Braxton Musical Systems

This page offers a quick introduction to some of the musical systems used in Anthony Braxton’s work over the last decade.

Diamond Curtain Wall Music

With his Diamond Curtain Wall Music, Anthony Braxton combines intuitive improvisation with interactive electronics. The musicians in the ensemble respond both to the evocative graphic notation of his Falling River Music, and the unique and responsive electronic patches the composer designed using the SuperCollider programming software.

Recent recordings of Diamond Curtain Wall Music include Trio (Victoriaville) 2007 (Victo) and Quartet (Moscow) 2008(Leo).

Echo Echo Mirror House

Echo Echo Mirror House is the latest conceptual innovation in Braxton’s extraordinary five-decade career. With his Ghost Trance Music, Braxton created a framework for his musicians to freely explore his entire compositional output in each concert; with his Diamond Curtain Wall music, he brought his own interactive electronics into his improvisational palette. Now with Echo Echo Mirror House, Anthony Braxton brings these ideas to the next level. In this ensemble, all the musicians wield iPods in addition to their instruments, while navigating scores that combine cartography and evocative graphic notation, creating a musical tapestry combining live performance and sampled sound from Braxton’s extensive recorded discography. With Echo Echo Mirror House, Braxton has constructed a new and wholly immersive sound environment, a sonic experience unlike any other.

Falling River Music

Excerpts from the liner notes to Anthony Braxton/Matt Bauder – 2+2 Compositions (2005, 482 Music) by Charlie Wilmoth:

Braxton has done so many things over the course of his amazing career that it’s difficult to ever say that he’s doing something he has never done. It seems safe to say, however, that in the last few years, Braxton has been paying more attention to timbre and texture than ever before. This interpretation of recent trends in Braxton’s work seems even more plausible when we consider his new Falling River Musics.

Braxton writes, “Falling River Musics is the name of a new structural prototype class of compositions in my music system that will seek to explore image logic construct ‘paintings’ as the score’s extract music notation.” Falling River scores consist of large, colorful drawings (reminiscent of the titles of Braxton’s earlier compositions) alongside much smaller writings.

These smaller writings are accompanied by an intentionally vague legend that begins near the top of the page with a quarter note. Subsequent drawings in the legend look less and less like musical notation, and they quickly become unrecognizable as such. Braxton refuses to assign any specific meanings to the notations of his Falling River scores, since part of their purpose is to allow each performer to find her own way through them. He explains, “I am particularly interested in this direction as a means to balance the demands of traditional notation interpretation and esoteric inter-targeting.”

Ghost Trance Music

Excepts from the essay Like a Giant Choo-Choo Train System by Jonathon Piper, from the liner notes to 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (Firehouse 12 Records).

…In 1993 Braxton told Graham Lock he was looking for “a system of tracks, like a giant choo-choo train system that will show the connections, so where a soloist is moving along a track, that will connect to duo logics, trio logics, quartet logics. So, for instance, if you’re traveling from ‘Composition 47,’ which is a small town, to a city like ‘Composition 96,’ the model will demonstrate the nature of combinations and connections in between systems.”

Braxton also wanted to extend the ritual and ceremonial side of his music, his end goal being a 12-day “festival of world dynamics” capped by the Trillium opera cycle. Think of twelve hour Ghost Trance jams with musicians, dancers and actors in clubs, concert halls, parks or even on sidewalks around the world hooked up via internet video connections, with friendly on-lookers interacting with the musicians. (He experimented with this concept in his as-yet unreleased Genome Project of 2003, in which over fifty musicians performed for eight continuous hours moving about a Wesleyan University hockey stadium.) “My hope is to create a holistic music that respects body, mind, known, unknown and intuition,” says Braxton. “My interest in creative music is not just simply an existential interest in looking at sound, but rather I agree with the aesthetic of the AACM and Muhal Richard Abrams when he talked of the first challenge for the creative artist is to deal with his or her self, the idea of self-realization.”

Things fell into place in 1995 after Braxton sat in on a Native American music course and studied the Ghost Dance rituals of the late 1800s. For Braxton, the Ghost Dance had great resonance. “The Ghost Dance music, when it was put together, that came about in a time after the American Indian had been decimated, 98 percent of their culture destroyed,” Braxton recalls. “Various tribes came together and compiled whatever information they had left. And the Ghost Dance music was described as a curtain—one side is reality for us, and the other side is the ancestors. And the Ghost Dance music would provide a forum to connect with the ancestors. That had a tremendous impact on me.”  Drawing on the example of all night Ghost Dance ceremonies (and other world trance musics), Braxton looked to construct a “melody that doesn’t end” to serve as the train tracks to cohere his system. The Ghost Trance Music was born.

From the outset Braxton intended to build a substantial and varied body of GTM works, on a par with the book of quartet music that had fueled his performances throughout the first three decades of his career. GTM has evolved through several different “species” or “classes” since 1995, but the basic format has remained the same. The performance begins with the primary material, based on a sequence of mostly staccato notes played in unison over a constant pulse. The “primary” melody is notated in what Braxton calls “diamond clef,” allowing each musician to play the music in any transposition or clef. These primary melodies are colored by the “sonic geometries” of one or more language music options, some melodies having a staccato character, others related to trills and ornamentation, others intervallic, or a combination of these. Each composition also includes four pages of “secondary material,” generally trios in both standard and graphic notation, which can be interjected at any point in the performance. In addition, Braxton suggests additional compositions from his oeuvre (“tertiary material”) that he thinks would be well suited to incorporate with the new GTM piece.  For the 12tet performances, Braxton also looked to the section leaders to introduce pre-planned “secret” material of their own choosing.

The different GTM “species” are mainly distinguished by the varying rhythmic schemes of the melody lines. “First species GTM” (roughly from 1995 to 1998) was based on a regular stream of eighth notes. “Second Species” (starting with Composition 222 in 1998) broke up the steady stream by including rhythmic breaks, often triplets or 16th note runs. With “Third Species” GTM (beginning around 2001 with composition 277), the basic eighth note patterns are periodically interrupted by polyrhythmic ‘tuplets, irregular rhythms with a ratio to the main pulse of, for example, 5:1, 5:2, 7:4 or 7:3, generously sprinkled with grace note figures. Since 2004, Braxton has been composing “accelerator class” GTM. Now the irregular ‘tuplet rhythms have almost completely taken over, so that the regular eighth note pulse is almost never sounded by the performers, but “played around” with constantly shifting polyrhythms in even larger ratios (e.g., 9:1; 13:2, 16:2, 20:2). This gives the “accelerator” melodies their characteristic feeling of constantly speeding up and then stopping to catch their breath.

The GTM scores generally contain notations to let the players vary the melodic line (playing sustained notes or slurs, for example) and usually there are also designated breaks for momentary improvisation. For compositions 351 to 360 (dubbed “accelerator whip”), there are graphic “freeze frames,” black boxes or ovals drawn around particular notes in the score where the musicians have an option of simply playing through in regular time, or dropping out and improvising on the circled notes, and then either rejoining the ensemble or moving into a new territory…

…I don’t know of anyone besides Braxton who essentially hands a six inch stack of scores to the players and lets them choose what to play, when to play, and who to play it with—for an hour long set! It is an act of creative courage, and a testament to his confidence in the music and the musicians. As leader, Braxton seeks a form of ensemble organization that is “multi-hierarchic,” in contrast to the “mono-hierarchic” approach essentially deriving from 19th-century European conducting. His leading role consists of initiating the opening melody, restating the melody a couple of times during the set, and perhaps calling the final melody or cadence.  In between, it is largely up for grabs, with Braxton first among equals in keeping the music in motion.

While Braxton’s recent quintet and sextet outings mainly explore the possibilities of a single GTM composition, the larger forces of the 12(+1)tet provide the critical mass to play four or more compositions, including all GTM species and classes, at once. Writ large, this structure could be expanded to a group of 100 or more performers in a series of groups and subgroups…We can see how the GTM melodies serve as the pathways Braxton had been looking for to help link all his other compositions together. The musical structure arises as a map of the musicians’ myriad choices—an approach Braxton calls “navigation through form.”   

Recent recordings include Ghost Trance Music include 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (Firehouse 12), 12+1tet (Victoriaville) 2007 (Victo), and many of the recordings available on Braxton House and New Braxton House Records.