REVIEW-ESSAY (1 of 3) : Anthony Braxton's 3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011 by Alexander Hawkins

In a series of review-essays, pianist/composer Alexander Hawkins will be considering each of the three major new pieces of work which Anthony Braxton released on April 1st 2016. The works are: 

- Trillium J – The Non Unconfessionables
- Quintet (Tristano) 2014

which both appeared on Braxton’s own New Braxton House imprint.

- 3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011 - (reviewed here) 

which was released by the New Haven-based Firehouse 12 Records.

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Anthony Braxton – 3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011 [FH12-01-02-020]

There’s no particular reason to seek to locate Anthony Braxton’s work within a jazz paradigm, unless perhaps you work in a record store, and need to decide nothing more than physically where to file the relevant stock (although it’s worth noting too that Braxton’s multimedia vision is such that in the coming years, the record store itself might be only one of many types of outlet in which his work might be found; it’s easy to imagine the current move of virtual reality technologies into the sphere of consumer electronics attracting him as one further set of options for ‘friendly experiencers’). One way in which he does fit squarely within a jazz paradigm, however, lies in his restless search for innovation – think of an Ellington, a Coltrane, or a Davis. [I say ‘a’ jazz paradigm, rather than ‘the’ jazz paradigm, because goodness knows that this music has its fair share of conservative models too.]

Braxton has certainly taken saxophones and clarinets to all sorts of edges, and peered over, since his very first recordings in the late 1960s. But leaving his instrumental prowess aside, some of his most significant contributions are the possibilities he has opened up with his explorations of musical form. In early years, he introduced concepts such as his ‘Language Music’ (the idea that a player’s language can be pared down to a number of basic elements – for instance, long sounds, staccato sounds, trills, etc. – which can then be used as generating principles for improvisation, as well as being reconfigured and used in combination: e.g. Composition No. 8(h), using trills); he investigated ideas of repetition, such as in the ‘Kelvin’ series (e.g. Composition No. 40(o)); and he explored ideas of simultaneity and collage (which reached some of their greatest expressions in the quartet of Braxton, Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser, and Gerry Hemingway).

And indeed, the collage methodology points to a crucial element of Braxton’s conceptual framework: that all of his compositions, in whole or in part, can exist simultaneously. His compositions and structures make up something like a giant erector set, giving infinite possibilities for building new experiences. Unlike the classical model, the composition isn’t something set in stone, but instead, a playground – and as this suggests, in case any of this should seem too earnest or abstract, a place to have fun. Thus just over twenty years ago, Braxton introduced the first incarnation of his Ghost Trance Music (GTM): a scheme in which one ‘master’ composition served as a portal into a musical environment in which the members of an ensemble, individually or in tandem, were simultaneously free to introduce compositions, or parts of compositions, from anywhere in Braxton’s entire oeuvre into the overall sonic fabric of the performance at hand. Since this time, there have been many other prototypes – Diamond Curtain Wall Music (which involves interactive electronics); Pine Top Aerial Music (integrating dance); the Sonic Genome; Falling River Music; ZIM MUSIC – each offering new possibilities for navigation through form.

This three-CD set represents the first studio documentation of the Echo Echo Mirror House Music (EEMHM). The EEMHM scores have a cartographic element: resonating with the mantra of navigation through form, pages of the notation contain elements of literal means of navigation, such as subway maps, or airport terminal designs (illustrated in the beautifully produced booklet which accompanies the set). There are also graphic notations, and a system of overlaid transparencies, further multiplying a performer’s options.

Page 1 of Composition No. 372,
illustrating cartographic notation including elements of Istanbul subway

EEMHM has certain elements in common with the Ghost Trance Music, insofar as it too is concerned with the collaging-in of older compositions. But whereas the GTM ensembles were essentially acoustic and the older compositions realised in real time, the members of the EEMHM ensembles are armed not only with instruments, but also with iPods loaded with Braxton’s recorded output. And it is this integration of the recorded music with the real time performance which perhaps most characterises the EEMHM soundworld; a world which I think is as sonically sui generis and thrillingly different as the likes of Ascension, Free Jazz, and Machine Gun must have seemed all that time ago.

What results is a deep, dense tapestry of sound, where something of a perfect state of being for an ensemble is achieved: the individuals are each hugely powerful (after all, at the press of a button, they can unleash 100 tubas or Four Orchestras), and at the same time, completely selfless: true, someone’s sound may percolate to the top of the texture at times, but in the style of the early New Orleans stylists, this is essentially a collective effort. And after all: who are the members of the ensemble? Of course, we have the members of the septet in the studio (Braxton, Taylor Ho Bynum, Mary Halvorson, Jessica Pavone, Jay Rozen, Aaron Siegel, and Carl Testa: all experienced Braxton cohorts, which I think is hugely important in this potentially massive soundworld). But one of the beauties of this music is the equal part the musicians on the records play. Dave Holland and Barry Altschul put in good shifts; Matthew Welch (bagpipes) is there; Kenny Wheeler is also in the band. What we can say, in a way, is that in having all these voices at their fingertips, as well as bearing the responsibility to deploy them creatively, the ‘live’ musicians are realising something of the AACM ideal of being multi-instrumentalists.

The possibility of introducing these older recordings also upsets the chronology in fun ways: so, for example, just shy of 25 minutes into Composition No. 377, we hear Leroy Jenkins (from sometime between 1968-70) segue seamlessly into the very opening of Composition No. 103 (written 1983, recorded 2007), all ‘accompanied’ by Max Roach (is that him? In which case, from 1979). And – it seems a shame to omit the white noise of clapping from the permissible materials, and similarly, a shame to play by the orthodoxy of only having the clapping at the end – all of this is spelled by episodes of applause from some live recording or other.

Virtual bands spring up at all junctures – think too of the wonderful collages of Louis Armstrong himself, where he would scotch tape together imaginary line-ups on the surfaces of tape boxes, such as the duo of himself with Barney Bigard. [There are some wonderful moments where we hear multiple Braxtons, all at once, all on different horns.]

Familiar tunes are also subverted in playful ways: so just after the half hour mark in Composition No. 372, we hear Composition No. 23(d) (one of Braxton’s catchiest bop lines, with the saxophonist in unison with Kenny Wheeler) ‘subjected’ to the additive structural organisation used by the previous tune in that particular quartet book, Composition No. 23(c). Our sense of perspective is also subverted in strange and wonderful ways. So GTM, which once sounded like the most massive and all-encompassing musical edifice within the Braxton soundworld, can also appear as a small detail within the sonic fabric; or it might appear as vast, but in the distance, like far-off mountains might from an aeroplane window.

Page 5 of Composition No. 377,
featuring an airport terminal, overlaid with a transparency showing trill notation

All of this play with chronology and context, not to mention the enveloping nature of the audio picture itself – this release is available not only as a CD, but also as a Pure Audio Blu-ray, mixed in 5.1 surround sound – resonates with how Braxton suggests we can experience EEHM. EEMHM performances are more environments to be inhabited or dipped-into than traditional pieces of music to sit through from start to finish. We are in the world of immersive environments, which chime with how we experience sounds everyday: I’m sitting here at my computer, and I can hear a bird out of the window in front of me, as well as one out of the window to the right. There is the sound of the television in the next room, as well as a very occasional, and more distant, car. And one of my cats is eating very noisily behind me. I could also control my experience of this sonic environment by moving around in space. This music is a direct descendant of the antiphonal Gabrieli canzonas (I love the thoroughly inauthentic Philadelphia/Cleveland/Chicago recording, with its brutally panned stereo picture), of much of Ives’ work, and of the likes of Xenakis’ Terretektorh. I also sense that it’s something of what Ellington tries to capture in his 3 minute masterpiece, Harlem Airshaft.

The music can be ambient, in the sense of a background hubbub whilst other things are happening. Or the ‘friendly experiencer’ can put headphones on, and go in ‘deep’. It’s a similar idea to fractals and coastlines: details keep revealing themselves at each level of magnification; and at the same time as there being a massive amount of information, it is nonetheless possible to perceive things with perfect lucidity. Density is never oppressive here. The friendly experiencer might step into the music for the hour duration of each performance, or for 5 or 10 minutes here and there. Or, (s)he may perfectly well switch perspectives several times during the experience. EEMHM hints at the idea of a music which doesn’t ‘begin’ or ‘end’ in the traditional sense (although on repeated listenings, it is interesting how the mind perceives an architecture to each of the hour-long performances presented here), but just exists as a parallel universe to be entered and wandered around in at will. I don’t mean ‘wander around’ in some vague, allegorical sense either: on spending time with this music, you devise strategies for listening and moving through the time you spend with it. You can let the sound ‘happen’ to you, experiencing it as a wash (similarly to one approach Braxton suggested for listening to GTM). Or you can zero in on a detail, and try to follow that particular musical thread (if indeed it is a thread: I can imagine in live performance, accident could play a beautiful part in this music). Or you might pick a musician, and see if you can ‘find’ them in the fabric: what does Jessica Pavone seem to be doing at this time? How about Carl Testa?

Of course, it’s fun to try to identify the various recordings heard too. And these might send you to the shelves to listen to the original albums. Or, you might get to your music collection having resolved to find Creative Orchestra Music 1976, and actually get distracted working from right to left along the shelf, and pull out Clifford Brown with Strings instead; and this will be ok, and one of the many experiences you can have following your nose on this particular musical journey.

I don’t think I’ve said anything about how the music sounds. That’s fine – that bit takes care of itself when you hear it. I first heard EEMHM on a Victo CD (also recorded in 2011: in fact, on the day after the sessions which yielded this set. The other recorded example of EEMHM of which I’m aware is a live recording from New York on Braxton’s own New Braxton House imprint). What I can say is that this new music had an immediate and huge impact on me. You can jump in for one minute, or listen to all three CDs in a row, and come back to ‘reality’ with just a little bit more of that sense of wonder than you went in with (to paraphrase an idea from Wadada Leo Smith), and that seems to me to be one of the most significant things you can say about a piece of music.


Review-Essay 2 of 3: Quintet (Tristano) 2014.
Review Essay 3 of 3: Trillium J: The Non-Unconfessionables (Composition No. 380) 2011

Firehouse 12 Records 
New Braxton House 
Tricentric Foundation 

-  Alexander Hawkins' website

1 comment:

  1. EEMHM was first performed life at the Cité de la musique et de la danse in Strasbourg (France), organized by Jazzdor, during the Musica Festival on October 7th 2010. Braxton ‘s septet with Taylor Ho Bynum, Mary Halvorson, Jessica Pavone, Jay Rozen, Aaron Siegel and Carl Testa. Thus preceding the recordings at Firehouse 12 and at Victoriaville festival. On October 14 2012 EEMHM was also presented at Teatro Metastasio, Prato (Italy) by Braxton(s sextet with Sextet [AB (reeds), Taylor Ho Bynum, Ingrid Laubrock, James Fei, Mary Halvorson and Erica Dicker.