, or overlap, often characterised by contrasting instrumentation, textures and tempos; so that fast music, in a high register can proceed alongside slower music in the bass, with no common pulse to unite them. On occasions, connections between these groups, or layers, are highlighted. For example: in Stockhausen’s Gruppen (1957) for three orchestras – a work Braxton has cited as a continuing influence – brass chords bounce and merge between the orchestras.

One of the consequences of such music is that it is not tied to a linear, unified, progression: separate musical ideas can develop independently, or be crosscut, or be replaced by, or turn into something else. One of the dangers of course, is that the music can run away with itself, and descend into chaos, so that the most successful of such works, although often complex on the surface, are usually organised according to a relatively clear overall structure, such as Elliott Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra (1969) and Third String Quartet (1971) and Harrison Birtwistle’s Earth Dances (1986).

Braxton’s music has explored the notion of multiple discourses, or strands, for a number of years, but applied to a jazz and an improvising context, and to a much wider range of materials. More recently, he has exhibited a vaulting ambition in what to incorporate in his music – an ever-expanding inclusiveness that seeks to tick as many musical boxes as possible.

As the title suggests, the music is analogous to multiple refractions and after images, to an extent that it seems to be in a continual process of formation and deconstruction, like Lucretius’ swirling universe of atoms coalescing into new objects and dissolving into others. It’s a heady and exuberant mix, consisting of three or more separate strands at any one time, incorporating music both past and present. In addition to the musicians, and their various sub groupings, additional material is provided by the iPods each is credited with “playing”. These include older compositions by Braxton for flute and bass (and what sounds like the repeated chord sequences from his Ghost Trance Music), an orchestra, big band, choir, solo voice, largely indecipherable readings of what might be poetry, and a piano (although without a visual aid I was only able to attribute this to an iPod as none of the musicians is listed as playing one).  It is perhaps to this aspect of the music that Braxton is alluding, when he says in the Downbeat interview: “…it goes back to the old TV commercial: “Is it real or is it Memorex?””.

The musicians engage in dialogues not only with each other, but music of the past, such as where a clarinet plays along with an old jazz recording. (The recordings might all be selections from Braxton’s recorded output, but I’m insufficiently familiar with his vast, and diverse catalogue to be sure.) There are some magical moments, such as where foreground and background are switched, so that indistinct phrases submerged by slow, thick chords suddenly come into focus; and where a folk fiddle plays over the odd syncopations of various superimposed rhythms.

There are seven performers, including Braxton (they’re listed in Martin’s review tomorrow) – although it often sounds like double that number – which gives rise to another issue. Braxton has noted that once one has more than a few performers, there’s less scope for genuine free improvisation, and some kind of structure is required as an aid. He is not alone, and the problem of improvising in larger ensembles has been addressed in varying ways by Barry Guy, the late Butch Morris, the London and Glasgow Improvisers Orchestras, and many others.

Braxton’s solutions are often not readily apparent, however. In this performance it’s difficult to detect any long-term structure or significant recurrences: the music seems to consist of a succession of overlapping local events, which just happen to go on for the permitted duration of the hourglass that sits centre stage. There’s clearly a combination of fixed and improvised material, the former primarily by way of the recordings played on the iPods. Braxton also makes use of extended graphic notation – a sort of half way house between traditional notation and pure improvisation – and I suspect that within all this the performers are given options as to routes they can take, singly or with others, usually directed by hand signals. These are the “musical logics” to which Braxton often refers, but one does not of course, have to be aware of such mechanics: ideally they should work in the background so as to provide a measure of control and coherence to the unfolding events that one hears.

Much of what goes on is a response to the pre-recorded material, such as the driving rhythms of a big band, which the musicians adopt in different ways. On the whole, the individual strands have a sufficiently clear character to enable them to be identified: musical ideas that play out, some stuttering and broken, others consisting of long legato phrases; some are amorphous washes that fill up the background. There’s a particularly dramatic exchange between brass instruments around the 50-minute mark, which resolves into a beautiful alto solo, joined by muted cornet. 

Braxton has a knack of working with outstanding musicians, who are clearly committed to his music and inspired by the challenges he sets them, and in this performance they’re clearly having “fun” (along with “friendly”, a favourite word in Braxton’s vocabulary, possibly to counteract charges that his music is dry, and too serious). With lesser musicians, the whole thing might have fallen apart.

In this music, the listener in placed in a unique position, independent of the various strands on which the musicians are focussing, and having a more neutral perspective on events.  For my part, it’s impossible to maintain the kind of multi-tasking listening required to follow the various elements for the duration of a performance of just over sixty minutes, but this is to miss an important point as to how Braxton expects us to listen to this music.

One way in which his music differs from the examples of multiple discourses mentioned above is that Braxton incorporates not only performer choice, but also listener choice: each listener is an active participant in the performance, not necessarily focussing on the whole, but on individual parts, and making such connections as he or she will. The music is a labyrinth through which each can choose their own route, and which will differ each time. The music requires therefore, a quite radical reorientation from how one might normally listen. I think this is what Braxton means when he says:
“The new holistic models are multi-hierarchical formal states that allow for many different things to happen at the same time, and the friendly experience[r] can have the option of approaching the music in many different ways.”
For me, in this audacious work Braxton has achieved a synthesis of his various preoccupations far more successfully than in some of his other works for larger ensembles, and rather more clearly than in the performance of Composition No. 376 some six months later, with much larger forces (and it would seem, no pre-recorded material) that can be heard on Echo Echo Mirror House (NYC) 2011, available as a subscription download from the Tri-Centric Foundation.

I’d recommend you listen to this recording with as wide a bandwidth as possible. Initially, I listened to a transfer onto my iPod, and it was difficult to make sense of what was going on. It was only when I listened to the CD with the much greater resolution of my hi-fi that the various layers had sufficient space, and snapped into focus. It was a little like moving from grainy black and white to high definition colour, which is what this music requires.   


Stef said...

Hi Colin,
Great insights and very educational. From a very subjective perspective, I find some stuff by Braxton absolutely marvelous, while other records remain distant, cerebral or hard to get into. Your nice overview will make me listen differently to the latter.

Anonymous said...

Mark writes...

Colin, thanks for a very clearly written review that helped me to understand what this release may give me as a listener. I'm a big Braxton fan who, a bit like Stef above, finds some of his work doesn't resonate with me (why should it all, after all?). This release had been high on my 'to purchase' list because it intrigues me with the marshalling of different forces, recorded and performed. This review has pushed it a bit higher up that list. I appreciate that you have written about Braxton without feeling the need to over-complicate or obfuscate - gnomic breeds gnomic so often.

Karl Ackermann said...

I remember reading about Louis Armstrong's solo improvisations being intimidating to the synchronistic music of his era and I think that similarly many of Braxton's musical algorithms are a level beyond what many of us can comprehend, even if we enjoy the listening experience.

What concerns me about the composer's expectations--based on his own writings--is that Braxton employs a polite form of bullying the unwashed masses into thinking that the understanding and embracing of his art is something that should be aspirational. I sometimes wonder if this isn't an extension of the US-centric view that innovative jazz can only come from America. Read Ben Ratliff's interview with Ornette Coleman (Jazz Ear) and see if you don't feel like you would rather listen to the music than the man. I like a good deal of Braxton's music and some of it makes my hair hurt but so what? Like many listeners, I rely on reviews to direct me in a pragmatic way, but for particular artists the best approach may be to close your eyes and listen.

AGM said...

I disagree with one aspect of Karl's comment. The last word I would employ in connection with Braxton is "bullying." Likewise, I don't see any condescension; if anything, there is a gracious openness on Braxton's part to other players and the listeners. Agreed that I much rather listen to Braxton than read him, but that is true of many musicians and artists. Strange as it may sound at first, Braxton is a lot like Sun Ra: they speak their own language (a language I believe is an attempt to avoid white, Western ontology); both travel their "spaceways," welcome you aboard, but they set the course. Braxton is a genius; we sometimes seem to take him for granted. BTW, "Echo Echo" is an engrossing, challenging and pleasing album.

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