Monday, September 20, 2010

state of the braxtothon address

so... here i am again.

believe me, there were times last year when i began to think i would never get here, when the thread seemed irretrievably lost... but with a change of focus at the beginning of this year and some patient work, i managed to squeeze out the four remaining phase 4 entries without too much procrastination. (a quick glance at the list of posts for 2010 will show that i didn't get a lot else done, at least in terms of writing... but hey, you can't have everything. the main thing is that i got the core work back on track..!)

in the event, the close of phase four overlapped with the opening of phase five. with the quartet autopsy nearly finished, i found myself with enough free time to do the listening session for the roscoe mitchell album duets with anthony braxton (long since earmarked as the beginning of phase five), and for the follow-up duet which appears on mitchell's nonaah. (these astounding recordings will take some time to write up.) with this done, i still had to complete the article i was working on, and - miracle of miracles - i got that done the following evening. hence, braxtothon volume two is now officially underway.

as i've mentioned before, this next phase will be characterised by more research into the composition notes. i don't plan to consult many other sources, however, and this is not just a matter of arrogance (though there is probably an element of that): the whole point of this undertaking is to document my responses to the music, my journey through b's career, and i don't want to get distracted by reading too many other opinions. another reason is that i remain (alas) a piss-poor scholar and have only so much time and attention to devote to what has long since become a pretty demanding project; it would take me too long to work through lots of reviews and articles, and that would take time away from the writing. and besides... again, it's not the first time i've said this: i am firmly of the opinion that many (most) professional critics have never seriously attempted to understand b's music on its own terms, so i have pretty limited faith/interest in what they have to say about it. [of course there are exceptions to this gross generalisation, and i'm not just thinking of graham lock and mike heffley - both of whom b. himself considers to possess genuine insight into his music; art lange and stuart broomer both seem to me to have made the necessary effort to get inside the music, and anything they have to say is therefore worth reading. i am doubtless leaving some names out here, and no disrespect is intended: i don't read widely and have probably missed some very good stuff. on the other hand, there are a few well-regarded critics (and i'm not about to name names) who don't get the music at all as far as i'm concerned, who seem content to treat b. as a "jazz eccentric" and write about him accordingly, making much use of platitudes and preconceptions... well, if one is a professional reviewer there can only be so much time one can spend on any given recording, i suppose - but that isn't actually an excuse for turning out summaries which sound good (to the uninitiated) but don't stand up to close scrutiny.]

- but the composition notes are another matter. since i began this project almost three years ago, i have followed the development of b's groups and (to an extent) his own playing, as well as that of his collaborators; but although my familiarity with some of the material has increased, i'm not convinced that my understanding of b's composing has really grown much. partly this is due to my own lack of formal tuition; and partly it's because i haven't yet found the time to take advantage of the composer's own thoughts on the subject. having been sent b's complete writings back in 2008, i panicked a bit when i received them, balking at the idea of getting to grips with such a detailed (and lengthy!) body of work. at the time, remember, i was fast approaching parenthood and knew that i could not really afford to devote myself completely to something which would necessarily dominate my time and attention. so, i put the notes pretty much to one side, to be dealt with as and when. (an attempt, the following year, to get stuck into the tri-axium writings proved sadly abortive: again, i just didn't have the time to engage properly with the material, which is extremely dense and by no means easy to read - that's not a criticism: philosophy is not supposed to be easy to read.) anyway, i feel now that the time has come: if i am to get any further with learning about the composer's ideas, aims and methods, i have to go right to the source. what i am able to learn from this deeper research, you will soon enough be able to judge for yourselves.


something else i am trying to do now is relisten to some of the material i've already covered in the braxtothon. when i first started, i was very reluctant to do this, for two reasons. first, i wanted to use the time available to move forward, as quickly as i could (just as wood must move rapidly in one direction and not look back, lest it revert to water); second, i was afraid that in relistening, i might end up completely overturning my original impressions and have to start all over again. to an extent, this tunnel-vision approach was discontinued after the end of phase two, when i began assembling playlists (and indeed these jumped forwards as well as back, since in some cases i was using tracks from albums which i had not yet covered). but i didn't relisten to whole albums, and i missed out some pieces which were too long to use; so some compositions just got forgotten, and i wasn't able to recognise these when they cropped up again. when i hear live recordings, it's very rare for me to be able to identify all the pieces played; in the case of solo concerts, this is extraordinarily difficult anyway, but performances by the working group(s) are far less problematic since they mainly tend to incorporate pieces from the four creative ensemble books. (true of the 70s groups, fairly true also during the 80s - from the mid-90s onwards, the focus is mainly on gtm of course.) several times i have found myself hearing something naggingly familiar which i couldn't place... in relistening now to some of the earlier recordings, i am hoping to be able to fill in more gaps in live track-listings. (i have already realised that comp. 6n crops up once or twice, post-1972; the town hall concert version has a five-minute buildup to the main theme, which i did not remember afterwards... i'll know it next time i hear it!)

so... that's where i'm at. please bear with me for the next instalment of the core work: more research has to be done before i even start writing it. but in the meantime, i shall continue trying to post more often than once or twice a month, and occasionally i will even be writing about other composers... next up, all being well, is an update to my john carter article from november 2008.

thanks for listening :)

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