Back at the Iridium tonight for the final set of Anthony Braxton's Manhattan residency with his 12(+1)tet, Composition No. 358 filled the room with the sounds of surprise. During the course of an extended run by just about any band, you might anticipate a sense of routine to creep in by the end. Not so in this case; in fact, of the three sets I heard this weekend, this one was perhaps the most consistently unpredictable.
A lemon-frosting sweet-tart fundamental pulsation, sustained longer than those of the previous pieces I'd heard, elicited scorching solos by the leader, first on sopranino saxophone, then on alto. A lovely trio of sopranino and soprano saxophones was backed by plucked violin and bass strings, clattering metal percussion from Taylor Ho Bynum and Reut Regev, and Jay Rozen's buzzing pie-plate prepared tuba. An eruption from Bynum's muted trumpet and Nicole Mitchell's voice led to a busy viola solo by Jessica Pavone, chorused and contradicted by Sara Schoenbeck's bassoon and Mitchell's flute. Braxton, saxophonist James Fei and bassist Carl Testa reasserted the pulse, fought off by piercing stabs from Bynum and saxophonists Andrew Raffo Dewar and Steve Lehman...
And suddenly: The burbling activity ceased, bringing on a magical, time-suspended interlude painted by long tones on bass flute, shenai, conch shell and overblown reeds, over which Braxton blew a lyrical alto soliloquy. After what felt like ages, multiple rhythm streams sprouted simultaneously, while Pavone and guitarist Mary Halvorson carried on a scratchy long-distance conversation in the background. Bynum's cornet danced with Mitchell's piccolo; Aaron Siegel's snare drum described one march, while Rozen and Regev offered another...
And suddenly: Everything fell silent, save for a graceful dance by violin, flute and bassoon. Eventually, Lehman grew impatient with the unchallenged beauty, defacing its surface with his multiphonic snarl. Testa restored the pulse under an agitated alto solo by Braxton and an exuberant vocal outburst by Mitchell. As the ensemble piled on once more, Mitchell alternated between voice and flute...
And suddenly: The big band dropped out, allowing a gossamer passage for violin, flute and bassoon that was soon challenged by bullying brass and guitar. As Pavone, Mitchell and Schoenbeck settled into a basic GTM pulse, Bynum signalled for an incursion by himself and Fei; when the trio abruptly ceased its statement, Bynum immediately called off his intended countermove. Braxton jumped in with a scabarous unaccompanied sopranino solo, which elicited the first mid-performance round of appaluse I'd witnessed.
New partnerships were still being forged during the home stretch: Lehman turned around to chat with Regev, while Schoenbeck found a hole through which she could link up with Halvorson. Brittle fanfares sounded out, ringing in the silences that followed. As the final grains of sand fell through the hourglass at mid-stage, Braxton signalled a unison conclusion, then ended the set as ever by hurriedly calling off a list of the performers' names, then dashing from the stage.
But tonight, unlike Thursday and Friday, the lusty ovation that followed the set actually brought Braxton back out to the stage, where he visibly -- and movingly -- exulted in the overwhelming feats that he and his colleagues had achieved. I can only hope that someone captured this image for posterity. The band shared handshakes and hugs, and with that, this momentous engagement became history.
Wrapping up: In the comments field of my first Braxton post from Thursday night, ACD requested a definition of Ghost Trance Music. J.K Brogan jumped in to recommend James Fei's liner notes to the Leo recording of Composition No. 247, which can be found here. Franz Fuchs, keeper of the Braxton list on Yahoo Groups, then suggested the liner notes to the GTM releases on the Braxton House label, links to which can be found here. Since Franz specifically cited Bill Shoemaker's excellent essay for Four Compositions (Quartet) 1995, this seems like a good opportunity to call attention to Shoemaker's fine online music journal, Point of Departure. The latest issue includes that same Braxton essay, here. Shoemaker's note, in turn, quotes a Graham Lock essay found in the 1995 Braxton festschrift, Mixtery, a passage compelling enough to quote in full:
Since coming into academia, I came to understand very early that I would have to build an alternative system to help me, because in academia you're constantly talking about your music and that's dangerous. You're constantly talking about the science of the music in a two-dimensional way. So I started to move the ray of focus in my model into the poetic logics, as a way to not know what I'm doing. Because I'm not interested in a music that's two-dimensional, that I can talk about as being the "it" of the music. By that I'm saying that I want the undefined component of my music to be on an equal par with the defined component.
Braxton's very first Ghost Trance Music performances in New York City took place in 1995 at the Knitting Factory, where earlier this evening I'd done my level best to hear a performance by Matt Haimovitz. This always interesting cellist's efforts to take chamber music to places in which it's normally not heard have been brave and admirable. Sometimes, though, those places fight back, and so it was tonight. Haimovitz's program, the first in a three-concert series under the collective title "Goulash," mixed solo compositions and cello-quartet arrangements of music by Bartók, Ligeti and Machover (parts of which included Haimovitz's protégés, Ucello), Turkish music performed by members of the excellent Montreal-based group Constantinople, electronic transitions by turntablist-laptopper DJ Olive, and collective improvisations.
The concept was fascinating, its execution sophisticated and charming. Unfortunately, Haimovitz's performance, which took place in the Knitting Factory's mid-level Tap Bar, was badgered and even drowned out by a rock show happening simultaneously downstairs in the Knitting Factory's Old Office. I hung in there for nearly an hour, but eventually packed up and left, tired of trying to listen to serious artists playing under intolerable conditions. Life's too short -- and there was still time to catch Braxton, who was being treated far better at a midtown venue that makes no pretense of sophisticate chic whatsoever.
Mind you, in no way do I fault Haimovitz, save perhaps for buying into a widespread naïveté that continues to afford the Knitting Factory some modicum of hipster caché. The current club that bears the name has virtually nothing to do with the legendary dive on Houston Street, and hasn't for a long time -- certainly since founder Michael Dorf turned over its management to other hands in 2003, and arguably since it originally relocated to Tribeca in 1994, an expensive move that pretty much forced the club to fill its multiple stages at all times.
That's not to say that great things didn't happen at the new space, at least initially -- including a November 1995 Braxton festival that included the local premiere of his Ghost Trance Music, one set of which is immortalized on the final entry in the playlist below. But I vividly remember a struggle identical to the one that took place tonight happening back in December 1996, when Tim Berne's unamplified Bloodcount, playing in the now-defunct Alterknit Theater -- precisely the same physical space now occupied by the Tap Bar stage -- was overwhelmed by the Pat Metheny/Derek Bailey bloodbath going on at the same time in the Main Space upstairs.
Since anyone who knows me personally also knows that I was employed as the Knitting Factory's publicist for the first half of 1997 -- a fraught period that, despite having ended poorly, nonetheless remains one of the most-cherished experiences of my life -- this complaint could easily be viewed as lingering bad blood. I can only offer my assurance that this is not the case. My sole issue tonight was one of seeing a vital artist's best efforts utterly sabotaged by the conditions under which he and his colleagues were forced to work.
The way I see it is this: Unless you are playing in a loudly amplified rock band -- and please remember that I reported positively of having heard two such groups in separate strata of this same venue only yesterday -- you're better off plying your trade elsewhere. Haimovitz's concert, or at least as much of it as I actually heard, would have been a surefire winner at Joe's Pub, Makor or any number of other venues. Here, it was just another sacrifice offered up to the still-hungry and eminently marketable legend of a storied New York City venue that no longer exists in any meaningful sense.
Eric Whitacre - Cloudburst - Polyphony / Stephen Layton (Hyperion)
Sentieri Selvaggi - AC/DC (Cantaloupe Music)
Louis Andriessen - Writing to Vermeer - De Nederlandse Opera, Schönberg Ensemble and Asko Ensemble / Reinbert de Leeuw (Nonesuch, to be released April 11)
Anthony Braxton - Ninetet (Yoshi's) 1997, Vol. 3 (Leo)
Anthony Braxton - Four Compositions (Quartet) 1995 (Braxton House)
Anthony Braxton - Ensemble (New York) 1995 (Braxton House)