A Renewed Spotlight on Anthony Braxton


Guitarist Nels Cline (left), composer/reedist Anthony Braxton, drummer Greg Saunier and multi-instrumentalist Taylor Ho Bynum recorded Quartet (New Haven) 2014 five years ago. The work only now is being released on Firehouse 12, an imprint based in New Haven, Connecticut.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Artist)

All of this is reflected in the music as well. When I was growing up in the AACM, before every meeting, we turned to the East and had one minute of silence in recognition of how fortunate we were—and are—to be alive and have consciousness and, for us as musicians, to be able to play music. To look to the great discipline of music to find a way to move forward and to harmonize ourselves with the other person and to harmonize ourselves as a nation, as a town, as a oneness.

I’m the kind of guy who, more and more, you don’t hear this perspective—but I’m going to say it and then everyone will get angry at me. I love the United States of America. I am grateful that I was fortunate enough to be be born in this great country of ours. I would like to hope that our citizens will continue to push the American project forward. We are among the luckiest people who’ve ever been on this planet with all these incredible inventions happening. We have everything except inner peace. We have everything: new cars, people making all kinds of money. And yet, there’s a loneliness that has become apparent. People are falling in love without have ever seen the other person. And so, we’re at a complex juncture. And, in my opinion, I would hope that the media would help find a way to present creativity that’s not only a marketplace of creativity. I respect the marketplace and people that are making good money. Hooray for them, and I wish them success.

But the music that I’ve been involved with all my life is not a “marketplace music.” It’s music that’s come about as a result of spiritual thought, of studying the classical information and technical information, and because of curiosity.

It’s challenging for any artist today making creative music to make a living from it. The folks who can are those who are working harder than most and playing and recording and writing all the time. That’s a way that you have distinguished yourself from the beginning of your career: You’ve created this huge body of work. And it’s been embraced, especially in recent years. Is it gratifying to know that the more challenging, experimental work you’ve written and played now is being appreciated in a way that it wasn’t earlier in your career?

I recall Max Roach once said to me, “Anthony, just hold on. When you get to be 55 or 60, things are going to start turning around. You just have to stand your ground. Do your work and do your best, and things will take care of themselves.”

It turns out that you are correct. I have noticed that there is a small group of people who can really appreciate the music and that has had a tremendous effect on me. To know that I’m not isolated from our community and our culture.

You are someone who listens to a vast array of music. And that’s reflected in the dedications that you give to the four pieces on Quartet (New Haven) 2014Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Brown and Merle Haggard. How did you choose those artists in particular? Was there something about the pieces that you and the other musicians came up with that called them to mind?

I wanted to find a way to say, “thank you” to the men and women who have helped me in my life or who have, in their craft, inspired me.

I’ll write something and suddenly, I think of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. So, I had a composition for Mister Rogers, just as a way to say, “thanks.” There are so many people who touch us from so many different directions. And, among the things I’m interested in, is saying, “thank you.”

It’s not like something comes from nothing. Something comes from something. There are the men and women who did the work.

A lot of what you’ve been performing and writing has been self-referential in some way. You’re encouraging players to dip into older systems and styles, and compositions that you’ve created in the past—or encouraged players to use samples of your older recordings. Where’d those ideas come from?

I made the decision about 30 or 40 years ago to build a holistic thought complex, a tri-centric thought complex that would give me the opportunity to establish a philosophic system, to establish a system of recognition, and establish a system of transposition. And from there, it goes to a system of writings, a system of music, and a system of ritual and ceremonial or symbolic musics. This is what I have been working on for the last 50 years.

So, it’s holistic in the sense that when I write a composition, it has three functions. It has the original identity, by which I mean, I write a piece like any other composer: establish an instrumentation, the sound area and what kind of logic will be applied for that composition. Number two: All of my compositions can be deconstructed and reassembled in any instrumentation. And finally number three: there is the genetic identity of the composition. I’m talking about taking one measure from “Composition 117” and putting it in “Composition 203” or implanting different musics into a host composition. It’s a different idea of constructing dynamics that did not start with me.

For instance, Monteverdi had orchestra pieces with the orchestra divided in the hall. John Cage had his idea of indeterminacy, which most certainly influenced me. The great work of Sun Ra and his ability to have an image logic, as well as a symbolic logic in the music.

There has been a lot of work during the past few years—and coming up—to celebrate your 75th birthday. Some of it involves decisions being made about the different ensembles and performers presenting your compositions. Are you involved in trying to pick the right people for the right pieces? And if so, what are you looking for?

I’m totally separate from what decisions are being made for the Braxton 75 project. In the end, I will be as surprised as everyone to hear the music, and I’m looking forward to hearing how people will use the material.

How does it feel to have your work and your life celebrated like this?

I feel very grateful. And at the same time, I’m very much aware that time is going by so quick. I’m really spending my time composing. This is why I retired after 29 years of academia. I decided that while I still have strength and desire to do this, I had better retire now and go to work. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on Trillium L, a five act opera. I’ve been working on it now ... I’m in my fifth year. I need about two more years and it will be finished. I’m very fortunate to be in a discipline where there’s a lot to do.

I have had colleagues who have retired and, after a year or so, go back to teaching because they have too much free time. If you don’t have something to work on, it gets kind of complex. DB

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September 2023
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