IMPLICATIONS OF A CREATIVE ORCHESTRA, 1972-78
by Art Lange

Why implications? By 1994, as this is written, Anthony Braxton's orchestral musics (the plural is intentional and necessary), as documented to date, are many and various. But the idea that he originated his approach fully-formed or in a vacuum is as fallacious as that he merely took all his concepts from pre-existing styles and formulas, primarily European. The development of a truly "creative" orchestral music, Braxton's goal from the beginning, was gradual, with various precedents in and similarities to many other activities. As with all innovators, his music is a personally ordained extension of tradition, though Braxton is involved with more traditions than most.

What has he meant when, over and over in the course of interviews, articles, and program notes, he states that his music functions within a post-Webern, post-Ayler, post-Stockhausen, or post-AACM continuum? Simply put, that the contemporary composer is free to draw on ideas, material, or structures which have been initiated in the past by artists of differing stylistic or motivational design\not of one tradition, but many. Given such creative license, free of stylistic prejudice, there are no self-imposed\or class-imposed\limitations to the artistic areas he can explore. But Braxton understands that with freedom comes responsibility; in this case requiring that common elements from such varied traditions be synthesized into his own personal logic and methodology. Distilling coherency from diversity remains the artist's prime objective.

* * * [discussion of 'Composition 25' (1972) omitted]

Between 1972 and 1976 Braxton continued to compose music for large ensembles, ranging in size from chamber groups to "creative" orchestra (usually some variation of big band instrumentation) to full orchestra, involving conventional, "regulated (adjustable)", and "language" notation. But there was no opportunity to document any of these scores until the Arista session titled Creative Orchestra Music 1976. The most notable difference between these six compositions and 'Composition 25' is that the newer works are not primarily multi-sectional, instead they each focus on a single concept or design. The personnel and instrumentation change, however, according to the demands of the piece. 'Compositions 51' and '55' are the most jazz-oriented, as Braxton makes use of recognizable big band parameters (written contrasts between instrumental groups, an integrated rhythm section, the character of his extended melodic line) but finds ways of imprinting the music with his own stamp. This includes the distinctive nature of his melodic—thematic material (particularly disjointed intervals and unusual phrase length patterns) as well as the interruption of conventional form with episodes of "open" rhythm or repetitive unison figures. These compositions are, in Braxton's idiosyncratic manner, a confirmation of swing.

But, as his music has variously illustrated, there are many different types of swing. None of the remaining four pieces use a conventional rhythm section, and the character of each differs accordingly. 'Composition 56' is an exploration of space via instrumental texture and "open pulse" rhythms. The slow, hushed, calm environment is created by a delicate flow of sonorities obtained by repositioning various combinations of instruments in order to "decorate the space of the music" behind the soloists. (Drawing on the example of the Second Viennese School, Braxton is acutely aware of how re-organization of ensemble colors and timbres can energize and focus the music's form.) 'Composition 57' places a similar sort of structural fluidity into a "ballad" setting, injecting spatial "pockets" into notated material, isolating or combining instruments for textural or timbral effect. Crucially, these are the only two of the six compositions not to require a conductor, meaning that the gestural and temporal qualities of musical space\that is, the areas of moment-to-moment participation\are determined by the performers.

Finally, 'Compositions 58' and '59' are examples of Braxton's restructuralist tendencies with other traditional forms\in this case the Sousa-style march (which includes the sort of statically extended passages as background for soloists mentioned above) and the concerto grosso. Though 'Composition 59' is in a single "movement" (lasting just under seven minutes in the Arista performance) its micro-structure consists of five symmetrical sections, ABCBA. In his Composition Notes Braxton specifies that the two soloists should play the same instrument, in order to highlight the subtle differences in tone, articulation, and improvisational approach between the individuals, though in this recording Roscoe Mitchell plays also saxophone while Braxton plays sopranino. (In the performance on Eugene (1989) [Black Saint] his original intention is carried out, with two soprano saxophone soloists.) The piece is based upon contrasting "static" and "active" elements, that is, long held tones as opposed to quick pointillistic notes. Section A is completely notated, and the figuration is post-Webernian in its harmonic determination (suggesting, again, an individual approach to klangfarbenmelodie). The alto solo, accompanied by contrasting ensemble chords and variable details, comprises the initial Section B, the sopranino solo, with similar accompaniment, the second Section B. The middle section, acting as fulcrum, is an ensemble improvisation most likely constructed via "language" notation, again contrasting long tones and short pointillistic bursts. (The tone colors, glissandi, and exaggerated timbres here are reminiscent of those achieved in the music of Iannis Xenakis. There is also, of course, a reference in spirit to the Ellington "concertos" for his soloists.)

Braxton's next orchestral piece, 'Composition 63', also composed in 1976, is an extension of this same "concerto grosso" restructuralization (note the likenesses in the original graphic titles), though the six-movement format returns to a linear design (ABCDEF) similar to that of 'Composition 25'. But by this stage in his career, recurring types of compositional strategies are evident in his writing and orchestral construction. As in 'Composition 59', the opening section introduces notated material for full ensemble. Section B, however, uses the same device as Section J of 'Composition 25'—the ensemble creates a "carpet" of sound underneath the soloists by playing long tones, and only raising their pitch by one-half step on a cue from the conductor (the second part of Section B is an unaccompanied improvisation by the first soloist). Section C returns to the introductory notated material, this time as background for the soloists. Section D has three parts: the first is an unaccompanied improvisation for the second soloist, followed by an ensemble improvisation and then improvised chords behind the soloist (reminiscent of the chordal background in the recurring Section B of 'Composition 59', and which will reappear as "cloud formations" in future orchestral works). Section E is a trio for the soloists and harp, alternating improvisatory and notated material (and reminiscent of the trios in Section B of 'Composition 25'). Finally, Section F is a notated harp solo.

Due to the possibility of expanding certain sections behind the soloists, Braxton writes that a performance of 'Composition 63' may last "anywhere from ten minutes to ten days (or more)". In the performance recorded in Berlin, on Arista, the length is approximately 23 minutes, and the two soloists are Braxton and trombonist George Lewis. The personnel of the Berlin New Music Group is not given, but from the stage layout drawing in Composition Notes it appears that there are 14 instrumentalists, plus the two soloists. Though this is not significantly larger than the 13-piece ensemble which recorded 'Composition 25' (or, for that matter, the 15 pieces performing 'Composition 59'), there is a lovely expansion of available sounds, and the emphasis on winds and strings, rather than brass, offers an alternatively lush and sever palette of colors, along with smooth, crisp, or prickly textures. Then too, these particular instrumentalists effect the outcome of the music in other ways. Unlike the musicians who performed 'Composition 25' and the Creative Orchestra Music 1976, these are musicians from a classical—new music, rather than jazz, background. (Though it must be said that the level of musicianship on COM 76 was much higher than the previous ensemble, as evidenced by the music's increased precision and imagination.) For musicians experienced in Stravinsky, Stockhausen, and Webern, this means that their improvisational episodes will engage a different sort of rhythmic articulation, their pitch intervals will be more sympathetically atonal—as in all of Braxton's music, the specific performers will heavily influence its ultimate identity.

His next breakthrough would be 'Composition 82', 1978, for four orchestras, his longest realized work, and in many ways his most ambitious, to that point. The size of the ensemble (160 musicians) and the nature of the composition (no soloists, no improvisation) takes the piece out of the designation "creative orchestra". Still, there are important links to past and future scores, notably, 'Composition 96', which will prove to be a pivotal work in Braxton's career. On its own, 'Composition 82' creates an atonal harmonic environment structured not through the mathematical manipulation of a tone row or other thematic material, as Schönberg, say, might have done, but rather through a complex series of spatial modifications and color transformations—"color" defining the music through its tonal characteristics (timbre, weight, density), and "spatial" indicated the process of sound development through and around a physical space, involving an extremely large number of instrumental and gestural combinations in order to provide momentum and movement to the varying qualities of the sound mass.

In this regard, Braxton was inspired by another tradition, one which has its roots in the antiphonal choirs which Renaissance and Baroque composers used for dramatic, as well as structural, effects. The concept of spatial modification of music, or in Braxton's term "multiple orchestral activity", has been used in various ways by such diverse composers as Gabrieli, Bach, Mozart, Bartok, and Ives. But there are other traditions too, such as antiphonal drum and vocal choirs in various African musics, the tradition of "big band battles", New Orleans parade music, and the peripatetic nature of Sun Ra's Arkestra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The Canadian-born composer Henry Brant has devised especially imaginative conceptions involving spatial concerns and unusual instrumentation; one wonders how much influence works such as Brant's 'Orbit: A Spatial Symphonic Ritual for 80 Trombones, Organ and Voice' or his 'Fire on the Amstel' (for four boatloads of 25 flutes each, four jazz drummers, four church carillons, three brass bands, three choruses and four street organs) might have had on Braxton's conception of music for 100 tubas or 100 orchestras in different cities connected by satellites and television systems. Braxton is, of course, familiar with all of these sources, though the closest aural analogy I can make would be an amalgam of Stockhausen's multiple orchestra works like 'Gruppen' and 'Carré' with the liquidly dense harmonic modulations of Schönberg's 'Five Orchestral Pieces' and Webern's acutely registered 'Six Pieces for Orchestra'. This does not capture the breadth of Braxton's attempt, however.

In its complete realization, 'Composition 82' would probably last around two-and-a-half hours. Due to editing of the score and less than optimal—in Braxton's opinion—tempi, the 1978 recording on Arista was approximately 115 minutes. Then too, a recorded performance loses so much physical immediacy and so many of the spatial requirements that the recording is merely a documentation of what Braxton called "an excellent version of the 'essence' of the piece". This means that other elements of the music instead become our points of reference\instrumental combinations, melodic shapes, sound mass, dramatic flow. Even so, the uncompromising length and complexity of the music defies a great deal of intellectual perception without having a complete score to follow as the music unfolds; in any event the mind simply cannot retrain and relate all of the thousands of intricate details within the complete musical experience.

The overall contour of 'Composition 82' is traceable, however, and one absorbs a feeling about it in addition to recognizing occasional specific details. There is a noticeable growth and development of intervallic themes (the transformational properties of the music now suggest that the melodic phrases are themes) which begin pointillistically and are handed from instrument to instrument, or group to group (Braxton has mapped the ensembles into "sound paths" or "zones of activity"), each of a different color and timbre, until the texture thickens into a cloudy harmonic haze of unison passages. Despite the number of participants, much of the scoring has a transparent, chamber music lucidity which allows an interior view of the developmental design of the music's fabric. The episodes of activity and stasis (agitation and calm) employ an evolving variety of coloristic guises, dynamic ranges, spatial maneuvers, timbral juxtapositions, and levels of intensity which once more suggest Braxton's individual application of klangfarbenmelodie. Eventually there are flurries of triplets in a context of brass fanfares and aggressive percussion. The sparse, haunting passage following the cacophony dovetails into a section alternating articulated clusters of notes and string glissandi like a drawn out sigh. (The long unison passages will be transformed into the fermata sections of 'Composition 96' in the near future.) The music continues to expand and contract in a series of tense, elusive gestures until the end.

'Composition 82' is a difficult piece to enjoy fully. The length is profound, but exhausting. The basic pulse of the music and the speeds of the separate episodes do not always create an effective contrast, and the shifts which do occur are spaced so widely that the listener may be lulled into complacency (though, as stated above, Braxton was apparently not pleased with many of the individual tempi. A new performance may allow greater contrasts.) Some moments of the scoring seem monochromatic (though again, a better recording may reveal more colors). Most confusing to the general listener, or one primarily familiar with Braxton's quartets closer to the jazz tradition, might be the music's surface connection to classical European sources. Braxton admits some basic similarities—in fact, he's been quoted as saying that after hearing 'Gruppen' and 'Carré' and Xenakis' 'Polytope', "...there was no way I was not going to enter that region." He knows that he can bring other ideas to this ongoing tradition of multiple orchestral composition. But regardless of points of structural intersection or similarity of detail, there are basic, immutable differences between his music and that of Stockhausen, for example, having to do with the detailed infra-structure (the result of their individual manner of notation, the motivation of musical gesture—in Braxton's case influenced by his visual imagery of melodic shape and formal design, and the vibrational identity—the DNA—of his compositional choices). The misunderstanding that Braxton's music frequently suffers results from listeners who hear it on only one level of involvement, when, like his graphic and picturesque titles, it exists in three dimensions (architectural, philosophical, and ceremonial—ritual), or more. In his view, the composer's job is to use any means at his disposal in order to create arenas of involvement for committed performers, while expressing certain distinctive, consistent systems of sound that make the music undeniably his, a reflection of his experiences, intelligence, emotions, personality. This is one reason why there is little evidence that his musical material is merely developed; rather than offering a self-contained solipsistic vision, events are suggested, constructed, shifted, repositioned and replaced to allow for maximum instrumental and interpersonal activity. The key to Braxton's music, early or late, from duo to the largest ensemble imaginable, is to hear it not as the quest for a conclusively realized performance, but as an opportunity for an ongoing, healthy, and creative reconsideration of human relationships.

Complete version published in Mixtery: A festschrift for Anthony Braxton, Graham Lock ed. (1995), pp. 122-30.
Reprinted with the permission of Art Lange;  all copyrights remain with the author.

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