Friday, October 19, 2007

october 07 braxtothon... day three (1)

preamble: the scheduled day three (friday 12th) doesn't even happen - mrs cent is clearly under the weather but is still making go-to-work noises until i finally order her to phone in sick. this changes the day somewhat. all she needs in the first instance is a lot more sleep, but a sick patient in recovery is not what i need in the listening space. besides... er, the fact that mrs c. is not amenable to these sounds renders it unthinkable.

so the complete is actually in limbo for more than 36hrs in the end.

first session: the complete braxton 1971 (second disc)
date: 4th feb 1971 (1), 5th feb 1971 (2-4)

wow (man) ***{{{*{{*{@@@}*}}*}}}***

all joking apart, my consciousness is really expanding now... moving outwards in all directions in order to meet the music coming from b's mind and the collective voices of the players: the question is, how much can i withstand? by the time the end of the last piece is nearing (a solo recital on contrabass clarinet* - see comments) it's occurred to me that my frantic scribbling of notes is in itself a sort of safety-valve to limit the amount i can actually take in - surely i can be giving the music no more than 50% of my attention, yet the impressions are arriving so thick and fast that it's a constant challenge to get them down in memorable code.

what an amazing album this is!

track 1 is an arse-kicking bop-style cooker for the quartet - with an actual melody, albeit not most people's idea of one but replete with its own tiny system of pivots and balances (sound familiar at all? see footnote below) and just irresistibly swinging right from the word go, swinging hard but easy and understated, limbs loose, centre of gravity nice and low. holland and altschul play what's basically showcase swing, yet so freed up that it remains the perfect backdrop for what's about to come... which is braxton's unbelievable alto solo. language types are being mixed up a lot more in this one - or is it just me noticing more? in any case this solo is just so amazing that i'm going to have to shut up about it... it continues for several minutes, never seeming to drop below the level of frighteningly good - by 3.45 holland has the bow out without any disruption to the swing, and by 4mins it has seamlessly vanished again, his playing now once more fully pizzicato though there has been no interruption at the five-minute mark professor braxton is still cooking in the lab - still waiting for the results to become clear..!

if this were a cutting contest, wheeler would have left the building about two minutes ago... (could be in the back of a cab by now, with the hip-flask out) but of course it is quite the reverse that we are dealing with here, and when he enters (5.20) he sounds fully confident in this territory, emitting a marvellously spacious series of eructations as he stretches himself before setting out on his run; immediately he begins to display his own considerable trickbag of extended techniques and his startling range. at 6.15 he flirts with the theme a little and those bells in my head (see footnote) are stronger than ever now... he continues to tease out little hints of tune but basically is very comfortable with the expression free and open. happy to blow shorter than the professor, he cedes solo rights to holland who knocks out a brisk beauty, altschul pattering away tactfully over his shoulder - unison returns at 8.35, and the theme itself appears in eblematic form just once, right at the very end. what a piece!

track 2 - are you ready? cos those flatulences and rumbles mean the tubas are lined up. five of them to be precise, not all playing at once though. no, what we get is short stabs into the space, isolated attacks and lots of holding back, some intriguing dissonances as very nearly contiguous pitches are forced up against each other and vibrate; this is by no means an unpleasant or uninteresting sound world though, and at least the players seem to be fully competent in terms of sound production. still, by 3 mins i'm nodding off a bit... there's a very promising entry around 4.20 but the momentum is quickly allowed to die off again... and so on and so on. the soundworld is actually quite similar to that of "blues" by george lewis (side one of homage to charles parker) - though of course it's both much more limited and more fully realised by virtue of the one voice type selected.

this is what i was thinking by the end: the players are at least game. they struggle through seven and a half minutes without ever giving up or showing any overt lack of commitment - there are no lapses of technique that i noticed and every attack sounds authentic to me. so they are actually trying - i believe. why does mr b. remember this so badly, as almost an insult? he won't talk about it: must surely have been an attitude thing, the london tuba ensemble (for this is they) perhaps cursed, as many (lesser?) classical players are, by blinkered vision and very narrow ideas about "acceptable music" - ? i'm not just casting around here, i have seen this mindset close up and it's not a pretty sight - the players struggle manfully, as i say, to complete a sort-of reading of what must to them have been meaningless, and though they treat the performance with respect, it's easy to imagine them being a lot less respectful down the pub that night. mr b. would notice these things and yes, they do rankle.

track 3 (comp 6l* - try and remember that one) is a duet with corea, and it's another story, another high reed describing delicate curves through space - it occurs to me early on in the piece that this storytelling quality may be what appealed to corea, who might have warmed to braxton's compelling ballad narratives and probably therefore agreed to overlook the idiosyncrasies, or to explain them away as merely exploring technique (something corea would surely have been able to understand)... once he realised that wasn't just practice, it actually was the music, cc was off to sci-fi land sharpish... maybe he was going anyway, the lure of success too much to resist.

once again the voice is under some vague threat - this time it is expected to keep up with a dance which is very regular, yet irregular - the steps are long and angular, the trick of balancing in the stride not an easy one to pick up, as we spin an eccentric series of broken circles around the same square of bare white floor, around, around. the piano sets up spare chords at each step, could-be-satie-like yet defiantly rootless, uneasy, and somehow our hero has to keep up with the obsessive squared circles and learn how the dance is done. by 3.20 some mastery has been achieved, our hero has learned how to step even on moving stones and is even able to play with it now. very soon after, the voice drops out and the piano unwinds, the sequence halting at last.

there is settling earthwards now, though there are drops from above too. the reed voice rejoins and by 6 mins i realise i have been off and away and have lost the narrative. around 7 mins the voice plays a few short shapes alone, interspersed with responses from the piano; the voice becomes very high and nervy, though the articulation remains very clean, but that's enough for a while and it is quiet for a bit. when both players rejoin each other there is still defiantly unresolved harmony, still the vague threat, yet they are so close to each other now - the playing here (in the true sense, bailey's sense) from both is wonderful, just stunning around 8.15 - though the story is too complex for me to follow it throughout, the playing nevertheless delights me - i will be back to the story again in the future! at 10.45, actual alarms are sounded by the reed as the piano switches to scraped strings rather than keys, but the closeness of thought when the keys return is breathtaking, as though the two voices become one utterance though saying different things; at 11.38 the "master-tag" briefly drops in! by 12.45 the stepping sequence has resumed, but now it's more comfortable, less intimidating than before; or was it always so, and only this listener the one fumbling at the steps?

nearly there, just one more mini-masterpiece to go... the final piece on the album is (at least for me, this time) b's first contrabass clarinet solo recital. once again, now - let's just get this name out in the open - eric dolphy! - how can one not think of dolphy when engaging with this performance? it makes me wonder at what b. might have been concealing from himself in 1985, and why - and what he might care to say about it now if i were to ask him... but there is no time for that because this is filled with a thousand moments and it's as much as i can do to capture a handful of them as they fly past me. b's control over this instrument is breathtaking, and it doesn't seem to take him any time to warm up: by 1.25 his command over the performance is so complete that he can issue a tiny "delayed breath" attack, holding back in the utterance just a little, puffing air into the bore so that the stopped note appears fractionally after the breath - this is a virtuoso performance or i am no judge at all. shortly later the monstrous beast is made to purr and vibrate, issue forth a darker simulacrum of the tenor sax's ballad voice - indeed, the first impression right at the start is of a very lowdown blues and this does obtain throughout, though many of its moments do not belong properly to that idiom - unless of course all of them belong...

i have to stop somewhere - it feels as if i could write 1000 words just on this masterful solo, but i will not do so now. plenty more time to meditate on the relationship between dolphy and b. in the coming weeks.


the scale of b's conception as a composer is glimpsed fleetingly and the floor vanishes from beneath me.

the appreciation of his ability as a player could not, surely, get any greater than it was before i started - yet it seems to have grown also.


write-up: no, of course it wasn't 30 mins but it was one sitting and that's the real aim.
distractions: few. incredible music!

footnote - comp 6i*

heh heh. how the hell could i not have noticed? when i first heard this piece i was knocked out by it, yet i failed to recognise what smacked me in the face this time round, namely that it sounds so familiar because dave holland sort of rewrote it for his own recorded debut as a leader almost two years later - he called his reinvestigation "see-saw" and it was one of the first "avant" pieces i committed to memory (accidentally, through playing it over and over again). i am NOT suggesting there is anything plagiaristic about this: braxton's finely-calibrated system of balances is utterly compelling and fascinating, and sets up the sort of unresolved tensions which a musical mind might play with for days on end. no wonder a young player just beginning to compose might have wanted to carry out his own examination of the playful tensions implied by the distinctive rhythmic pulse.

also, it occurs to me how much i would now need to qualify what i said about this piece back in may, when i proposed it as a great blindfold test for someone who "hates braxton"- well, ok, but you would have to play the theme on its own because said hater would be reaching for the remote within two bars of the grotesquely magnificent alto solo (the latter would also ruin the whole object of the blindfold, since surely anyone with one or two hearings of b. could identify him from this)... back then i was so busy learning and getting enthused that i couldn't always find the time to listen very closely (proved handsomely to me later when i failed to pick porto novo in an actual blindfold test conducted by d:o)... also i knew back then that one or two observations about a given recording was all i would permit myself - given free rein and no distractions you can see the difference. that is... if anyone is still reading at this point ;-)


centrifuge said...

when i say contrabass clarinet... i am following established fashion to a great extent - b. was generally said to be playing one of them this year, in the concerts with c.t. - but a visitor to c#9 set us atright by calrifying that this strange-looking beast was in fact a contra-alto clarinet

looks like a miniature piece of oil refinery, anyway, but rendered in art ;-)

sounds great of course

who knows how many such beasts mr b. has in his personal collection now - i am pretty sure that all the famous old photos show a contrabass, no quibbles...

centrifuge said...

typos, first para above: "set us straight by clarifying..."

veronika Lenz said...

Hi Cent. Contrabass is pitched in B flat an octave below the bass and contra-alto is in E flat a fifth below the bass. Sometimes the contra-alto is called "contrabass in E flat" anyway. It sounds more like a contrabass but usually looks more like the shape of a bass.

At least that's my understanding. AB will have both in his collection for sure.

Ubu XXIII said...

He's listed as playing 'contralto E flat clarinet' on the Iridium sets, & this also exists in the 'paper-clip' design favoured by Braxton for the contrabass he plays. I thought the instrument on the July gig looked big enough to be a contrabass. Hard to tell when you can't see the 2 of them side by side. The sound, anyway, could be described as 'chthonic.'

centrifuge said...

it came up in the comments at c#9 as i say - actually it was glmlr that started it off, asking which type of contrabass clarinet it was (i.e. coiled or straight - apparently the latter exist though i've never heard of anyone playing one)... massimo magee replied "Braxton's large looped contraption was an Eb contralto clarinet I think(that's what I identified it as and the guy coming to collect it from the stage agreed) "

but yeah... i mean... they are both capable of reaching right through the floor in search of sound :)

centrifuge said...

hi both

thanks for your contributions there - i notice now that i didn't say that before..!

this "review" was the one which left me feeling most illuminated, ecstatic - well, this one and the next one to appear (mon 22nd) - and yet it looks to be the last one which might ever attract much comment, because it's such a huge pile of text that it just shouts "don't read me"... i see the problem and i must admit i'm not quite sure what to do about it ;-)

the thing is... what i haven't TOLD anyone yet is that my main inspiration for doing this shit is a guy who wrote about zappa, online... by the time i got to it and mailed him to say how much i was enjoying his writing, it was dead, just sitting there on the net, all its audience long gone by the look of it - and i never did get a reply (though i did keep my mail brief, not sure of a response!)

so i guess what i'm saying is that it doesn't actually matter if NOBODY reads the articles at this stage... so i am not going to worry too much about editing it or presenting it in smaller pieces

the main objective - to give myself a real chance to get inside the mind of the composer, i suppose - has been achieved already (although if i quit now i would have only a very vague picture with lots of space and not much detail, a desert landscape)... also it FELT really fucking good to get all that stuff out, incredibly cathartic at a time when i really needed it and least expected it...

blabber over... more to come...

Frédito said...

Hi Cent, thanks for these captivating reviews. I enjoy them quite a lot. Sometimes I take your texts as entering doors to an actual listening of the pieces. I'll try to add more detailed comments as I come back slowly to the blogosphere. Keep up the good work ! I'm looking forward to read more about these mighty eructations and flatulences :o))


centrifuge said...

thanks fred - perhaps i spoke too soon ;-)