Saturday, July 5, 2008

braxtothon '08: week two interludes

1. richard teitelbaum: time zones

- side one: live, 10th june 1976

- side two: studio, 16th sept 1976

2. evan parker/anthony braxton/derek bailey: company 2
live, 22nd august 1976

- as the above makes explicit, time zones is two completely different sessions: chronologically, the live performance (recorded at karl berger's festival in new york state) follows only three days after the moers duo with lewis (punishing schedule..!); there is then a gap of three months before the follow-up in the studio, and before he gets there, mr braxton will have taken part in two more of these intimate encounters. the (artistic) success of the duets with abrams, covered in the previous article, and the intense rush of the company meeting with bailey and parker, are the sorts of experiences which could prompt further growth, so that the summer months which separate the two american sessions with the synth wizard are action-packed enough for change to be realistically noticeable, if one were to go looking and if one were qualified to look.

so i had to start off according to the timetable, stuck the first synth duo on nice and loud while i pottered about and made a cup of tea - then sat down and did the duets session, which was interrupted then; the following day i finished off the abrams duets (after a false start the night before) and immediately gave company 2 the same treatment from the day before, not concerned to give my full attention in these instances but always curious to see what does stand out.

"crossing", the first of the two synth duets, is dedicated by teitelbaum to roscoe mitchell and although it's very easy to say this when one has looked at the liners, that dedication does make sense, in the light of the sparseness of the piece as it develops, and the stubborn insistence of its desire to remain rather vague. of course, wandering in and out of rooms etc, i am a fine one to talk about vague, but mitchell's music very often strikes me as being deliberately awkward (braxton's is too of course, both of them understanding - along with many others - that creative growth only occurs beyond the margins of comfort), often seems to take "too long" to get anywhere, to show its intentions - naturally it's not too long at all, this is after all the composer's time we are on and he's gonna let us know it: and that's the whole point, that where braxton's awkwardness/difficulty is in "unnatural" melodies and non-harmonic solo vocabulary, mitchell's seems to me to be in continually testing the listener's patience, forcing his audience to submit to his time-frame. (the legendary live "nonaah" story is a prime example of this tendency, obviously.) something teitelbaum has in common with mitchell is an awareness that a landscape can be sketched out in just a few strokes. braxton, usually, is too full of song to be able to attempt much in the way of minimalism, except on pieces where he conducts others. it does strike me during the piece that it's a little odd to dedicate a composition to one reed master, and then invite another to play it; and when b. launches into an alto spectacular some time before the piece ends, as if unable to remain constrained inside someone else's design for that long without bursting out through a weak seam, it just seems to suggest again that if the composer wanted to write a piece for mitchell, perhaps mitchell would have been the man to ask about performing it.

still, the two players - teitelbaum and braxton, that is - clearly enjoyed playing together, and one can easily see why. they like making similar soundscapes, all strange flowerings and alien geometry. it's a pairing which can be revisited again and again. and they do actually play together when it suits them, the synth echoing the reed so closely for the first thirty seconds of "crossing" that it only gradually becomes clear what the sound source is; the modulations and trills that follow in the (generally sparse) opening minutes are tossed from one to the other also, and when braxton goes off, well into the seventh minute, teitelbaum pretty much follows suit - we can guess at this point that we have indeed crossed. evidently we cross back at some point, though the details were lost to me for some time there. for long periods, the piece doesn't seem to claim my attention though i wasn't really doing anything very involving.

"behemoth dreams" is a different matter. i am long since familiar with this piece, having fallen instantly in love with it when i bought the black lion (silence/time zones) cd a few years ago (back when the braxton entries in my collection were only just into double figures). i've listened to it in open rooms, with headphones, on playlists and even in the car. several friends have been treated to it on compilation cds (and probably skip it if they ever play them now, i can but try). it is, as the title suggests, a perfect soundscape for the continuing adventures of the contrabass clarinet, braxton's marvellous talking monster, fetched back from the hinterlands beyond dolphy's strange realms... it's an entire long-playing side of cbcl and that alone makes it a beautiful thing! and of course the synths weave the background tapestry, the winter winds which pick their way round the cave wherein the monster mutters and snores. on this occasion i made no effort to absorb the piece in close detail; i still love it, so if it takes me twenty or thirty more plays to unlock its various secrets that's fine with me. meantime, any serious braxton fan who doesn't know the piece will definitely want to hear it. (the black lion cd is clearly excellent value for money.)

* * *

company 2 is the sort of anomaly which some critics would like to believe never happened. according to a very popular and highly-rated jazz critic in the u.k., braxton just didn't get what the euro guys were about - at least not until 1993, at the inaugural london jazz festival, when certain critics actually paid attention, i mean, braxton suddenly became a better musician. (i have mentioned all this nonsense before. please bear with me.) yes, better because up till that point everyone knows his attempts to meet the european masters were doomed to failure.

you couldn't ask for a more straightforward demonstration than this, as clear an example as one could demand of the way in which critics take it upon themselves to set standards for artists to achieve, and then to judge whether or not they have reached those heights, and finally to pretend that theirs is to be the sole matter of record on the subject. with as much deference to this particular critic as i can muster (and i'm possibly making him sound far more reactionary than he is), the best i can suggest is that such scanty attention is doubtless a lot easier to blag when the subject is a musician that just about everyone finds challenging, hard to understand if not downright hard going - only a few hardcore nutcases are ever going to take issue with it, and most people will just assume that you still know what you're talking about.

but that's the trouble - i just want to make this clear: i don't have any personal vendetta against this critic (and am therefore not naming him), don't have any interest in getting into a pissing contest over it; but i must try and set the record straight, lest impressionable ears and minds hear the words of the great "authority" on the subject and think, well, i don't need to hear anything before '93 when it comes to the euro free guys then. it's just not true at all. and the final evidence, if any were needed, of the ciritc's sense of self-importance is the fact such an opinion can be held, grasped tightly for years despite the existence of simple, cogent arguments for the defence: one, bailey had worked with braxton before and if he hadn't enjoyed it last time, he would not have asked him back; and two, the fact that incus saw fit to release this at all clearly implies that they thought it was worth hearing. no, no, it just won't do: the expert's mind is made up, once formed the opinion can never be overturned. if on a subsequent occasion a different impression is formed, this must be the result of the performance itself being better (or worse). the critic will always modestly claim that he could be wrong, but will not, in fact, ever be so.

well, this is why i couldn't be a professional critic... i can only write about things i genuinely think or feel, and if i don't understand something, i am compelled to admit that. that's no good in a society where our critics are expected to be guardians of orthodox opinion, confident in their expertise at all times.

fuck expertise. it's way overrated as a commodity, especially where it takes precedence over honesty or integrity. on the other hand, if one has developed expertise honestly, along the way to fulfilling oneself then this is to be cherished, and so it is that although braxton's improvised reed lines are frequently more melody-based than parker's - and certainly represent a very different approach from that of bailey - they are accepted into the space and quickly sound as if they belong there. in any case there is a lot more to braxton's approach than fragments of melody..! those of us who have been following with attention* are well aware by now of the vast non-harmonic vocab base b. has developed for the alto in particular (and to a lesser extent for other instruments), and these "outer" sounds, more predictably, fit naturally into the space.

this is the point - exactly the same point i've made before, with regard to the bailey duo performances from two years earlier: the sounds work well together. the fact that bailey has no interest at all in tunes does not mean that he completely resists co-operation, and on this recording, he seems to me if anything to be unusually willing to meet his fellow players. he makes great use of (all manner of) bent attacks and releases, fiddling with the tuning heads as well as manipulating the strings, and does so in such a way as to co-create very vivid and colourful environments. parker generally remains austere and abstract (though not at all times, occasionally he wheels off into trane-isms from the final phase), but braxton's warped birdcalls fit naturally into the soundscape. it all sounds good to me! all three are hot, all three sound inspired, all three sound as if they're having fun and playing seriously at the same time. at one point in "AKHRAJAT" the two horns mimic an entire flock of birds together, bailey having dropped out for a few moments. there is no sense of incoherence or of fruitless struggle. rather, paradoxically, this meeting of parallel improvisers (all three rather known for their single-mindedness in this regard) becomes a sort of group improvisation after all. it certainly isn't minimalist or (generally) reflective, but it is often very exciting and to me, at any rate, there is the sense that all three got caught up in the heat and energy of the moment. b's regular changes of horn are perhaps the habit which most threatens to upset the balance, the flute in particular sounding like a risky choice in this context - but he generally makes it work, and let's not forget this is a process of experimentation, not everything will connect or come off, so taking risks is by no means a bad thing. (some would insist on it.) the monster sounds great in this context... but of course this is the great thing about the contrabass clarinet, one could simply take it anywhere ;-)

didn't really learn anything new about mr braxton though - although the temptation is to assume that this must be when evan parker taught him the trick of circular breathing, i didn't hear any clear evidence of this here (the flock-of-birds effect is the obvious place to look, so i relistened to that long piece). parker i thought sounded surprisingly unfinished at this point - i don't know that much about the stages of his development, but some of his core vocabulary would become far more authoritative (startlingly so) in later years. the violent flutter-tonguing, in particular, so strongly associated with him since what now seems like forever, is not really apparent here, or if similar techniques are employed they do not (yet?) achieve full force. again, that doesn't make it less interesting, he is definitely up for it and contributes to the fulminant atmosphere throughout. "AL" is a delightful compressed miniature all in itself, the tenor sparring with the cbcl, and "HIQ" sounds at times as if it could be a braxton composition. forget about all that hierarchical "best of" shit and check this one out for yourself.

* ... of course, those who weren't paying attention could still easily make the mistake of thinking that all those funny noises are just one big fluff, filling in probable holes in b's technique. so it would be easy, also, to assume that all braxton's playing is melodic, just skewed... well, there's a lot more to it than that...


centrifuge said...

the (unnecessary?) combativeness of the visual joke is a direct representation of the way in which *this* post comes perfectly at *this* time - the piece itself was written ages ago, file last updated april 20th, just two tiny emendations made before posting it today... i left some stylistic crudities such as the careless repetitions of the second para intact, since that too seems to reflect back onto the whole thing... in the company 2 part of the article, my stroppy indignation against the critic - and those who co-enable his worldview - (re)arrives perfectly now, rounding off a most remarkable week. drawn into a continuing (eventually quite personal) argument with someone, and publicly (so to speak), i ended up putting together previously unassembled jigsaw pieces... i have had unpleasantly close contact with a sort of internet stalker, i realised this week; several of the anonymous posts which occasionally crop up here are authored by the same person, i see that now. (hadn't thought much about it, before... regular readers will know what i'm talking about, it doesn't happen very often but did, of course, happen again recently!)

anyway... inevitably there are lessons for me in the experience, as there are everywhere (for everyone), all around - but i'm noticing them more and more at the moment. this particular one didn't come as a blast of sudden insight - didn't teach me anything about my own habits, characteristics etc etc that i didn't know before BUT does come at a highly significant time, and allows me the perfect opportunity to jettison a whole load of (weighed, found wanting) baggage from my upbringing, no use to me in my future life. it's not a matter of "there but for the grace" exactly, a narrow escape, because i took steps myself to undo the damage in me, didn't stumble upon the path i've taken but sought it out, and sought help along the way, when i could get it; hence i'm unusually clear-sighted for a narcissist ;-) close my eyes to my own faults at times but have not been blind to many or most of them for some time, now - though that in itself doesn't prevent them from taking me over for a while if i'm at a low ebb. well, this week the time came to dump a whole load of stuff, so i'll keep you updated on the process as it unfolds..!

the pain referred to in the gtm day post(s) is now passed also, following very nearly a week (yes, the same week) of getting more and more intense. (this was actually what i dumped.) and in a separate (though hardly unrelated) incident, just in the last 24hrs i had glorious, rainbow-style evidence of the fact that collective goodwill can provide an impenetrable shield against targeted spite and malice... i'll tell that story another time, perhaps :)

oh yes, and finally, back to the cannons - of course there *is* an element of ruthless iconoclasm to all of the statements made by these important musicians at that fertile time, and especially when they got together - but in a way what's most uplifting and rewarding about this entire thing is that the primary intent was never destructive as such, indeed quite the reverse is the case... the *affirmation of life* is still the way forward, yes, even as the bodies are stacked in piles all around us. at times i find, have found, life (my life) incredibly hard to endure: these musicians, and others, have so often provided me with timely reminders of why the fight is worth fighting.

centrifuge said...

...and it does feel like a fight at times, that's possibly the one thing we could all agree on ;-)

centrifuge said...

ps - pic (uppsala) taken july 14th, 2003... celebrated (that year as any other) in france as bastille day... of course, a church and a prison, that's two completely different kettles of fish, aha, hmmm...


ubu xxiii said...

I'd forgotten about that distortion of facts on BBC radio
3's best 'jazz' programme, when it treated Braxton's music. I was too taken aback by the oversimplification of the 'Bird connection.'
Anyway I heard a lot of that early 'Company' stuff live, in fact the 1st time I ever heard Braxton, DB & EP was togEther in 1976. As a result I went back for more in 1977 to the ICA (documented on the Incus CD 'Company 6 & 7'). The fascination continued. For the truly curious no airbrush will be effective enough to conceal the music for long.

centrifuge said...

ubu xxiii, that's very true, we curious ones always know when we're onto something :) but you were there? wow, lucky you my man... anecdotes, first or lasting impressions..? yeah, i'da gone back the next year too i think - !

but surely you aren't suggesting that our friend the popular critic is actively working for the "airbrushers"..? even i would not go that far... i think it is all merely consequential error from an initial position/decision, though still - a *distortion of the facts* it remains, as you say, and i can still see why i got so annoyed about it... even though i no longer feel annoyed about it... true, at the moment, i no longer feel annoyed about anything much, for more than a second or two... six days and counting... btw (since i shan't be announcing this beforehand otherwise) there's another gtm all-dayer coming up tomorrow... iridium, here i come {{{***}}}