If you managed to walk past Crowell Concert Hall last weekend, you may have been wondering what was happening. For the uncultured and those of us still thinking inside the box, Thursday night sounded like bumblebees one minute and a car crash the next. Friday night looked like a costume party, but sounded like a bullfight. And Saturday night featured a two-hour concert that sounded like orchestra warm-up. But what do we know? Professor of Music Anthony Braxton is the musical genius.
“Anyone who comes to my concert, my first response is to say ‘Thank you for coming,’ ” he said. “For the last forty years, I have evolved solo music as genius, taking the experiences from the house of the circle to the house of the rectangle to the house of the triangle, using the tri-centric thought for the music offering.”
Braxton and his music cannot be defined or confined by any one label; he and his work are groundbreaking and innovative in many ways. With composer, teacher and conductor among his many titles, Braxton has been one of the leaders of what he calls “creative music meeting with correct standard” since joining the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1966. Born June 4, 1945, he received his musical education from Roosevelt University and the Chicago Musical College before he began his teaching career at Mills College in Oakland, CA. He has been teaching music at Wesleyan for the past fifteen years. On June 4, 2005, Braxton turned 60, and to celebrate this milestone, he organized a concert series to celebrate his life’s work thus far.
“I got the idea for the festival from my colleagues, especially Alvin Lucier; John Spencer Camp, professor of music; and Neely Bruce, professor of music,” Braxton said of the premise for the series. “For senior faculty, it’s important to have concert performances to demonstrate the sequence of our work. Rather than one or two works, it allows for us to display a cross-section of music from early to what I’m doing now. I’ve been thinking about this for a few years knowing that it was coming, but last year started realizing it.”
The “Braxton at 60: A Celebration” series kicked off Wednesday with a colloquium held in the Daltry Room (Rehearsal Hall) titled “Braxton and Wassily Kandinsky; Symbolist of the Spiritual.” Belgian scholar and Professor of Economics Hugo de Craen discussed the impact of Braxton’s work on the world of music and analyzed musical covers of Braxton’s numerous recordings in relation to the artwork of Kandisky, comparing the similar abstractions of both artists.
“I’m excited about the magnitude and scope of his birthday celebration,” said Amy Crawford ’05. “De Craen approached this topic from different angles in a way that acknowledges other artistic disciplines and the connections between music, theatre, visual art and dance. It’s important to not segregate one from the other.”
Braxton also expressed his own enthusiasm for the topics discussed.
“Part of my good fortune is through my work, I have met allies and non-allies,” he said. “I have been fortunate that my allies, like Hugo, could identify with my music and help people understand my work. My non-allies sometimes wrote the bad review before the concert, but responded with equal intensity as the allies. Both groups have stayed with me, even after forty years and over four hundred compositions.”
De Craen became interested in Braxton’s music in the late 60s. He published an article from his thesis for Braxton’s 50th birthday on the same topic.
“I had a degree in economics, and at a certain moment I had my yin, but I needed the yang,” he said. “I wanted to do something different. So I started attending evening school for art history. I sent an article, and now I feel much more in balance. We are both Geminis, we share the same birthday six years apart.”
Students and colleagues, fans and newcomers alike filled Crowell Concert Hall Thursday night to hear a rare saxophone solo concert performed by Braxton. Using only his alto saxophone, Braxton created sounds ranging from those evoking images of bumblebees fluttering in the summer, to the cacophonous sounds of a busy city. While one cannot fully understand the scope of his musical genius, there is something quite beautiful in the seemingly random way Braxton presents his music. What cannot be articulated in words is seen in sound.
“Kandisky said that you should not look at a painting, but listen to it, de Craen said. ”I think sometimes with Anthony you should not listen to the music, but see it.“
In one piece, Braxton makes listeners feel as if they are on a boat ride at night overlooking a well-lit city. During another piece, the saxophone seems angry at Braxton, emitting screeches and howls, and during yet another the listeners feel as if they are in a kooky dream sequence.
”It’s not my thing, but he clearly has complete mastery, which is unbelievable to see and hear,“ said Greg Donahue ’06. ”Plus the circular breathing technique is phenomenally cool.“ Friday night was the world debut of Composition 103 for 7 Trumpets and the Diamond Curtain/Wall Trio, featuring Taylor Ho Bynum MA ’04, brass, and Tom Crean MA ’04, electric guitar. Composition 103, written in 1983, was performed with costumes, a special stage arrangement, and a recorded tape of a bullfight.
”To experience this work is to enter a universe of sound and movement that gives a demonstration of the beauty of brass music and performance synchronization,“ reads Braxton’s composition notes for the piece. ”To experience this work is to enter a reality context of changing moment focuses and inter-sound relationships that actualizes a state of being for creative discovery.“
The performance serves as a precursor in both music and production to other Braxton compositions. In his experimentation with timbre dynamics, velocities, voice inflections and incidental sounds, Braxton invites us into his world created by his own time space.
”Part of the series of compositions were conceived to use the area space of performances on an extended sense,“ Braxton said of his work. ”Like Composition 86 for 3 musicians – written in ’79 – it opens up possibilities for logic connectors to ideas. I tried to demonstrate choreography in terms of targeted positions. Exploring contemporary brass syntax and what that poses for tri-centric modeling and exploring the trumpet as conventional instrument and sound source.“ Saturday night featured the Ghost Trance Twelvetet, composed of twelve musicians including Carl Testa ’06, Ho Bynum, and Braxton.
”I’ve…played in small and large ensemble concerts, and also trio and quartets with Braxton,“ Tiesta said. ”[Saturday night’s performance], to play with musicians of that caliber gave the music a special quality. The variety of instruments have the orchestral texture, yet each instrument had its own space and the musician had the opportunity to choose the space if they desired.“
The stage was literally cluttered with instruments including a harp, trumpet, piccolo, flugabone, C-Melody saxophone, Cass Clarinet, Shinai, English Horn, Cornet, and Flugal horn, in addition to two aluminum pans; an hourglass also served as a prominent and useful decoration on the stage. The instruments seemed as if they were speaking to each other, without regard to rhythm or notation, without method to the madness. Despite the seemingly random nature of the music, there is music written for this piece. What is more puzzling to the listener than the music is the definition of Ghost Trance music.
”Ghost Trance music is a springboard to go off of and because of its simple rhythmic pulse, one can use music of any era to create a complex group statement,“ Ho Bynum said. ”The large group can break into smaller groups, which opens up the improvisation possibilities. This all exists in this compositional world that Braxton has created. I really think that Braxton is one of the greatest artists of the century.“ Braxton’s own explanation is no less elaborate.
”I would first say that this model of system started somewhere about ten years ago, around ’95, from evolution of structure and conceptions,“ he said. ”Ghost Trance contains work of an individual area space and a group area space concept; it provides connections, depending on the space. Individuals connect all components to individual, the nation/state space connects like railroad tracks. The melody doesn’t start and doesn’t end like other trace music of the world, the continuous melody can hold on or let go; it’s like a background template. I function as master conductor, but there are internal directors that I have nothing to do with and we will meet at point eight, if we meet there. It’s a system of negotiation and eccoterica.“ The first part of Braxton’s birthday celebration concluded Saturday night. The series continues in November, with guest Belgian pianist Genevieve Foccroulle playing four concerts in the Memorial Chapel. Scheduled to be performed are the First, Second and Third Complete Piano Works Cycle in addition to Composition 171 for piano and Constructed Environment.