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Saturday, March 16, 2019

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

Part II of III - 2nd Species

By Lee Rice Epstein
Composition No. 239 (+108b, 169) (dedicated to the multi-instrumentalist/composer Taylor Ho Bynum)

Previously recorded on 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012 (as tertiary material).
As Keith described yesterday, Braxton’s musics encompass decades of evolution, with perhaps a dozen different musical languages spinning out from the big bang of 1968’s 3 Compositions of New Jazz. The early number 6 compositions are described as “circus piece,” “fast pulse relationships,” and “series of repetitive structures,” all phrases that could be used in 2019 to describe latter-day elements of Syntactical Ghost Trance Music, even as the musics themselves are remarkably different in intent. In the intervening 50 years, Braxton’s developed a philosophy of music as a trigger for dynamic, interpersonal experiences, and a means of creating various mind states to inhabit fantasy environments and process real-world conflicts.

Composition No. 254 (+126, 307) (dedicated to the vocalist/composer Kyoko Kitamura) 

Previously recorded on GTM (Iridium) 2007.
The seeming familiarity of Braxton’s eighth-note melodic sequences for GTM is completely upended in the voices of the Tri-Centric Vocal Ensemble, featuring 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. Longtime listeners may know several of these performers from previous trio and duo projects. On GTM (Syntax) 2017, however, the layering of voices immediately calls to mind Trillium operas. Unlike the operas, SGTM isn’t necessarily organized by particular storylines or environments. Instead, Braxton uses SGTM to explore the human voice, above all things.

Composition No. 255 (+46, 134) (dedicated to pianist/composer Neely Bruce) 

Previously Recorded on GTM (Outpost) 2003, GTM (Iridium) 2007, 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012 (as tertiary material), and Noël Akchoté’s Composition 255 (Plays Anthony Braxton).
Within SGTM, the signature eighth-note melody is typically represented by single-letter or number repetition, a ceremonial incantation opening the pathway further into the music. From there, vocalists begin using signal phrases to conduct changes and improvisations in the music. Typically, GTM ensembles split into small groups, trios, and duos that form clusters within the larger ensemble, and such is the case in SGTM, as well. At times, vocalists spin off into small groups singing familiar melodies and lyrics from popular culture or strings of words composed by Braxton, syllables echoing the impact of punchy trumpet and saxophone lines. And then there are the non-syllabic vocalized sounds, growls and snarls extend the range of the ensemble.

Composition No. 256 (+173) (dedicated to the Bulgarian Women’s Choir)

Previously recorded on Six Compositions (Ghost Trance Music) 2001 (as tertiary material), Ensemble (Pittsburgh) 2008, and Syntactical GTM Choir (NYC) 2011.
At a certain point, anyone confronting Braxton is forced to contend with his dense philosophic writings, which can appear arcane and esoteric on its surface. As with his music, however, when taken on word or phrase at a time, moving forward step by step, a listener can easily trace a pathway. The opening melody may require a bit of patience, but as I mentioned, in the context of SGTM it’s an entirely different experience. A listener can choose to let the melody itself take center stage in one’s mind or telescope into the words, numbers, and sounds performed by the vocalists. There’s obvious fun in identifying the scraps of known lyrics and sometimes hilarious interpolations of noises and utterances. The humor and joy invoked by the group brings out a humane side of Braxton that’s too often set aside when writing or speaking out him and his music. As he noted in a recent New York Times article , “It involves people suddenly coming together in communities. The art of the relationship. How to deal with each other.” And the empathy baked into the performance of SGTM, where vocalists need to be attuned to what each other vocalist is doing so they can react to signals and cues accordingly, or trigger others by performing their own signal or cue. In these ways, Braxton creates connections that transcend the music, reminding us that we are alive, living this life, hearing these breaths on an album recorded by other living people, struggling at times in their own lives, celebrating during others, and each one of us tenuously connects to every other one. It’s utopia thinking, sure, and Braxton asserts in the liner notes, “Tri-Centric is not a religion.” But it is a mode of generating empathy, much like Roger Ebert once said of film: “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” This is true also of SGTM, especially upon a close listen, focusing in on the words and phrases turning over themselves. One may not understand why a particular phrase is being used, but one can think of the voice, the breath, the intonation, everything about the actual person performing. One can hum along while listening or repeat bits of lyrics, as I’ve started to do, letting the music become a part of one’s daily life.

Composition No. 265 (+10, 16) (dedicated to the Reverend C.L. Franklin) 

Previously recorded on GTM (Outpost) 2003 and 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012 (as tertiary material).
One could easily spend hours, days, even weeks teasing out the notated and improvised references within Braxton musics, especially a language as highly interdependent as SGTM. In this category, I think about the work of academics annotating and uncovering references in books like William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and J R, James Joyce’sUlysses and Finnegans Wake, or Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and The Waves. There does seem to be a similar strain of modernism woven through Braxton’s aesthetic, with his encyclopedic wit and interest in cultures high, low, and in-between. Of course, the undeniably baroque taxonomies and interrelationships invite a certain kind of experience, one that not every listener is interested in. This is where the “friendly experiencer” moniker enters, one I’ve mentioned elsewhere and that I happily and openly embrace. One has to be ready for a music that’s larger than you, that does in fact ask you to actively engage, and most importantly that asks you to take it seriously, but not too seriously. That would mean missing the liveliness of the music and the spirit in which it’s performed. Take works like Morton Feldman’s String Quartet II” or Tyshawn Sorey’s recent Pillars , music that invites listeners in and submerges them into a deeply thoughtful listening experience. SGTM, like GTM, is superb music for reflection, allowing Braxton to work his magic on you.