Anthony Braxton’s Big Ideas: Why ‘Forces in Motion’ Is an Essential American Music Book
“I know I’m an African-American, and I know I play the saxophone, but I’m not a jazz musician,” Anthony Braxton told me in 2007. “I’m not a classical musician, either. My music is like my life: It’s in between these areas.”
Born in 1945 on Chicago’s South Side, the brilliant and unstoppably prolific composer, improviser and multi-instrumentalist has spent the past 50-plus years constructing one of the most impressive bodies of work in all of American music — a vast, diverse and utterly personal output, inspired by countless genres but circumscribed by none. He’s written and recorded hundreds of compositions, in settings ranging from solo saxophone to 100 tubas or four orchestras playing simultaneously, and idioms ranging from opera to cutting-edge electro-acoustics and meticulously plotted avant-jazz. He spent years teaching at both Wesleyan University and Mills College, and in 2014, despite his tenuous relationship with the jazz establishment (more on that later), he was named an NEA Jazz Master. At 73, Braxton still performs all over the world, and even has his own foundation.
But as shown in Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music, a remarkable 1988 book by Graham Lock that combines extensive interviews with Braxton and a travelogue of the artist’s 1985 U.K. tour, Braxton’s eye-popping c.v. is only part of his story. At every step along his journey, due to racist thinking and restrictive artistic conventions, he’s had to fight for his right to embrace and express the full range of his musical interests. That struggle lies at the heart of Forces, and even if you’ve never heard a note of Braxton’s music, the book, out now in a newly expanded 30th anniversary edition, is essential reading — one of the most thorough and honest accounts you’ll find of what it means to make truly uncompromising art in America. It’s also, thanks to Lock’s conversational, unpretentious style and Braxton’s penchant for witty self-deprecation, a thoroughly approachable and at times even laugh-out-loud funny invitation into the aesthetic world of a man whose work can be as exhilarating as it is rigorous.
Braxton paints a bleak picture of the environment where he grew up. Of his brother Juno, who would die at age 42, he says, “I see him as a casualty of the South Side of Chicago.” And it wasn’t just his own family members who were in trouble. “[M]aybe ten to fifteen years after grammar school, I’d say seventy percent of the young men and women I grew up with were either dead or in jail,” he tells Lock. According to Braxton, “I think the only thing that saved me was music.”
A stint playing in various Army bands, including one stationed in Korea, offered Braxton a ticket out. While enlisted, he would discover the work of serialist composer Arnold Schoenberg, who became a key influence, and drove his barracks-mates “crazy” when he would blast free-jazz records by John Coltrane and Albert Ayler.
In the mid-Sixties, after returning home, he discovered the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), a budding coalition of African-American musical avant-gardists that had formed on the South Side. Through the group, he would meet lifelong friends, kindred spirits, sometime collaborators and fellow future world-renowned giants of outside-the-box music including Leo Smith (a 2013 Pulitzer finalist now known as Wadada), Roscoe Mitchell (co-founder of the legendary, still-extant Art Ensemble of Chicago, which waves the flag for “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future”) and the late Muhal Richard Abrams.
But even within such a stimulating community, Braxton started to bristle at the social codes that seemed to restrict the scope of his creative interests. “[M]y work and Leo’s would be viewed as not as ‘black’ as some of the musics that were reaching into Africa,” he explains in Forces. “It was in this period that controversy began to ensnarl me, even in the AACM; because I was not interested only in Africa, I was interested in Africa and in Europe and in Asia.”
The idea that Braxton’s aesthetics ought to be determined by his race would haunt him for decades — later via critics who questioned his devotion to notated music or insisted that his work didn’t conform to some arbitrary definition of “swing.”
After recording For Alto, a landmark, resolutely ungeneric 1969 solo saxophone album that contained dedications to both jazz piano iconoclast Cecil Taylor and radical composer and theorist John Cage, he made his way to Paris in search of a more receptive environment for his music. He found greater acceptance there, but also faced familiar resistance. “I did a lot of concerts in Paris,” he tells Lock, “though again I would constantly run into the wall of definition which said ‘No performances of notated music for you, nigger!'”
In the Seventies and early Eighties, Braxton was eventually able to record some of his notated works, including a famously ambitious piece for four orchestras and one for two pianos, as part of an auspicious deal with Arista. And by the time of the 1985 tour chronicled in Forces, he was working with a band — including pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerry Hemingway — that was capable of representing his borderless musical vision. “I needed musicians who were knowledgeable about world musics,” he tells Lock of assembling the group, “musicians who could function in bebop, who could execute notated music no matter how complex, people who can technically take care of business.”
Braxton structured the group’s sets as unbroken medleys of various pieces — identified by an arcane titling system using numbers, letters and diagrams, the subject of an entertaining Forces chapter involving an elusive Braxton and an increasingly exasperated Lock — in which composition and improvisation were seamlessly intertwined. Musical reference points speed by: whimsical marches; manic avant-bebop; precisely plotted 3-D chamber music; sensitive, exploratory improvisation; and more, accented by the players’ jaw-dropping virtuosity, not least Braxton’s own darting, indefatigable, shockingly agile reed playing. Lock’s expressive descriptions of the gigs provide an invaluable eyewitness account of a sui generis musical system coming into full flower. (Crucially, as the author points out in the introduction to Forces, his stance isn’t one of a dispassionate critic, but rather, to use a phrase Braxton himself would later coin, of a “friendly experiencer”: “My sole intention here has been to learn about Braxton’s music.”)
“The second set begins with 69C,” Lock writes of the group’s November 26th concert in Coventry (one of several shows from the ’85 U.K. tour that were later released by Leo Records, along with audio excerpts from Lock and Braxton’s conversations), “sopranino chirping crazy figures around the rhythm section’s staccato beat, the interactions becoming more tangled until Marilyn’s solo sprints clear, flying free. Gerry’s notated solo sets flurries, patters, and the drama of a sudden, solitary thwack into pools of silence; then a quiet alto whistle leads into 69F, here taking in a dreamlike quality via a floating interplay of call and response that switches, with a burst of thundery percussion, into 69B‘s skittering rhythms.”
Reading about these epic and painstaking performances, and savoring the recorded evidence, you’re reminded that at every step, Braxton’s response to adversity has been not not to wallow, but to work. Here he is speaking to Lock of the challenge of executing his large-scale compositions in the Eighties:
“For an African-American, you know, a young man … I was thirty, thirty-one, with visions of a piece for four orchestras, a three-record set: how many projects like that do you see released? … I’ve always been ambitious in the sense of having ideas and wanting to get them executed. I was profoundly inspired by Stockhausen’s Carré and Gruppen, by Xenakis’ Polytope — there was no way I was not going to enter that region. If I’d waited for somebody to give me $100,000 for a project, I would still be waiting and the piece would not be written. I decided the only way to keep evolution going was to not think in terms of somebody helping me, I just had to do it myself. I mean, I specialize in not getting projects out! But I’ll be damned if I’m not going to write the project just because they’re not going to give me a performance or a record. If nobody ever performed it, it’s fine by me! Well, I don’t mean it’s fine … but I am prepared to accept that, I’m prepared to write twelve operas and never get one performance. And the thing is, you can’t complain if you don’t write it. So first I’ll write my twelve operas, then I’ll complain.”
A similar kind of drive led him to compose The Tri-Axium Writings, his own extensive multi-volume treatise on his aesthetic and philosophical systems, which Lock quotes throughout Forces. “It gave me no pleasure to have to spend ten years working out my terms so I could do the philosophical writings,” Braxton says. “I just wanted to be involved in music, I had not planned to write at all. I thought the job of writing was supposed to be left to the writers and journalists. It was only after reading 500,000 dumb reviews that I found myself thinking, hmmm … I disagree with the critics who even like my music! So it was like — I don’t have any choice, I don’t see my viewpoint out there, so here I come!”
“I had not planned to write at all … It was only after reading 500,000 dumb reviews that I found myself thinking, hmmm … I disagree with the critics who even like my music!” —Anthony Braxton in Graham Lock’s Forces in Motion
In one telling series of Tri-Axium excerpts, Braxton handily dismantles white writers’ preoccupation with physicality when it comes to the evaluation of African-American music. In his view, black performance is too often reduced to what he calls “the reality of the sweating brow,” a criterion “not so much dependent on the actual music but instead ‘how’ the actual ‘doing’ of the music looks” or “the idea that there is only one type of black person, and also that there is only one level of ‘involvement’ by black people.” He’s equally eloquent and perceptive when it comes to to the unfair marginalization of women in avant-garde music, or of white musicians (such as Braxton’s own early saxophone idol Paul Desmond) in tight-knit jazz circles.
While there’s plenty of amply justified polemic in Forces, that’s only one facet of what Lock presents. He also beautifully captures Braxton’s sense of humor, whether the artist is defending his commitment to eating at McDonald’s (“You guys must be secret millionaires,” Braxton says of Lock and the vegetarian Hemingway. “I have to eat cheap”), teasing Hemingway for his half-baked tour-van diatribes on acid rain, mocking his own timid saxophone style in the years before he absorbed Coltrane’s influence (“Before that the percussionist had to go to brushes when Braxton played”) or discussing his kids’ recreational habits (“My children are very involved in choo choo trains”).
Lock’s original account ends at the conclusion of the 1985 tour, but a new postscript drives home the fact that during the ensuing decades, Anthony Braxton has never slowed down. His Eighties quartet would eventually disband, though they reunited on select occasions into the Nineties; an excellent 1991 studio session has just been reissued. Braxton would also begin staffing ensembles with his Wesleyan students, some of whom, including guitarist Mary Halvorson, saxophonist Steve Lehman and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, have gone on to prolific, influential and highly acclaimed careers of their own. He would finally perform and record some of his Trillium operas. He started a series of labels (one of which now offers a wealth of Braxton downloads via Bandcamp) to chronicle his work. He performed and recorded a wealth of jazz standards (including a good chunk of the Charlie Parker repertoire), often switching to piano for these projects. He would invent entire new compositional and performance systems, including the hypnotic, Native American–inspired Ghost Trance Music; Echo Echo Mirror House Music, in which the performers take the stage equipped with iPods stocked with recordings from Braxton’s discography, resulting in a dense time-traveling sound collage; and Zim Music, which combines graphic scores with traditional notation. (For a more detailed inventory, see Braxton expert and Rolling Stone contributor Seth Colter Walls’ 2016 guide to Braxton’s many musical systems.) He’s performed at high-profile festivals all over the world. And currently, his Tri-Centric foundation is gearing up for a 75th birthday celebration in 2020.
Forces in Motion is a testament to just how much Braxton had to overcome to achieve his current elder-statesman status. To just how often, and how persistently, he had to assert his right to explore any musical tradition he pleased, without compromise. To the fact that for some musicians, looking to forge their own universe outside the comfortable confines of genre, or predetermined cultural expectations, making art can be akin to doing battle. (For much more on the issue of race in the experimental-music community, see A Power Stronger Than Itself, composer and Braxton collaborator George E. Lewis’ fascinating 2008 book on the history of the AACM.) But the book is also a manual on how to preserve a sense of wonder. “[A]s a young man,” Braxton tells Lock of the early AACM days, “you don’t care so much about food — the most important thing was the cause. Not to mention that I was so damn excited by the music — just as I’m so damn excited by the music right now.”
At one point in the book, Lock is playfully probing the limits of Braxton’s musical conception, seeing just how far it goes. They get to talking about Braxton’s notions of “planet level musics” and still more ambitious concepts. Lock queries him about his intention to write music that would be literally intergalactic:
L: It might be thought a little impractical to talk about plans for compositions that link star systems.
B: No, I don’t think it’s impractical. It’s impractical maybe to give the actual year [laughs]. …
L: So you still think it could happen?
B: Oh, it’s not a question of it could happen.
L: You’re going to write the pieces?
B: Of course I’m going to write the pieces. There are much bigger ideas than that!