by carl wilson

Braxton in Session:
'Go to F as in 'fox' - but not as in Fox News'


I was privileged along with a dozen or so others this morning to attend a partial open rehearsal conducted by Anthony Braxton at the Arraymusic Studio on Atlantic Ave. in downtown Toronto, with a large ensemble of musicians from the Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto, who will be performing with him a week from Friday (Sept 7) at the Guelph Jazz Festival. Braxton, of course, is the reed player, teacher, theorist and composer best known for pioneering the fusion of 20th-century modernist composition with jazz, beginning in the late 1960s. (And, more recently, punked-out noise.)

The "AIMToronto Orchestra" has been rehearsing with Braxton for just a couple of days now (though they worked on the scores on their own before he arrived), and the level of fluency, precision and musicality with which they were playing these spidery, unpredictable pieces was remarkable. I'm always struck by how the presence of an admired visitor - in this case, of course, something of a living legend - can galvanize Toronto musicians, shaking off some of the stiffness that can be our local curse and calling forth what they're truly capable of. The ever-affable Braxton seemed impressed, too - at one point he joked that he'd "already alerted Wesleyan University" (where he's a professor) that he was "never coming back."

Unfortunately, the fact that they were doing so well meant that we only got small glimpses of Braxton in directing-and-teaching mode - most of the time, he was animatedly conducting, his shirt drenched in sweat (the Arrayspace is a rather boxy, attic-like, un-airconditioned place, despite its other charms), rather than speaking. If we'd hoped (which I confess I kind of did) to find out what Braxton would be like chewing out Scott Thomson for blowing a trombone cue - well, I suppose that's why they went back into closed session after the first 90 minutes. Otherwise he didn't cater to the fact that there were auditors, so Braxton didn't provide any context or commentary on the compositional intentions and techniques involved in the pieces, as I'm sure he'd already done in their initial rehearsals.

Nevertheless, it was revealing to watch him in action. In particular, hearing his minimal directions to the ensemble, which partook somewhat of the arcane myth-science language for which Braxton is notorious, helped make more sense of that language for me - it feels more organic in a musician-to-musician conversation than when it's removed from that context. It was a bit odd to hear him say "I'm not hearing gravity radiance there" and then, after another runthrough of the section, "Very nice, I'm hearing good gravities." But in relation to the music you could guess what he meant much more than when you hear him speak that way in the abstract. Towards the end, he told the group, "I'm hearing some body time now - it's coming in, it's coming in," which seemed of a piece with his instruction that when they re-entered after pauses, they should not speed up but play as if they were speeding up - "to keep things on the upside of the pulse." Gradually it dawned on me that without coming out and saying it, he was telling them - in this clustery, spikey music in which even to detect a rhythmic tick is a challenge - to swing. And soon enough they were pulling it off.

The other main comments from Braxton were little politics-and-current-events jokes made off-the-cuff along the way, usually when telling the group what section of the piece to go to - "F as in 'fox' - but not as in Fox News!" he'd say, or, "Now let's try section V again - but we'll keep Michael Vick out of it." Or on the subject of that almost-swing - "I will not use the language of General Petraeus and say 'surge' - but bump it up a bit." Besides injecting a bit of levity, these one-liners served an artistic purpose (consciously or not), I think - helping to keep the real world in the room, to remind the players that for Braxton, these highly abstract compositions are still hooked into the social and political dynamics of the society and era in which they were created.

We heard the orchestra playing sections of Braxton's "Composition 91 for creative orchestra" (1979), a partly-notated and partly-improvised piece (available on the 1989 Black Saint release Eugene), and seemingly more through-composed pieces "Composition 305" (recorded on Braxton's 2002 Duets (Wesleyan) record with cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum; you can hear a sample here) (sorry, my notes were in error there - please see the comments) "Composition 306" and "Composition 307" (which he plays alone on the four-CD set Solo Live At Gasthof Heidelberg Loppem 2005, some of which you can hear if you scroll down to it in the Aquarius Records catalogue). Obviously the latter two pieces sounded quite different with an 18-person orchestra than on those recordings, though. I didn't get a chance to eyeball the scores to see what the notation was like, although from a few rows back it was evident that it was on a conventional musical staff rather than the completely graphic notation style that Braxton's known for (note: please see the comments, again, for a clarification of this) - but that doesn't mean that up close the staff wouldn't look like this. Comp. 306 (if I've got the title-to-piece order straight) was particularly entertaining, with the wonderful vocalist Christine Duncan (of Barnyard Drama) regularly breaking in to the music with quick melodic verbal interjections, such as, "The old gang got together last night, and we talked about you somewhat," "The IRS is killing me!" or simply, "Yes. No. Maybe. Maybe."

Chatting at the break with bassist Rob Clutton, he said of the work with Braxton, simply, "It's a gift, a real gift." I couldn't agree more, and the audience in Guelph next week will be counting its blessings too.

The AIMToronto Orchestra is: Anthony Braxton - woodwinds, direction; Ken Aldcroft- guitar; Parmela Attariwala - violin; Victor Bateman- double bass; Kyle Brenders- saxophones; Rob Clutton- double bass; Christine Duncan- voice; Colin Fisher- tenor saxophone; Nick Fraser- drums; Tania Gill- piano; Justin Haynes- guitar; Tilman Lewis- cello; Rob Piilonen- flute; Nicole Rampersaud - trumpet; Ronda Rindone- clarinets; Evan Shaw - alto sax; Joe Sorbara - drums, percussion; Scott Thomson- trombone; Brandon Valdivia - percussion.

PS: Most of the group, by the way, will be taking part in a "company"-style improv session at Arraymusic on Friday night in the Leftover Daylight series. There's been no hint that Braxton might sit in, but one might wonder....

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, August 29 at 12:37 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)



this might help. Vibrations=Music. Music=Everything. Everything=vibrations. and i'm not trying to be funny this is totally serious.

Posted by kyle Brenders on September 1, 2007 9:14 PM



Dang! Carl I think I was sitting next to you. I was wondering why all the notes (if that was you). Little did I know it was one of my favourite bloggers!!

This was a great opportunity and I have to thank the AIMT for opening it up, and obviously Anthony Braxton, who really included the spectators in the proceedings when he didn't really have to. I'll echo the sentiments above when I say - I am 2% closer to understanding what "vibrations" are.

Posted by Ali Berkok on August 30, 2007 5:44 PM



Let me make the most useless correction possible. As a frequent renter there of the ArrayMusic space, I feel I must defend it from your charge. It is not, as you say "a rather boxy, attic-like, un-airconditioned place." It is in fact, a boxy, attic-like, *poorly air-conditioned* space. Bam!

(It is also, of course, awesome, with an almost-magic kind of charm...)

(Also: thanks, AIMT, for the Braxton rehearsal - it was fun to watch!)

(No more parentheses)

Posted by Misha on August 30, 2007 12:37 AM



i cant help notice that i used the word wonderful 3 times in my last note... its probably because i'm sitting in front of an air conditioner for the first time all summer.. ha

Posted by colin on August 29, 2007 8:07 PM



Wow! This is exciting news. I've never seen Mr. Braxton with such a massive rhythm section.

Posted by Half on August 29, 2007 8:01 PM



another echo here regarding the sentiments of my other good friends here in toronto.. working with braxton the last few days has been absolutely inspiring and at the same time completely relaxed and comfortable. hes about as real as it gets. hes got the PMA!! just like bad brains talked about..
although his regular use of arcane verbiage may seem strange to outsiders.. its music to my ears! thanks for the wonderful article carl. i think its going to be a pretty wonderful show @ the guelph fest.
as an added note.. the chance to work with so many wonderful toronto musicians and good friends ALL IN THE SAME BAND is overwhelming alone.

Posted by colin on August 29, 2007 8:01 PM



Sorry, I phrased that poorly, Kyle - what I meant is that the graphical notation is something people widely associate with Braxton, especially people scantly familiar with his work, which often means they remember the 1970s albums and don't know his work since. I was aware that he uses conventional staff notation as well. But I understand why the way I put it got your back up.

Posted by zoilus on August 29, 2007 6:08 PM



Just to let you know, the peices we're performing are compositions 91, 306, and 307. 305 is a completely different piece and the 307 that is recorded as a solo composition is not the composition we are performing. I think it's important to realize that the graphic scores that you've provided as examples are at least 20 years of out date. Yes, his music does include graphic notation (and composition 91 is an early example of this) however, it also includes traditional staff notation. His music can not be characterized as "completely graphic notation style that Braxton's known for." I think the important thing to remember about this music is that it requires the player to both understand, and interepet, multiple types of notation as well as a series of signals. This orchestra has dealt with and continues to deal with the multiplicity involved in playing Braxton's system in a very skillful and accomplished manner in only a very short time.

I hate to seem picky but working closley with Anthony for the past two years (i've just completed my Masters at Wesleyan) has exposed me to the poor representation and the misunderstandings that come with his music. This stems from the tendency to generlaize his densely layerd system that resists generalizations becasue it is not generic nor does it subscribe to a particular idiomatic point of departure.

I'd be more than happy to show and explain in more depth the workings of the system and the compositions we'll be playing. Also if anyone reading this really wants to get an understanding about the system come to the keynote speech that Braxton is giving at the festival.

Posted by Kyle Brenders on August 29, 2007 5:28 PM



Thanks for your presence this morning and this writing Carl.

Working with Braxton has been amazing. His musical knowledge and skills are equaled only by his warmth and genuine love of life.

The Guelph gig is going to be an amazing experience.

Posted by Rob Piilonen on August 29, 2007 4:20 PM



I wholeheartedly echo Nick's sentiments, particularly with regard to Anthony's astounding positivity. He was as supportive and encouraging of the orchestra in private as he was in public, and perpetually reinforced that his music is, foremost, about "friendly experiences." Coltrane's "music as a force for good" maxim is embodied as well in Anthony's sound-world as anywhere.

Posted by Scott Thomson on August 29, 2007 4:10 PM



I took at class with Braxton at Wesleyan. . .words literally cannot express the magnitude of which this man understands and comprehends the timespace in which we live. And I only caught a glimpse. . .

Posted by Ms. Foy on August 29, 2007 3:58 PM



Hey, Carl. Thanks for coming this morning and thanks for your astute commentary. It is a common misconception that the graphic titles of Braxton's pieces are the scores but they are, in fact, separate. All of the pieces we are playing have graphic titles, but only No. 91 has graphic notation elements. It really was wonderful having him here - making music with him is a dream come true for me (and I'm sure I'm not alone!). He is unbelievably positive, thanking each member of the orchestra many times for their music, their commitment to the project, etc... Also, you're right that his lexicon has real sense when explained and when the terms have some real-time, real-world application. You're also right about the swing or groove elements of the music we're playing. It's a huge part of it. Anyway, hope to see you in Guelph.

Posted by Nick Fraser on August 29, 2007 3:43 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson