Serving the San Francisco Bay Area New Music Community

Myles Boisen

Braxton Week, SF Dec 2003
Date of Interview/Article:12/16/2003
Here I am on my first day off since the start of Braxt-fest last Wed. 12/10. And what am I doing? Listening to Braxton recordings, writing about Braxton, trying to sort out the events of the last week, all of which somehow relate to the catalytic presence of you-know-who. It was a hell of a week for the person responsible for recording what may someday exist as 6-7 CDs worth of incredibly challenging music.

In the tradition of Bay-New-Mus, I'd like to weigh in with some attempts to understand Braxton's music, based solely on my own limited musical experience. I will try not to waste your time "Monday morning quarterbacking" on what might be best for Braxton or his career or the choices the ensembles made, since I regard all the performances and even the rehearsal as fairly perfect realizations of the music.

For those that don't know, I have followed Braxton's music since the mid-70's, and have played many of these compositions with the Splatter/ Debris large ensemble culminating in the "Jump Or Die" CD. This was the first major recorded "tribute" to Braxton's big group music, issued on the Music & Arts label about 10 years ago. Splatter has played some Braxton music over the years, and I've also been a part of the recent Triaxium West concerts. I guess last week I was needed more for my recording skills than my (rusty) sight-reading, but I was certainly made to feel like a part of the group at every turn.

Since Joseph Zitt asked "did the Tentet get to rehearse much before this show?" let's start there. The rehearsal took place at my studio on the evening of 12/10, after a recording of Shiurba's 5x5 with Braxton, Robair, Greg Kelly, and Morgan Guberman. Most of the rehearsal time was taken up by Braxton talking, being alternately hilarious, brilliant, and cryptic as only this man can. The first music-making they did was a tutti read-through of #292, just playing a few pages of the composition. For those who don't know, this phase of AB's Ghost Trance Musics is unbelievably difficult in terms of sightreading/ conventional linear performance. And it sounded like a jumbled mess. I remember thinking to myself, as I sat alone in the control room recording a rough mix to CD, "how the hell are they ever going to pull this together by tomorrow night?"

More talking. Braxton assigns quadrant leaders and talks more about his ideas on improvisation. The next music-making explores the smaller squads, and simultaneous layers of reading and improv. It was beautiful, and I relaxed my apprehension as I was reminded that this is really what AB's music is about..

More talking. I was really struck by one thing he said here, speaking of his music in "the next cycle" as the visionary Braxton often does. He said that in future performances of these compositions, cues could indicate the reading of scripted text, instead of (or in addition to) music. He then went on to talk about giving a performance in downtown Oakland (I believe this was by way of example, not an actual goal) where performers would be dispersed on the streets, reading text etc., and the populace wouldn't even know there was a score going on! This really stuck with me, and backs up the views of some on this thread who have already noted AB's expansive world view beyond music, and the parallels to Cage's Music Circus.

A very brief rehearsal of #327 (I mean 5 minutes or less!)ended the evening.. To answer Zitt's question, I doubt that more than half an hour was spent actually "rehearsing" before Thursday's gig. But as far as preparation for these performances, it is important to bear in mind that many of these folks have lived in this music for years, just as a classical repertoire player would do. Gino (for example) has been working with AB since I met him at the beginning of the Splatter Trio in 1987. John Shiurba has worked harder than any musician I know to get his sight-reading together over the past few years, and has collected every Braxton recording he could get his hands on! Scott Rosenberg's dedication and love for Braxton is way beyond fandom, and even beyond any student/teacher relationship you could imagine. In fact, everyone in this ensemble showed a level of devotion, experience, and hard work that was incredible. These aren't the sort of people who just show up for the gig and try to fake it! Ultimately I think the guidance and ideas that Braxton offered in this rehearsal, combined with the experience and white-knuckle attentiveness of the players, was most crucial to the performance which followed.

Regarding Plonsey's violin performance at the Victoria, another memorable thing Braxton said in this rehearsal was that he wanted the players to bring their own music into the composition. I saw this as a special encouragement for the musicians to contribute wholly and be themselves; another uniquely inclusive and open-minded Braxton ingredient in the stew. Anyone who didn't like these personal touches and playfulness in the concert is missing the point of Braxton's current music.

I agree with some assessments that there are structural similarities to Cage (openness, theatricality, music as an analogy of life) and Zorn (de-centralized conducting, guerrilla tactics, multi-faceted form and layering) in Braxton's music. But I never got a sense that there was any notable cross-fertilization between these diverse composers, which is to say that they have all moved music forward in their own unique ways.

The confluence of Zorn's and Braxton's methods, combined with a bit of jazz and improv-core, certainly launched The Splatter Trio and informed our entire development. For me, the highest point in Splatter's evolution was when the line between composition and improvisation was completely blurred, and the compositions existed mostly as a "safety net" and flavoring in the music, but were not the meat and potatoes. This is also how I heard Braxton's current handling of the GTM - the score and identity of the actual composition are always there in the background, but more as a default or way for Braxton to rein in the proceedings. When you view the music at the Victoria as being largely democratized, with the composition functioning as a beginning/ ending place plus points of reference in between, I think the concert becomes much easier to understand. Also it really helped my understanding to hear Braxton say - as part of his "pep talk" before almost every piece over 4 days - "let's just kick it about and have some fun".

Some more pointed responses...

Gino sez:
I think the second set was better than the first in this respect, but still could've been thinner in texture sometimes (at least for my ears).
John Ingle sez:
Myles was right, Gino, I wish you had played out a bit more often, yet given the dense circumstances, you made a good choice by showing restraint.

Boisen : Gino was really holding back in the first set, and it seemed to me that this was a gracious sacrifice in response to fairly continuous playing by some members of the ensemble. Thinking more about this, I realized that our local players now have a rich history with large groups, and are generally polite and mature about creating space in these kind of ensembles. The out-of-town players, though generally not overplaying, tended to pile on and fill the spaces a lot more. This was not a problem for me, but I did note this tendency throughout our time together.

Someone sez:
I was particularly impressed that Mr. Braxton was able to assemble such a group of capable players and present such complex music. Were all the musicians local?

Boisen replies: ....John Shiurba, Gino Robair, and Dan Plonsey (locals) really deserve credit for assembling the crew and organizing the concerts and sessions. Along with Scott Rosenberg (semi-local?) they did the logistical groundwork and picked at least the other locals - Matt Ingalls, Liz Albee, Sara Schoenbeck (she's L.A., but like Rosenberg we should embrace her as one of our own). I believe Justin Yang (recently enrolled in Stanford), Greg Kelley, and Taylor Bynum are East Coast Braxton student/ veterans that Braxton invited. Tubist Jay Rozen is another East Coaster who has played in Plonsey's big bands, and ably filled the low end void left by the death of Matt Sperry. Newly local oboeist Kyle Bruckmann will also be heard on the 13-tet recording.

And was it recorded, with any plans for release?

....I believe Shiurba's 5x5 with Braxton (1 CD), both the concert sets (2 CD), and the 2-day studio session (4 CD) will all be released. Braxton seemed to be ecstatic about all of it. Gino is making noises about releasing a DVD-Audio instead of separate CDs. Any rich benefactors out there?

So that's my tired but inspired fly-on-the-wall perspective. Hanging out with Braxton and the ensemble was the most exciting "music camp" experience I've had in a long time. If anyone wants to bring over a 6-pack, we can hang out and listen to the rehearsal recording with most of the conversation intact.. It's every bit as fascinating as the music.

Myles Boisen