photo from Tricentric Foundation
unpolished thoughts 1/12/19
In the late 90s, I was a music major at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
More importantly, I was part of a radical creative community centered around the magnetic influence of the revolutionary multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser Anthony Braxton.
Braxton was a big deal for the people who knew about him. He had already been awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, and would eventually be named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master for his life’s work.
But when I showed up at college I had no idea who he was.
I’ll admit, I first found out about Braxton because some friends and I had decided to eat some psychedelic mushrooms and someone said that going to see his class ensemble concert that night would be a good way to let the experience unfold.
(Well ok, someone probably just said that it would be “trippy,” or something like that.)
So I went with a couple of friends to the Cromwell Concert Hall, a huge, beautiful performance space on campus.
To begin the concert, about thirty students came out on stage and took their seats in orchestral formation. They weren’t in uniform, just well-dressed.
A few of them had enough colorful flare to signal that this wasn’t going to be a typical orchestra performance.
But I already knew that.
Because normally an orchestra isn’t flanked by three enormous god-like figures in ceremonial dress, their heads a circle, square and a triangle respectively.
Later I would learn that these three shapes were essential to the organization not only of all Braxton’s music but all of his thinking. That night, I had no idea what these martians were for.
Then Braxton comes out, dressed in dark pants and a light button up shirt with an unbuttoned dark sweater. He barely acknowledged the crowd and almost immediately called the musicians to attention.
He counted off a pulse, and then they began playing a single chord over and over. Sometimes it jumped up an octave, sometimes more or less instruments sounded, but basically it was that same chord, again and again.
It must have gone one like this for twenty minutes or so. I was utterly confused and totally transfixed.
(Curious? – click here to hear what I heard that night, Braxton’s Composition #102)
On and on like this.
All I knew was that Braxton had my complete attention.
I wasn’t sure yet if I liked this or not, but I sensed one thing very clearly.
This man understood that the musical organization of sound was a tool that could be used to completely reorganize the listener’s present moment experience, and he wasn’t interested in reminding me of any experience I’d previously had
But I had no idea what was coming.
Eventually this static, irregularly pulsating chord was played one last time, and their was a pause.
Then Braxton made another motion, and my life changed forever.
(If you’re listening along, this was the beginning of the second section of the piece, “First Ceremony”)
Suddenly, without warning, from the icy nothingness of the void, I was hurled into a technicolor jungle.
The next section began with the entire horn section playing a long, complicated, flowing melody while maybe half of the rest of the ensemble simultaneously moved into collective improvisation.
It was like a sudden opening of Pandora’s box, but everything that was released was pure beauty.
But that wasn’t all.
My psilocybin eyes must have nearly popped out of my head, as all three enormous gods who had been silently presiding over the scene suddenly began to dance.
They were giant puppets of course – 25-feet tall – and the puppet masters that had been standing there silently and invisibly the entire time now began to turn them in different directions and move their arms.
I was totally unprepared.
Not only for the experience that was unfolding before my eyes and flowing through my ears into my already altered brain.
I had no idea I could feel myself this way.
I had no idea that creativity – a concept that I had always cherished – could be such a real and concrete force, wielded with such immense power and intention.
Following this experience, I would go on to study with Braxton for many years.
Eventually I played stand-up bass in his Ghost Trance ensemble for a handful of live concerts in Europe around the time of the turn of the millennium.
Today, I no longer live with the intention of making music as my life’s work, although music still fills my heart and soul every day and informs my practice of the Feldenkrais Method.
When I first encountered the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, considered one of the chief pioneers of the field of somatics, and one of the first people to recognize the neuroplasticity of the brain, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between his contributions to humanity and the works of Anthony Braxton.
Feldenkrais wasn’t a musical composer, but, with a sequence of movement explorations and suggestions to guide my attention, he too knew how to give me the opportunity to completely rewrite the story of my present moment experience.
To flesh out that idea in all the rich detail that I experience it could probably be the basis for a book of several hundred pages.
So instead, I’ll simply reference a quote by Braxton that I remember from an interview (and I’ll have to paraphrase).
Braxton was explaining the importance of creativity, and what he had to say gets right to the heart of why both of these geniuses will always be heroes to me.
“Creativity is not for dessert,” he said.
“It’s the main course!”
From the liner notes to Composition #102 by Anthony Braxton:
Composition No. 102 is a work for orchestra and puppet theatre that was composed in Woodstock, New York in 1982. Premiered in Houston, Texas on April 30th and May 1st, 1982. This is a ritual and ceremonial structure that establishes a magical world of fascination and wonder.
The work is constructed as a pageantry of color and movement that establishes a unique context for multimedia presentation. This is a large work that invites the listener on a voyage of unfolding dimensions and focuses.
In Composition No. I02 the orchestra is positioned in front of three giant twenty-five foot tall operating puppet figures whose movements and specifications are notated in the score along with the music.
To experience this effort is to enter into a fantasy world dialogue that celebrates the dynamics of movement and structural formings.
Anthony Braxton’s newest projects were just covered in the New York Times
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