Braxton’s Composition 96 for Orchestra and Slide Projectors breaks up a large standard European orchestra into sections that move en masse. The lead sheets gave us copyists the top line of each section — say, woodwinds, in which case the highest-scored instrument was first flute — and all the other instruments in that family (including saxophones, double-reed instruments, clarinets) stack underneath the flute notes in a giant, 11-voice chord spaced in diatonic seconds and thirds. The melodic lines are typical asymmetrical, jumping Braxtonian gestures, so (if you haven’t heard the piece) imagine the sound a rainbow-colored wall would make, meandering over a jagged, sometimes rolling, sometimes broken landscape, every band of color remaining in harmonic step with the others. Then picture in your ear three of these rainbows (woodwinds, brass, strings) carrying on at the same time, over different landscapes, with bits of vegetation dotting the territory (harp, piano, and percussion parts). A similar kind of massed orchestration is a central characteristic of Trans.
That’s the ideal, anyway — the one recording of #96 we have is another experience than what’s laid out in the score. The unison lines are not rendered in anything close to perfect unison, they’re more like flocks of birds all more or less moving in the same direction at nearly the same time. It’s quasi-dodecaphonic mob behavior, the wisdom of the crowd, cloud computing, fuzzy logic, avuncular complexity. Where Trans is interrupted by the recorded sound of a loom shuttle whooshing back and forth, #96 gives respite from the swarms of notes in long passages of softly murmuring long tones. After a while, each phrase landing starts to sound like a kind of 'home base' — almost resolving, before moving on to the next sonic convulsion.
Nearing the end of November, I recall there were only three of us left — Mars, Chris, and I. Seems Braxton had nearly tapped the student-copyist wells in the greater Woodstock-Kingston area with Composition #82 (For Four Orchestras). Nobody wanted to repeat that epic experience, the torment of which I could only glean from dark looks and shudders. The veterans — the quitters, I thought — would look down on us with silent sympathy. My feelings were not so kind, as I knew it was these people’s goofs I was now erasing and re-copying, all the while hoping the pages wouldn’t disintegrate. Composition #96 was commissioned by the Danish Radio Orchestra, but they never played it. Braxton was so late turning it in that it was refused. “Candy-asses,” said Braxton. “They just can’t cut the parts.” (It wasn’t performed until 1981.) And it wasn’t until two months later, unemployed and unfed and unheated in the snowy Colorado winter, that I got paid my last installment for the copying work. I had called once or twice in the intervening time, trepidatious that I was intruding upon the Master. And it was hard to reach him. Nickie told me that Anthony hadn’t been paid for an entire European tour he just completed, so the copyists couldn’t be paid. The payoff came only after I told of my desperate circs, some weeks later, when Braxton himself took the phone, crying, “Why didn’t you tell me before? Oh man, if I had only known! Tom, I’m so sorry! I’ll cut you a check today!” And so forth. For a second, I thought my name was Landrini.
I never could get Braxton out of my system. Although Roscoe Mitchell was my favorite teacher at CMS, and Karl and Ingrid were more openhearted, and Richard Teitelbaum led one unforgettable, life-changing workshop during an afternoon cloudburst, there was nothing to match the joyously crazed excitement Braxton could summon. The CMS student orchestra was convinced we would be part of his next trip to Europe. “Call me next Sunday,” he said. “You cats are baad!” Sunday came around; we called, and were informed that Anthony was out of the country. He was touring.
I didn’t hold a grudge nor was I surprised. Braxton wasn’t being insincere, he’d just… moved on. More power to him. Anybody who can get people excited about doing art is on the right track. Doesn’t matter a heluvalot if sometimes the promises are empty and the organization is hand-to-mouth and the results don’t reach as high as the vision (“Composition For Ten Galaxies.”). As long as the work gets done and is put out there — that’s what matters.
Many years later I was part of the ecstatic audience witnessing the feet-off-the-ground performance the Braxton Quartet gave in Santa Cruz (released in 1997 on Hat Art). My mates and I went backstage after to hang out, and I was in such a transported state I gave Braxton a brand-new Odwalla C Monster sweatshirt. “I just want you to have this,” I blubbered. He was as sweet as you please in accepting it — a man supremely aware of irony, who rarely resorts to it.
The damned thing about Braxton is that he’s still able to get people to do his interplanetary schlepping for him. More power to him. Quite possibly the world would be a better place with more Anthony Braxtons, ordering up impossible, heroic (but ultimately meaningless) tasks, duly agonized over by legions of obedient acolytes. In this role he brings forward the imperatives of not just some obvious musical models (Stockhausen, Sun Ra, Ellington) but of a time-tested mode of art making: apprenticeship. Or perhaps such a system might devolve back into the kind of stateless medieval fiefdom under which artisan’s guilds and apprenticeship thrived. Braxtonville. Oliverosia. Reichenland. Zornobia. Each inhabiting its own little circle, competing for money and prestige and peasant workers. Well, hell… something like that could never happen!
Unless it already has.