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Friday, March 15, 2019

Anthony Braxton - GTM (Syntax) 2017 (New Braxton House, 2019) ***** (Part I)

Part I of III  -  First Species
By Keith Prosk

Approaching Braxton is difficult for some listeners. Not only is the volume of his discography daunting but the volume of some releases (such as this one) are too and a feeling of misunderstanding is only exacerbated by his idiosyncratic interconnected compositional system and his complex, sometimes enigmatic descriptions of the system. I hope to convey the accessibility of this enriching music that is as broad and deep as reality itself by providing some context - as I understand it - and listening patterns that I enjoyed, followed by brief notes on each composition. Lee Rice Epstein and I decided to split the release by species; he’ll cover the second species along with his relationship with the release.

GTM (Syntax) 2017 is twelve hour-long Braxton compositions performed by the twelve members of the Tri-Centric Vocal Ensemble: Roland Burks, Tomas Cruz, Lucy Dhegrae, Chris DiMeglio, Kristin Fung, Nick Hallett, Michael Douglas Jones, Kyoko Kitamura, Adam Matlock, Anne Rhodes, Kamala Sankaram, and Elizabeth Saunders. Michael Douglas Jones passed away between the recording and release, and the entire release is dedicated to him. It’s available digitally as well as a 12-CD boxset and both versions come with liner notes from Braxton and Kitamura and composition diagrams. It is the first recording of Braxton’s syntactical ghost trance music, i.e. these twelve non-narrative compositions catered to the human voice, in its entirety and in studio. Like 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006, which at the time Braxton claimed as the point of definition in his career thus far, it is a linchpin in appreciating his complex compositional system but, because it spans all three species of ghost trance music (GTM), it provides a more intuitive and tangible experience in the three dimensional (or multi-dimensional) world his oeuvre creates.

Braxton has almost always been concerned with space, evidenced by his composition schematics appearing even in his early works (For Trio feels like an especially apt example, creating an analog of three dimensions through stereo channels as well as utilizing the voice). And a similar interconnectivity was present at least as early as the collage music of the Crispell/Dresser/Hemingway quartet, with Dresser and Hemingway playing with pulse tracks that Braxton and Crispell could fall back to and utilize as jump points to play any composition in Braxton’s oeuvre. Explicitly inspired by at least the seemingly infinite interconnectivity of the world wide web and the virtual reality of new media like 3D videogames, Braxton strove to transition his dream-like collages to a more concrete experience and create his own virtual reality through music.

This virtual reality is at least composed of the twelve states of Trillium land explored in his twelve narrative Trillium operas, which I imagine are more representative of a human aspect (e.g. the character Shala), and all instrumental Braxton compositions, which I imagine are more representative of non-human aspects (e.g. a mountain or a room). A GTM piece is a primary melody, often several pages long notation in those (in)famous repetitive eighth notes, that serves as a transportation route between the portions of this virtual reality that Braxton has fleshed out. Like a train track, the melody might have a stop to: (○) get out and stretch, revel in the present, and improvise; (□) explore a pre-constructed area, the past, and tertiary material (those (often) previously-recorded compositions that appear in parentheses); or (△) synthesize the two, mold the future (?), and play secondary material (small compositions that accompany many compositions). I imagine the increasing complexity of GTM species as the increasing complexity of transportation modes. The first species is usually a steady pulse primary melody in eighth notes with no specific dynamics, little articulation, and few invitations to depart from the primary melody, like a long cross-country train ride. The second species cuts up the primary melody with rhythmic breaks, subdividing beats into ratios, and there are more dynamics and more invitations to depart the page, like a highway system with interchanges. The third species is almost continuous polyrhythmic breaks with even greater subdivisions of beats into ratios, dynamics, articulation, and now color-coded graphic notation, like the planes, trains, and automobiles in a complex intercity transportation system. Finally, a subset of the third species - the accelerator class - sees each beat wildly subdivided or completely obscured by polyrhythms with extreme dynamics, more graphic notation, and now less invitations to depart, like a wormhole. I am no doubt omitting theoretical and compositional nuances, but I hope I conveyed the gist. Practically, rather than providing a kind of performance safety net like the pulse tracks of his collage music, GTM compositions provide explicit pathways in the world of Braxton.

I suspect these pathways running through his work contribute to the reason Braxton calls this GTM set the Rosetta Stone of his music systems but the primary reason is likely the human voice (syntax). The ability of the voice to explore any combination of sound > syllable > word > narrative readily allows Braxton to construct all aspects of his complex world with one instrument and quickly. The many moving parts of the respiratory system and the diversity of human bodies make the voice perhaps the most complex instrument but its emotivity is instantly recognizable because it’s an instrument listeners hear every day of their lives, again allowing Braxton the simultaneous complexity and immediacy required to construct a real-time three dimensional experience.

However, though Braxton might think of GTM somewhere along these lines, he does not require the listener to do so. A listener can connect the number twelve through his music, as in the twelve personalities represented in the twelve Trillium operas across twelve Trillium states based upon his twelve language types performed by his 12(+1)tet or the twelve-strong Tri-Centric Vocal Ensemble. Or the number three, as in the past, present, and future/the composition, improvisation, and synthesis/the tertiary, primary, and secondary materials in the Tri-Centric model, or the three species of GTM, or the 3x12 Trillium units in his operas, or the four groups of three found in many of these recordings. A listener can dwell on the details, knowing each secondary and tertiary compositions history and meaning, every notational nuance, and the syntactical activation codes for dances in Pine Top Aerial Music. A listener can feel like they’re walking through a Tri-Centric Theme Park real-time experience. Or a listener can just listen, like it’s any other music. Braxton only requires open ears and an open mind. Though he strives to create a music as complex as reality. You can stop to smell the roses without knowing the clades, range, and genetic intricacies of the rose, or even seeing or feeling the rose (smile).

I hope by providing some context that I’ve eliminated some of the mysteries frustrating the pure enjoyment of this music. But there’s still the matter of listening to twelve hours of music in a digestible manner. For listeners new to GTM, I suggest beginning with 192 and then 340 to provide two well-contrasted reference points to work from. For listeners dreading the eighth notes of the mid ‘90s, I suggest going straight to the more musical 340. It’s useful to contrast the guts of the three species by picking examples with non-narrative tertiary material such as 192, 239, and 340. And it’s fun to contrast examples with narrative tertiary material across species like 219, 254, and 341. Once you get your bearings, the real payoff comes from listening to the compositions sequentially, because the ensemble recorded them sequentially and you can hear the growing comfort of the performers with both the compositions and each other through the release.

Nate Wooley’s Sound American 16: The Braxton Issue [hotlink:], particularly contributions from Erica Dicker, Kyoko Kitamura, Anne Rhodes, and Graham Lock, was especially helpful in beginning to understand the thought behind this music.

First Species
To briefly recap, first species GTM is characterized by the prevalence of the primary melody, a steady pulse built from a long string of eighth notes. The first four compositions of GTM (Syntax) 2017 are first species.

Composition No. 192 (dedicated to the composer Maryanne Amacher)

Previously recorded on Composition 192 (For Two Musicians and Constructed Environment).
The primary melody starts out as oohs and ahhs, quickly moves to letters and eventually incorporates single numbers. When recording the first two species, the ensemble was divided into four groups of three with group conductors to promote cohesion as the performers became more familiar with the material, performance, and other performers. This recording is “simple” enough to hear those four distinct groups. Groups will depart the primary melody to perform secondary material from Composition 192, but they usually return quickly and there seems to always be at least one group on the primary melody. Some words are introduced, mostly colors, as well as some syllables like “som” and “ead.” There’s brief operatic singing and whispering and some extended technique like skittering, scatting, or beatboxing. “Slow it down, man!” is heard towards the middle of the performance - a startling, humorous break in the string of numbers and letters - and the track closes out with the allusory phrases
“slow down, turn left, for new connections”
“in the early model of the system”
“never hesitate” 

Composition No. 219 (+380) (dedicated to the vocalist/composer Sister Rosetta Thorpe)

Previously recorded on Three Orchestras (GTM) 1998, 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012*, Trio (Knoxville) 2016*, and James Ilgenfritz’ Compositions (Braxton) 2011. 
219 immediately ups the ante. The primary melody is mostly composed of syllables like “bok” and “zim” and the syllables seem to mutate into each other like zim > zoom > zoop > soup. Contributing to this blurring effect, the primary melody is sung so slightly out of phase at some points that it creates a kind of multiphonic effect rather than a polyrhythm. There are more diversions from the primary melody. And this performance is very colorful, with whistles, wails, hums, sucking in, breathing out, panting, skitting, scatting, beatboxing, bird-like chirps and warbles, wookie trills, and the kind of lip flapping that Hannibal Lector does after mentioning fava beans. And amongst all this color is diversions to the utterly amusing narrative of Trillium J (380), in which Mrs. Walton is on trial for the destruction of her husband and counters such cross-examinations as “Am I to believe the 700 hatchet marks found on his body were an accident,” “What about the stash of bazookas,” and “What about the 400 lbs of napalm found on the body” with “It’s one thing to be dead, it’s another to have bad taste!”

Composition No. 220 (+67, 83, 85) (dedicated to the composer Florence Price)

Previously recorded on Duets (Pittsburgh) 2008, Alumni Orchestra (Wesleyan) 2005*, Quartet/Quintet (NYC) 2011, and Noël Akchoté’s Composition 220 (Plays Anthony Braxton).

Like 219, 220 is another colorful performance but it trades in narrative tertiary material for non-narrative, orchestral and improvisation pieces. Despite the increasing complexity from diversions to secondary and tertiary material, more complex syllables, and more extended techniques, it’s still easy to hear the primary melody throughout the performance and to hear the four clusters of performers. Syllables are now as complex as “fifth” and words like “baku” and “zakay” are prevalent. Extended techniques include ululating like a howler monkey, groaning, harried gurgling, screeching, muted yells, and sighs sounding like pigeon wings. A key development in this performance is the ensemble’s growing comfort with silence; certain portions are more sparse than even 192 and there are two moments of silence lasting several seconds, often to come back in impactfully.

Composition No. 221 (+71, 90, 91) (dedicated to the composer Pauline Oliveros)

Previously recorded on Three Orchestras (GTM) 1998 and Syntactical GTM Choir (NYC) 2011*.
221 can be viewed as the culmination of first species techniques explored in the previous compositions. It opts for non-narrative tertiary material. The ensemble continues to use long rests. And some more extended techniques include voice-cracking wails, rapid bubbling (like drowning), tongue clicking, and lip smacking. But the emphasis here appears to be on the blurring effect from 219. When words and syllables aren’t travel-related (west, train, north, tour, bike, traffic, ride, bus) they blur, like ran > run > red > rev, rest > west, hill > heal, fuss > fuzz, riev > reiv > rev > riv. And the performers begin really playing with time and space, like a chorus singing “lake” slower and lower until it sounds like a tape at half speed, or everyone saying “bike tour” out of phase and at different tempos and volumes to create polyrhythm. After the bike tour polyrhythm, there’s a kind of Beach Boys unified chorus, a quick diversion to something like the stabbing music from Psycho, and then every group is doing something different at different tempos before all coming back to an impactful, unified “ooooh” at the last second. It provides an exciting glimpse into the possibilities of the next two species.

* as tertiary material