Saturday, April 18, 2009

Anthony Braxton & The Walter Thompson Orchestra - 4/17/09

On Friday night, I went to the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn to see multi-instrumentalist/composer/educator Anthony Braxton perform a new composition with Walter Thompson (a former Braxton student) and his eclectic (and partially electric) orchestra. I knew almost nothing about Thompson going in, and knew Braxton less from his music than by his reputation, revered in "creative music" and avant-jazz circles, mostly dismissed by the more traditional jazz world.

Braxton was a busy man, moving from composing to playing three instruments (alto, soprano and sopranino sax?) as part of the ensemble. At times, Braxton and Thompson were conducting simultaneously, using a combination of their musical systems (Language Music and Soundpainting, respectively) to shape the music and action (there were also a group of actors who moved behind and through the musicians and contributed various vocalizations - spoken, chanted and sung). Instruments included (prepared?) piano, synth, electric guitar, bass, various horns, gong and woodblock percussion, cello and violin.

I was able to catch on to the meaning of some of the signs used to conduct, but mostly it was like watching the Sorcerer's Apprentice - arms were waved and things happened. Braxton occasionally consulted a thick score in front of him and wrote out some sort of instructions or notation on a small whiteboard which he would show to the orchestra before giving them more hand signals. The presence of the actors and the very physical conducting style made it a very visual night of music.

The performance was divided into two parts with an intermission. The second part featured musicians only, no actors. While the second half was nearly as fascinating musically as the first, with different instruments coming to the fore (more prominent guitar and synth, especially), it was a slight comedown after the visually and musically dense first half.

My favorite moment of the night came in the first half, as I gradually became aware of additional music that didn't seem to be coming from the orchestra in front of me. At some point, a quartet with its own conductor had begun playing from the balcony above and behind the audience. It was a wonderful surprise and a great way of exploiting the possiblities of the performance space.

You might notice that I haven't given much description of the music itself. I'm not sure I'm up to the task of description, much less classification. Strangely enough, the combined sound of strings, woodblock percussion, and drums reverberating in a big space very briefly called to mind Pet Sounds. Other than that, I was without musical reference points for most of the night, which was a nice place to be.

Braxton and Thompson's improvisational conducting systems seem capable of producing music that is not only unique in itself but also capable of assuming completely different forms from night to night or even moment to moment. There were to be three performances, and at least this night was being recorded (audio and video), so maybe I'll get the chance to revisit this music in some form at some point. In any case, I need to hear more Braxton.

Bonus Links

A Braxton interview

John Philip Sousa in the Underworld - Braxton's Composition 58 performed by the Taylor Ho Bynum Chicago Big Band

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