Dan Plonsey was part of the CMS student sax section that summer of ‘79 (Mars Williams and Fred Hess were in there, too.). Plonsey recalls, “Braxton had us reading his graphic scores, the ones that are just a rising and falling line, like the stock market. He first had us use the graph to indicate pitch, then perhaps volume, and then he had us gradually turn from left to right, leaning forward and back, along with the graph. He was so pleased with this effect that he went running to get Roscoe [Mitchell] to see it. Roscoe came in, and I remember him watching us with arms folded, utterly impassive.”
Roscoe’s method was two-pronged. Every other day, the orchestra would work through the score of his four-‘cello version of Nonaah, as parts were assigned and read through. Alternate days were given over to free improvisation. Those sessions were the best training I ever received in a week’s time. He’d sit at a little red table with naught but a stopwatch, cueing the orchestra in and out — nothing more. The hand would go up, then down. We’d launch, a room full of late-teens and early-twenties hotshots all out to prove just how hot our licks were. The hand would go right down again. There was a stillness, a Terminator-like sense of purpose around the man, that made us shut up instantly. Roscoe would patiently explain that You don’t all have to start playing when the sound space is opened. Listen first. And if you don’t have anything to add to what’s happening, Lay out.
It took a couple of days for these very simple lessons to sink in. When something good happened, he’d ask afterward why a student made a particular sound or phrase. Having to justify your musical sense, on the spot, was incredibly challenging, like making sense out of a dream, but the resulting self-examination stayed with you a long time. That skill of dispassionate evaluation of your music and your mind is essential to being a composer.
Another Roscoe lesson comes from Dan Plonsey: “Roscoe told us to wake up early, like 6 a.m., and practice. When someone suggested that it might bother his roommate, Roscoe said, ‘If you practice RIGHT, it won't bother ANYONE!’” Mitchell was fearsome in his discipline and concentration. He brooked no nonsense or flakiness. If you were late to his class, you could expect a proper dressing-down. But it wasn’t about respecting him as a teacher — for Roscoe, it was about respecting your fellow musicians. The community was what mattered. (Memory is selective. Plonsey remembers “Roscoe teaching us, and out of the corner of his eye sees someone smoking a joint out the doorway, excuses himself for a moment, then returns.”)
When the Braxton-led week was over I asked Anthony if he'd be interested in having his bedraggled workshop diagram/scores re-made, by not only someone who pretended to understand his music but also could fake it as a graphic artist. He expressed some interest while shunting my question's answer over to a different job he needed doing, a copyist slot on his “new symphony.” I said that sounded cool, too.
It was a guy from Alaska named Chris who played fucked-up punk drums and spoke in ellipses who got me directly into the Braxton-copyist pool (this would be September, a few weeks after my proposition to Braxton). Chris drove us to an old house in the woods where we had a meeting with Ralph Carney and Mars Williams, the capos of the operation. There was nothing in terms of vetting or auditions — we were handed some green lead sheets and an interval chart and set right to work at drawing tables out in the barn. And that was pretty much the end of my student days at CMS.
The barn was fully repurposed as a studio, with bright white walls inside and indispensable space heaters and an even more indispensable stereo system. We’d start at around 11 a.m. and go straight through until dinnertime. Dinner was usually out somewhere in the Woodstock/Mount Tremper area. Then we’d come back and hit it again until 3 in the morning. Upstairs in the Carney compound were spare bedrooms where we’d crash under a mound of blankets. Heading up into November, the cold would hammer its way into your bones and lodge there like ice picks. The 150-year-old walls had long ago given up trying to stop it. Fueling our campaign were cups of hot Morning Thunder tea, which bragged something like “57% more caffeine than a cup of coffee.” While we copied, a typical day’s jukebox selection rambled through Stockhausen’s Aus Den Sieben Tagen LPs, Company 3 and 4, a small constellation of Sun Ra albums, Captain Beefheart’s Shiny Beast, the hipper ECM offerings of the day such as DeJohnette’s Directions or Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds, Miles Davis’ Agharta and Pangaea, Braxton (of course), Reich and Glass, and — a frequent spin — Eno’s No New York album, introducing DNA, Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and James Chance and the Contortions. (This document helped chart the immediate direction toward which a lot of the CMS students were heading in their own music: so-called “punk jazz.”)
Chris was wont to break into muttering song. His favorite was “Whoever you are, you pushed me too far, now I’m gonna break your face,” by Dan Hicks. (Yes, I know, it’s misquoted; that’s how Chris crooned it.) He was otherwise a morose guy who kept his thoughts to himself and was experimenting with taping up his drums and cymbals to mute the sounds. The tape helped keep his ramshackle kit from falling down, too. I liked him a lot. Mars was short, scrappy and crazily intense; he dropped the c-word liberally whenever the subject of women came up, a bitter topic he initiated often. Mars would sometimes place one of Braxton’s leads on a stand and sight-read it, ripping the lines off his soprano sax like they were rudiments he’d played since he was a toddler. This was godlike behavior to me. Ralph wasn’t around that much, as I remember. Maybe he was off touring with Tin Huey. But he did let me blow on his bass saxophone one time.
We were taking over for a washout crew, and much of the time our work was proofing and correcting mistakes. Nickie Braxton bought us a whole boxful of graphic artist’s tools, including a righteous electric eraser that would eat through a sheet of manuscript before you knew what the fuck. Anthony would have us over to his house once a week or so to check our progress, unless he was on the road. He and his family lived in a rustic A-frame in the woods with a sad AMC Pacer parked out front and a pile of forest wood stacked by a wall. (The above photo of this scene is a simulation.) His living room was couches and a playpen (Tyondai’s — his dad had placed an old alto in there for him to play with, sans mouthpiece), a wall of records, and the TV. If we were there on a Sunday, that meant football, and football meant halftime marching bands. He’d channel-surf from one to the next and jump with excitement when he landed on a good show. He’d coo and dandle his boy, Nickie would set out some fresh brownies — a regular Ozzie and Harriet scene. Except, not.
In those days Braxton inhabited a weird, ambivalent mass-media bubble. He may not have foreseen all the repercussions of his 1974 Arista signing, but when they landed on him, he didn’t waste time fussing over fickle fame. “Two Free Spirits” was the title of the sidebar in a big Newsweek splash on the resurgence of jazz from August 1977 (his fellow ‘free spirit’ was Keith Jarrett). By 1978, he’d landed an album in the People Picks review section of People Magazine (believe it or not, there was such a time when an American pop culture magazine covered actual culture.). Then when he kept going his own way and diverged from the finger-snapping tunes, of course the inevitable protests erupted from jazz fans. When I mentioned to Braxton that I thought For Trio one of his best records, he pretend-whined that it had been thrown into People Pans, that “they don’t love me over at People anymore! Does that mean I’m not a People Pick?”
The telephone rang often, so Braxton screened calls using the answering machine. If it was somebody Braxton wanted to talk to, he’d take it in the bedroom and we’d wait a long time. If it was somebody he didn’t want to talk to, the voice on the speaker was ignored while we went on with our business. Once Anthony picked it up in the middle of a message and started in to shouting (to an Italian promoter who’s name I’ve forgotten, so I’ll just call him…), “Landrini! Landrini! I hear you, baby, I hear you! Don’t worry; we’ll work it all out! I’ll be with you soon! I love you, Landrini!” etc. — and then hung up without letting Landrini or whoever it was get a word in. After a beat, he burst out laughing maniacally.
We’d pick up the new lead sheets and let him admire our work. We were dedicated, and proud to have the pages looking neat and professional. One day, Braxton brought out his newly purchased score to Stockhausen’s Trans for us to goggle at. By Braxton's account, it cost several hundred dollars – no surprise, for within its full-color, rose-tinted covers were pages and pages of meticulously diagrammed and printed musical instruction, with every possible parameter mapped out, down to orchestral lighting and seating. The piece displays a good deal of post-Fluxus theatre bits, too. The piece incorporated long intervals of slow, steady bowing from the string players, and a great deal of instruction was devoted to maintaining the proper bow angle, tone and volume, as well as some pointers on avoiding fatigue. We were allowed to keep this Rosetta Stone for a while to keep inspiration high. Only later, upon hearing both works, did I realize how much the notes and structure of Trans had guided Braxton’s Composition 96 for Orchestra and Slide Projectors.
Final installment in two weeks.