Braxton's Gravity

“I have a composition for 100 tubas that was written to be performed in a specified environment,” saxophonist-composer Anthony Braxton told Graham Locke in 1985. This statement is one of many in Locke’s book Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton (Da Capo), an invaluable resource for anyone intrigued by its subject’s distinct philosophies of sound. “I have another composition from that period,” Braxton added, apparently in the next breath, “the first to use a cell-structure notation I think, for dump truck, live dump truck, that would be modulated; the truck would dump a pile of coal and the score would be for four shovellers—and each shovel would have an electronic modulation on it. I have the score…I never had a performance, of course.”

To the best of my knowledge, Braxton’s Composition No. 9, “for four amplified shovels,” still hasn’t received its premiere. But this past June on a Sunday afternoon in Lower Manhattan, Composition No. 19, “for 100 tubas,” was finally realized, 35 years after its creation—and 61 years, to the day, after Braxton’s. It served as a kickoff event for the Bang on a Can Marathon, an exuberantly eclectic festival of new music established nearly 20 years ago. It also served, a bit less intentionally, as an expression of dread, remembrance and grief.

This had a lot to do with the setting. Bang on a Can was held this year in the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden, a vaulting, light-filled atrium just across the West Side Highway from the former footprint of the World Trade Center. Braxton’s performance took place on a harbor plaza behind the WFC, in view of a dozen or so bobbing sailboats and, across the Hudson, the New Jersey waterfront. I’ll hazard a guess that this probably wasn’t the “specified environment” Braxton originally had in mind for Composition No. 19. But it could not have been more appropriate. As a site-specific performance, the piece achieved a level of emotional poignancy not usually associated with Braxton’s oeuvre.

There were, as advertised, 100 tubas. And they marched, though not in typical fashion; “76 Trombones” this was not. An official thumbnail synopsis of Composition No. 19 alludes to “20 pages of schematic music and instructions to be prepared for four groups of marching ensembles—25 musicians in each—in any order and for any length.” That prescription proved accurate as the instrumentalists approached the plaza in one long line and assembled in a mass, and as four conductors, Braxton included, began to mark time with their batons. (A 28-second amateur video clip of this initial tableau may still be accessible at YouTube.com, but it’s a cruel tease: the avant-garde equivalent of catching only the coin toss portion of the Super Bowl.)

For at least the first 15 or 20 minutes, the sound produced by the ensemble was an ominous rumble, registered by the senses almost as the hum of a distant aircraft. (A helicopter dopplered past the site several times, and its overtones matched the music uncannily.) The sound was uniform but the ensemble was something else entirely. The musicians in the “100Tubatet” made for an incredibly motley bunch, as did their instruments, some of which looked like archeological relics. Each performer—it’s worth noting that there were a handful of women in the ranks—wore a black T-shirt silk-screened with Braxton’s ideographic representation of the composition, pictured above.

No surprise, then, that the hour-long piece, as a whole, was bewildering and complex. At a certain point, the company broke off into its four battalions, and each began to trace paths around the plaza in an elephantine single file. The composition accrued deeper tonal shadings as each 25-person unit buzzed or hummed—or, on rare occasion, sharply harrumphed—on its own. (At times, two groups overheard one another, and carried on a vague species of call and response.)

The ambulatory movement of the musicians also organized space: the crowd on the plaza had to shift constantly to accommodate it, and the result was a performance that enfolded and surrounded its audience, turning listeners into bystanders, corroborators. At the time, the various formations of the ensemble seemed arbitrary, but I’ve come to wonder whether Braxton had engineered a design. An aerial photograph of the event by Richard Termine, published in The New York Times, shows one strand of musicians marching on the plaza in perfect alignment with a diagonal pattern of tiles, like pieces on a chessboard.

Braxton, who has marveled at the “purity and absolute beauty of form” in chess, must have relished that image, just as he relished the performance. Roughly 40 minutes into the piece, I happened to be standing a few yards behind him as he conducted a stationary group of players. Slowly, with great formality, he turned around, drum major’s scepter in hand. The crowd before him parted, and he began to lead a processional. As he passed, I could see that tears were streaming down his face.

I’m still unsure as to whether echoes of September 11, 2001, had anything to do with that emotional response. For me, those echoes added a powerful sense of gravity to the occasion. It wasn’t just the proximity to Ground Zero; it was the sense of communal participation and solemn ceremony, the feeling of being absorbed into a larger confusion. In the last 10 minutes of the performance, several individual players broke away from their units and rambled through the crowd; one of them, Scott Moore, brayed with the disconsolate tone of a man calling out to be found. After nearly an hour of dark mystery, this hardly came as relief. But it called unsettling images out of the dust, and they bonded invisibly with the music.

Not everyone I spoke to during the performance had the same impression, and Braxton obviously had other things in mind when he composed the piece in 1971. But I believe there’s some resonance there nonetheless. Weeks later, when I consulted Forces in Motion again, I was struck by one passage in particular. “It was a time of social upheaval,” Braxton says, in an attempt to explain why a new music movement took shape among African-Americans in Chicago when it did. A sentence later, he adds: “People were starting to ask serious questions about their lives.”

Originally published in September 2006

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