The Visual Scores of Composer Anthony Braxton Coming to SECCA
Noted innovator, avant-gardist and improvisor performs to kick off show in Winston-Salem
Music and art fans in the area have a very rare chance to see and hear the visual scores and imagery-related music of composer and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient Anthony Braxton at a series of performances and exhibits in Winston-Salem. Graphical scores by the visual artist Christian Marclay and artist/composer/philosopher John Cage will also be on view as part of the shows.
Skirting the quicksand complications of a genre-and-tradition discussion, Braxton often calls his music “trans-idiomatic.” What Braxton — a composer, saxophonist, all-around multi-reed player and improviser, and intensely prolific recording artist, innovator, educator, and avant-gardist — means by that is that his music pulls from everywhere and is steeped in a variety of stylistic idioms, repertories and histories. It’s not one thing or the other. It moves through it all. In addition to his bold and wide-ranging works, Braxton has recorded compositions by the giants of jazz — Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano and many others — and he’s also made duo records with titans like Max Roach and Cecil Taylor. Stemming from his years working on the music faculty at Wesleyan University, Braxton has also collaborated with West African master drummers, with Japanese koto players, with turntablists and with Cage-ian devotees of indeterminacy. And yet Braxton is also into the monumental operas of Richard Wagner and the big-sound parade music of John Philip Sousa. The notion that sound can take shape and have what you might call a vibrational impact, beyond simply moving people’s emotions, and into the realm of almost massaging the very elements of matter — Braxton probably wouldn’t argue with that.
Taking the idea of “trans” music even further, Braxton likely doesn’t even accept the limitations of sound as simply something that is heard. It’s something to see, feel and ponder. Beyond even the confines of meaning and expression — music and sound-making are what we do because we’re alive: they’re like breathing and moving, they are a manifestation of the life-force itself. To Braxton, music possesses qualities akin to — or perhaps the same as — shape, color, volume, weight, force, temperature and contour. Braxton, 71, has always used imagery in his music, both in how he denotes the compositions and, in many cases, within the scores themselves. The visual representations of Braxton’s music — the graphical scores and the graphical titles — will be on display during a two-part, two-institution, three-artist exhibit at both Wake Forest University’s Hanes Gallery (up through March 26) and opening at SECCA on March 16. At SECCA, on Thursday, March 16 at 7 p.m., Braxton will give what will be a rare concert (one of only two scheduled in the U.S. for this year).
One can thoroughly enjoy Braxton’s compositions without any inkling about the graphical and visual underpinnings and cross-connections, but the imagery of Braxton’s music adds to its enigmatic charms.
On the back of Anthony Braxton’s record Creative Orchestra Music 1976, where one might usually find a list of song titles, it says “Cut One,” “Cut Two” etc., for each of the six tracks. And underneath the words is a kind of schematic drawing, with triangles, circles, dotted lines, a small rectangle, some letters, like “NWK” or “FKB” and graph-like curves. They look like circuit diagrams or geometry problems. On other Braxton records the graphical titles might include temperature readings, human figures, cars, cityscapes, bits of collage, furniture, as well as undulating lines, abstract shapes and more.
In advance of the SECCA opening and performance, I spoke with composer and improvisor Taylor Ho Bynum about Braxton’s work and his use of imagery. Bynum is the executive director of the Tri-Centric Foundation, a not-for-profit organization devoted to promoting and preserving the work, teachings and legacy of Anthony Braxton. Bynum, who studied with Braxton at Wesleyan, and has been performing the composer’s music for over 20 years, is one of Braxton’s long-standing collaborators. He’ll be performing as a part of Braxton’s ensemble in Winston-Salem.
Bynum says that Braxton’s music is built on a kind of combinatory complexity. It’s ever-evolving, with near-infinite possible permutations built into the creation and conception of it. The imagery fits into that richness.
“The visual logic of his work is as diverse as the musical logic of his work,” says Bynum.
Braxton has written operas, music for marching bands, a piece for 100 tubas, and all kinds of other instrumental configurations. In the same way that J.S. Bach might have braided together one of his own melodies in front of a hymn, or reharmonized a familiar tune in a different setting, or the way Duke Ellington might have plucked an improvised riff from one of his band members and elaborated it into an entire song, Braxton’s work is built on these types of ever-blossoming re-iterations of itself. As Bynum says, “[Braxton’s] life project as a composer is to complete this 36-act interlinking opera project.” Many bits from within that larger work, or from any of his other compositions — once performed or documented in their original conception — can get reconfigured and combined in other contexts.
“He sees all of his work as able to be modular,” says Bynum. For instance, Braxton might take a vocal part from one of the operas and use it as material for a saxophone trio.
The great challenge for many jazz composers and makers of other creative music has been to balance the quest for liberation, for improvisation, for personal exploration, within a system of structure and logic — to have both complete freedom and a deep control and order. You can hear both the gear-like precision and total abandon in Braxton’s music. Breakneck playing, surprise accents and confounding tangles of 16th notes played by a horn section can be heard followed by outrageous “extended technique” sections, where every tone and color of sound is extracted from an instrument, from smears, and honks, to growls, wails, barks, hissing, clicks, goose sounds, gerbil sounds, elephant sounds, truck sounds — the whole range. Part of what Braxton gives to his students and to those who perform his music is a system of cues for ways of navigating pulsation, dynamic gradients, melodic structures, textures and more.
“What’s so interesting about [Braxton’s] work, he calls it tri-centric because it simultaneously exists in a composed space, an improvised space and an intuitive space,” says Bynum. This means that, in certain contexts, the performers not only get to improvise solo sections, but they also get to assemble some of the composed components themselves.
“He functions within the Western through-composed traditions, but also in the oral and improvised traditions, as well as the ritual tradition,” says Bynum.
Braxton’s graphical scores, which might include gestural paint-brush over other more schematic markings, and a variety of other media and techniques, aren’t necessarily meant to be understood as visual art, per se, but that’s also true of his music not being meant to be understood as simply sound art.
“Almost any time he’s making music, it’s visual,” says Bynum. “It’s never this or that, it’s always this, that and the other.”
SoundSeen: Remix Cage/Braxton/Marclay runs March 16 through May 28 at SECCA, 750 Marguerite Dr., Winston-Salem, 336-725-1904, secca.org
Anthony Braxton and members of Tri-Centric Foundation will perform at SECCA on Thursday, March 16 at 7 p.m. in the McChesney Scott Dunn Auditorium.
SoundSeen, a related exhibit, runs through March 26 at Hanes Gallery on the campus of Wake Forest University. Hanesgallery.wfu.edu.
Braxton will give a talk on his work at the Hanes Gallery on Wednesday, March 15 at 5:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public and will be followed by an improvisation workshop and performance by members of his Tri-Centric Foundation.
The exhibits, talk, workshop and performances are free and open to the public.