Thursday, January 8, 2009

Listening to Anthony Braxton

When Mosaic Records first announced their release of The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton, my first reaction was my usual concern about space being at a premium in my condominium (the same reaction I had a year earlier when my wife received the Brilliant Classics Bach Edition as a gift). I figured that the few Braxton CDs I had accumulated would be sufficient. I certainly enjoyed those recordings, as I enjoyed the ways in which Braxton pushed the envelope of classification.

Organizing my personal collection has never been an easy matter. It took me a while to converge on a systematic approach that I could actually use when I was trying to find anything specific. I ultimately resorted to a technique I learned about 25 years ago from the librarian at KUSC. She hit on the idea of organizing everything according to the old (and now defunct) Schwann record catalog, saving back issues of the catalog to keep track of recordings that had gone out of print. (She delighted in being able to call her method "Schwann's Way.") I have pretty much picked up this method in spirit. Since Schwann is no longer with us, I have saved only one old issue each of Schwann Opus (for classical music) and Schwann Spectrum (for everything else), not for assistance in finding specific items but just as reminders of the basic categories.

Unless I am mistaken, Braxton is one of two composers whom "Schwann's Way" assigns to different categories, some recordings classified as classical and others as jazz. (The other composer is John Zorn.) Personally, I think the Schwann classifications had more to do with the publisher than with the content itself; but I have decided to honor their guidelines as best as I can.

What interests me more than his defiance of conventional categories is that Braxton is almost exactly a year and a month older than I am. Taking into account my having skipped a grade in elementary school, there are many ways in which we have probably shared listening experiences during our formative years. True, while I went straight from high school to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I then remained for my doctoral studies, Braxton entered the army after high school; and, as Mike Heffley documents in the Mosaic notes, it was during his service in Korea that "he discovered the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Albert Ayler's Bells, Coltrane's Ascension, then returned to Chicago." Barry Kernfeld's biographical entry for Grove Music Online has him spending two years at Roosevelt University "reading" philosophy and composition, meaning that he probably did not earn a degree; but, more importantly, he joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and formed a trio with Leroy Jenkins and (now Wadada) Leo Smith, which recorded in New York as the Creative Construction Company and travelled to Paris in 1969. According to Heffley, the trio's nickname was "the slide rule boys." After returning from Europe, he spent "some quality time around the post–John Cage Wesleyan University" (Kernfeld's words), which probably put him in touch with Alvin Lucier, Richard Teitelbaum, and Frederick Rzewski. This would have been shortly before Lucier received his faculty appointment at Brandeis University, which is when I first became aware of his work and his colleagues in the Sonic Arts Group. Braxton was thus looking for a path that would lead to innovation through innovative thinking about structure, which is basically the same sort of path I had been trying to explore in my own approach to computer music in my doctoral research. My guess is that it is only through bad luck that I missed any opportunities to hear him perform around the same time that I was encountering other composers, such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich; but, as I said, what strikes me the most is the extent of overlap in our listening contexts.

The breadth of Braxton's listening context is more evident in the Mosaic collection than it can be in any of the individual recordings I had previously acquired. Only through a project like this one would Rzewski end up in my jazz collection by virtue of a performance of Braxton's "Opus 95 For Two Pianos" along with Ursula Oppens. There is a sense of Rzewski's presence in Braxton's listening context, but this composition is still very much a product of Braxton's own voice. Similarly, the "Opus 82," conceived for four 39-piece orchestras, reflects the influences of Charles Ives, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Iannis Xenakis but also points the way to Braxton's later "Composition No. 165" for eighteen instruments, recording almost fifteen years later by New Albion (and classified as "classical" by Schwann). The period covered by the Mosaic collection (1974–1980) also includes innovative (but decidedly jazzy) approaches to Scott Joplin, Lionel Hampton, John Coltrane, and Eric Dolphy. This is a collection that takes the ear in far more diverse directions than just about any other anthology in either the jazz or the classical category. Nevertheless, as the Discography in Braxton's Wikipedia entry indicates, the 8 CDs in the Mosaic collection are actually a rather modest sample of his work; and, as far as I can determine, he is still taking that work down new paths!

My Grove Press copy of Henry Miller's Topic of Cancer includes an essay about Miller by Karl Shapiro entitled, "The Greatest Living Author." I still remember this sentence about Miller's work from that essay:

Let's assemble a bible from his work, I said, and put one in every hotel room in America, after removing the Gideon Bibles and placing them in the laundry chutes.

In a similar vein I would like to envisage a world in which one may start one's day with Braxton's music in the company of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and John Coltrane. Sadly, even with my XM satellite service, I have yet to hear anything by Braxton through a broadcast medium. I suppose that means that I shall just have to fashion this world for myself, without the prospect of sharing it with others!

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