Part II of III - 2nd Species
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
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
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
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
, 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.