"Let me be clear about this: I am not a jazz musician," declares Anthony Braxton.
What is he, then?
Here's a start: He's an improvising saxophonist and a meticulous long-form composer. A 1994 MacArthur Fellow. A product of late '60s Chicago and a major figure in the black experimental milieu of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). He's equally in awe of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and the postwar classical avant-garde. His prose, collected in the Tri-Axium Writings and Composition Notes, is voluminous. He's created pieces not just for orchestra, but four orchestras (much like his role model Stockhausen). He's perpetually at work on an "opera complex" called Trillium R. He has conceived of music to be performed simultaneously in different cities, on different planets and in different galaxies.
A pragmatist? Not so much.
Down here on earth, Braxton, 63, is one of three visionaries (alongside the late Andrew Hill and Julius Hemphill) being honored as part of the Ars Nova Workshop series "Free/Form: Composer Portrait." It's a stroke of good fortune for the Philadelphia listener -- or "friendly experiencer," Braxton's preferred term -- because the first installment of Free/Form includes two older and very rarely staged Braxton compositions, No. 103 for seven trumpets and No. 169 for brass quintet. Braxton will conduct both.
As is specified in the score of No. 103, the seven trumpeters will appear in caped, tasseled costumes and Zorro masks, with five different mutes strung around their necks. "It adds an amazingly ritualistic element to the performance," says trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum, who'll play in both of the brass ensembles. "Braxton has a beautiful way of magnifying the moment. He's almost described this as a mini-opera."
Composition No. 169, even without costumes, may be just as dramatic.
"In this piece Braxton grinds the shit out of complex rhythms," Bynum says. "It's these five instruments just slamming, and it's almost physically impossible to play. You get to the point where you can't feel your lips anymore, you can't feel your face anymore. The disintegration of the performer becomes part of the music. You can come watch five brass players die onstage, in a really musical, really intense way."
On Friday, Braxton will play reeds (including the brain-rattling contrabass clarinet) with his Falling River Quartet, a chamber group with Erica Dicker on violin, Sally Norris on piano and Katherine Young on bassoon. Falling River music is an altogether different beast: loose and spontaneous, but organized via Braxton's colorful graphic scores, which are painted and laminated on sheets of 11x17 paper. Braxton refers to these notation systems as "sources for visual extraction into an intuitive coded logic."
Young likens them to "a map of a park -- you want to think about jumping around them. Your eye is encouraged to move in a nonlinear way." The group has an album forthcoming from Leo Records.
As a tenured professor at Wesleyan, Braxton is always able to find new and talented players, many of whom, like Bynum, become longtime collaborators and confidants. "We didn't ever have improvisation lessons," recalls Young, another former student. "We talked about notated music and large-scale ideas. And then when we played, we were getting together to 'kick it about.' It was much more of a peer dynamic in that respect."
"I look for individuals who are transidiomatic, who have a sense of vibrational affinities," Braxton explains. "I'm looking for multi-hierarchical exchanges, not only a context where the leader controls every facet of the action-space of the music. At the same time, it requires individuals who take the step of learning my system." That system, which Braxton calls a "tri-centric thought unit," involves improvisation (the house of the circle), structure (composition, the house of the rectangle), and syntheses of the two, or "correspondence logics" (the house of the triangle). Once the esoteric lingo sinks in, it's not so hard to grasp.
Ultimately, Braxton is excited by instances of "restructuralist" breakthrough, in his own work and others'. And he is unfazed by genre or highbrow/lowbrow distinction. During a recent Wesleyan seminar he played video of everything from West Side Story ("watch how they use the environment!") to Wagner's G�tterd�merung ("this is outrageous!") to the movie Drumline ("one of the great successes of the last eight years").
It's true, as Ronald M. Radano notes in his 1994 book New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique, that Braxton helped define a "black vanguard aesthetic" in the '60s and '70s. Yet Braxton is critical of those who "draw a circle around the African-American experience." His embrace of European art music has been a sticking point for black nationalists and jazz traditionalists alike. And yet the white-dominated classical world has never quite accepted Braxton as a legitimate heir to his heroes Schoenberg, Webern, Cage, Stockhausen and Xenakis.
That helps explain why, despite an already elephantine discography, Braxton still has so much work in reserve, yet to be recorded or even performed. Frustrating? Yes, but he's an eternal optimist. "I feel that to have a position of non-hope, for a guy like me, would be the ultimate act of arrogance and ignorance. I say that because the thrust of my life has made it very clear that there are positive forces in every direction."
Anthony Braxton's Falling River Quartet
Fri., Oct. 10, 8pm. $35. Settlement Music School, 416 Queen St. 215.320.2600 www.arsnovaworkshop.com
Anthony Braxton's Compositions No. 103 & 169
Sat., Oct. 11, 8pm. $10. St. Mark's Church, 1625 Locust St. 215.735.1416 www.arsnovaworkshop.com