Thursday, April 28, 2011

Anthony Braxton

Anthony Braxton (1945- )
Composition No.165

It is difficult to summarize Anthony Braxton as a musician. During the Civil Rights era, he was involved in the Chicago Freedom Movement and was a member of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), an organization created in 1965 to support African-American composers and improvisers in their pursuit for serious and original music. Braxton is a superb alto saxophonist, and also proficient at playing the flute, clarinet, and all members of the saxophone family, including the contrabass saxophone. He is also a prolific composer who has written more than 350 works and has recorded more than 100 albums as a soloist and composer. When not making music, he spends his free time doing research and development in literature, philosophy, science, and global music. Sometimes the topics he researches would inspire his musical compositions. He is an intellectual man who loves to learn about the world.

Most of Braxton's compositions merge the avant-garde and jazz styles, such as in his Composition No.165. Its story follows two young happy children infatuated with watching the clouds. The music was performed by the University of Illinois’ Creative Music Orchestra and was conducted by Anthony Braxton himself in 1992. The instrumentation is comprised of the conventional instruments of a jazz orchestra, plus flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, tuba, and synthesizer, totaling out at 18 instruments playing about 50 minutes worth of music. The music is a mix of American avant-garde, a deviation from conventional practice, and free jazz, an experimental approach to create innovative sounds, atonality and free structure of improvisation. Sometimes I could hear aspects of the avant-garde style, and other times I would hear free jazz improvisation. As far as the European sound is concerned, it is similar to Edgard Varèse's "Hyperprism”, as Braxton creates a sound mass by using different combinations of instruments. Since almost all musical events happen linearly and progressively, this piece gives that sense of linear motion as well. It reminds me of a motor vehicle moving at a uniform speed down the road; sometimes it slows down, sometimes it speeds up, but it never comes to a complete stop. I cannot tell if there is a climactic moment in the piece or not, and I really cannot find the harmony, rhythm, or melody, which are familiar in compositions employing conventional methods

Creating musical sounds without deploying the conventional elements, Anthony Braxton, instead, focused on creating the timbre by using extended techniques such as trills, flutter- tonguing, and sliding. The language of his work is avant-garde and experimental, which invites the musicians to become a part of his creative process and contribute their ideas as well. In my opinion, this compositional approach can make the music flow on continuously as long as sound is being created. Braxton was experimenting with the endless possibilities within the sound world.

The problem with his music is that since he combines free jazz and avant-garde music, it is difficult to put him in either the classical or the jazz canon. His music is almost in a category of its own. Music of this kind is short-lived, in my opinion. It only matters within a short amount of time. What Braxton does matters at the moment but it doesn’t necessarily carry through the next generation. The music he creates lacks the universality or sustainability of the canonic masterpieces. They are the products of this certain time period. As result, the music only resonates within a small group of people and is only meaningful during certain circumstances despite his experimental spirits. This makes it tough for Braxton to be represented in a particular genre of music, so it makes it difficult to find followers of his music. On top of crossing the genre, I believe the racial issue is always a concern for Braxton when it comes to doing serious and experimental music. Black musicians have acclaimed much more respect in the world of jazz than in European music. This racial stigma casts a shadow over Braxton’s reputation as a serious composer, even though his music doesn’t sound “black.” His experimentation with music is the very spirit of the Avant-Garde composer.

Braxton really took a conscious effort into understanding many things that the world had to offer, from being able to play a wide array of instruments, doing research on numerous fields of study, and experimenting with untouched musical possibilities. His music is a product of his time and will most likely stay in his time. Nonetheless, I personally admire his spirit and perseverance in continuing to make discoveries in the world of sound.

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