|roland dahinden | composer – performer|
Compositions as Construction
The act of composing music may be spontaneous or premeditated, intuitive or designed, pragmatic or idealized. It may be an improvised gesture of individual expression during a live performance, not intended to be retained or repeated, or the rigorous organization of a complex system of sonorous relationships requiring a commitment of careful analysis to glean its meaning – or any number of various methods and/or attitudes of creativity in between these distinct modes of operation. However, if the composer wishes to allow recreation or interpretation by a performer other than him/herself, the compositional impulse – whether material or inspirational – must be shared with the performer(s) in a manner that maintains the composer’s identity and intention, whatever that may be. In the 20th century alone, familiar examples ranged from the meticulously notated scores of Anton Webern to Cecil Taylor’s orally transmitted themes to any of John Cage’s indeterminate instructions for musical activity.
Even so, the music of Anthony Braxton is a special situation, and that presented on this disc a case in point. Braxton has been, like J.S. Bach (according to historical reports) and Thelonious Monk, the best interpreter of his own compositional output, yet unlike them has had precious few advocates willing to confront the challenge of individual interpretation. Despite Braxton’s extensive and multifarious catalog of works, recordings of his music without his own direct participation are relatively rare, probably due to the misconception that the music is arcane and personal, or, at least, insurmountably complicated – when, in fact, he has devised an open philosophy of interpretation that makes his work not only user-friendly, but engaging and rewarding. By gradually constructing a conceptual, as well as notational, framework of interactive components ready to be assembled, shaped, and expanded – that is, through his music’s open form employment of pulse tracks, mutable material, and collage logic – Braxton has placed the performer/interpreter in a position that equates responsibility with freedom. This results in more than merely conventional interpretive choices, it allows the performer(s) to sculpt the music; the composer has supplied the materials.
Roland Dahinden, Hildegard Kleeb, Dimitrios Polisoidis, and Robert Höldrich have taken these principles to heart, and constructed a program, sans Braxton, from the foundation of his “Composition No. 257,” which the composer dedicated to Dahinden and Kleeb, committed and experienced toilers in the Braxton musical field. (Kleeb, of course, is responsible for the epic recording of Braxton’s Piano Music (Notated) 1968-88 [hat ART]; Dahinden has recorded with him on at least five different occasions; not coincidentally, they are also valuable interpreters of kindred composers like Christian Wolff and John Cage.) The manner in which they have organized the music focuses attention upon the process of designing the detail and form of the musical experience, in this case, combining selection, articulation, improvisation, and conception into a coherent entity, a sonorous object wherein ideas take shape in acoustic space. Thus by joining together elements from compositions of different chronology and style, akin to the joining together of disparate tactile materials into a piece of self-defining visual sculpture, the quartet has engaged, certainly, in a kind of musical constructivism.
“Grant me a nature having two contrary forces, the one of which tends to expand infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find itself in this infinity, and I will cause the world of intelligences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you.” No, this is not one of Braxton’s impassioned theories of cosmic proportions, but rather a passage (cited by poet and scholar Barrett Watten in his book The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Politics [Wesleyan University Press]) from the 1817 Biographia Literaria of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (he of “Kubla Khan” and seafarer and albatross fame, among other things). Watten uses Coleridge as an attending ghost in a broad-ranging study that among many other things touches upon the “transformational potential of modernist form, with its disruption of referentiality…” – a context into which he fits not only poets, but visual artists identified with the Constructivist movement, such as El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Varvara Stepanova.
Coleridge’s necessity of belief in systems of representation to reconstruct a world of ideas may seem to be echoed in Braxton’s reliance on his own systematic approach to “language studies” and the other formal components of his musical cosmology, but this doesn’t take into account (as Watten, in his discussion of the ultimate adaptability and politicization of poetic form, does) the opposing figure of John Keats, whose concept of “Negative Capability” proposed that “… man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” – reminding us of the role of spiritual (vibrational) forces that represent the “inner dimension” and balance the structural “outer dimension” of Braxton’s music. This balance of concern for the inner and outer dimensions of the thing created, reminiscent of Kandinsky’s theories of spiritual and structural harmony in art, qualifies Braxton as a utopian visionary, though it is not to be confused with the relationship Watten also alludes to between “radical aesthetic form and revolutionary utopianism,” as exemplified by the Russian Constructivists (in both their idealized pre-Soviet and pragmatic post-Soviet incarnations). Of course, Braxton’s similarities to constructivism (lower case, as process, not as part of an official movement) are not politically motivated, but functional, formal, and metaphorical from a personal (and inter-personal) standpoint. Braxton’s broad view of “radical aesthetic form” emerges from its potential for transformation, through an expanded sense of individual perception and shared, frequently collaborative, experiences.
As developed over several decades, Braxton’s performance practice of, at first, linking together compositions into a suite-like extended shape, and then, later, inserting (or urging the members of his various ensembles to insert) material from other of his compositions into the continuous unfolding of a single composition, established the systemization of collage logic – previously identified with visual forms of art – into the music. However, Braxton’s intent was not to heighten the shock of juxtaposed styles or resources through their obvious contrasting qualities – especially in that the “juxtapositions” are probably not audible or recognizable to the listener in the way that they are visible and referential in, say, a Schwitters collage – but to open the form to allow a flow of alternative information from multiple perspectives to affect the music’s overall shape, texture, density, and identity. (Therefore, the meaning resides not in the power of the detailed juxtapositions, but in the totality of the new, resulting object/experience itself. Note the similarity to what Naum Gabo described as Constructivism’s consciousness perceived through “…constructions of an ever-changing yet coherent chain of images— conceptions….”) This disruption of “composed” (predetermined) linear development in favor of multi-dimensional constructs redefines the music’s formal (spatial and spiritual/vibrational) identity parallel to the Constructivist sculptural recontextualizing of distinct, disparate, concrete materials.
Giving musicians the freedom to choose and incorporate material from other compositional sources and thus spontaneously, permanently (according to our perception of it) altering the form of the music being performed, Braxton the composer has joined into a constructivistinformed collaboration with them. Here, the quartet begins with the new work, “Composition No. 257,” a score of 130 staves of a single, notated, continuous, linear melody in the category of Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music. Among the options that the musicians have are to perform the piece as written in unison (although Braxton’s “diamond clef” simultaneously allows higher register instruments to read it as a treble clef and lower register instruments as a bass clef, thus assuring some amount of dissonant harmony), to stagger their entrances and phrase loosely in a type of canon or an illusion of polyphony, to repeat sections ad lib, to open holes in the fabric in which to improvise or insert material from other Braxton scores, and to connect passages (links) to other scores with different compositional designs, attitudes, and notations. This latter approach is taken on several occasions – for one, violinist Polisoidis plays from the clarinet part of the ensemble score “Composition No. 46,” and later offers the notated single-line melody of “Composition” No. 136” (recorded several times by Braxton in various duets) shadowed by his own violin sound redefined by Höldrich’s electronic manipulation. Elsewhere, pianist Kleeb resources the cluster-rich solo piano works “Composition No. 30” and “No. 31,” and Dahinden adapts the graphic, drawn-line contours of “Composition No. 90” to the ripe, smeared tone and vocalized multiphonics of his trombone (an exaggeration and recontextualizing of the effects introduced by jazzmen of the ‘teens and twenties, including the famous Ellington brassmen).
In so doing, the musicians create layers of sound with different timbral and textural qualities – the buzzing or burnished trombone tonalities, the bell-like chimes of the piano, the silvery or spiky violin, and the sometimes hazy and surreptitious, other times thick, foggy ambiance of the electronics – akin to the hardgrained wood attached to a strip of leather underneath a mesh of wire in a three-dimensional Tatlin or Ivan Puni relief; they imply reconfigured spatial designs a la Gabo with twisting extensions of melodic line and nonsynchronized counterpoint. Linking chunks of compositions together as they do, the juxtapositions are heightened and the contrasting colors and textures more palpable. And, along the way, they even add a further symbolic/textural element not of Braxton’s making – instrumental reinterpretations of three of Duke Ellington’s seven settings of the word “Freedom.” These may be heard woven into the single movement titled “It’s Freedom” of Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert, but here serve as brief, calming interludes. Dahinden has related that the recording session took place during the “war” between the U.S. and Iraq, and the musicians felt “…there was/is a need…” for Ellington’s music and message. Attached to the score of “Freedom No. 1” is a text by Ellington: “I often think of freedom as it was enjoyed by Billy Strayhorn, my writing and arranging companion. Billy Strayhorn lived by four major moral freedoms: Freedom from hate unconditionally, freedom from self pity, freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might benefit someone else more than it would him, and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel that he was better than his brothers.”
That these interludes fit so appropriately, musically and symbolically, into the conceptual freedom and constructive design of Anthony Braxton’s music, as proposed in this instance by Dahinden, Kleeb, Polisoidis, and Höldrich, should remind us of the power of creativity and the positive force it wields, that is so essential to our lives, and to the future.
By constructing a musical reality through the compositional impetus of Braxton and Ellington, these musicians remind us that the “Concept Of Freedom” is an ongoing challenge that requires commitment, sensitivity, creativity, and vigilance, and that Art is not an escape from life, but an experience essential to life's meaning and value.
Art Lange, March/April 2004