April 12, 2016
More Musical Non-Idiomatic Improvisation in Knoxville
As part of the the Big Ears Music Festival, on Friday, April 1, 2016, Anthony Braxton's Tentet+1 (Eleventet?) also performed in front of a packed house at the Bijou Theater. Like Wadada Leo Smith who played the Bijou later that same day, Braxton is an American musician and composer and a hero of historical significance from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). (Braxton also has been a featured musician in the course at the University of Tennessee (also in Knoxville), titled, The Golden Age of Non-Idiomatic Improvisation, taught by the Poison Pie Publishing House in-house author, David Keffer.) The ten musicians accompanying Braxton were all one or two generations younger than Braxton, some of whom have made professional reputations beyond being Braxton collaborators. The line up included: Anthony Braxton: alto, soprano, sopranino saxophones, composer;
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn, trumpbone;
Nate Wooley: trumpet;
Vincent Chancey: French horn;
James Fei: alto, sopranino saxophones, clarinet;
Ingrid Laubrock: tenor, soprano saxophones;
Mary Halvorson: guitar;
Brandon Seabrook: guitar;
Tomeka Reid: cello;
Carl Testa: bass;
and Tim Feeney: percussion. They performed a composition containing both order and disorder. The order could be plainly witnessed in the composed nature of the piece and the careful arrangement of instruments so that each voice of the eleven musicians could be heard distinctly. The disorder--or at least a rejection of conventional notions of order--manifested as the absence of melody and regular rhythm. It seemed a signature Braxton piece expertly executed by an ensemble deeply committed to the music, who, on stage, appeared to thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to present this music.
Widely released on the same date is Braxton's latest opera, Trillium J. For those unfamiliar with Trillium, Braxton announced in the 1980's that he would create a univeral opera in 36 parts, each roughly four hours long. Trillium R, Composition No. 162 "Shala Fears for the Poor", was self-published by the Braxton House label in 1991. Trillium E, Composition No. 237 "Wallingford's Polarity Gambit" was self-published by the New Braxton House label in 1999. As of 2016, Trillium J, Composition No. 380 "The Non-Unconfessionables", is the third complete piece to be released. This set adds a blu-ray disc to the typical four cds that made up the other sets. With 33 more parts to go, the seventy-year-old Braxton has his work cut out for him. Trillium J is self-published by Braxton through his label, New Braxton House.
Of no consequence, the reaction of the staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House, while favorable to the instrumental live performance presented by Braxton's Tentet+1 at the Big Ears Festival, was not reproduced by the opera of Trillium J. While we admit that we are utterly ignorant of current trends in opera, it nevertheless seems unlikely that Trillium J represents mainstream thoughts regarding contemporary opera. Thus the creative faculty of Braxton is on full display. The uniquely peculiar language used to investigate topics discussed in the opera is trademark Braxton. The broad themes of social justice and the satirical questioning of societal values measured by corporate benchmarks, deemed the norm, have previously found expression in Trillium R and Trillium E as well as in Braxton's Triaxium Writings of the 1980's. For example, the line from Trillium J, "The next time cycle will have its own unique vibrations and challenges," could easily appear in Triaxium Writings. (For all we know, it may be a direct quote, for though we have studied the Triaxium Writings in depth, we have not committed the secrets of its 1,705 pages to memory.)
It seems clear that the mental faculties of the staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House are not sufficiently developed to appreciate the nuances of Trillium. Perhaps, in a subsequent incarnation we shall find these operas more to our taste. In the meantime, our inability to enjoy the work does not diminish our respect for Braxton. On the contrary, an experimentalist must, by nature, experiment. Success cannot be pre-ordained, otherwise the experiment is not an experiment at all; rather it is merely following a proscribed set of formulaic instructions with a known outcome. In fact it is likely an essential component of success that all experimentalists, great and small, must offend the sensibilities of their core audience at least part of the time. (As a second example, we need think no further than Ornette Coleman's prolonged experiment in Prime Time, another series of gems placed beyond the reach of our comprehension!) From that point of view, the seven plus hours of Trillium J (three and a half hours of audio from the studio performance and a longer live performance on the blu-ray) provide an opportunity for an extended exercise in exposing oneself to the vibrational realities of a cosmic affinity that one is willing to acknowledge only on a subconscious level.