Wednesday, February 20, 2008

gap-filling... part one

first (batch of) impressions of, and conclusions on for alto

preamble: all this does not constitute a review! so far i have listened to the album piecemeal, all of it at least once but none of it more than twice, or any of it with the sort of isolated, focussed intention i pay during actual braxtothon sessions as such... as we know, at the time of the braxtothon's inception i did not have this recording in my possession and hence, though i could hardly avoid mentioning it, i was in no position to say anything about the music...

- since then, i have acquired a copy (see 3. below)... and as i say, i have listened to all of it, but although none of it was treated as mere background music, none of it was given my full and undivided attention either. like i say, the chance to "do" it as a braxtothon album had been and gone, and to be honest about it, thank gawd fer that because otherwise i could have been scuppered right at the start... this would just have been too difficult, too intimidating to take on, certainly at that stage! even now - when i feel that my understanding of b. as a composer has evolved considerably (my familiarity with him as a soloist has not changed so much, though in that regard too, my impressions have definitely been filled out with a lot more detail) - i balk at the idea of tackling something as portentous as this work in any fashion except by way of cowardly compromise, nipping in and out to make any pertinent observations i can whilst not even attempting to pass any sort of overall judgement... nope, i'm happy to hide behind the "out of sequence" excuse and leave it at that... besides, i rather expect that in this case i will have fresh observations to make each time i hear the album... though whether i always get round to reporting on those is another matter. (this article itself has been brewing for weeks and weeks! where is my amanuensis, is what i want to know... ahem)

1. dedicated to john cage - oh no it isn't. now, this has apparently been resolved - relatively recently, but resolved. jason guthartz is satisfied to give the order as you see on the restructures discog (link above). the chuck nessa article does not explain the whole story, and i don't (yet...) have mixtery, the graham lock book cited, but yes, it does seem a bit jarring that braxton would have chosen to dedicate the storm after the brief calm, the furious second cut, to cage and it's a little odd that no-one got this cleared up for so long afterwards. (understandable how such things could happen in the first place, mind.) the dedicatee of this notorious firestorm of sound (the solo composition now known as 8f) is of course cecil taylor. the short drone piece tacked onto the end of track four, identified by nessa (for the first time, he suggests) as a separate track all of its own, is in fact the one dedicated to cage. (but see 4. below...)

2. now... furious, yes. scorched earth, etc? you're not listening properly. and neither was phil woods, evidently... technically wanting? you are kidding right?? find me a better woodwind player than this man, out of the extended family of jazz musicians of all types - one with better or more comprehensive technique..? nah, don't even bother trying to talk me round on that score... even in '69 (or whenever it was - it's curious that there is no reliable date yet for this landmark recording), when b. was not quite the finished article as a player (though really not far off), i reckon he could have wiped the bloody floor with woods or any other bopper, and that anyone who hears lack of technique in this piece is simply not allowing for their own very limited listening tastes and/or prejudiced ears... i think that some people mistake (what were already incredibly precise) tonal and timbral distortions for fluffs, or they simply can't help assuming that the torrents of sound must be rushed, uncontrolled, since they themselves feel uncomfortable listening to them.

now, one could say that braxton was asking for it, throwing down the gauntlet in such a way: lead in with something sweet but barely noticeable, then sweep away all traces of it with a (controlled) outburst intended, above all, to hint at all the things which remained yet to be done with an alto saxophone... but also, surely, on some level, to indulge the ego just a little bit, to make a very emphatic personal statement which therefore invites a certain amount of the inevitable (even if misdirected) adverse criticism. i'm also drawn yet again to make a comparison with dolphy, whose first album under his own name (outward bound) kicks off with an alto number on which the leader's solo begins at such startling speed that braxton's own reaction on first hearing it was, he says, to assume that he was hearing a violin because he had never yet heard a reed instrument played that fast... yes, one could very easily imagine that this was dolphy unleashing a decade's worth of pent-up frustration, BUT: that would be something of a red herring, since the actual first take of that piece (dolphy's famous "g.w." - the first take appears on recent remasters of the album i think, but is definitely included on the odds-and-sods compilation called here and there) has a solo which is very different in mood and has very little of the exhilarating urgency on display in the master take... equally, as exciting as that iconic piece on for alto is, i think it's probably a mistake to get too hung up on it, because... it is only one piece.

a lot of people seem to forget that... and this unfortunately can lead to all sorts of critical glosses, for example remembering for alto as if the entire album sounded like comp. 8f. so - does it? no, it doesn't. far from it, actually, all of which makes braxton's perpetual complaint (i.e. that he has rarely been given a fair hearing) fully justified. there is in fact a very considerable variety of textures and approaches on this album, since right from the outset such variety was a crucial ingredient in b's aesthetic. so yes, i do get rather annoyed on b's behalf when i hear certain critics talking of how the later solo works are "more mature" or begin to show a better use of space, such comments rather patronisingly implying that this earlier work, invigorating as it might be, was immature and characterised by a failure to use space at all... such assumptions are simply groundless, and say far more about those critics' memories (or even about their ability to listen openly in the first place) than they do about anthony braxton.

finally - "scorched earth", as such? again, the suggestion that the aacm members in general, or braxton in particular, were attempting to erase the memories of all that had preceded them is not so much debatable as just complete crap as far as i'm concerned. i can't see that there was ever any evidence that the aacm showed anything other than appropriate respect towards the various traditions which they inherited; but the first imperative for these forward-thinking musicians (unlike, say, for a hard bopper who would first and foremost have needed to prove himself capable of slotting into that particular style) was to play their own music. i think it's fair to say that the critical establishment has never really understood this... well, of course it's far easier (and considerably more dramatic) to cast the aacm as bloodthirsty revolutionaries. perish the thought that the truth should get in the way of such typecasting. [ok, that's enough of that for the time being... i have more to say on this specific matter - stereotypical views regarding the aacm - in a forthcoming article, examining some aspects of the derivation of b's solo style; and and i have recently ranted about (anglo-american) critics generally on the radio3 messagebored... and will have more to say on the subject at some point! the fact that critics are allowed to get away with forming opinions ultra-fast (may even be championed for doing so) and then simply remember their own opinions, rather than the original work itself, strikes me now as being just profoundly wrong. anyway...]

3. this album really is a good advert for vinyl. i'm actually glad i didn't buy it on cd (that's right, i succumbed in the end and downloaded an illicit rip...) because it's not well programmed for continuous play like that. on vinyl, when the listener has to get up and go through the ritual of turning over the record and restarting it, there is no way of avoiding the knowledge that one piece has finished and the next is about to begin. one may even have a peek at the info at the same time. so there's no chance of falling into the cd listener's trap, that of not noticing that track 5 has finished and track 6 has begun, which is otherwise very likely if one is not paying extremely close attention to the unfolding of the narrative. it's exactly what happened to me.

- track 5 is the original side two: comp. 8d*, ded. ann and peter allen, a very soft and reflective, deeply involving ballad structure which has frequent sustained pauses during its length and explores mainly the territory of quiet, breathy attacks - and this over the course of almost thirteen minutes, the whole being a very powerful demonstration of restraint and spaciousness, as well as indicating a tendency (already) towards long-form thinking and composing. (well, he can do short-form too, can he ever! - though he tended to borrow more frequently for those, and now tends to achieve similar relief through playing standards and enjoying new collaborations.)

- track 6, the first half of the original side three, is comp. 8c*, ded. susan axelrod, which is actually a very different beast... but which begins with a quiet, breathy series of attacks; considerable dynamic variations and contrasts are a key feature of this composition, though, and after listening to some very forceful (beautifully-played) louder moments, i found myself thinking, hey, hang on... and sure enough the counter had moved on, but as to exactly when... couldn't say. yes, there is of course a brief pause between cuts but track 5, as previously mentioned, contains silences anyway.

{an album which can confuse the listener through its use of spaciousness and silence... do i really need to stress the irony here? well, i just did.}

it's not as if i was doing anything else at the time: i was in the bath. sure, chances are i was off and away in my head; i had never intended to give the music my undivided attention (through it frequently demanded it of me, through its startling beauty)... but if you don't believe me, check it out. track five becomes track six... as if by magic. [the (simplified and abbreviated) catalogue of works in lock's forces in motion lists 8c as "ballad language", which - as usual - doesn't tell the whole story by any means, and 8d as "very slow language with silence"... which still doesn't tell the whole story, but is pretty accurate.]

this now makes me even more determined to buy a really nice double album copy of this. yes, in the meantime i could've bought the cd but... i didn't. wanna make something of it? well, leave a comment, let's by all means get this out in the open... we are all doing it, but some people don't like to talk about it... right?

in the meantime... caveat auditor. programme yer cd player, if you must listen to this holy scripture in that perverted format ;-)

4. this business of dedications and composition numbers... it isn't quite cleared up, is it? not by the look of it. perhaps i will learn more when i track down the (other) lock book, but until then - what is the meaning of a (retrospective) title like comp. 8a/b? this opus is not listed in the catalogue of works..? nor does it sound as if it is likely to be. the unhelpful description "blues" is... unhelpful. what was going on here? how come nobody noticed for so long? and by the time they did, did nobody remember? ah well.

that's part one. part two: declaring that the drone at the end of side one (tacked onto track 4, on the cd) is actually comp. 8e* (dedicated to john cage), doesn't quite seem satisfactory either (though it's a hell of a lot more convincing than passing off the second track as anything of the sort): 8e supposedly explores "medium fast relationships". mmm. (8f, ded. c.t., utilises "fast pulse intensity language". that's more like it...)

in the latter case... perhaps that's all braxton felt like dedicating to cage on that day. or perhaps the truth is yet to be fully explained..? again - why all the mystery and vagueness? were medicinal herbs involved? i think we should be told ;-)

5. finally: our man is fallible after all! or at least he was at one point... i confess i was very disappointed by the original, inaugural rendition of comp. 8g, ded. kenny mckenny. off-handedly encapsulated as "multiphonics - medium pulse", this piece was an important document in b's personal manifesto, or so i believe. there are later versions of it which have had my eyes virtually popping out in amazement. yet this version, obstinate in its persistence, cannot seem to cover much ground and never really catches fire. at least, that's what i found, having got really quite excited about sampling (finally) that river at its source. later on, he would play it much, much better as far as i'm concerned. but, naturally, this was heart-warming in itself... human, fallible! those gifts are not (purely) preternatural: they bespeak untold hours of practice at a critical stage of development. in this early time - whenever the hell that was exactly - all the elements are not yet quite in place. that just makes the album even more fascinating... and i am sure it's one to which i will return on many occasions.

* * * * *

those are the five things i wanted to write about - you can see now why this was not a review. it's taken me several weeks to get those impressions coherently expressible. or that's how long it's taken me to be ready to get it out of me... in this instance i am precisely recounting my reactions rather than the music itself. not a review, no chance of a grading, everyone's got the album anyway and those who haven't know they gotta get it. (one way or another...) peace out.


ubu xxiii said...

Not so much about the album itself, as about one strategy used by woolly-minded, backward critics.
In the liner notes to 'Zurich concerts' by London jazz composers' orchestra John Fordham (why did Intakt have to choose him?) writes at great length about the 1st CD & Barry Guy's CV, composing methods etc., and spends one paragraph on Braxton, whose compositions occupy the entire 2nd CD, touching on his unusual methods of notation, but not much else. If this isn't airbrushing somebody out of the picture or damning with faint praise.... I've yet to hear this critic say anything that betrays any knowledge about music. In this case he should have admitted his ignorance, & they could have given the job to Brian Morton, Ekkehard Joost or somebody knowledgeable.
The music in itself, on which AB doesn't play, is very nicely executed, with solos by the likes of Paul Lytton, Radu Malfatti, Trevor Watts etc. but there's something about the reed section in particular & the vibrato used, that shows these guys aren't from Braxton's immediate milieu.

centrifuge said...

yes, that's sort of... depressingly predictable, or at least true to form (for a professional critic). fordham is supposedly an admirer, too (of braxton, not of me..!)

dunno about anyone else, but after that jazz library i'd be disinclined to give the job to brian morton either :-S

david_grundy said...

isn't that slightly harsh? I mean, come on, that was such a challenging job. Morton is one of the best jazz critics/interviewers/commentators around, and has to be cut a bit of slack. The guy can't be expected to know everything!

centrifuge said...

i don't think i was being harsh at all. i would be so disinclined! yes, he sounds enthusiastic and claims to be a supporter but many of his comments in that prog were annoyingly glib and don't stand up to close scrutiny at all - some of them are precisely what i had in mind in parts of the above post. it was almost always morton's "remembered opinions", rather than alyn shipton's, which irritated me - they got worse the more i thought about it, too!

now - alyn s. enjoys the upper hand in these situations because it's his programme, and he's not silly: he gets to "ask" the questions and the guest has the privilege of negotiating the elephant traps. from what a.s. said on the bored, i'd imagine some of these same remembered opinions could easily have come from him, he certainly was guilty of talking about increased "maturity" in the later solo work, which is an insult in itself really; but listening to morton - who has the critic's delivery down to a tee, it is true (really makes you want to believe him) - i started to rememebr little things that stuck in my throat about penguin at times. of course, they might not all have been his, but now that i know his voice better... they sound kinda familiar.

anyway, no, if i wanted to ask someone to write braxton liners, he would not be on my shortlist. that's the upshot - now, fine, like you say they can't be expected to know everything - and the *breadth* of what these guys are expected to know is considerable; but it's not ignorance i'm complaining about, it's nonchalance: forming opinions too fast and filing them away, never updating them. you cut him as much slack as you wish, i feel no such compunction ;-)