Time and Anthony Braxton

By Stuart Broomer
The Mercury Press

Stuart Broomer knows Anthony Braxton.

He has listened to the American multi-instrumentalist/composer’s music from the beginning, attended concerts by him since the early 1970s, written about the musician many times, and over the years interviewed Braxton formally and informally.

Because of this familiarity, Broomer sets himself a more difficult-than-usual task here, unlike historic biographies, journalistic chronicles or transcription-heavy texts designed to demystify a musician’s style. Instead the author’s focus is on how Braxton alters and dislocates time through his multi-faceted compositions and improvisations.

Overall the book offers many insights. But in some ways the sheer breathe of Braxton’s considerations and achievements may be too much even for Broomer. As he admits towards the end: “The Braxton world … represent[s] something akin to the solar system with planets revolving around a sun and moons resolving around plants. Hard to observe, the totality of his musical universe expands while its parts become closer together.”

Succinct and thought-provoking, Broomer’s book is studded with aphorisms like these that will no doubt enter the language of informed musical criticism. However, with Braxton seemingly able to create and record new variants of his music; give them distinctive geometrical composition titles; articulate catchphrases for them almost yearly; and involve himself with ensembles ranging from duos to orchestras at points Broomer appears to be playing catch up. By the book’s end, some statements seem more akin to a record reviewer’s first draft of history then cerebral considerations. Itemizing ever-more-recent sonic discursions from Braxton, Broomer appears to be valiantly attempting to shoehorn everything into his thesis.

The most valuable part of this volume is how Broomer explains the origins of

Braxton’s mature style. It’s not just derived from the modern jazz tradition which extended the virtuoso speed of Hard Bop to time and rhythmic dislocation perfected by Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. It also welcomes the more languid influences of Cool Jazz as well as the harmonic freedom of as so-called serious music, from its 19th Century codification onto serialism and Stockhausen. “A ‘classical’ composer as well as a ‘jazz’ musician, Braxton would seek his own route,” Broomer writes, adding: “…Braxton was an artist who could find new paths where others saw only dead ends.”

Much of the volume is divided into sections which analyze Braxton’s work under categories such as Solo Music, Quartet Music and Ghost Trance Music, paying particular attention to time. For instance: “the role of velocity …. is … initially apparent in the sheer speed and precision of the early quartets of the 1970s …Articulating tempos … faster than any jazz group ever had, these groups often blurred the line between composition and free improvisation.” Descriptive as this may be, this passage also pinpoints Broomer’s tendency towards hyperbole throughout. Too many performances are described as masterpieces, remarkable or perfect.

Focus instead on Broomer’s insights. For instance, in terms of the orchestral works, he elucidates how rather than using 12-tone rows to create equality among pitches “Braxton was concerned with the kind of porous auditory space in which musicians and listeners could move freely within a work … it’s a profound listening to inner and outer possibilities, so that his methodologies are dictated by the music itself.” Citing examples of how the reed man’s playing of familiar tunes revitalizes jazz standards, he writes: “Braxton’s own wealth of devices and his sheer intensity welds this music into an expressionistic tapestry that both records and transforms that era, all its disparate parts weaving through each other and creating new melds and meanings in the process” Or here’s an explanation of the composer’s habit of having ensembles mix portions of several compositions while performing: “Braxton was now collaging his own compositions … pasting them together in a …highly improvisatory way …He was traveling through the continuum of his music in way that provided unexpected collisions and synergies.”

Time and Anthony Braxton is a necessary volume for Braxtonophiles and anyone wanting a handle on contemporary serious music. At its best, it’s a Baedeker to the frequently written-about, but rarely properly explored sonic continent that is Braxton’s music.

— Ken Waxman

— For MusicWorks Issue #107