Anthony Braxton & The Walter Thompson Orchestra
April 16, 2009
The Irondale Center is a new arts space in the general locale of BAM (Brooklyn Academy Of Music) and represents the first stage in the Cultural District plan dreamed up by its president Harvey Lichtenstein. Indeed, at present, the quaint old Irondale hall has a similarly rugged aspect that is reminiscent of the Harvey Theater's unfinished chic. That particular BAM venue is itself in direct contrast to the classic opulence of the main Howard Gilman Opera House.
All styles are emerging in Brooklyn's Fort Greene area. A three-night stint by the Chicago saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton is a high-profile way to begin the season, at least in interstellar jazz terms. The concept is complex, even if its musical results can still be embraced within the limits of a single cranium. Braxton is reviving an old friendship with fellow composer Walter Thompson, who has been refining his soundpainting techniques for well over three decades. One aspect of Braxton's work is his Language Music System, so the two have decided to join forces, with Thompson using Braxton's pictorialised pieces as potential prompting material for his own spontaneous directions.
Soundpainting involves the conductor (Thompson would prefer "composer") employing a very precisely communicative set of hand signals, instructing the performers to work singly, in smaller groupings, or as a whole, controlling duration, intensity, nature, physical placement and just about every aspect of onstage action, although it seems much freedom is often allowed in regard to the actual content of the sounds within the given parameters. The season's output is advertised as "a new soundpainting composition," but in essence, every soundpainting event creates a fresh work, existing in evanescence, never to be repeated, unless, as in this case, there are a posse of camera-folk capturing every second of each performance.
Tireless and completist documentation of gigs is almost becoming the norm nowadays. It's tough keeping up with the wall of discs, downloads and real-life happenings, but now the DVD archiving is becoming commonplace. Certain hardcore Braxton acolytes were set to be disappointed by his deliberate immersion in the ensemble's bosom, becoming one of the ranks, and rarely delivering anything that could be deemed a "solo." This was to be expected, given the nature of the performance. Braxton is out front immediately, directing the left-hand side of the ensemble with Thompson's digit-vocabulary. The first of two works begins with the upturning of an hourglass, its sand-trickle dictating the piece's one-hour limit. There's no fear of tedium setting in, though. Braxton and Thompson's minds and hands are working with remarkable swiftness, making unhesitant decisions over the flow of the instantaneous compositions. Who can say whether the nature of each piece was discussed in any way beforehand?
The first employs the sonic characteristics of modern classical composition, relishing an almost completely acoustic delivery, but operating on what seems like a restricted dynamic range when compared to the evening's second piece. Braxton then takes a seat, submerging himself in the horn ranks. Aside from the five horn players, the Orchestra also features viola, cello, synthesiser, electric guitar, percussion and a pair of acoustic basses. The most strikingly unusual element within the ensemble is the presence of two actor/narrators and a dancer, augmented by members from the Irondale Ensemble. Here, improvised lines, stray thought-repetitions and compulsive babbling can be interwoven with the instrumental music, directed either as a distinct wing, or commingled with the general sonic attack.
Braxton returns to the front, engaging in another bout of soundpainting, working as one with Thompson rather than engaging in any tussling over dominance. The players react with lightning reflexes, and the music is operating in areas that can't otherwise be explored via pre-meditated composition or complete improvisation. Soundpainting lurks somewhere in solitary space. It's very much an ensemble music, with individual spotlighting almost completely absent. What matters is the whole. Engaging though the first piece is, the second soundpainting of the evening ascends to even greater heights.