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Music : Interview

Anthony Braxton

by Nate Wooley

The iconoclastic composer discusses his newest opera, the differences between American and European music culture, and space aliens.


Anthony Braxton. Photo by Peter Gannushkin. Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Anyone possessing a passing familiarity with Anthony Braxton as a public figure has probably fallen prey to the caricature of him as a bespectacled, musical “mad scientist” in a cardigan sweater. As a caricature it is not far off, but it only addresses the surface trappings of a singular saxophonist, composer, and man of incredible depth and power. From his earliest days as part of Chicago’s AACM to the present third millenium, Braxton has used a saxophone and a pencil to radically define a new, non-genre specific, musical language, making him the persona sui generis of the modern American iconoclast.

I met with Braxton on the occasion of a series of premieres, including his massive Trillium J opera, which is being produced by the Tri-centric Foundation: an association of like-minded composer/performers which works with Braxton to present his music as well as promote the ideas of new generations. We met at (cornetist and Tricentric Foundation Executive Director) Taylor Ho Bynum’s Connecticut home and, over a glass of wine, discussed generational thinking, music and global politics, the role of the Tricentric Foundation in Braxton’s vision of the future and the possibility that aliens may have absconded with a Boeing 777.

Nate Wooley I was thinking about the fact that you started working in a period in America when there were a lot of people under tension , a situation that created a lot of iconoclastic work. People were looking at dogmas in music—or in anything really—and saying, There’s got to be some other way, I hear something that’s different so I’m going to do that. And then for some reason, this kind of thinking just seemed to stop for twenty or thirty years.

Anthony Braxton I have said this before, but it’s important to say again: if not for the wonderful people of Western Europe, I would have no career at all in music. I am grateful to be an American, I love my country, and only in America could a guy like me grow up and learn about the kind of things I’ve learned about. But it was the Europeans who gave me an opportunity to actually play.

As you know, our music is not just theoretical, you have to play. So much of what we do is worked out in the real-time moment. In academia, in my opinion, the challenge is to find a new generation of scholars who won’t just stay on the compound, who will go into real life with their work. What happens, from my viewpoint, is that theory becomes confused with the it of the music. The teaching of music has become so conservative: if you’re playing bebop you’ve got to play like Charlie Parker, you have to play like John Coltrane, not understanding that that music came together as a way to deal with the challenges of the real-time moment, a hope of a future, and of course, a respect for historical precedent.

Guys that I’ve come up with, we’re in our seventies now. I’m a year and two months from being seventy years old! I’m running out of time. I want to go out like my hero, Elliott Carter. When he was 103 or 105 he was cranking out music. I can see the cosmic forces pulling on Mr. Carter: “You’re coming with us.” “No! Another orchestra piece!” I want to go out like that, like John Coltrane—the people who were fighting for their music. I would like to do the best that I can do in the time space that I have.

For me, life has actually kind of simplified itself. I know what I want to do to finish up being on this planet, the work I want to do with music . I was very fortunate to have the kind of role models who helped to set me on the path that I would take in my life. I would like to finish it up, to push the concepts and experiences I’ve had as far as I can before leaving the planet.

But looking around at all that has transpired in the last thirty years, it’s hard to understand America anymore. To see this interconnectivity come into place the way that it has has been really interesting. In the music system that I’ve tried to erect, that connectivity will have real relevance in the sense of connecting compositions, connecting performance spaces in different parts of the planet to have one performance that takes in inputs from outside sources. In the real-time life space, that connectivity—we’re still, as a species, trying to understand how to use it. Everybody has their own email account and everybody has their domain of privacy that emphasizes singularities rather than collectively coming together to make something bigger than the one. I’m not into this kind of connectivity, but I do understand that it really is relevant. I just have to find a way to work it in my real life, though I have found a way to work it in my music system. My music system has passed me by. (laughter)

NW It got there first, and you’ll catch up. We now have generations where that’s the norm, and it’s all about being a singular entity that is part of all these different aggregates, as opposed to being communities.

In a way, what fascinates me about the Tri-Centric Foundation is that it seems to be truly a community of actually interacting human beings, and that is more and more rare in society at large, but definitely rare in the music world. I mean, there are boards of trustees who never see each other, there are groups that only come together for rehearsals or the performance and the rest of everything is done in e-mail chains. I think that’s something very special about Tri-Centric: It’s a family in its own way.

AB I feel the same way. I just hope and pray we can hold it together, because if the Tri-Centric Foundation doesn’t work, more and more I know I will revert back to my real proclivity to being totally isolated and alone. I have that quality inside myself of just being a recluse.

It goes back to what you were saying—on one side, more and more, the new connectivity has produced more possibilities to be together. On the other side, there are more possibilities to be alone. I see young men and women jogging, they got headphones on, they’re listening to music; I bet you they’re not listening to John Coltrane or Stockhausen—you can’t listen to that kind of music if you’re jogging. More and more, music that requires attention, intellectually and on other levels, isn’t being heard. People aren’t necessarily being trained to have a nature that can include more abstract music. I find that unsettling.


Trillium Rehearsal, image by Kyoka Kitamura, courtesy of Sacks & Co.

NW Going back to what we were talking about at the beginning, there’s got to be some tension. When you look at people who only deal in the electronic world where they’re completely separated, there’s no real tension there. If someone doesn’t like someone else’s music, instead of sitting down and having a conversation about why they don’t like that music—which of course can be very fraught with peril, but is a real-time back-and-forth, with empathy and understanding about the person, which can get you somewhere further—they make a snarky comment on a website, anonymously. There’s nothing but pure hate, without any opportunity for a discussion that might creates the tension that allows things to grow. It’s really frightening to me to think about what happens to music and art if we’re not having discussions.

AB If you like polkas and you go to the Internet and find people who like polkas, you’re with a group that feels the same way you feel. The Internet, which is so incredible for all the possibilities it’s given us, also gives us the possibility to find kindred spirits in every domain. So, this concept of tension is really a wonderful way to talk about this. There’s no tension when everybody agrees.

NW That’s when things stagnate, I think.

AB I agree. That’s why I feel it’s so important for the Tri-Centric Foundation to survive. It’s so important for American creativity to be unleashed. It’s important to teach our kids that there is something called creativity, something that calls for knowingness on one level, unknowingness on another level, and intuition on another level. It cannot be canned and one-size-fits-all; you have to be in a psychological space that allows you to have fluency and this tension that you’re talking about.

By the way, you get outside of America and you start seeing real tension.

NW Yeah, it’s great to go to Europe and get in those conversations with it. I played at Donaueschingen a couple years ago and went and saw some string quartets and there was a Peter Ablinger string quartet that people booed—as they do at Donaueschingen—and, at first, I was shocked, because I come from an American culture where that isn’t done. We’ve lost that ability to have public displays of tension. The conversations afterward were worth that little bit of discomfort I felt. “Why didn’t you like this performance?” “Well you know, it was a piece that was very performative.” We got into these questions like, “Why do you not like performative music?” That opens up something that is so much more human, and sometimes you have to have a little bit of that discomfort—

AB If nothing else, that kind of opposition creates tension and that tension helps the friendly, creative person to kind of look at him or herself and what they’re doing. I normally don’t think so much in terms of tension, but this idea is something that I’ll be thinking about for a while.

When I was a young boy, I put on Stockhausen or Albert Ayler, and I said, “I hate this music. I hate it! But what is it? Who are these people and what the hell are they doing?” I don’t feel our young people get that feeling anymore, or when they think about playing jazz, they’re really thinking about idiomatic certainty. Jazz equals walking bass, drum set, chord changes, a particular kind of voicing. But it’s all a known space. If I knew what it was about then I wanted to go to something else, because I came to see that music wasn’t about just style. What attracted me to the discipline of music was this component that I couldn’t understand, but I could sense, in every kind of music. It helped me to see how little I knew about music. It also helped me to learn humility, because whatever you can do there’s always someone who can do it better. There’s always someone in a different idiom who can do something that pushes my buttons and makes me want to work harder because I’ve been inspired.

Curiosity is humility, when we’re talking about poetics, and we’re in this time period where there’s no general agreement anymore about what constitutes poetics. In this existential state, you’ve got various forces: Is it just about black people or trans-African people, is it just about white people or trans-European people, is it just about the polkas, is it just about parade music. Is it about tonality? We’ve broken things down in a way where the surface might be knowable but the real poetics have been distorted, and without an understanding of the poetic, things get complex.

Now we have so much information. We’ve advanced so quickly and the world is interconnected. But how is it that we have the technology to locate satellites and have to-and-fro conversations, but a Boeing 747 leaving Kuala Lumpur disappears completely after two hours. They can’t find the plane! What is happening? I don’t get it!

NW It seems like a story out of a different time. Amelia Earhart, Bermuda Triangle, I mean, it’s so much of that period that it’s like they took something from the turn of the twentieth century and they just transplanted it now—it’s such a bizarre story.

AB And I’m a guy who watches shows on ancient aliens and all these kind of—

NW Yeah me too. (laughter)

AB I guess everybody is being affected by composite information at this point, but we’re very lucky, sir. We have more opportunities than most to actually travel and meet people. And once you’ve met someone, that changes everything; you can’t pretend that you haven’t had the experiences you’ve had. This is why I’ve had such a complex time in the Jazz and African-American communities for the past forty years, since I could not pretend I didn’t have the experiences that I’ve had. My experiences have been universal and not ethno-centric the way those of a person who has only had experiences with one ethnic group or one way of thinking might be. I was fortunate in that regard as a young person, because music helped me to discover that there was something out there that was not in my immediate space. Music made it clear that there were other worlds and ways of thinking, other traditions and vibrations, and I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to escape Chicago.

I still say being alive is great, and I feel blessed—which is a twentieth century word—to have had an opportunity to be alive and have consciousness and to have a body, and to say it in the way that I’m saying it. I know will be viewed as a twentieth century guy, but that’s who I am.

NW So, are you excited that now that you’ll be done teaching and have more energy?

AB I am so excited I can’t begin to talk about it. I’m looking forward to April and May when I will move away from Middletown, Connecticut. That for me will signify the beginning of this new cycle. But I just want to do my work. It’s not like I want to go take a cruise to the Bahamas. A vacation for me is to be at home, doing my work. I want to complete as many components of the music system as I can before leaving the planet. I’d like to complete the opera complex system, I’d like to complete the sonic genome system, I’d like to go back and do research and development and start writing again. I haven’t published any writing for over a decade, and I would like to get back into writing. I just got the autobiography of Richard Wagner, and I’d like to start reading that again, which is to say I’m going to be reading for fun. I might take up fiction, something that I’ve given up for the last thirty or forty years because in academia, all my reading and research has gone toward my class-work.

I want to have my opera cycle complete, because I’ve been, for the past twenty years, a complete fool for the music of Richard Wagner. I want to do a project on the complete music of Duke Ellington; I want to do the complete music of Charles Mingus; I want to go back and read Yosef Ben-Jochannan’s great works, which, as a young guy, were very important to me. I feel like a guy in a candy shop, because my life has been, for the last twenty-eight years, in a kind of a structured space.

Wesleyan really does have exceptional young people, and I was fortunate to have opportunities to work with them and to learn from them. I was fortunate to have a career in music before going into academia, so I knew it wasn’t all on the blackboard, and I tried to help my students understand that. I was fortunate to not come through academia—I don’t have a bachelor’s degree, I don’t have a master’s degree. I’m a country guy, a country boy. I went to Roosevelt University, they were talking about one thing, but two miles away was the AACM. The professors were talking about it and the AACM were doing it. Already you could begin to see the difference between theory and the real-time actualization.

I was fortunate to be a post-Errol Garner, –Dave Brubeck, -Sal Mosca kind of guy. To grow up and hear a guy like Cecil Taylor playing all this incredible music, there was no excuse for me not to do my best. So I tell the young people that it’s important to look at the spectrum of possibilities are and to hopefully find the kind of role models who help you to: one, not be afraid of work; two, not be afraid of not making money; three, not being afraid of failure because failure is part of how things happen.

The role models are still out there, they’re men and women in this time period who have done it in the old fashioned way, and I draw strength from them, and we have many of them in the Tri-Centric Foundation, starting with a guy like the multi-instrumentalist, virtuoso, composer Nate Wooley. That’s who you are. Listening to the concert you did with Ken Vandermark, I found myself thinking, Either I come up with the money to put out a contract on these guys to slow them up, or I’m going to have to buy more CDs of these guys and go about the task that I love so much, studying music and learning from my colleagues and being grateful that there are guys like you who are pushing things forward—not just the music, but the kind of person that you are.

The writings of the Bible were called “good news,” which is such a beautiful way of thinking about things. That’s who we are, we have the good news when it comes to creativity and doing your best in music, and we’re all fighting to try to be better people, because that’s connected to everything.

NW It’s all so clear that that community exists because you’re the role model, in the center of it. And that’s not always evident because it’s not a community of acolytes. But for me, personally, and for anyone who’s involved in your music, you are one of those role models who keep us thinking the way you’re thinking, which means, hopefully, when I’m seventy I’ll be to be done doing whatever I’m doing and looking forward to another seventy years of finishing up whatever work—

AB Well I’m just a Paul Desmond kind of guy, (laughter) playing a little “Take Five,” but I’m also going to record “Take Ten.” There’s so much that we have, the legacy that’s been given to us from the people who’ve come before us, it doesn’t get any better than that. I want to do my John Philip Sousa record, my Scott Joplin record, I’d like to do a Hildegard von Bingen record, John Cage, Scott Joplin—I love that music. In fact, I love music, and that has been my secret weapon that helped me to survive Chicago, survive growing up, survive the eight trillion mistakes that I’ve made in my life. It’s helped me to keep a sense of humor, which is so important, especially when you make as many mistakes as I have. I’m still excited about being alive. We can stop now though, because I’m going to get some wine—

Anthony Braxton's sixty-ninth birthday will be celebrated with the Tri-Centric Music Festival, April 10-19, at Roullete and EYEBEAM. More information, including a schedule of events, is available from the Tri-Centric Foundation.

Nate Wooley has performed regularly as a trumpet player with such icons as John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, Eliane Radigue, Ken Vandermark, Fred Frith, Evan Parker, and Yoshi Wada, as well as being a collaborator with some of the brightest lights of his generation like Chris Corsano, C. Spencer Yeh, Peter Evans, and Mary Halvorson. Nate is also the curator of the Database of Recorded American Music and the editor-in-chief of their online quarterly journal Sound American. He also runs Pleasure of the Text, which releases music by composers of experimental music at the beginnings of their careers.

Tags:
Instrumental music
American culture
European culture and society
Composition (music)
Avant-garde
Opera
Jazz
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