Sunday, March 23, 2008

braxtothon redux (1) - comp. 23m

dedicated to warne marsh

appearances in official discog: three
this version: 11th jan 1973

original braxtothon entry here (inc. discog link)

listening to this back in october was what triggered one particular fascination in me, namely the desire to track the progress of b's use of two separate linear progressions forced to inhabit the same space... round about then i began to think of these experiments as proto-pulse tracks, i.e. forerunners of the full-blown pulse track structures employed with the "forces in motion" band... and having decided that this was (a key part of) what was going on with the piece, i subsequently found others (which i had previously heard, but poorly understood) - this stuff is all detailed (somewhat) in the functional stack post, and is being gradually followed up with the playlists...

... anyway, the point: in retrospect i can see that my understanding of what is going on in these experiments was a little confused - i was onto something, but was not yet quite sure what. firstly, it's not exactly two different rhythms - but see below. secondly, at least as regards the use of the term "proto-pulse track", i was simply wrong about this, not having properly understood what b. meant when he used this term. recently, listening to playlist three, i was powerfully impressed by (the '75) comp. 23g, another piece from this same fertile period (as evidenced by the retrospective numbering) - the very next day, when i opened forces in motion to look for whatever i was looking for, it fell nicely open at p.195: pulse tracks, and 23g as their direct "ancestor". (i daresay i am not the only one who has noticed how beloved books can be "tamed" in this way..!) of course i read this passage last year but, not having stopped to listen to the referenced works as i was reading (the book was far too much of a page-turner for that), i didn't understand what was being talked about here. 23g... well, who knows, i may examine that one in due course but for now i'll just sum up: the "rhythm" track in this piece consists rather of isolated, synchronised "sound attacks", and this embryonic concept is what eventually led to the composition of the pulse tracks themselves in the eighties.

of course, it may yet be the case that the sound attacks of 23g are simply a very refined (or very abstract) version of what i had misidentified as proto-pulse tracks myself. in these earlier pieces, then, braxton seems concerned with the implications of setting up two parallel horizontal progressions which are held in an unstable balance; the mood generated is always basically one of tension, not of ease - it's not a question of two rhythms which are counted differently but which nevertheless dovetail in some pleasing and surprising way. no, the immediate effect of any of these juxtapositions is to create an edge, an atmosphere of uncertainty but also of great potentiality, and above all of excitement. one can just hear right away: something is surely going to happen here!

this is as far as i had got when i first started rattling on about proto-pulse tracks... i knew that the "forced" juxtaposition of the two lines was crucial, but hadn't yet explored closely enough to unpack the details. coming back to examine the device more closely, i realise that it's not a question of two different rhythms, or meters: in the case of (the tokyo) 23m in particular, the bass more or less plucks one beat to every two notes played by the sax and the piano; but this is nonetheless not a very helpful way of looking at it, because the two lines are attuned to different internal clocks. they just sound different, as a result: and the friction between the two is what allows for the spontaneous inflorescence of individual expression that comes later in the beautiful solos; excuse my imagery becoming literally flowery for a minute here, but that is above all how these moments strike me, and not just in this piece - the image of blossoming forth captures the essentially-organic nature of the solos, expressions which are also outgrowths; and of course it captures the sense of beauty... which is never far from me in listening to this man's recordings.

so: what is the difference? (am i ever actually going to address that?!) here's how it seems to me: the bass line, regular as it is, is nonetheless straightforwardly organic (that word again... can't say it too often). it breathes - the pulse it represents is natural, internalised, and the occasional skips-and-jumps which bassist keiki midorikawa executes are themselves evidence of this internalisation (i.e. they occur within their own natural context, as outgrowths - albeit very small ones!); the written melody, on the other hand, seems to be a line whose natural rhythm, phrasing, spacing etc may never be known, because it has been instead conjured to spell itself one note at a time with equal weight (almost) to all, and through further artifice divided into sections of more or less equal length. (ghost trance music beckons already, plucks at the composer's sleeve...)

natural pulse versus artificially regulated line, the latter contained and constrained in a tight space yet yearning to break free - what might result, what may burst like a jack-in-the-box from that packed, bound nutshell of tension? well, before we get to that, it's worth noting that the piece is not quite the simmering inferno that some might be imagining on reading the above - though tension is indeed surely the desired aim, the effect at least of breaking the written line up into segments is to make the cruelly-even spacing of the notes come to sound more natural, the bass continuing its own path in between sections so that each time a little anticipation is built up for the next, and when we get to the successive sets of cascades, juddering attacks down a chromatic scale, it all sounds as if it's making sense; thus, by the time the tension actually gets released, there is no explosion as such, for the simple reason that the tough schooling has taught a valuable lesson, the written line's horizontal reorganisation having brought about an entirely new way of displaying and examining the ideas which make it up.

finally through, the line returning to a point suspended in midair, the bass interjects little skips or "catches", vibrating the string very quickly and violently (at the start of a "grouped" attack, two notes, the first so hard up against the second that it might be considered some sort of "grace note" except that the opposite applies as is usual - in this case, the first note is played with exceptional force)... this tiny variation is enough to supply the bit of fire needed at the very start of the alto solo (no question but that we're straight into one of those, on a piece dedicated to one of our man's touchstones) - from there, it can fly its own course. the piano maintains a respectful distance whilst cunningly stabbing in with tight little chords, groups of notes which serve only to reinforce the total absence (as usual, but it's worth saying) of regular tonality in the piece; so masahiko sato is doing a sort of elegant free-jazz comping, here, adding little spikes and angles for the soloist to bounce off if he so chooses...

... what b. chooses to do with his newfound freedom is soar, sing his heart out above all - finding much airspace out there he fills it with a ringing tone, using his sweetest, most seductive call, startling when projected with such power, yet with a very subtle and thoughtful edge to it (inevitably!); and of course before long he has to reveal his other side, the side which loves to do surprising things, to make sounds which do not fall easily into the ear: this is just another aspect of the way he sings, but it also begins the slow, very controlled release of the various tensions which have been building during the longish theme, a release which will maintain its own pace within the greater logic of the solo song as a whole... the attacks slide along through the available time, showing that time to be infinitely pliable and versatile: one note pushes another into a slide, which sparks off another burst as it comes to a halt; rhythm is toyed with in the subtlest of ways, within a song so sensuous... he dominates the air-space at stage left, filling the ears with his mixture of sweet and spiky sounds - 4.35ish he quotes the descending cadences of the second part of the theme, demonstrating (as he does when playing standards) his approach of occasional tangential returns to coincide with the curve represented by the "source" material - "source" as in starting point, only, always. by 5.15 he is in the middle of the most marvellous series of swooping, joyous fast runs which herald the climax of his song.

at 5.45 the piano is in, taking its time to find space but quickly comfortable with its own voice and its own ideas: this is a nurturing space which has been co-created. as usual, i find myself utterly at a loss to describe the piano solo except to paraphrase what i said before, that it's filled with miniature delights, each as surprising and as inevitable as braxton's own phrases, indeed, this being a solo which i can thoroughly enjoy - and follow, yet cannot relate any of it afterwards as if i've been granted temporary comprehension of a foreign tongue.

the bass does not solo; they return to the theme and we get a second chance to hear the whole sequence. all the pieces i misidentified as proto-pulse tracks use the bass in this way, to lay down an unwavering pulse against which another will be offset, and the voices playing the other will always get to have more fun; and similar things will be required of later bassists, also. using the bass in this way might seem "typically jazz"; or typically more-than-just-jazz (think of how little the bass guitarist has to do in most commercial rock! ok, that's an extreme example) - but it isn't like that here, the bass is an integral part not just of the sound palette, but of the three-way ritual which raises the energy for two voices to sing and soar; the bass, in fact, is the only voice which gets to play all the time, and since each note must be felt from the heart and in the guts and in the fingers, not just fired off by rote, the playing is thus freed up, even within the tight strictures placed upon it.

* * *

so, i'm about to wrap this article up when i find myself embarking on one more listen, just to check a little detail - and straight away i notice something which i must have registered subliminally any number of times, yet apparently have never remembered: the written line begins with a pause. the first note played by the sax and the piano is allowed to hang for a beat or two, then the eighth-note sequence begins! and this one tiny detail seems suddenly crucial, as if i've been barking up the wrong tree the whole time. the fact that the melody begins in such a way suggests rather that any constraints are self-imposed, voluntary, not forced at all... and there are, of course, occasional breaks from the fast march along the line, skips and jumps in the rhythm during one section or another. this is how easy it is to formulate an idea, run away with it and end up somewhere in the middle of nowhere declaring "i am planting my flag on this mountain!" is there anything of value in what i have written? that's not for me to judge... but it doesn't really matter: self-imposed or handed down from on high, the constraints are there, and they do have a particular effect on the behaviour of the line, an effect which (in some way i can't quite seem to pinpoint) is essential to the ethos of the piece.

as with my previous attempted reading, in october, i find that the restatement of the theme, while offering us merely another chance to hear what we have heard once already, casts the melody in a different light, as if the conjuror is showing us the mechanism in repeating the trick. it's as if we are listening to a portion of a solo, transcribed and locked down into (nearly) even rhythm, rather than a written line as such... naturally, the temptation is to guess that it's not just a solo but a warne marsh solo... well, let's just hang that one out there, not likely to be able to verify it any time soon.

in any case we know (from lock) that what braxton cherished above all in marsh was his approach to contour - and how differences between the contour of an improvised line, and the meter(s) of the accompaniment, can generate tensions of the subtlest sort... that in turn is what the young braxton seized and ran away with, looking for somewhere to plant it later. the difference between me (or any other writer on music) and the (older) braxton who called out "i am planting my flag on this mountain!" is that he was actually standing on one at the time. and there are many, many of them, as yet unmarked on the desert maps in most cases... and i suppose that drawing maps of the desert is what i've been trying to do.


centrifuge said...

this is not phase three, not quite yet! no, rather the first of a series - of how many, depends on how efficient i get at this writing business (not very, so far!) - which will re-examine in more detail certain pieces which got written up in the original october '07 braxtothon... when i first conceived the series itself i planned to make comp. 6d the subject of the first "microscope inspection" - as i reported at the end of january - but *this* piece, heard as part of the second playlist, came along and hijacked my focus! the article itself was started weeks ago in an unexpected burst of enthusiasm... when that particular flame burned itself out, i had to wait some time before i had another crack at rekindling it. the piece, only now just finished, looks forwards as well as backwards because i want to get it up and out of the way before i launch *braxtothon phase three* next week - and because that new phase is itself characterised by greater attention to detail in some respects. playlist three follows next...

of course it would be nice to offer a sound file of the recording for download! the tokyo album's not exactly the commonest item in the canon... but even i draw the line at upping a compression of a compression, and the audiophile contingent would doubtless put out a fatwa on me ;-) within the next few months, i would hope to have secured a (lossless) copy of glmlr's lossless vinyl rip, and then we'll see about sharing the whole album, maybe... till then, if anyone is really really curious, drop me a line:

centrifuge said...

of course, when i appeared to suggest in the article that i might or might not get round to discussing comp. 23g... i meant in *this* same sort of close-up detail. what temporarily eluded my memory at time of writing (somehow) was the fact that the album which captured it was fast approaching on the braxtothon schedule... and indeed it got covered in week one, as will become clear.

this article is probably the nearest thing to serious musicological examination/"proper criticism" i've ever attempted, so it doesn't surprise me at all that i finished it at such a time that i quickly buried it as soon as i'd posted it ;-) i have no aspirations really to being thought of either as a musicologist or a critic, on the other hand the maestro's offhand appellation "music guy" will do me fine... if anything of value to others comes out of it, that's great, if they communicate that back to me occasionally that's even better, but i basically keep doing it cos it's demonstrably good for me (even when it's hard work!). and the reason it's good for me is because my honest love for the music keeps me on the straight and narrow, or pretty close to it :)

in any case the post is likely to appeal to a tiny minority of people who are both interested and blessed with a copy of the tokyo recording - ! so it's not the sort of thing i would expect anyone to seize on and go "wow!" in any case i'm still far from sure whether i really got to the centre of this one, or even near it, ultimately... one man above all could enlighten me on that score :)