A long-distance duo with the saxophonist-composer who's still squaring the circles and running rings around the squares. This article originally appeared in The Wire 65 (July 1989).
It's a woman's voice, his wife's, that first comes on the answering machine, but then Anthony Braxton himself cuts in and a puckish "Good afternoon" chuckles off the dishes, and down the wires from where it's still the crack of dawn.
It gives him an audible belt to be able to orientate himself so immediately to someone else's time zone. It shouldn't be surprising, for this is a Puck who aims to put a musical girdle round the earth in 40 minutes - a necklace or orchestra strung on satellite beams - who thinks in millennia, and whose project-laying has more to do with metaphysical projections than with fiscal '89. Not for him a finger-check on time difference.
They used to cut off his phone for non-payment. These days, it has become his (global) village pump. "I long ago gave up any idea of making any money from my music but, at 43 and soon to be 44, when I look back at my life, I have to think how lucky I have been to be able to document my music. I'm as excited by it now as I was when I was 11. I'm a professional student and if most times I can only have six hours rehearsal with the musicians before a recording, instead of the six days or six weeks that I'd like, then . . .
"The music industry in the United States is still racially divided. There are still black charts and a mind-set that prevents meaningful communication between the Afro Americans aesthetic and the European tradition. I count Schoenberg and Webern as my daddies, too."
These days, as a Professor at Mills College in Oakland, just down the road from where Schoenberg spent his last, surprising happy exile, the saxophonist has found something like a niche. He sounds (in person, in performance and on record) like a man who is taking stock of his life, gathering force for another extraordinary engagement with the complex interface of aesthetics. Braxton's work has never been more staggeringly ambitious and in some respects, never simpler and more crystalline.
"I am currently engaged in the initial expansion of my model, to connect all of my compositions into a tripartite perpetual entity, a musical affirmation of the number three. It seeks to demonstrate three levels of discourse: the architectural, the philosophical, and what I could call the ceremonial and ritual."
Braxton's performances - notably since the image music of Composition 113 have taken on an aspect of rite, part-magical, part-questioning, with a consequent alchemical transformation of the purely musical material.
"There are three levels, the individual, awareness of the group and purpose" - traceable to the Christian Trinity, or even to Ayler's version of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, as well as to the advanced mystical mathematics of the Nile civilizations, number theory, the "perfect time" of the classical composers (4/4 was profanely "common") - "and I'm building a system to determine the nature of all those hook-ups that allow any piece of mine to be either a solo piece, a chamber piece, or an orchestra piece. The individual performer has that range of choices. My ideal is that every piece should be 33.3% notated, 33.3% improvised and the remainder in the realm of family intentions or purpose."[page break]
It's this complex synthesis of traditions that makes Braxton so important, he is closest to Cage in mixing the determinist strategies of the Viennese with the indeterminancy of pure chance; the only point where those two apparently contradictory impulses interact is in jazz music, and Braxton's ever more ambitious musical structures operate hand in hand with an ever more intense and perceptive reading of harmonic improvisation.
At present, he is working on the third in the Trillium series of operas. "I've been involved with it for three-and-a-half years with one year to go. I'm also developing a new class of structural materials, so it's a very exciting time for me."
He's in his fourth year at Mills.
"One of the nice things about my relation with them is their recognition that I have to get away. Simply to talk about music is not enough. There is no such thing as pure theory and I don't think it's healthy not to have a physical relationship with the music. Performing allows me to look at a problem from a multiple context of correspondence, as opposed to a monoplane context. If the physicists who are working in the field of chaos had more awareness of music, of creativity generally in this time period, then they would be aware of perceptual correspondences that will help us to respond to the challenges of the next one thousand years."
TRY AS they might (and an example would be the recent packaging of a Braxton "bootleg" in a cover best fitted to the Ohio Players, circa 1974), it's difficult to constrain Braxton's music to the "race" categories that still apply in American culture. "The jazz business is still premised on certain social presuppositions, distorting the African aesthetic in such a way that it is not allowed to use the European mystical tradition."
Braxton's attempt to square the circle has led him to a fairly rugged confrontation with materialism. "I'm very interested in the challenge of electronic music. I'm in the process of clearing old debts - he doesn't make it clear if these are strictly financial - "in order to take on new debts. People like myself who are poor are only now able to acquire some of these technologies. While I'm fascinated by the process, I've no desire to separate myself from my body. I need my Warne Marsh records and my John Coltrane records and my Paul Desmond records."
The late Marsh is - superficially, at last - Braxton's most surprising essential resource, until one recognizes anew just how closely Braxton's work does depend, however, tangentially, on the harmonic series.
"Warne's music touched me very young. 11 years old. I played it all day yesterday. Warne was never respected because there was no slot for him and because he wasn't trying to be an African. He and Lennie Tristano were individuals whose work reflects on that European mystical tradition in a post-Parker context. All of these gentlemen approached their music with single-minded dedication."[page break]
It's possible to argue that there was in that gentlemanly single-mindedness just some of the sterile seed of its own limitation.
Braxton is impressively and unaffectedly feminist and his personal voice - like the rapid interphase of voices on his phone - depends increasingly on a subdominant of femininity. He makes a stronger case for the Anima than Judy Chicago's famous Dinner Party or Germaine Greer's schematic Obstacle Race.
"We are coming to a point when it is not possible to move forward as a species into a new time phase without recognising the great works of our women masters. This is the gateway to the next thousand years.
He expresses a deep admiration for Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century healer, mystic and composer, who felt herself to be a "feather on the breath of God" and articulated a sense of cosmic and physical harmony equalled before Cage or Stockhausen or Messiaen. "I'd like to say that Hildegard is as important as Johann Sebastian Bach. Yeah, put that in."
The breadth of Braxton's reference is staggering. The quiet confidence with which he expresses it, reassuring. Though always conscious of the jeopardies that face the pioneering artist in a fragmented and hierarchical society, he seems to have attained some sort of dynamic equilibrium.
"I feel very grateful that I discovered early the role models that will allow me to work for the rest of my life - and still be frustrated."