9 COMPOSITIONS (IRIDIUM) 2006 Firehouse 12
Compositions 350 to 358, 9 CDs, 1 DVD, 56-Page Booklet
Anthony Braxton / alto, soprano, and sopranino saxophones, clarinet, and Eb contralto clarinet; Taylor Ho Bynum / cornet, flugelhorn, trumpbone, piccolo and bass trumpets, mutes, and shell; Andrew Raffo Dewar / soprano and c-melody saxophones, and clarinet; James Fei / alto and soprano saxophones, and bass clarinet; Mary Halvorson / electric guitar; Steve Lehman / alto and sopranino saxophones; Nicole Mitchell / flute, alto and bass flutes, piccolo, and voice; Jessica Pavone / viola and violin; Reut Regev / trombone, flugelbone, mutes, and cymbals; Jay Rozen / tuba, euphonium, mutes, and toys; Sara Schoenbeck / bassoon and suona; Aaron Siegel / percussion and vibraphone; Carl Testa / bass and bass clarinet.
Recorded: March 16-19, 2006.
Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music has not only encompassed but fundamentally transformed (“trance-formed”) his entire music system. His GTM compositions can scarcely be considered “compositions,” at least not in any usual sense of the word. They constitute what Braxton call “a continuous state music…a trans-temporal music that can be played in any tempo and a trans-idiomatic music in terms of its structural postulates….Each composition becomes like a melody that doesn’t start and doesn’t end.” (Braxton to Graham Locke, Notes to Composition 192, Leo Records)
In other words, linear form has been set aside in favor of ritual form. Necessary structural determinants (in terms of overall movement from A to B to Z) have been let go of in favor of duration (time), the only underlying determinant of ritual form. In the Ghost Trance Music presented at the Iridium, an hour glass was turned over at the beginning of each piece to set a general time parameter. (Duration doesn’t tell us what music will be played but it sets the open framework within which music can take place.)
This shift in musical form (change in essence) mystified almost everyone when Braxton first presented it in 1995. Drawing on his studies of Native American music and Ghost Dance rituals of the late 1800s, Braxton’s “first species” GTM was built on a steady stream of eighth notes that simulated the repetitiveness of Native American drumming. The GTMs have gone through three subsequent permutations, each interjecting new irregular rhythmic complexity into the steady line, culminating in the latest “accelerator class”/ “accelerator whip” GTM forms that are the basis of the nine pieces presented on the Iridium box set. These compositions, the last of the Ghost Trance melodies that Braxton intends to write, have become so complex now (speeding up, slowing down, twisting and contorting) that one might be hard pressed to identify them as even related to the first species forms.
Jonathan Piper, in his excellent notes to the Iridium set, points to this development of the melodic line as the main distinguishing feature of the different classes of GTM. That is true enough, but equally important in their evolution was Braxton’s decision (late in first species GTM) in the pieces he presented at Yoshi’s (1997) to open the music up in unprecedented ways.
Photo: John Rogers
It is helpful to recall that one of Braxton’s first intentions with the Ghost Trance Music was to access the Ghost. From his conversation with Francesco Martinelli, Sextet Istanbul 1995 (Braxton House): “I believe that one of the problems of this time period is that we don’t understand the old Ghost, the old masters. We have been given a viewpoint of the masters that takes away the aura of the Ghosts. All of it looks like artifacts and more and more children are not able to gain some sense of the real culture. But trance music means that individuals can do individual experiences and they can tap into anything, including the essence of the masters, of the old masters.” (Within the Ghost Trance pieces, Braxton seems at times to be playing from another state of being; his solos, especially on alto, are right on the sonic edge.)
In order to allow that “tapping in,” Braxton had already built into the GTM points in the melodic line where players could move into improvisation, another composition, or into other ritual states (factoring in elements of theatre, body movement, stage placement, and so on). Yet until the Yoshi’s dates, these open elements were well in the background of the main repetitive melodic line. You could hear them beginning to come to the forefront near the end of Tentet New York 1996 (Braxton House), but at Yoshi’s, for the first time, they take center stage.
As he had done previously with his quartet, Braxton actively moved to include (as possibility) within the Ghost Trance Music all of the music that he had ever composed! But the implications of such a move with the GTM were more far reaching than with the quartet, for the effect was to now place all of his music within ritual time rather than within linear time; and whereas with the quartet, the different compositions that were played together almost always ran alongside each other, now pieces of pieces began to move continuously in and out of the music, restructuring the trance form along the way.
Concurrent with this, Braxton began to break down the Ghost Trance Music hierarchically; subgroups of three and sub-leaders were designated within the larger group who could make decisions about when and where and which parts of which pieces were to be included within the main compositional form. (In what would become standard practice, Braxton also provided the players with “secondary” compositional material, miniatures for trios, that they could opt to include at any time.) As much or more than any transformation of GTM species lines, this change marked the actual beginning of the new reality of where Braxton’s music now stands. With good reason, Braxton refers to the Ghost Trance Music on the Iridium box set as “THE point of definition in my work so far.”
Photo: John Rogers
What do the nine Iridium pieces sound like? They are nothing less than new orchestral archetypes. The Ghost Trance Music compositions are the most formally complex of any, and they are the most structurally open. In the new “accelerator whip” pieces prepared for the Iridium dates, Braxton included additional points in the written lines from which players might choose to “exit” into improvisation or into some other music (“strategy”). That means there is more space for the players, working from their non-hierarchical vantage points, to improvise and to create the total form of the music from the ground up.
Each GTM composition suggests some type of rhythmic direction and movement that influences, ever so subtly, the way a piece will take shape. But the way the melodic line sounds is open to considerable interpretation by the players, each of whom is able to play it in any clef or tempo. In the later compositions, the players veer more toward the unisons we became accustomed to hearing with earlier GTM forms, but there’s always some contrary pull and tug from somewhere in the group. The first evening’s pieces, “350” and “351,” open with wonderfully out-of-synch and disassociated ensembles that inform the players’ dense approaches to the compositions. I love these! Piece “350” especially maintains a spirited sense of invention throughout.
The orchestral range of the 12+1-tet is underlined by its broad instrumentation; it is the most varied of any group to have played the Ghost Trance Music. The music itself, as players navigate in and out of the main compositional line, takes shape through motivic and textural addition and subtraction. That sounds simple, but the players must make the choices of what to add or what to subtract in order to create engaging music. That they succeed in doing so throughout nine pieces of music over four evenings is a tribute to their musicianship and resourcefulness.
It is difficult to characterize any individual piece, as each one moves through so much musical territory. But certain things stand out. On the first evening, Thursday, we feel the players’ emotional edge, the underlying passion and enthusiasm for what they are doing; the music is a little wild! By the final evening, Sunday, that edge has settled into crisp execution; we sense the players’ full-blown confidence in their abilities. Rich and tonally varied orchestral voicings emerge, and there is even a brief fantasia-like sequence midway through the closing set, piece “358.”
Friday evening’s compositions feature notably fast thematic renditions; the second piece, “353,” nearly hits a groove! That happens in no small part from the way in which earlier Ghost Trance Music forms find their way (as optional inputs) into the new accelerator class GTM; rather than define and virtually contain the musical space, as they did previously, the repetitive melodic lines now provide momentum, here and elsewhere, to propel the music forward.
Saturday’s three consecutive shows physically tax the players’ creative powers; they respond with a highly organic opening set that moves from ensemble density to a near meditative state. Piece “355,” next, is likely the “quietest” of all the Iridium sets; the music feigns this way and that, deliberately pacing itself, then interjects some boisterous Mingus-like ensemble work near the final section. The third set, with the players in “dreamtime,” features a staggered opening that sets the piece’s tone; the music expands contracts, slows, stops, rides propulsive waves toward a calm conclusion.
Photo: John Rogers
Giving over to the orchestral flow, Braxton’s moments as soloist are fewer and shorter than usual. He occasionally chooses, however, to offer subtle musical direction to the group, like contrarily suggesting a neo-romantic vision in the midst of some dense ensemble; other times, while circular breathing, he squeezes out raspy, throaty horn vocalizations to give the music a much needed edge. Yet these new realizations of Braxton’s music are not so much extensions of instrumental language or technique as they are extensions of the logic of orchestral form (Orchestral Ghost!).
What is interesting is how that logic may transfer back into individual improvisation; for once linear form has been interrupted at the overall level of what we have heard (and internalized), players may find it emotionally unsatisfying to return to more usual ways of formulating sound. In that case, “trance-formation” would have come full circle.
Henry Kuntz, June 2007
Note: The DVD included in the Iridium box features Jason Guthartz’s hour-long film of Mr. Braxton at Columbia University outlining the theoretical basis of the GTM. A performance film of “Composition 358,” the last of the nine Iridium pieces, is also included and is essential viewing. The players musical decision-making processes are illuminated, and we see how much fun they are having bringing the Ghost Trance Music to life.
Aaron Siegel and James Fei Photos: Peter Gannushkin
Jessica Pavone Photo: Peter Gannushkin
Mary Halvorson and Nicole Mitchell Photos: Peter Gannushkin
Reut Regev and Steve Lehmann Photos: Peter Gannushkin
Taylor Ho Bynum Photo: Peter Gannushkin