Liner Notes by Ed Hazell
For a number of reasons, I think this is an important, maybe even historic, disc. It’s the first disc I know of entirely dedicated to Braxton’s music on which the composer himself does not participate. Anthony gave the project his blessing and very generously supplied scores, but these guys are on their own. Of the ten participants on this album, only Gino Robair and Randy McKean have studied or recorded with Braxton. Yet each of these musician plays Braxton’s music like it was written for them, which in a sense it was. These young musicians, all in their 30s, grew up with Braxton’s music. And now that they are reaching their artistic maturity, Braxton is part and parcel of the way they think and feel about creative improvised music. Perhaps more than any other of his contemporaries, Braxton is the sound of their time, and of ours.
The depth of their understanding and commitment to this seminal practitioner of contemporary music is evident from the selection of material on this disc. Certainly no other disc, not even Braxton’s own, so comprehensively surveys his output. Here we find a breathtaking spectrum of graphic and conventionally noted compositions, music for duets up to large ensembles, and music for electronic as well as acoustic instruments. What’s more, they’ve made none of the obvious choices of material; most of the pieces are being recorded for the first time, another history-making reason to treasure this album. Of course, Braxton deserves this kind of comprehensive treatment, but few musicians are equipped to handle the full range of demands his music makes on players.
No question, though, these guys are fully prepared, coming as they do from some of the more intriguing new music bands in the country. And here is yet another reason to marvel at this album. Involving musicians on two coasts and three cities, this is no Hey guys, let’s make a record affair. Gino Robair, Myles Boisen, and Dave Barrett are the Splatter Trio, a San Francisco-based ensemble whose ingenuity in devising new strategies for improvisation is matched only by their unity as a group and their individual passion. Steve Norton, Arthor Weinstein, Curt Newton and Keith Hedger are Debris, a Boston-area ensemble that defies easy categorization and is dedicated to incorporating modern compositional techniques into an improvisational context. Tom Plsek, when he’s not heading the Berklee College of Music brass department, can be heard in a variety of new music settings, often at Boston’s longest-standing avant outpost, Mobius. Gregg Bendian lives in New York, where he leads his own trio and has worked with Peter Brotzmann, Derek Bailey, and Cecil Taylor, among others. And Randy McKean, another New Yorker (by way of San Francisco) fronts a quartet with Paul Smoker, Drew Gress, and Phil Haynes. All but Tom have recordings on Gino’s Rastascan label. Fortunately their mutual love for Anthony Braxton’s music was strong enough to overcome time, space, and hefty phone bills.
It’s possible to listen to and enjoy Braxton’s music simply as a fulfilling musical experience, but understanding the full range of Braxton’s compositional techniques and the creative ways in which this all- star ensemble has personalized his music can only help deepen an appreciation of the artistry of both composer and performers. Here is a brief rundown of the performances on the album:
This suite gives you a good idea of the sweep of Braxton’s oeuvre and how well these guys understand it. The ensemble launches into an energetic reading of Composition 40E, a lock-step, if lop-sided, march (Braxton’s sense of humor is under appreciated). On the third iteration of 40E, Steve’s soprano starts Composition 40D, a darting extended line that hangs in suspension over the march. The compositions run their parallel courses, throwing into high relief the contrasts between them and creating a sense of ordered complexity. A group improvisation of shifting instrumental timbres and spontaneous thematic development ushers in the opening single-note repeated figure of Composition 40P. As Splatter winds through 40P, Debris interrupts with Composition 69Q, creating a fascinating musical dialogue of contrasts. The interstitial passage between (40P+69Q) and the concluding Composition 40(O) features some of the most vivid group improvisation on the album, with the guitars’ sound manipulations, Keith’s muted cornet, and Dave’s blowing on two horns at once providing interesting textures. The suite ends on an affirmative unison reading of 40(O). This is the first appearance on record of Composition 40E.
This is a slow piece in which open-ended passages for improvisation occur between short written themes, Composition 48 calls for finely-tuned group empathy and exact timing so the transitions between written and improvised sections sound smooth and organic. The group added vibes to this beautifully unified and graceful interpretation of a piece originally written for quintet, but never previously recorded.
Taking his cue from Braxton himself, Steve put together two pieces from different periods in Braxton’s career. In this case 23D, one of Braxton’s more easygoing and conventional (although quite attractive) early quartet themes and 108A, one of his first pulse track pieces, which Myles and Curt take up about two-thirds of the way through the performance. The conjunction of pieces opens up all sorts of creative possibilities which the quartet makes the most of. Besides this unusual juxtaposition of compositions, the instrumentation is another daring stroke. The opening statement of the theme on baritone and vibes and the closing on bass clarinet and mandolin are pairings of sonic extremes Braxton would surely approve of. And the arresting tone colors extend the essentially linear 23D into new areas of timbral exploration. I especially like the exchanges between Steve’s bass clarinet, Myles’ guitar, and Gino’s mandolin and toy piano that occur before the final statement of 23D.
A short, but by no means superficial, reading of a graphic score originally written for and performed by Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell on woodwinds and Richard Teitelbaum and Allan Strange on synthesizers. The score consists of discrete events with general instructions such as staccato line or graphic elements suggesting what the musician should play. One event called for a written line which couldn’t be located, so 53 was selected in its place. Gino and Dave play it briefly about two-thirds of the way through Part One. The quartet plays this exploration of pure sound, fluid organization, and directed improvisation with an especially deep intuitive connection among them as they maintain a sense of form and direction. This is the first recorded performance of both of these pieces.
Works like Composition 50 blur the boundary between composer and performer. The conventionally notated Composition 142 relies on the more traditional hierarchy of composer and interpreter, with the exception of an improvised section linking its two parts. In this work, Braxton severely limits his materials to simple intervals and repeated eighth note patterns, but gets plenty of variety from them. The band gives the piece a precise reading; and they developed the varied dynamics themselves. The improvisation retains the notation as a touchstone, putting it through various fun-house mirror distortions, with members venturing far from the score at different times. The second written section further elaborates and manipulates the germ material. This is the first recording of the complete piece.
Braxton originally wrote Composition 15 for a tuba quartet, but later indicated any four voices could play it. Here the group reverses what they did on 23D, taking unusual instrumentation and changing it to a fairly conventional setting of clarinet, cornet, guitar, and drums. Another graphic score concerned with sound organization, Composition 15 asks musicians to translate a visual experience into an audio one. To some the dots and curlicues, swiggles and straight lines, triangles and squares, might seem vague, but in the hands of these musicians, the results are actually quite precise. Close your eyes and it’s easy to imagine the line Keith traces with his trumpet in the solo passage prior to the concluding drum solo (which is indicated by a square in the score). This is the work’s recorded premiere.
The band jumps right on Composition 69L, the big wide Braxton bopper that opens this suite with a slow, snaky line. The joyous lope of this theme gives lie to all that twaddle about Braxton being dry and unemotional—this is fun! Keith scrambles up out of the ensemble and sounds free as a kite as he soars and jabs with his bold tone. Dave’s howling and grumbling ushers in a collective improvisation that shows exactly how strong a unit these guys form—the tempo slows without impeding the development of the performance. The shifting colors and fragmented time introduce Composition 122, an expanding and contracting line that creates an elastic foundation for Composition 69I, a scampering eighth note theme played by Dave and Gino, who uses knitting needles to get that unusual cymbal sound which so nicely complements Dave’s saxello. The ensemble returns with Composition 69D. Harmolodically orchestrating the work, they improvise links between its delicate themes in a searching reading that trails away enigmatically. None of the compositions selected from the 69 series have been recorded before.
As played by Steve and Gino, Composition 74C, like the performance of Compositions 23D (+ 108A), is a study in sonic extremes. The piece is almost entirely scored (passages for improvisation are indicated), but the shifting instrumentation adds to the development of it. Steve and Gino interpret Composition 74C with real insight into its marvelous contrasts, balance, and drama, and a familiarity that makes it sound spontaneous on this, its premier recording.
My personal favorite of the album’s suites for its intelligent contrasting of musical elements, the remarkable dramatic power generated by the flow of the constituent works, and both the emotional fervor and delicacy of the performance. Tom Plsek begins his beautifully nuanced interpretation of Composition 120D alone. The instrumental half of a duet for horn and dancer, it is one of Braxton’s most evocative scores, constantly evolving and rich in detail. The full ensemble enters with Composition 90, a graphic score primarily concerned with manipulating dynamics. The ensemble’s stopping and starting also makes silence an integral part of the sonic palette. The massive sound of the ensemble often obscures Tom, who nevertheless continues on his solitary way undaunted, forming the link to the next collage. Randy and Gregg play Composition 23C, a repetitive line to which new material is added on each iteration. Then the full band enters on Composition 133, another graphic score, which directs the ensemble in an upward arc of increasing density and speed to a frenzied climax that drowns out the methodical duo. 120D, 90 and 133 are recorded premiers.
I like to think that somehow the extraordinary circumstances of creating this albumgathering together musicians from different sides of the continent and three different citieadded to its intensity. Given the logistics, this could possibly be a once-in-a-lifetime session. But let’s hope not. After all, this album only scratches the surface of Braxton’s huge output, and who better to keep digging into it than these musicians?
Ed Hazell, April 1994, Somerville Massachusetts
Copyright © 2008 Debris