Anthony Braxton’s music has always shown an interest in transcendence, carried forward from the Coltrane/Ayler ecstatic jazz model, with bits of Sun Ra, Ives, Cage and Stockhausen as well. The Ghost Trance Music (GTM) is a result of trance or trance-like processes under which the music is composed, and which the scores and instructions seek to bring out in the players. Braxton has said he tries to write the GTM scores in a trance state, letting the dots flow freely from his pen, allowing his personal melodic language to emerge in a “stream of consciousness.” His models include African, Native American, and Indonesian rituals. Braxton hears in these long-form musics a way out of temporally limiting European structures: “Identity is maintained not from a baroque motivic use of formal ingredients but rather from extended time-space logic strategies.”
Braxton’s use of the term baroque is personally idiomatic, multi-referencing, and mysterious, touching on the pejorative use of “baroque,” — bizarre and/or grotesquely ornamented (the original meaning of baroque is something that’s made out of scrips and scraps of other things); furthermore, “Baroque” as it describes European music of the 1600 – 1750 era; and (one infers) the Western canon that descends from that era—since the vast majority of it is, indeed, obsessed with the “motivic use of formal ingredients.” Braxton doesn’t actually define the phrase "baroque motivic use," leaving interpretation open—much like the approach he takes to his scores. (Most of the entries in his personal neolexicon appear in shifting contexts, partly due to his fondness for, on the one hand, multi-contextualizing, and on the other hand, leaving open the possibility for mystery. It hands the serious student of Braxton a knotty problem — deep understanding of Braxton’s language-world seems impossible without some surrender to a dialectical trance or mystical state wherein his idiomatic phraseology and border-crossing contexts are intuitively grasped and accepted, rather than rigorously analyzed and consistently applied throughout the composer’s writings*. For example, in any given phrase, it’s not often possible to empirically determine, from context and prior use, how exactly Braxton means a term like “logics” to be taken. He’s a man who never wants to be pinned down; he never wants to hear the words “In the final analysis…” There’s always some new plateau to reach, by another transcendence. Trance ‘n’ dance?)
*And there's always the danger that the Braxton student, while composing a critique, starts to sound a bit like Braxton himself.
As Ronald Radano observes, Braxton’s entire oeuvre is a “cultural critique.” For Braxton, the inevitable outcome of commercialization is the death of communally-created culture, removing the audient from the shared music-making place and replacing that space with the cold, binary exchanges of the marketplace. His quest is to find his own way out of the suffocating forces of Westernization, into a global futurist culture. Through his lifelong pursuit of a community-based, community-expressing musical world, Braxton shows us another way, based partially in his AACM training but mostly from his own comprehensive studies in culture, history, and philosophy.
In the matter of influences, AB has done a very good job of separating himself out of any streams or canons, essentially standing alone on his island of Tri-Axium. It’s not such an easy matter to zero in on the composer-maps and say, “Aha, this is where Braxton got his multi-orchestra idea,” and so forth. Due to his multi-valent language and neologisms (cf. “axium”: “Trillium,” “Tri-Centric,” etc), he’s also displaced his writing outside the dominant Euro-centric streams. Linearity is to be avoided. Braxton himself says he’s inviting the reader to define things for themselves as they go along (a good definition of improvisation, by the way, and quite like the process by which musicians are brought in to play in Braxton’s GTM band). “I am saying, ‘this is my viewpoint in this context and these are my terms, but what do you think?…'”[Quoted by Lock, Blutopia, p. 169-70] Well, what I think sometimes, is I’m in the thrall of an elegant, intelligent conjure-man. Sleight-of-hand is a big component to many a great musician. Nothin' up m' sleeve, Presto allegretto! Braxton invites dialogue, but it’s still on his terms, which is to say, the meanings are context-specific, and the contexts themselves are forever ignoring borders or jumping levels, from discourse to debate to diatribe to discussion to a kind of street-smart glossolalia. A lot like his music.
(I should add at this juncture that I'm tackling all this from what George Lewis would call the "Eurological" critical stance. When I say "deep understanding of Braxton’s language-world seems impossible without some surrender to a dialectical trance or mystical state," Lewis might say I'm resisting jumping into the "Afrological" stream of experience — a distinct intellectual tradition. That's because I wasn't raised in it. Now we're on the subject of race, power, and intellectualities, a subject not only tangential but too big and heavy for a mere blog-post. Any attempt to speak in that voice from this quarter would be manifestly inauthentic; in short, wrong. See Lock, Radano or Lewis for more legitimate discussion on this topic than this writer can provide.)
The first generation of GTM pieces, from the mid-nineties, follow a rigid, metronomic meter, much bemoaned by some critics and listeners for its unrelenting march of pitches. The Six Compositions (GTM) 2001 on Rastascan features the ninety-two minute Composition No. 286 (plus numerous inserts from Braxton’s back-catalogue). This performance seems to get closer to Braxton’s intentions of an extended form where the perspective is ever-dancing, layers are piled upon layers, and surprise elements may enter at any time—in short, a music where anything is possible, and, within the spiritual parameters of the ad-hoc community that’s assembled to conjure up the music, a place where virtually anything is allowed. It may be an intended irony on the composer’s part that the results are ofttimes very much a baroquollage. But is Braxton really interested in fixed results, such as recordings, other than their documentary function? Where the spirit enters, is in live performance.Nine Compositions 2003, shows Braxton’s universalist, inclusive side as it marches in step, splits into noise fragments, veers off into silliness or stunning brilliance or soloist sideshows, re-groups, tiptoes, stompes, blares—in short, does just about everything music can do in the space of two hours. It’s an instrumental Finnegans Wake; it’s twelve Coltrane/Ayler continuums onstage; it’s the lost Symphony For 12 Connecticut Towns by Ives, reconstructed by Ferneyhough; it’s Zappa, upside-down, sans attitude; it’s Bali mixed with Arapahoe stirred with Yoruba. And whatever it was just a minute ago, you can bet it’s since moved on to something else.
Continued April 30 2010