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Thursday, June 17, 2021

Anthony Braxton – 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017 (Firehouse 12, 2021) - Part 3

By Keith Prosk

Compositions 418, 419, 420

In 2018, freshly wedded, my partner and I decided to honeymoon in Naxos and Thera. Nearly all the flights seemed to connect through London and, since we’re not frequent international travellers, I took this as perhaps the only chance I might ever have to visit Cafe OTO, a kind of mecca for this music, if there was something amazing happening. A three-day Anthony Braxton residency, presenting some new ZIM system, serendipitously aligned with our return trip from the Cyclades. So we booked it. And we honeymooned with Braxton. At the time, I wasn’t able to find much information on ZIM but I now know we saw the septet of Braxton (reeds), Taylor Ho Bynum (brass), Jean Cook (violin), Jacqueline Kerrod (harp), Adam Matlock (accordion, aerophones), Miriam Overlach (harp), and Dan Peck (tuba) perform compositions 418-420, the last three performances presented on 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017.

A few flashbulb memories. The oppressive heat of the first night, every performer sweating through their clothes before even beginning to play, possibly enfeebling performance and seemingly cutting it short - though you certainly can’t hear it in this recording. The startling immediacy and intensity of Adam Matlock’s voicings, some operatic vibrato alternating intonations between the funereal and braggadocio. Miriam Overlach’s own otherworldly voicings into the harp soundboard. The scrape and hiss and depth of Jean Cook’s tensive string noise. The many embouchures of Taylor Ho Bynum emitting a menagerie of sounds and the occasional humor of it, like a wet smothering mouthing sounding like some flustered water fowl. Peaking over to see a player’s notes containing some confusion around aspects of the language musics no doubt relatable to many experiencers. And catching a glimpse of some Z-series inserts, seemingly some evolution of the pulse tracks developed around the time of the Crispell/Dresser/Hemingway quartet. The ensemble a parabola with Braxton and Bynum co-conducting at the roots. The enthusiasm of Braxton’s hand signaling. Indeed how the energy of the sound imbued Braxton with an uninhibited genuine joy that permeated the room. And of course the dizzying density of the music.

Like the performatively impossible density of ZIM notation requires players to extract a performance from it, the density of a performance - let alone the mass of this set of twelve - requires a listener to extract an interpretation. And like this extraction process creates a gradient of valid performances and interpretations, the salient characteristics of ZIM all deal in gradational processes or gradient logics, the eleventh of Braxton’s foundational language musics. It’s telling that many of my memories are of textural techniques, and I think that listeners will find ZIM among the most textural of Braxton’s systems. Compared to discretized pitches in tonality, the pervasive use of extended techniques in these compositions illuminate the spectrum, or gradient, of timbral identities. The ensemble does something similar on the macroscale, transposing patterns across instruments, the tuba picking up a melodic line from the accordion that picked up the melodic line from the trumpet, like fluid percolating through the various local porosities of a material. A gradational zooming, most obvious in Braxton’s sax, occurs too, the smooth curves of melodic lines transitioning back and forth between flurries of notes like the raw data points that form the curve. And the music is always mercurial, its dynamics and densities swiftly traversing hilly countries, a constant contraction and expansion, sometimes together through complete stop-start strategies or a noirish orchestral throb. Extramusically, this particular ensemble might resemble some gradationial synthesis of genre, with apparent roots in jazz and classical but other musics too, the tuba and accordion perhaps recalling oompah or polka, the harps something Appalachian.

By virtue of its density and duration and nature, especially when taken as a set of twelve, ZIM performances - each seemingly beginning and ending in media res - might induce a feeling unfixed states, unsure how you got there and where you came from, how you are there and where you are, how you’re going to get there and where you are going. It invites you to zoom in but it takes time to hear the trees for the forest. So I hope it’s understandable, if still unsatisfactory, that it’s difficult to describe individual compositions. Various players have their nights in the spotlight, and I think you’ll hear the whole ensemble become increasingly energized from 418 to 419 to 420. 419 might emphasize stop-start strategies and 420 transposed patterns. But, as with all grand statements of Braxton’s systems, there’s a special joy not in knowing its nooks and crannies upon meeting but in knowing it is an endless well of new experiences with each listen.


Read Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


Richard said...

Thanks to all three authors for this incredibly detailed analysis of one of the most important releases of the year.

Nick Ostrum said...

I agree, Richard. This was a wonderful series.

Lee said...

Thanks to you both!

Gary Chapin said...

Thank you!