Anthony Braxton at Iridium

Taylor Ho Bynum announced at his new blog that he is coordinating a new release of the Anthony Braxton 12tet (+1) engagement at Iridium earlier this year. He honored me with an invitation to write liner notes for the performance I saw. The nine CD set will come out soon. Following are my notes for the box.

8pm, 17 March, 2006

Personal Best

Going to hear Anthony Braxton in Times Square is a unique event. Iridium is in a basement on the block where Mamma Mia is playing. There are singing waiters and waitresses upstairs, and St. Patrick’s Day revelry is just beginning.

I knew my friend was running in the Brooklyn half marathon early the next day, but I also knew he had never heard Anthony play live, and I insisted he come down.

Excitement in the crowd as this extraordinary group of musicians and instruments come out onto the stage. Even a small commotion, as we wait through the customary Iridium announcement. Mostly eagerness to hear this music. Maybe wondering what that big instrument is. But also curiosity about the oversized hourglass Braxton turns over before starting the music.

A small signal and it began. All the musicians playing together, but together in a completely unexpected way, with rich variations in timbre and tone color and wildly divergent tempi and melodies and phrasing but clearly “together.” Not too loud, in fact quite subtle, but otherworldly in a self-induced trance.

An uneasy shift in the dynamic of the room as it soon becomes clear that something is happening. The quizzical looks of tourists who just happened to come down for this set and seem to be asking themselves if this is some sort of introduction to something else or if in fact this is the thing itself. Rapt listeners aware that we are in for a very special treat. These musicians are speaking the language of Braxton’s music and he has convened a very special group of players to do it.

As different members of the group cue each other and lead the group in improvisation the piece metamorphoses freely through different instrument families and all sorts of material. There was a refrain of a running steady stream of notes that sometimes reminded of walking bass, sometimes a groove, but ultimately it was exactly that: a constantly shifting, constantly changing pulse moving through the band.

Time changes. It has been clear to me from the start of the piece that the hourglass held all the grains that we were going to hear, and as a result of knowing that I started to process the passing of time differently. In a way, through all the changes the music gave me the feeling of permanence. Of immediately knowing: We’re here. We have always been here, we always will. There is infinite variation. Music will continue. The timelessness of existing in this moment.

To be honest I saw that some of the less intrepid listeners were getting the same idea, but it was having a different effect on them. The tension was palpable, and it was inspiring to think that after all these years of brilliance, years of composing, performing, teaching, writing, living, this man is still on the front edge of what it means to hear new music, to be in time, to exist.

Bravery comes in many forms. The construction of a framework for one’s ideas and the dedicated enactment of it. The challenge of overcoming definitions and misapprehensions. Ultimately, to face each moment as a new chance to create something beyond understanding. Braxton has said: “I want the undefined component of my music to be on an equal par with the defined component.”

The music was inspiring not least because every musician embodied this quality. There is a power in this music that urges us to do better, to learn, to grow, to change and adapt. To excel in each moment.

My friend, overwhelmed by the music, but also eager to rush off to bed, thanked me and went home. Early the next morning he ran his personal best.