Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville: Day 4 - May 20, 2007
Where else but at the Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoraville (FIMAV) could you see a cutting edge artist in more than one context, sometimes on the same day? At the 2005 edition of FIMAV, reedman/composer Anthony Braxton could be found improvising with guitarist Fred Frith, sitting in with noise improv group Wolf Eyes and debuting a new extended compositional work with his own sextet.
Absent from the 2006 edition, Braxton was back for the 2007 festival with two performances in one day that demonstrated his unparalleled compositional approach, improvisational exploration, astute choices in band mates and a relatively new integration of electronics.
Featuring trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum and guitarist Mary Halvorson, this smaller ensemble and particular orchestrationperforming in Canada for the first timewas notable for a number of reasons. First, while Braxton had his alto and sopranino saxophones, he also had his baritone, bass and rarely seen contrabass horns. The contrabass sax is so oversized that it dwarfed the other horns, making the normally daunting baritone look like a toy. The only thing more remarkable than the sight of the large horn in play is the thought of the amount of air required to produce sound from it. Throughout the 75-minute extended composition, Braxton could be seen wheeling the three low-end saxophonesall on mobile standsto and from the microphone.
Bynum, who has been playing with Braxton for just over a decade, has emerged as a dominant voice on the composed/improvised scene with projects including his SpiderMonkey Strings and sextet. Playing a vast array of horns with an equally prodigious number of mutes and other devices to color the tone of those instruments (not to mention extraordinary playing techniques rivaling those of Braxton himself in their sonic breadth), the textural potential of the combined sounds of himself and Braxton seemed limitless.
Halvorson, like many young artists who find their way into the leader's ensembles, studied with Braxton quite recently, first appearing with him in 2006. She's also a member of Bynum's sextet, so the three musicians are familiar with each other and interact on a number of levels. Her large hollow-body guitar is capable of warmth, an aggressive distorted edge, pitch bends and an acoustic texture that blends with her amplified sound in this smaller context (where she's more easily heard). Like Bynum and Braxton, her technique is always in the service of the music, with a capacity to execute broadly intervallic lines and manage hand- stretching chords that would challenge many more highly-acclaimed guitarists.
What differentiates Braxton's Diamond Curtain Wall Trio from other numerous small ensembles he's led over the years is the de facto fourth member of the groupa notebook computer running SuperCollider software that allows him to generate sounds ranging from harshly dense to delicately chime-like and ethereal. The percussive attack of many of Braxton's electronic textures and the wash-like nature of their broad, three- dimensional sound-field are, no doubt, what inspired the name for the trio.
With this smaller ensemble, while there's a rigorous form that underscores all of the music, there's an inherently less-complex way for the trio to navigate Braxton's abstract writing. There's also greater opportunity for open-ended improvisation and clearer delineation of the individual playerseach of whom, at various times during the piece, provided solo segues between ensemble sections while the others changed instruments. Halvorson, most notably, used a combination of intervallic phrases, jagged Derek Bailey-like chords and brief repeated fragments to maintain momentum while Braxton wheeled in and out his various low-end horns.
The intimate interaction between Braxton, Bynum and Halvorson made for a demanding yet engrossing performance during which movement through the long form-structure seemed more intuitive and considerably less visibly cue-driven than with the reedman's larger ensembles. And with the addition of electronic colors, the music demonstrated a different kind of density. Braxton's writing hardly fits the definition "jazz" by narrow, or even broad, criteria; it's more "new music" that provides its players considerable freedom in making choices that go beyond soloing. As expected, Braxton's Diamond Curtain Wall Trio was another highlight of FIMAV, and it set expectations for his 12(+1)tet performance to follow.
The well-attended performance by Braxton's 12(+1)tet, coming so close on the heels of his Diamond Curtain Wall Trio, demonstrated the difference between writing for large and small ensembles. While the music for the Diamond Curtain Wall Trio had its own compositional rigors, the more expansive textural palette of the 12(+1)tet meant that the methodology of navigating Braxton's 70-minute compositionwhich used, in addition to standard graphical musical notation, colors providing directions to the playersrequired greater internal guidance and cueing.
One aspect of Braxton's larger-ensemble compositions is howwithin a collective that includes flutes, reed, violin/viola, electric and acoustic bass, drums, vibes, bassoon, trumpet and tubaa significant potential exists for breaking down the ensemble into various smaller subsets that choose their own parts while other instrumental cells are making their own choices. While considerably more complex, it's conceptually not unlike pieces like minimalist composer Terry Riley's groundbreaking and seminal In C, during which the individual musicians are called upon to choose how to work their way through the composer's 52 musical fragments, thereby making every performance a new experience.
Anthony Braxton 12(+1)tet
Braxton's piece, of course, contained far more information and potential for contrapuntal and harmonic interaction. Watching various members team up (including Bynum and Halvorson from the Diamond Curtain Wall Trio)tuba with bassoon, trumpet with violin, flute with vibes, for exampleas well as Braxton's occasional cueing of the entire ensemble revealed a level of trust that every member had with the rest of the group, each confident in whoever happened to be making the current choice.
Various methods were used to cue the grouphand signals, visually mouthing the number of the intended segment across the stage (and, at least on one occasion, a humorous situation when one player called for another to pull a specific chart which couldn't be found), Braxton and Bynum holding up whiteboards to signal changes to larger groupings, and other, more subtle means.
The piece wove its way through gorgeous close harmonies reminiscent, at times, of GyÃrgy Ligeti's microtonal beauty, abstruse clusters of what appeared to be free improvisation (especially at the start of the piece) and contrapuntal segments when the individual parts seemed, on the surface, to bear little relationship but ultimately proved to make completely logical sense. The underlying structurewhile defined, for the most part, by the collective and, occasionally, by Braxtonshifted throughout the duration yet had a flow that went beyond simple form, using instead the model of long-form classical composition to yield a considerably larger (and, ultimately, more satisfying) structural arc.
One of the most compelling aspects of the performance was that, despite the obvious challenge of the composition, Braxton's (12+1)tet was having a lot of fun. It's hard to imagine that a piece of such difficulty and demanding such deep concentration and focus could engender smiles and laughs amongst the band members throughout. The same way that Braxton, in conversation, is animated, exuberant and excited (belying the notion that a musical thinker of his commitment and singleminded focus would be serious and aloof), it's clear that the cerebral and apparently serious nature of his work can inspire serendipitous joy and, along with the sense of perpetual discovery, an almost mischievous playfulness.
It should be no surprise that Braxton's (12+1)tet performance was another festival highlight, made all the more so because of the clear camaraderie and sense of adventure shared by everyone in this innovative exploratory ensemble.