issue 17 :: August 2010

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REVIEW: Anthony Braxton

“9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006” 9CD + DVD (Firehouse 12 Records)

Disclaimer: I won this smart and mammoth set from a contest sponsored by the label and the web site Destination Out, which I check once a week for obscure jazz .mp3s to download.
This box set documents the four nights Braxton's thirteen member ensemble (the 12tet + 1) spent at the Iridium club in New York City, playing nine long pieces of Ghost Trance Music, a series of works Braxton has been composing over the previous decade. These pieces, Compositions No. 350 to 358, mark the end of this stage in Braxton's continuing development as composer, and are tackled by musicians (except one newcomer) who have previously explored GTM with Braxton in other ensembles. Each of piece starts with a similar sounding theme, a characteristic up and down chug, as if the entire group is playing discreet samples of a larger sine wave, but then branches out into novel improvisations based on previous Braxton compositions by various sub-groups of the ensemble. One group, trumpet, trombone and tuba, could be playing from one of the familiar Composition 40s, while oboe, flute and violin could choose to play parts from Composition 96. This leads to a joyous cacophony of instruments that suggests the methodology of John Cage (any piece can played with any other piece) and John Zorn (“Cobra's” the use of hand signals between players to decide on-the-spot what to play next). And Braxton's players do not merely quote from previous compositions, but offer radical interpretations of the material, for instance, the trumpet playing the bass part of a piece, or a group of players improvising on just two note values of another piece.
All of these pieces fall into the “accelerator class” of GTM, meaning there is a certain looseness of tempo of the main theme, making the nine distinct compositions sound even more similar, and playing the first minute of each CD confirms this (something the DVD documentary by Jason Guthartz does as well). However, after the opening theme, there is a universe of possibilities for the musicians to explore, and explore they do. My favorite parts throughout the CDs usually occur in part three of each CD/composition. Here the music usually dissolves into just one or two musicians playing, maybe with other musicians providing accents.
Composition No. 352, Anthony Braxton
Even though I've heard many other CDs of Ghost Trance material, these pieces perplexed me for a while, until I thought of the phrase I used earlier, “branching out.” Once I had this image in mind, I could “see” the different lines of music stemming off of the main theme (the trunk). Hallucinogenic drugs may have helped. Or reading the copious liner notes, where Braxton speaks of these pieces as train tracks, with the main theme as a main pipeline between the various stops (the quoted compositions). And trains do figure into the still cryptic pictograms that title each piece. I only wish Braxton had, over the course of these four nights, chosen to repeat one of the compositions, instead of programming nine new pieces. How much would we have learned to hear the same ensemble tackle the same piece twice, considering the infinity of choices the musicians make in each piece?


The ensemble; Jay Rozen (tuba), former resident of Austin, on the upper left.

The best feature of this box is the DVD, which contains not only a multi-camera capture of the entirety of the CD performance of Composition No. 358, but also a lengthy documentary about this music, including clips from a seminar Braxton gave on the subject, and short clips of the other Iridium performances. Braxton speaks about the origins of his Ghost Trance Music in the Native American inter-tribal Ghost Dance ceremony, which serves as a musical bridge with the afterlife. The footage of Composition No. 358 reveals the musicians' hand gestures, and mini-whiteboard writings to introduce new quotations. This was also important in understanding the music, not only to see this communication and then hear the results, but also to see how much freedom Braxton gives his fellow players.
Anthony Braxton, Composition No. 357
Braxton called these pieces “THE point of definition in my work thus far.” (liner notes, pg. 5), and listening to all nine pieces numerous times, it is a rewarding experience. And if you are thinking about downloading these pieces, you will miss out on the 52-page booklet of liner notes, with contributions from many of the ensemble players, as well as notables in the audience, Henry Grimes, Dave Douglas and Walter Thompson.
review by Josh Ronsen, photos by Scott Friedlander
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